Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Color My World…or Not

It's a color spectrum wheel! There are too many of eyes!

Among the many things I don’t understand, including cricket and the International Date Line (Official Motto: Here to Confuse You), are colors.  Now, I  know what a color is and can even recognize some of them.  Like most guys, my color recognition skills are limited to about eight, which just happen to be the colors in the eight-crayon box. Anything beyond that is, well, beyond the pale. Or out of the box. I’m told that the human eye can distinguish about a million different colors.  Maybe I can, but I don’t know their names and I certainly can’t coordinate them. For example, what is fuschia? It sound like it should be a shade of pink and it is, but I had to look it up.  Or magenta.  Is that greenish? No, it looks about like fuschia.

I think, also like most guys, I didn’t care about colors to begin with except on cars. Then you have to have a cool color like silver or black.  None of those little pastel colored girly cars—you know which ones they are. So, with such limited experience, it’s no surprise that most guys do what I did until I got married—wear variations of the same color—blue, brown, and if you’re adventurous, green.  My wife tells me that she thought I was Mr. Monochromatic before we got married.  She had since fixed that by buying my clothes to make sure they match and also telling me what goes with what, usually with an askance look and the phrase, “Those two things don’t go together.”  Really, I’m grateful for the help. I am confident there are men who read GQ  and other magazines of mystery to me and know about fashion and color, but they’re not me.  Obviously.

Another major experience where color deficiency shows up comes when a room is to be painted.  Honestly, have you ever looked at the number of colors available?  And some of the names for them?  One of the rooms in our house is painted—and this is the truth—a color called “Cotton Tail.” (It’s sort of off-white.  I think.) It makes me dizzy just to go into the paint department at a store. It used to be that you took something with the color you want to match and the people at the paint store looked at it and said, “Uh huh,” and mixed up the exact color you wanted. Out of millions of possibilities!  How did they do this? I once met a guy who did this for Sherwin Williams for decades.  I asked him how he did it and he said, “I don’t know.  I just look at a color and I know what pigments will go into it. I think it’s a gift.” Now, of course, they have these amazing scanner computers where you can take in a sample the size of a quarter and they can match it from that!  Every time!  It’s a modern miracle of technology that deserves wider recognition.

Generally, painting at our house starts with a room that hasn’t been painted for a period long enough that the basic palette has changed. If you don’t know, there is a palette  of colors which decides colors for everything and it changes every so often. Some guy in Italy picks it out and everyone else just takes off with it.  You can see this phenomenon at work when you watch an old movie and think the film has faded or the dyes have gone funky.  Nope, those are the colors people actually wore back then.  Someone who is very good at this can date a picture to within a year by the color palette.  That’s kind of scary to me.

Anyhow, Becky decides a room needs to be painted and chooses a color, usually based on a pillow or the mat in a picture.  The rest of the color scheme flows from that.  I have consistently offered to paint any room if she picks the color.  This arrangement has led to some rooms that are colors I would not choose, like a pink living room, but I gave up the right to choose because, well, I can’t.

So, the  color is chosen, and I put the paint on.  I still enjoy painting. It’s relaxing and quiet and I can think about things like why there are so many colors in this world.

Monday, February 25, 2013

I Wish It Would Snow

I wish it would snow. And since I'm wishing, I wish for about three inches of soft, fluffy snow, enough to close schools and give workers unscheduled leave or the opportunity to telecommute. I don't want a blizzard such as New England endured recently, just some quiet, beautiful snow that we can watch and enjoy, bake cookies and have homemade soup, sit by the warmth of a Duraflame log in the fireplace and read a good book or just doze off.

We've had a number of "clippers" come through this year, leaving a dusting on the grass and a few days of "wintry mix" which just makes a mess or ices things up. I don't want that. I want some real snow.

I think I also want the chance to slow down, to think about where we've been and where we're going, to count our blessings and to make plans. It seems we've experienced vicariously on the news a surfeit of violence and suffering, of evil and cruelty, and while I would affirm that the vast majority of people are kind and good, it becomes easy to focus on the negative. A good snowfall would go a long way toward remedying that.

