Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Thomas Edison Returns Home

I heard the sirens in the town square on June 7th, signaling the parade was beginning for Thomas Edison.

The bronze replica of him holding a light bulb, that is.

Almost seven feet tall and weighing 900 pounds, he rode on a flatbed truck behind an escort of police, sheriff, and fire department vehicles. In the small village of Milan, it was a big deal in the middle of the day. Families showed up. Couples walked over with their dogs. I stood at the edge and eavesdropped about the years required to gain a place for Edison in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall. To represent Ohio, he had to win the vote over the Wright Brothers, Olympian Jesse Owens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

A pretty good group of rivals, if you ask me. Go Ohio.

The parade stopped at the house where he was born in 1847. The story goes that Edison had a life long appreciation of Milan, where he lived until he was seven years old. I could well imagine how many petitions, phone calls and meetings were required to gain recognition for our hometown boy. As folks lined up to have their pictures taken with the statue, none of that sticky red tape mattered anymore.  

The statue's champion seems to have been another native son, Don Gfell, who stood on the truck and acknowledged all the local patrons who contributed to the cause. I don't know Don, but he owns Sights and Sounds of Edison, an antique shop specializing in all things, well, Edison. His brother Tom, who I do know, speaks proudly of Don's lifelong appreciation of the famous man.

Every valuable effort takes someone to believe, to convince, to persist. In fact, Edison himself said: Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

When the last picture was taken, the parade moved on to the Milan Public Library where the statue will summer until heading to Washington.

Because parades are panoramic events, it would have been easy to miss the charming moment I spotted in all the hoopla.

As the truck turned the corner, Don swayed. Reaching up to balance himself, his hand rested over Edison's.

There it was.

Just two Milan boys, side by side, headed down Front Street together. I couldn't resist smiling. For both of them.

Edison also said: What you are will show in what you do. 

You don't have to be an acclaimed inventor to accomplish something great.  

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Seven out of Ten

Sometimes you can see trouble coming.

You've got seconds to make a decision that will haunt you forever, no matter which way it goes.

It happened to me last spring.

I was taking Maggie to a friend's house in Woodbury, and we had to travel I-94 across St. Paul in Friday rush-hour traffic. Ahead of me a mother duck and her babies were crossing the road.

A bumper-to-bumper line of cars raced to my left. Braking suddenly would surely create a crash behind me. If I veered right, I'd hit the gravel shoulder and likely fly down the embankment into a ditch. I began to cry. Maggie grabbed my arm, whispering, "Mom, you don't have a choice."

People could have been critically injured if I dodged the ducks. People could have died. So I didn't swerve.

I'm forever sorry for what happened to those ducks.

When I told the story to a therapist friend, she said sometimes a bad thing had to happen to avoid something even worse from happening. She reminded me that animals died every spring in Minnesota as they crossed roads from one pond to the next.

With all my heart, I've tried to make amends. If you've read my posts about the snowy owl who visited our property once we moved to Ohio, you'll understand that I imagined he was my sign from the natural world that I'd been forgiven. The spirits of all creatures great and small recognized my plight that day on I-94 and accepted my apology.

As Maggie would say, "There always has to be a story with you, Mom, even if there is none."

As Cliff would say, "Karen, random stuff just happens. It doesn't mean anything." 

I have never accepted this.

That's why I got excited this spring when our next-door neighbor Kathy told me a duck had built a nest under her patio evergreen. Believing it was another chance for my redemption, I avoided that side of the house when I walked Maria. I made Cliff whisper when we were in the driveway. I checked periodically with Kathy, who stopped using the door near the nest, to see if she was a grandmother yet.

I imagined I'd soon see a line of ducklings waddling down the street to the creek. I guess I thought I'd be their crossing guard. I must have envisioned a rainbow cresting over our houses with unicorns circling Kathy and me in appreciation for our goodness and mercy.

Instead, the ducks vanished one night.

Kathy told me that, by the looks of it, seven eggs had hatched according to plan. Crestfallen, I asked questions, wanting an easy answer, skirting the reality that had probably occurred.

I didn't get the cute parade I'd wanted. They didn't pose for me, all sweet feet and fuzz. I didn't get to post their photo on Facebook and write a storybook final chapter on my blog to eradicate last spring's duckling tragedy.

