Traditions

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December 26, 2014 — Tradition and ritual are cornerstones of human culture.  They enrich our lives beyond measure.

My wife is 100 percent Finnish.  Within her family’s rich Christmas tradition was a braided yellow egg bread called nisu.  For years as we traveled around the world for various military assignments, her mother would send us nisu in time for the holidays. In time it became part of our family tradition.

Unfortunately, nisu dries out quickly and it often arrived in too poor a condition to fully enjoy.  The solution, since I like to bake, was to learn how to make it myself.

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I asked for and received hand written baking instructions from my wife’s mother.

Try as I might, I could never get my nisu to turn out the same way twice.  Of course, I soul searched. What was I doing wrong?  Before long I realized that I was making a different mistake every year.  Whether is was inconsistent dough or runny frosting, it was always something.

Now you have to understand that the preparation process for nisu, from the first cracked egg to the perfect comfort food, takes more than six hours.  Baking nisu is not for the impatient.  Since being impatient is one of my great virtues, the recipe for disaster wasn’t scribbled on paper.  I was me.

One year my wife and I discussed how I might be more consistent.  (We’re  talking Six Sigma project here; and yes I am Six Sigma certified.)  So, as a reward for my annual failures I got the best Christmas present I’ve ever received and still have.  What guy gets a KitchenAid mixer for Christmas and is over the moon?  Yours truly, that’s who.

IMG_1767_2The mixer’s a beast.  With its industrial strength motor and metal armor, the thing must weigh 25 lbs.  I’d even bet you could bolt it on the front of your Jeep and use it for a winch!  I love it!  The best part about it is this:  Unlike my arms, it doesn’t get tired. As an added bonus, it also has the patience of Job.

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With the dough hook firmly attached, my KitchenAid kneads bread dough all day – and night if needed.  The dough now comes out the same each and every time.  Yea!!!  Now to fix operator head space and all my baking problems would disappear.

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Nisu has to rise no less than thrice for 90 minutes each time.  Add 45 minutes for mixing the ingredients, plus the time to roll it out and braid the two loaves, and it adds up to a honking long time.

I used to get up at 2 a.m. to have nisu ready in time to open the presents Christmas morning.  Now that there are no children at home, I make nisu Christmas Eve starting just after lunch in order to have it ready by seven in the evening when we score the loot … I mean open our presents.

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Baking time is 35 minutes in a 350*F oven.  Cinnamon and sugar are sprinkled on the raw dough. The frosting, walnuts, almonds and cherries are applied right after baking so that the bread can be eaten warm.  It’s excellent on the second day too.  After day two, not so much.

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I hope your rituals and traditions are as rewarding as preparing and munching down on fresh nisu.  Hauskaa Joulua!

Peace On Earth

How I See It

Peace Letters © Copyright 1965-2013, Kjell B. Sandved

Many years ago, I discovered the butterfly alphabet letters from their wings photographed by Kjell Sandved. Their fragile and delicate nature speaks an important message to us all especially during this time of year.


NASA Earth Observatory released this image December 24, 2014 showing the view toward the southeast. Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and the Euphrates River are central in the image. The International Space Station was directly over Turkey at the time. The image is part of a collection from the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Photographic details for this image are at this link.

NASA | September 7 2014 | Click to embiggen

The story accompanying this image says:

Many religions and cultures are celebrating festivals. The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah in 2014 stretched from December 16 to 24. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25…

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A Christmas Greeting

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Christmas Card Letter 2014 — It is a week before Christmas and all through the house the cats are a purring, maybe there’s a mouse.  The stocking aren’t hung yet.  The tree just arrived. But given the circumstances, were glad to be alive.

This time last year I was trudging northward from Springer Mountain Georgia on the Appalachian Trail (AT and was just entering southern Virginia.  My persona on the trail was an elfin, sometimes bearded hiker named Sisu.  Sisu is an untranslatable Finnish word that some simplify to “guts,” but which I believe is more aptly described as a form of much needed “irrational persistence.”

In a phrase, “The weather outside was (mostly) frightful,” but I didn’t much care.  I was 500 miles into one of one of life’s most epic adventures with the most delicious parts yet to come.  By Christmas some incredibly interesting people had crossed my path and I couldn’t wait to meet many more as I envisioned my saga unfolding.

Along the way I even got to camp out with several old friends who lived near the trail.  I think the best of it was at my cousin Deb’s house where I stayed several days and refused to leave until her wine cellar was dry. 🙂

The year sadly, to borrow again, was the best and the worst — all at the same time.  After celebrating Christmas at home with my family, I returned to the trail only to be called to my mother’s bedside six days later.  She was a fraction short of 85. After she passed into history I struggled with her loss and did not return to my hike until the first week in March.  The weather had not improved with time.

Real life continued during my trek and I ducked off the trail in Pennsylvania salute an aging mentor before it was too late, and later to attend a very special wedding in Atlanta.

The triumphant moment struck around mid-day Aug. 6th. I tagged a weathered placard demarking the AT’s northern terminus atop Mt. Katahdin in central Maine, some 2,185 miles and 14 states north of the starting point in Georgia.   Done.  In the books. Thank heavens.  Now what?

