Today I am Grateful …

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Dad’s pineapple upside-down cake

(With apologies to the Ketchikan Daily News–I wrote this for their AdLib column but forgot to send it while on vacation last week.)

For the past few weeks the Library has had a display across from the circulation desk, asking people to finish the sentence, ‘Today I am grateful ___’.

Sometimes this is a difficult sentence to finish.

“Today I am grateful … that my car broke down in town instead of 5 miles out.”

“Today I am grateful … that my head cold has not (yet) turned into the flu.”

“Today I am grateful … that my kid came in OK after being out most of the night.”

Some days the annoyances and inconveniences pile up, minor but irritating, and the feeling of gratitude is hard to muster up. And Thanksgiving, our annual day of giving thanks, is often stressful, particularly if you are doing the cooking!

But when the day is done and the house set to rights, there is time to think about all there is to be grateful for—material things certainly, but especially people—family, friends, colleagues and community. Here’s what I am grateful for this year:

I am grateful for the power and resilience of family. Like many families, mine is spread out all over the country, far from where we grew up in Ohio. This year we have come together to assist a relative who is gravely ill, and I am grateful for the love and generosity of family members and the unexpected strength of our ties to one another.

I am grateful for old and new friendships. This past January I moved to Ketchikan. Since then, old friends have kept in touch via phone calls, email and Facebook, passing on the latest news from Connecticut and making sure I settled into my new home. And so many Ketchikan friends have welcomed me with open arms to this lovely and vibrant place.

I am grateful for my colleagues at the Ketchikan Public Library.  The Library’s staff members are funny, articulate, and passionate about the Library’s mission of serving the community with resources and programs that instruct, entertain, and bring people together.

Finally, I am grateful to live in Ketchikan—beautiful, prosperous, and lively, where we can disagree and still work together, where we help each other in bad times and celebrate the good times.

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Now that the holiday season is underway, come to the Library to check out our collections of holiday books, DVDs and music. No matter how old or young you are or what holidays you celebrate, the Library has craft and cookery books, movies and documentaries, and music help you get organized and in the holiday mood!

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Uncertainty Principle

I recently listened to the book Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer. It is the story of the 1984 murder of a mother and her young child by Ron and Dan Lafferty, two of her husband’s brothers. The brothers are members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect, and believed they were acting on God’s orders. The matter-of-fact recounting of the killings by Dan Lafferty is chilling, and his certainty that he was doing God’s will. In looking for an explanation, Krakauer explores the history and tenets of the Mormon Church, and argues that these lead some followers to acts that range from disrespectful to homicidally violent.

I was going along with Krakauer at first, thinking that there was something about the Mormon Church that turns some of its members misogynistic and violent. Then I thought about incidents of violence and fanaticism involving other faiths. It is not religion itself, of any kind, which leads to violence, although it is often offered as a justification of it.

Rather, it is certainty. More specifically, it is the certainty that one is right—one knows God’s mind, one’s logic is unshakeable, and/or one’s intuition is not to be questioned.  Certainty is a wonderful, restful thing—one doesn’t have to think anymore. It can be a way to fight off internal doubts, or counter the doubts of others.  It also provides wonderful motivation to get things done quickly, ‘the ends justifying the means.’ For some, an end they are certain is good justifies lying, treating others with contempt, violence, even murder.

On the other hand, uncertainty is not a comfortable position—in fact it means precisely never being completely comfortable with any act, idea or belief. It means always questioning whether or not one is doing the right thing, and in the right way. Of course, things still have to get accomplished, so there is the added uncomfortableness of acting without knowing for certain that one is right.

Absent certainty, it is extremely important to be respectful, kind, just, and willing to consider other points of view. Someone else may be right, or have a better solution, or a way to improve the situation. ‘Unsettling’ is precisely what it is, because even when something is done, its rightness and value are never finally settled.

In quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that for subatomic particles, the more precisely its position is known, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and visa-versa. Even in science, certainty has its limits and no good science can be done without accepting these limits.

So too in life—certainty has its limits, and no good life can be lived without accepting these limits and learning to think, feel and act in the knowledge that one may not be right.

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Life’s rich pageant

Time passes. Lately I have heard and seen a lot of stories on aging and the passage of time (or maybe I have just been noticing them more). Last weekend I watched two movies on TCM that were very different, but equally sobering: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and The Whales of August (1987).

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone was written by Tennessee Williams, and tells the story of an actress in her 40s whose much older husband dies as they are flying to Rome on a vacation. Mrs. Stone, played by Vivian Leigh, stays on in Rome, becoming involved with a greedy duchess/pimp, played by Lotte Lenya, and Paolo, one of the gigolos the duchess handles. Mrs. Stone becomes besotted by Paolo, who generally behaves like a sullen teenager but has surprising flashes of insight, as when he predicts that Mrs. Stone will tired of him and will start running with a hungrier, more dangerous class of gigolo.