That mother duck next door made peace with what she got and marched her offspring to the water. Seven babies were good odds. She needed to get on with raising them. And if something harder had occurred, she cut her losses and moved away until next spring--without dwelling on what she couldn't control.

Unfortunate things happen. Even in fairy tales, giants kill, princesses lie, children vanish.

No matter how much I might want it to be true, ducks do not wear blue bonnets and toddle around for my amusement.

They do not, in fact, consider me at all.

Good for them.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Definitional Distress

Words, definitions in particular, have gotten me in trouble for as long as I can remember.

My earliest language mishap began with organized religion, kicking off an uneasy relationship that continues to this day, although I excelled in some areas of church life.

As a child, I loved winning glow-in-the-dark crosses for memorizing scripture. (I had no idea what the words meant; I was just a trinket pack rat.) When white gloves were vanishing from women's fashions, I kept wearing mine to church. (Congregants called my mother to compliment my stylistic values; I simply loved anything that smacked of costuming.)  

But when I refused to buckle under the brimstone, as a six-year-old, the die was cast. When religion turned into a true-false test, instead of a multiple choice exam, I learned what it meant to stand alone.   

This all happened when we moved to Middletown, Ohio. Carla, the girl my age who lived across the street, attended the Crawford Street Church of God. It was two blocks away, and we walked to Sunday school together. My dad was raised Methodist. My mother grew up in a country church that was more church than any particular denomination. I'm sure they couldn't see much harm in a little girl going to a nearby church with a new friend. 

I was a model participant at first. Teachers loved putting me on stage to recite the Books of the Bible from memory. With my curly hair and patent leather perfection, I was no doubt adorable.

Until it went bad.

Sunday school always began with an assembly in the children's wing. We sat in miniature pews while the minister delivered a brief sermon usually based on a biblical story. We sang a song, my favorite being Zaccheus Was a Wee Little Man, and we dropped our coins into the offering basket.

One morning, the pastor spoke on the evils of smoking and drinking, habits of the Devil. People who participated in these acts were sinners who needed help. They were dangerous and would lead us down the road to damnation. He asked us to file forward and sign an oath to never smoke or drink. This would keep us safe because the Devil couldn't get in our hearts.

Row by row, the little lambs signed up.

Not me.

I refused.

My teacher whispered a plea; I shook my head.

One by one, the room emptied until I was alone with the minister, who asked why I wouldn't sign.

My eyes filled with tears as I explained that my parents smoked and drank sometimes. (Remember it was the 1950s--the height of sophisticated evening cocktails and cigarettes.) I didn't think they were bad people.

Nor were they dangerous.

People under the influence of the Devil wouldn't serve as scout leaders. They wouldn't volunteer at the school. They wouldn't plant geraniums. They wouldn't give me a birthday cake with pink roses. They wouldn't spend every other weekend driving to Illinois to care for their aging parents.

I didn't want to smoke or drink myself, but I wouldn't sign a paper that defined my parents as evil.

To his credit, he said he understood, that I didn't have to sign, and that I could go on to class. Of course, I'll never know what he really thought. Was he amazed that a little girl resisted his belief system? Was he able to see the potential damage of pitting a child against her parents? Was he convinced that my family was in league with the Devil and sent to test him?

I remember my Sunday school teacher had nothing to say to me for a long time after that.

I could stop here, but I'm inclined to point out this was the beginning of my forays into oppositional defining.

As a high school teacher, the last faculty meeting I attended ended with a list of student names written on the board. We were asked if this was "the kind of element" we should have in our school. I knew some of those kids well. They were edgy types, the kind who would give you an unexpected opinion that set off a firestorm of discussion in class, not necessarily a negative thing. I suspect most of them were smokers and drinkers, too, but that never struck me as outrageous behavior for teenagers. Were they dealers? Thieves? I didn't know, and no one told us that during the meeting.

The ones I knew on that list were not bad people. As far as I could tell, they did not represent an element aligned with the Devil. They were just smart teenagers who knew how to get under the skin of adults who required adherence to a prescribed standard.

I couldn't embrace this simmering definition of a new order. I wouldn't speak against these kids.

If we were marching against this list now, what would be the next Element of the Day?

I thought it over for several months. The implications were enormous, not that I hadn't been considering my career options for a while anyway.

I resigned that summer.

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