Long distance hiking is a soul validating experience.  The aftermath is another thing all together.

After returning home, endorphin withdrawal wrestled me to deep recesses probably most familiar to opioid addicts. There I languished mostly in a fog without much focus or motivation for close to three months.  Slowly I returned to my routine:  blogging, running and weight lifting, volunteer activities maintaining hiking trails in Shenandoah National Park, plus I added one day per week at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s visitor center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Somehow during my malaise, a book outline about the special considerations needed for hiking the AT after 50 got written.  I  hope to hammer it out over the winter and have it on Amazon in e-book format in time for the release of Robert Redford’s new movie based on Bill Bryson’s book, “A Walk in the Woods.”  The movie, along with one currently playing entitled “Wild,” starring Reece Witherspoon, is expected to draw flood of new hikers to the trail, that some say will be the likes of which mankind has not seen since Noah.

Other than that, being retired is like, well … being retired.  Not that there isn’t enough work to do, but my capacity exceeds the available supply for now.

The family is doing great.  Linda took up a part time job while I was away.  She loves it.  Liisa has a good job and is fully fledged.  She lives five minutes away, so we do get to see her often.  After our new windows are installed, we’ll add new colors to several rooms and liven up the house a bit.

We miss all of you — our extended family and many friends who are scattered all over “hell’s half acre.”  If only we could see each and every one of you this year.

Here’s wishing you most sincerely, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year.

Sisu

Good Luck Charm at Christmas

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December 15, 2014 — Even considering the number of times we moved during a military career, we’ve owned a lot of houses.  This is our thirteenth.  No, we didn’t close on a Friday.  Still, the superstitious might worry some about the inauspicious numeration in this the latest and, with any luck at all, our final address.

Having owned so many houses, we have learned that owners almost always tend to leave something behind whether by accident or as a hand-me-down to their successors.  In Boston we found the elderly former owner’s silver where she had safely stashed it, unused in years.  She was delighted when we returned it to her.  In our last house, I unearthed a very snazzy necktie still neatly parked in its original packaging.  I still wear it – that is on those extremely rare occasions where I have to wear a tie.

Something very special conveyed with this house.  Its story is almost magical.

More than 60 years ago a young woman loved to garden and she planted holly and other evergreens all around the yard so that they would grow and provide shade and privacy year round.  She was said to adore the Christmas season and holly was a year-round reminder.  The reputation of her flower beds persists.

When we moved in as the fourth owners, she sent word from her nursing home asking us to take special care of her beloved astilbe.  Consider it done we replied. It’s my wife’s favorite plant.

Verdant landscaping aside, what had survived inside to reach its fourth owner was nothing short of miraculous.

In the sun room we found a rather scrawny ficus tree complete with instructions for its care written in the original owner’s hand!  At first we thought, “What are we going to do with this?”  But, out of respect, or perhaps superstition, we decided to keep it for awhile. I pruned it, moved it to a slightly sunnier corner and poof it filled in.  There it’s charmed life continues.

This year we decided to make it part of our family.  As i decorated it with blue Christmas tree lights, I imagined the 63 Christmases it has witnessed.  How many sugar plumb faeries have danced through its lively branches? How many children and grand children have used it as base playing house tag?  Have any ornaments ever hung from its branches?  Think of the stories it could tell.  (Maybe I will…)

IMG_1757The good news?  With water, fertilizer and a little luck, this guy is going to see many more Christmases with us, and its fifth owner sometime in the future.  Merry Christmas ficus tree.

Can we talk?

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December 11, 2014 – My mother didn’t save much from my youth. She either told me to take it or she tossed it. Why then was the one thing she saved, and never mentioned, an old sweatshirt from my freshman year in college?

At first I didn’t know what to do with it. In spite of the fact that it still fits, I would never wear it. Yesterday I rediscovered it while cleaning out a closet. Its message hit me like a hammer.

As I unfolded the shirt, a flood of youthful images welled up in my memory. The sweatshirt was meant to send a strong protest message long ago. It’s a message relevant then and sadly still today Perhaps it says a lot – about times then and now. It certainly does not speak of progress.

Where I was a student semesters ended with intense study for final exams punctuated by activities to reduce tension and celebrate. Filling the campus fountains with laundry soap thereby flooding the environs with copious mounds of foamy suds was a typically benign prank.

We lived in separate girls and boys dorms (we weren’t described as men and women then and the girls had curfews). In the spirit of those more innocent times, toward the end of exam week annual spontaneous panty raids miraculously erupted as if they hadn’t been anticipated for days or even weeks.

Mostly nothing we did amounted to much. The guys would mill around outside the girls’ dorms and the gals tossed forbidden fruit out the window. At some point, everyone got tired and returned to their dorms or frat houses and it was over. Other times things got more lively.

That spring the crowd (of probably not less than 1,000) surged down a campus side street that passed through Greek town heading for a nearby neighborhood. The local police decided that was far enough and put up barriers. The thwarted students milled around trying to figure out where to go next.