It's nearly March, and while we have had snow as late as May 1 around here (in 1962, to be exact), the time for snow this year is running out. 

I was minded of the words to an anthem by American composer Joseph Martin, "Canticle of Peace." They are:

Peace, fall like a gentle snow.
Fall fresh on the wounded heart.
Come blanket our ev’ry fear
And let the healing start.
Cover ev’ry anxious thought,
And all our fears erase.
May we know the tender touch of love’s redeeming grace.

(For more information on this anthem and its genesis, please visit For a performance please visit .)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday Poem of the Week--The Quilters

The Quilters

I am painting a broad red stripe
On a wall in the church outside the room
Where the ladies quilting guild is meeting.
My work requires no skill, just
A can of paint, a tray and a roller.
It's a big dumb job.
As I roll on red enamel
I hear them murmuring as they work
Cooing like doves,
Most of their words indistinct
Although a few float out to the hall,
"Kidney," "grandchildren," and "visit."
I peek into the room to see them
Bent over quilt squares, embroidery, counted cross stitch
Faces relaxed as they talk and ply their skilled needles.
I do my dumb painting
While they are stitching their lives together.

--Dan Verner

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Kids Are All Right

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

(The crossing of their legs really gets to me. You know?) Does this statement sound about right about Kids These Days? Many of us would agree with the sentiments expressed therein.

But there’s a rub.

These words were written by Plato in the fifth century B.C. or found in an Egyptian tomb from the Second Dynasty or engraved on a potshard from the T’ang Dynasty in China. They’re not about today’s kids: they’re about yesterday’s youth. And they’re about as old school as they come. That’s an idea that should bring people up short.

It does, but it doesn’t bring them up short for long, because the older folk love to complain about the youngsters. They dress funny. They eat strange food. They wear their hair in bizarre ways. And their music… It’s so odd and so strange. You call that music? Not me—why back in my day music sounded like music, not like noise…

And they complain about the young folks’ work habits. They don’t work hard enough. They’re unreliable. They don’t know what they’re doing. You know the list.

My observation is that we have slackers in every generation (in my father’s time they were called “goldbricks.”) I taught with a fellow whose big accomplishment was getting to school at all. And it was said he did nothing at all when he got there.

And, to be sure, there are young people who don’t do squat. I once had a student whose avowed purpose in life was to “slack.’ And slack he did.  He worked after school in a bakery, a job that takes a concerted effort to slack off.. Some of my other students worked with him and said, yes, he was slacker and created work for everyone else with his dedication to slacking.

Which reminds me of The Three Rules of Work posited by the father of one my daughters’ friends. These are simple and would make a difference if we all went by them at work. They are:

1. Come to work.
2. Do work.
3. Don’t create work for others.
Now, it is my belief that the young people in our midst work hard and follow the Three Rules of Work. Most people I know, in fact, work far harder than they need to, often at a resultant cost.

Among the young, since the best “potism” is nepotism, I think of our two daughters as hard and exceptionally competent workers. Amy is a fourth grade school teacher who impresses me with her dedication, skill, knowledge and compassion. She is after thirteen years in the classroom head and shoulders as a teacher above what I was after 32 years. Alyssa is funny, smart, empathic and knowledgeable in her job as a H.R. specialist for a hugmongous corporation. If you want to know from H.R., check with Alyssa. And if you need an advocate, you want her on your side whether you have been abused by a indifferent faceless business or had a flight cancelled, you want her to step up and get these folks to do the right thing.

Then there are our nephews, Jonathan and Joshua. Jonathan is the hardest working fellow I know with an incredible sense of humor, and a kindness not often seen in young men. Josh for some time now had been the coolest person I know and has been all over his job since day one. They all make me so proud of them.