And that is what happens. Furious at Paolo’s flirtation with a younger woman, Mrs. Stone gives her house key to a rough-looking young man who has been following her throughout the picture. The movie ends there, but the implication is obvious—Mrs. Stone is giving up, inviting death. Tennessee Williams tends to be pessimistic like this—I should have realized there would be no happy ending. But it was depressing all the same.

The Whales of August is a very different movie. Two elderly sisters, played by Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, are spending a summer at their family’s beachfront cottage in Maine. Libby, played by Davis, is blind and cantankerous. Sarah, played by Gish, cares for Libby and is much more giving and hopeful than her sister. Elderly neighbors and old friends, some of more than 50 years, visit the sisters and reminisce about the days when they were young.

Vincent Price plays a charming, cultured Russian émigré, whom Sarah is smitten with for a time. Price is a joy to watch in this, as is Gish. It is difficult, though, to watch Davis—one gets the impression that this is not just a performance, that the bitterness is real. The movie ends on a positive note. Libby, long opposed to creating a picture window in the cottage to look out at the ocean, agrees to it to make Sarah happy. They both walk down to the beach as the closing credits roll. It is not a depressing ending, but it is sad. It is the sadness of things inevitably ending, of people dying and their memories and experiences dying with them.

Both movies made for one long afternoon.

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Termination dust

Less than a month ago termination dust appeared on the mountains around Ketchikan. Termination dust is Alaskan for a light dusting of snow on the upper slopes of a mountain. Its appearance marks the end of summer.

We did not have much of a summer here. With a few glorious exceptions, most days were in the 50s with clouds and rain. The fall was better, we had weeks of mostly uninterrupted sunshine, beautiful for walking, fishing or just getting the house and yard ready for winter.

Just a week ago we got the first accumulating snow, an inch or so of slushy mix that melted in the next day’s rain. There was a day or two of hard frost in the morning, to the extent of closing steep sections of Fairy Chasm Road and Schoenbar Road.

The most difficult adjustment, though, has been the time change. We ‘fell back’ last weekend, so the sun now rises at 7:15am and sets at 3:45pm. Once darkness falls, it feels like midnight.  I can feel my energy draining away, and I just want to sleep. This time of year, putting one foot in front of the other and getting out the door provide a sense of achievement.

Ah, winter! The mountains are more beautiful now, particularly when the sun shines. With the upcoming holidays there are, for most of us, obligations that get us out and keep us active. Snowstorms give us a reason to stay in, or adventures to talk about later if we have to venture out. And when we can stay home, there is the comfort of familiar people and surroundings, warmth in a cold world.

Winter is not my favorite season, but it does have its pleasures and compensations. (Not least of which is the joy of spring when it finally arrives!) First City Players’ last performance of Cabaret takes place today at the Ketchikan High School auditorium, and has gotten rave reviews. The Winter Arts Faire takes place the weekend after Thanksgiving at the Saxman Community Center, and the Wearable Art Show is February 1-3. And of course there are all the programs and events at the Library, the Museum, the Arts Council, and everywhere!

Termination dust may mark the end of summer, but it is the beginning of Ketchikan’s annual artistic and cultural renewal of itself. Get out there and be part of it!

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Our Veterans

Mom and Dad’s wedding photo

Our father, Robert Tully, served in the Air Force for four years after high school, from 1958-1962. Our parents had just married when Dad was sent to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington; I was born there. Shortly afterwards Dad was transferred to Moses Lake, Washington, where my brothers Bob and Steve were born. In 1962 Dad’s hitch was up and we all returned to Cincinnati, Ohio—Jayne and Tom were born after that.

Dad did not fly planes; he was a mechanic and a good one. Sometime during his service he fell from a platform and injured his back. The injury still troubles him, although it has not stopped him from working every day from then to now. Mom and Dad both have stories about making ends meet on little pay. Dad had a series of second jobs to bring in more money. Most of it went to us kids, and our parents skimped on food for themselves. Mom remembers finding a $1 bill in the couch one day, and her and Dad splurging on salami sandwiches.

My first memories are of Cincinnati; all we have from Dad’s service are our parents’ memories, old photographs, and a few souvenirs.

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Many in our grandfathers’ generation served in World War II—family members on both sides did military service. Dad’s Uncle Jack von Rissen enlisted before Pearl Harbor, in June 1941. He was an Army Air Corps pilot who was shot down three times. The Cincinnati Enquirer printed a short article about his adventures in March 1943, while he was on furlough after crash landing on a South Sea island.  He and two members of his crew “passed the three days with only three small cans of water and a few chocolate bars for food. At the end of that time, flares, which they had been setting off, finally attracted an Army flying boat which rescued them. None of the men was injured.”