I hugged the fringe of that throng (mob) knowing that behavior was trending toward rowdiness and might get out of hand. It did, in one terrible way.

For what may have seemed like a good idea at the time, a student grabbed an officer’s soft police hat that had been left in a police car lieu of his riot helmet.

The young man ignored orders to stop as he scampered away with this looted trophy. Then a pistol shot forever fractured that night’s innocence. The student had been shot in the back. In the flash of a gunshot, the darkness of night had been redefined. Middleclass white kids that we were, we collected our shattered virtue and rapidly dispersed without further prompting.

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I wore this shirt for the two days remaining in the semester. My mother must have found it in the laundry I dragged home, washed it and archived it for future discovery either to remind me of the foolishness of youth, or that I’d done something right. It was probably the former.

 The contemporary relevance of this decades old shooting is simple. Petty theft, the stealing of a cheap uniform hat, is not a capital crime; and neither is tax evasion by selling loose cigarettes on a street corner, walking down the middle of the street, playing with a toy gun as a child, or arguing with a cop for that matter.

No crime should be excused or ignored in the debate, but actions taken in response by police officers resulting in the death of suspects, should neither be as prevalent as they are, nor should police officers be able to act with what seems to be impunity.  There are consequential issues in play.

The police on the urban campus where I recently worked had plenty to worry about with armed robberies occurring regularly on and off campus as students walked home at night. Yet, they were experts at deescalating situations involving drunk and/or out of control students. Their first order of business was to take care of the students and avoid arresting them whenever possible.

Yet the cop reality shows and street video too often tell a different story with police behaving in ways that escalate situations. Yelling and macho antics can only serve to stimulate suspects’ adrenaline flow and consequently their fight or flight instincts. Neither behavior is what the cops should want; nor is either of these courses of action in the suspect’s best interest. Resisting arrest can get you killed – then and now.

Add to this that racial minorities, especially African-Americans are overwhelmingly victims and reasonable people have to ask, “Why?”

Could it be post 9-11 paranoia? Could it be the largely unnecessary militarization of police forces? Could it be macho cop culture? Could it be the use of dehumanizing words like “Thug” to describe suspected African-American criminals? Could it be ignorance? Could it be lack of or insufficient training? Could it be personnel practices that allow some of the wrong people to become cops? Could it be the huge numbers and military types of weapons possessed by criminals on our streets? Could it be other forces in society?

It’s probably all of the above and then some.

I’ve been around police more than most. I’ve gone on countless “ride-alongs” and gotten to know cops when their hair was down.

I can’t say I love cops in the role that they play (after all, they have guns, Tasers and clubs with wide discretion to use them on unarmed citizens), but I do hold them in deep and sincere respect. They do a very difficult and often thankless job.

Think of police officers as society’s proctologists. The view of life they see is not necessarily the most attractive. In spite of it all, I’ve found most of them to be upright citizens, excellent parents and a few have become good friends.

Yet enough is enough. Recent events and the continuum of time establish that the criminal justice systems needs overhaul.

From ambitious district attorneys who plan to run for higher office based on their high conviction rates, to courts that execute innocent people, the issues are self-evident.

Judging by those marching in our streets, a pot full of angry protesters believe it is time for a change that every member of our society ought to think about.

I consider myself lucky that certain Black friends, subordinates, superiors and mentors have taken me into their trust to share aspects of their lives that are invisible to those of us who are not Black.

In 1970, while on an Army training exercise, my platoon sergeant and I had, what for me was a defining moment.

Somehow we were discussing the differences in white and African-American culture.  I brought up values related to Calvinism – hard work, modesty etc.  In such cultures members are judged on substance over superficial.  That led to his explanation of why people who lived in shacks drove fancy cars.  In a Calvinistic sense, their priorities were wrong I opined.  He patiently explained how hard is was for African-Americans to get well-paying jobs.  He offered that several families would join up to buy a nicer car, say a Buick or a used Cadillac, so that they could have at least some modicum of respectability as they went about their business.

At another point I served as what was then called a race relations and equal opportunity officer while waiting for a command.  I already new that cops in towns next to military bases like to rough up drunk soldiers.  It didn’t take long to notice that the Black ones got disproportionally beaten up in comparison to their white peers.

Later, a Black Army general who was my mentor allowed as how he constantly worried about “driving while Black” when he was out of uniform.

I have dozens more examples, so please allow me to assert that these issues are real and unique to comm

There are no easy answers, but the credibility of our courts, law enforcement, and legislative bodies are increasingly being called into question. As Joan Rivers used to say, “Can we talk?”

Here are links to recent articles that offer expanded insights into the subject of this blog post and may help inform the discussion.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/opinion/the-cop-mind.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1409232722000&bicmet=1419773522000&_r=0

http://www.salon.com/2014/12/10/why_millions_of_christian_evangelicals_oppose_obamacare_and_civil_rights_partner/

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/12/09/1350586/-Thug-Kills-White-Prosecutor-and-Wife-in-Texas?detail=facebook