I asked Amy and Alyssa’s friends on Facebook to send me their occupations. Such a list indicates the sharpness of these young people and how hard they have to work: HRIS analyst,
quality assurance coordinator and trainer, realtor, financial representative, sales manager, associate pastor,  military social worker, accountant, career counselor, transportation research scientist, administrator, assistant director of music ministries, vice president of a company, neighborhood HR lady, teacher, veterinarian, lawyer, college professor, singer/cantor, cashier, executive assistant, kindergarten teacher's assistant, pediatric nurse, pediatric pharmacist, mother, single parent, soldier, Marine, and fire fighter.

 Keep it up, guys! You kids are all right!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Throwing Away a Trash Can

This situation reminds me of the old joke about the man who owned a boomerang. He became very upset one day and made an appointment with a psychiatrist. When they met, the man was obviously agitated. "Tell me what is troubling you," the psychiatrist said.
"It's my boomerang," the man answered.
"Your boomerang?"
"Yes, I keep trying to throw it away but it keeps coming back."

I told you it was an old joke. And also not a very good one. But I was thinking of it a couple of weeks ago when I tried to throw an old trash can away.

I put it out beside the main trash can since that was too full to put the discarded trash can into the main can.

The nice trash people didn't take it.

The next week, I did put it into the main trash can. They carefully left it by the curb.

I'm glad they're careful to not throw away something that might be useful. But I didn't want the trash can any more. It was dirty and ripped up. So, I did what I should have done in the first place, and put it into a trash bag. The trash people took it. End of story.

Life continues to have lessons to teach us, if only we look for them. I wish I had a nice aphorism to sum this up, but I don't. Sigh.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday Poem of the Week--Teaching Irony Through Poetry

   Teaching Irony through Poetry
(for Mary G., who understood irony and so much else)

A Poem in the Form of a Dialogue between Teacher and Students

Teacher:  "Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall'
Has an excellent example of the use of irony.
Since you've all read it for homework
Where is the irony in the poem?"

Student: "In the title?"

T: "Good guess, but no. Keep trying."

S: "..."

T: "Any other ideas?"

S: "..."

T: "What about the neighbor's statement, 'Good fences make
Good neighbors?' "

S: "That's not ironic; it's true."

T: "Do you think Frost believed that it was true?"

S: "Can we ask him?"

T: "No; hes dead."

S: "Bummer."

T: "Yes, well, it happens to the best of us. Now, what if I told you that he believed the opposite?"

S: "That good fences make bad neighbors?"

T: "Yes, something like that."

S: "That's not true--our neighbor has a dog that digs up our flowers and pees all over the lawn. My parents have asked them to put up a good fence to keep the dog out. They won't, so aren't they bad neighbors?"

T: "Sounds like it."

S: "So: no fences make bad neighbors. Good fences would make good neighbors where there's an untrained dog involved."

T: "..."

S: "So what was irony again?"

T: "Let's try that another day. I've had too much fun today."

S: "You always say that. Do you mean it?"

T: "Oh, yes." With all my heart.

--Dan Verner

(Based on a number of dialogues with students over the years)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Month of Love and Presidents

For some time now, I have been curious about the exact designation of the federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February. It poses a usage conundrum: is it Presidents Day, or Presidents’ Day or President’s Day? If it is Presidents or Presidents’, then the holiday would honor all Presidents, probably on the theory that the office itself deserves honor and respect.  Not all Presidents were shining stars.  You can provide your own examples. Or it would honor Washington and Lincoln whose birthdays were in February and who used to each have a holiday to himself. If the designation is President’s Day, then it would be for one President.  Do we get to choose in that case? Is someone going to pick Martin van Buren?

So, in the public interest and to satisfy my own unnatural curiosity, I went to the horse’s mouth, or the OPM web site and found the answer is…none of the above.  The holiday is officially called Washington’s Birthday.  There’s no mention of other presidents at all or even Lincoln whose 200th birthday celebration was a few years ago.  There is a footnote to Washington’s Birthday,

This holiday is designated as "Washington’s Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.

Apparently among advertisers and in the popular imagination the holiday became Presidents Day (supply your own punctuation: I can’t help you there), probably because of the fond memories many people have of a short month that used to have three distinct holidays.