Our stepmother Carolyn’s mother and father both served in World War II, and photographs of them in uniform are proudly displayed in Dad and Carolyn’s home. Virgil Magsig served in the Army in the South Pacific. In 1948 he married Lois Schwartz, who had served as an Army nurse in North Africa and Italy during the war.

Joseph A. von Rissen, 1905

Uncle Jack’s father and namesake, Joseph Albert von Rissen, served briefly in the U. S. Army Cavalry in 1905, enlisting in September 1905 and listed as ‘Des, Dec. 12/05’ Did he desert? Or was he discharged? (‘Descharge’ was an alternate spelling of ‘discharge’ back in the day.) Joseph died in 1928, so there is no one left alive in the family who knows the true story.

Our stepmother’s ancestor, Henry Steinkamp, served in the Civil War and died just days after his 20th birthday, at the battle of Shiloh. Carolyn has copies of his letters home to his family in northern Ohio in the months before he was killed.

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Our family has never considered itself a military family, and at family gatherings military service is not often the topic of the conversation. But even in a non-military family such as ours, there is a long and (mostly) honorable record of service to our country.

Our thanks to all military veterans for their service, and to their families who sacrificed so that their loved ones could serve!

 

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The Dictionary Project

Since 2006 First City Rotary has partnered with The Dictionary Project to give a dictionary to every third-grader in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. The Dictionary Project is a non-profit based in Charleston, South Carolina, with a mission to help students become “good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary.” Many Rotary Clubs throughout the country participate in this program, including my former club in Middletown, Connecticut.

Here in Ketchikan, Rotarian Al Rockwood has coordinated the program for many years. His enthusiasm and passion for encouraging literacy are infectious. I accompanied Al and other Rotarians last spring to present books to third-graders at Houghtaling and Fawn Mountain schools. It was an amazing experience! The kids knew about the program and were excited to receive their own dictionary. We passed them out, explained briefly how they work, and asked the students to look up a few words. The dictionary has sections in the back with maps, a list of U.S. Presidents, the Constitution, and other interesting information; we showed them these. Finally we talked a bit about Rotary and the Club’s work in the community.

This week, dictionaries are being distributed to third-graders who are home-schooled, through the Fast Track and Pace programs. Next week we will begin delivering the dictionaries to local third grade classes. Many thanks to the teachers, school administrators and others who assist us with this project!

The Rotary Four-Way Test of the things we say and do, is on a book plate in each dictionary:

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build good will and better friendships?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

This philosophy of respect, good will and community engagement has been at the core of Rotary since it was founded in 1905 in Chicago. Now there are over 34,000 local Clubs world-wide. In addition to local community service projects, Rotary also supports international efforts such as the fight against polio, clean water initiatives and youth exchange projects that promote greater understanding between people in different countries.

By providing students with a tool that will help them as they learn to read, and then use that skill to further their education in all areas of life, The Dictionary Project helps children become literate, informed, engaged citizens.

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Library Confidential

From Alaska Statutes:

AS 40.25.140. Confidentiality of Library Records.

(a) Except as provided in (b) of this section, the names, addresses, or other personal identifying information of people who have used materials made available to the public by a library shall be kept confidential, except upon court order, and are not subject to inspection under AS 25.110 or 40.25.120. This section applies to libraries operated by the state, a municipality, or a public school, including the University of Alaska.

(b) Records of a public elementary or secondary school library identifying a minor child shall be made available on request to a parent or guardian of that child.

The right to free expression is one of our core values, as set forth in the first amendment to the Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

An essential counterpart of freedom of expression is the freedom to hear, read, and experience what has been expressed. Libraries exist, in part, to provide access to books, music and video from a variety of perspectives, and representing many points of view. And through library programming, it is a place where free expression in a civil environment can flourish. All this makes it possible for citizens to learn about the issues facing our community, country and world, and make informed choices.

What about the Internet? Doesn’t it do the same thing, and much more comprehensively? It certainly provides access to an astonishingly large amount of information and perspectives. But the very size and complexity of the Internet is a barrier for many and for others, computer equipment and network access are unaffordable. Still others prefer reading print books, magazines and newspapers. Libraries level the playing field for all, allowing people to access information, recreational and artistic works in the format that works best for them.

Why are libraries committed to keeping users’ records confidential? Because users sometimes want or need to access material that is controversial or sensitive, or may be construed that way. If libraries did not guarantee confidentiality to our users, it would have a chilling effect on their accessing information that may be very important to them, but is also very personal.  Libraries exist to bring together people, ideas, information, and all kinds of cultural and artistic expression. Confidentiality provides a safe atmosphere in which to do so.

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