When I was a lad in school, we celebrated three holidays in February, provided they fell on weekdays. I think the Monday holiday was established to insure that we got at least two days off that month. Every year for Washington’s Birthday we studied his life and did skits, mostly involving cardboard axes and cherry trees. I wish they had told us what we know now about Washington. He had quite a relationship with Sally Fairfax who ran Belvoir Plantation in her husband’s absence and taught the young and untutored Washington about social skills and intellectual matters. 

Martha Custis, a young widow, was apparently really attractive.  She was running eight plantations when she met Washington and there was quite a spark between them. And probably any grandparent could identify with Washington when his step-grandson failed to graduate from three colleges and essentially became what we would call today a slacker.  Nonetheless he built Arlington House as a tribute to his grandfather. Washington  was an amazing figure, one without whom we would probably be a member of the British Commonwealth, like Canada but without the mania for hockey.

Lincoln, too, was the subject of study and drama on his birthday.  Every seventh grader (part of elementary school when dinosaurs roamed the earth) had to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  The most convincing orator dressed in costume and recited the speech before an assembly of the whole school.  I still remember large parts of the address. Lincoln was a phenomenal figure.

I wonder if the skits and shows that we did on these famous men were remnants of a custom before the days of mass media.  Kits and scripts were available that allowed local communities to recreate national events.  In the case of Washington’s funeral, there were only limited descriptions in newspapers and many people could not read anyhow. For a small price, communities purchased staging directions and scripts that allowed them to restage the funeral locally, with local people playing the parts of famous figures. I believe this custom continued through Lincoln’s death but faded from practice with the advent of mass distribution periodicals and photography.

The other holiday was of course Valentine’s Day which we celebrated enthusiastically with handmade Valentines and Valentine mailboxes in classrooms.  My daughter, who teaches fourth grade, tells me the custom continues.  A Valentine’s party was the occasion for one of the best comments by one of her students.  A girl looked around during the proceedings a few years ago and said, “There’s way too much love in this room.”

I do have to wonder, is it Valentine’s Day or Valentines’ Day or Valentines Day? (Somebody stop me!)  The first would imply only one Valentine (a great idea if you are married) or a remembrance of the bishop Valentine.  If it’s plural, that would account for the thousands of elementary classrooms across the nation where everyone gets a Valentine.  Our teachers inspected every one to make sure we didn’t write something like “You’re lucky you got this, you loser.” Such cruelty is possible among children, but by and large the holiday was a grand occasion for good wishes and a lot of candy.

So, whatever you call these holidays and however you celebrate them, I hope you enjoy them all!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Singing a Song (or Several of Them)

This is not the Voices United Choir, but part of the audience at the Hylton Performing Arts Center during one of our Chorale concerts. I'm not sure why the lights are on since they're off during the concert. We can't see the audience, but we can hear them breathing.

This past Saturday, we had our first rehearsal for Voices United 2013, a concert sponsored in recent years by the Manassas Chorale, which I am a part of.

Voices United brings singers from all over the area from a variety of backgrounds to a two-day workshop with a guest composer director who works on the anthems with the group and then directs them in the concert Saturday evening. American composer Joseph Martin was our director last year; this year, we have Pepper Choplin, an outstanding composer and musician with over 2000 anthems to his credit.

The VU 2013 Choir will be performing "One Voice" by Mark Hayes (a former VU director as well);"For the Beauty of the Earth" (arranged by English composer John Rutter, perhaps the premier composer in English today. Becky and I met him this summer and he is both charming and humorous. And musical.); "I'm Going Home," a Sacred Harp song arranged by Choplin; "River in Judea," a composed spiritual by Linda Marcus and Jack Feldman and arranged by John Leavitt; and "Create in Me" by local musician and composer Kimberley Hill, who will be singing in the choir. (This is Kim's third published anthem, and we are very proud of her.)

The Voices United Concert takes place Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 7:30 PM at the Hylton Performing Arts Center on the Prince William Campus of George Mason University. Check the Chorale's website at for more information. I hope you'll come and I think you'll enjoy the concert!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday Poem of the Week--A Lesson on Metaphor

A hunka hunka burning...sun...
A Lesson on Metaphor

On a bright spring Friday, after lunch,
I told a sleepy class,
"This is an example of metaphor:
'The evening sun is a dying ember.'
Something is being compared to something else
Essentially unlike it. Now give me another example."

"The sun is a star," one boy ventured.

A girl raised her hand, "The sun is a giant ball of

Another boy said, "The sun is the sun."

"No," I said. "Those are definitions, not metaphors.
They're not comparing two essentially unlike things."

"But," the first boy insisted, "They're true."

"Unquestionably, they're true. They're just not

"Are metaphors true?" asked the girl.

The bell rang and they ran off before I could answer.
I had no answer because metaphors are and are not
It depends.

The children ran off blinking in the spring sun.

Maybe I should have taught science
And not poetry.

In science, the sun is
A star
A giant ball of gas
A sun
And not
A dying ember.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Nacho the Medical Cat

Nacho the Medical Cat Off Duty in a D-28 Case

Nacho the Cat, described accurately by her vet as a "dog in a cat suit" has been with us since 2002 or 3, when Alyssa picked her out from the animal shelter. She has taken a liking to me (so she's "my" cat) and is a terrific companion. However during these years we have noticed that Nacho also has medical training.

When Becky broke her hip a number of years ago, while she was healing, Nacho came and got very close to the healing hip. As Becky underwent physical therapy and improved, Nacho moved to the bottom of the bed and then to a chair across the room and finally to the entrance of the room. She seemed to sense the progress of Becky's healing.

We've since noticed this phenomenon on other occasions. I'm told by people who study cats that they see us as large cats who provide them food and protection. It makes sense that when they sense that their "big cat leader" is injured that they do what they can to protect their protector.

So, there's another role for cats: they're cute, furry, entertaining, sure, but you can add body guard and healer to that list as well.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Good Distances Make Good Neighbors

Image from a 1908 blizzard in Minnesota. For illustrative purposes.
All this is with apologies to Robert Frost, of course, who did not believe that "good fences make good neighbors" and would be appalled to hear that line quoted as evidence that we ought to keep barriers up between ourselves. Tone is so important!

OK, enough of that. I recently The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin (more information on this book is available at ) and found it a striking and appalling account of a January, 1888 storm that struck the Great Plains unexpectedly and killed over 200 people, many of them children. The book tells about some of the children, wandering lost in the whiteout conditions of the blizzard, stumbled across houses of people unknown to them. The people took them in and saved their lives.

I got to thinking that these pioneers lived miles apart and yet they could find help or rest at any house they came across. It was a matter of hospitality but also a matter of survival. If you're lost in such a situation, help would be where you would find it--and you would find it at any house.

I couldn't help contrasting this community with the ones we live in. We are perhaps 100 feet from a neighboring house, and yet, if someone pounded on a door in this community seeking help or assistance, would they receive it? I know, our times are different; we must be careful; and there are other means of assistance available to us. (This post had its origin in an idle thought I had that if the children in the blizzard had had cell phones, so many of them would not have perished. Silly idea, I know.)

So, perhaps there is something about being close to each other physically that deteriorates a sense of community. So many people around...someone else will take care of the needs.

Or will they?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Friday Poem of the Week--Meditation on John Donne

Mediation on John Donne

This past week a long-time church member
Died suddenly, and while I did not know him well
I was shocked and saddened by his passing.
People at the church were as well, many of whom
Knew him much better than I did
And although we are "believers all who bear the name
Of Christ the living Lord" and live in that hope,
We still grieve
For a life cut short
For a family left behind
For friends who now have one less friend
And for ourselves.

And yet we rejoice
For a life well-lived
For family and friends whose lives were touched
For the world made a better place
By a life and presence.

And still we have hope
Hope as certain as a promise
As welcome as a warm day in winter
As real as tomorrow's sunrise

We grieve and
We rejoice and
We have hope.

--Dan Verner