Today is Yesterday

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Today is

All the yesterdays

I have or want to have

Brought together.


I tie off one memory

Or many

I choose

What to bring back.


Sadness?  Happiness?  Confusion?

I think what to think

I reminisce.  I discern.

I learn.


My purpose is

Finding reasons to remember,


Going on.


My history doesn’t make sense

Neither does the world’s

But wait

I take heart.


I find meaning



In today, which is yesterday.




As I sat back in the recliner thinking once more about how to maintain an exercise regimen in the year to come, I was interested in how presidents have kept fit throughout history.  Most of them did nicely, which is not surprising considering they had to stay active to deal with demands of the office.

Early leaders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson developed the skill and coordination of excellent horsemen.   A few years later, John Quincy Adams swam (naked) in the Potomac River every morning, long before it was known that this was the ultimate cardiovascular exercise.

Abraham Lincoln, who grew up guiding a horse plow and splitting wood rails for fences, once used his strong arms to throw a heckler out of a political rally.

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Theodore Roosevelt overcame his childhood frailty in the arid west as a hand on his own ranch.  He was always active in boxing, and led other dignitaries on point-to-point walks in Rock Creek Park.  One time he asked a French ambassador, when they took off their clothes to cross the river, why he did not remove his gloves.  “Why Mr. President,” he exclaimed, “We might meet ladies!”

William Howard Taft may not be remembered as athletic because of his weight and the famous custom bathtub installed in the White House, but he later trimmed 100 pounds off his frame and lived a long life as a Chief Justice.  He liked golf and tennis.  TR had cautioned him not to be photographed playing, however, because it might make him look too upper-class.

Herbert Hoover playing Hoover-ball on the White House lawn, February, 1933. Photo 1033-16A

Probably the most interesting game played by a president was named after him.  Hooverball, invented by doctor, involved two teams tossing an eight-pound medicine ball over a net every morning during the Depression.  It would have much easier for Herbert Hoover than tackling the plight of Americans at the time.

Franklin Roosevelt developed his upper body strength by pulling ropes to hoist the elevator up and down, sitting in a wheelchair, at his home.  He was also a swimmer.  Harry Truman took 120 steps per minute during his mile and a half daily walks.  This was the World War I marching pace, which would make any Fitbit happy.

Dwight Eisenhower played football for the United States Military Academy, once tackling legendary Native American star Jim Thorpe.  John Kennedy played football with his family members until his weak back prevented it.  Concerned about flabby citizens of the 1960s, he initiated a nationwide fitness program and commissioned the recording of “Chicken Fat” still used in schools today.

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At the top of the list of fit presidents is Gerald Ford, despite his reputation for being clumsy.  That was because his knees had been used up as a football player for the champion University of Michigan Wolverines.  He turned down offers from the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, and later settled for playing golf.

Ronald Reagan was a high school lifeguard who saved over 70 people from drowning.  When president he stepped up body building with specially-designed workouts after he was shot, and even wrote a fitness article for Parade Magazine.  “In my view, every exercise program should have an outdoor element to it – whether jogging, bicycling, skiing, hiking, or walking.  I prefer horseback riding and, whenever possible, hard manual labor at the ranch,” he said.

A portrait of an adolescent George H.W. Bush and a teammate in their baseball uniforms. Bush was the captain of the baseball team at Phillips Academy, where he attended from 1937 to 1942.

The George Bushes also head the fit list, with the father a high school baseball captain and a serious runner.  Dubya runs and cycles yet today.  Bill Clinton famously jogged, as Barack Obama loves to play pickup basketball games off backboards on the old Taft tennis court.

Warren G. Harding was probably in the worst shape of all of our presidents: boozing, smoking and sitting still.

Donald Trump?  His idea of burning calories is sweating in a crowded room.  He sleeps four hours a night and skips breakfast.  What will the President’s Council on Physical Fitness do about that?  It may just have to be the Council on Physical Fitness for the next four years.

I will have to slim down to give him an example.

A Gift for All

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I have always liked to make things, and used to spend a lot of time trying to decide which homemade Christmas gifts to give; it was a necessity when dollars were scarce and our family was young.

I made nightgowns, counted cross stitch samplers, pillows, candy, lighted Ball jars, cookie mix, cocoa mix, coffee mix….  One year in college I made dolls from dishwashing soap bottles and material scraps.

Today it seems the homemade gifts I wrap come from craft shows, and I have faint dreams of copying them for another time.  This year I melted and molded soaps, which was fun and took a minimum amount of time for the way they turned out.

Whether a gift is homemade or store bought, edible or wearable, small or large, it can’t match the greatest gift in the form of a baby who grew up to be a man who would save us all.  It probably wasn’t in December or exactly 2016 years ago.  But it was a terrible sacrifice of the Giver, the gift above all others.  Merry Christmas.


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“You don’t need any more Christmas wrapping paper!”
My daughters have said this to me more than once when we’re out shopping or looking through stationery catalogs.  But can you ever have too much wrapping paper?  It makes giving more fun; it allows you to create your own art form; I just like looking at the presents and grouping them in stacks according to color (yes, a little bit of the OCD tendency there).  And the rolls fit under the bed so well.
How did we get from “brown paper packages tied up with strings” to the $2.6 billion gift wrap industry today?  A little checking on the Internet reveals that it makes up half the 85 million tons of paper products sold each year, and 30 million trees are cut down to produce it.  Yikes!
In the Second Century B.C., the Japanese placed gifts of money in envelopes called “chin poh” made from hemp, bamboo, and rice.  They also wrapped gifts in “furoshiki,” or reusable cloth.
Before 1900 Victorians wrapped their gifts in elaborate paper and ribbon. Mercantiles used tissue paper.  In 1916, storekeepers Joyce and Rolloe Hall ran out of it and substituted some special French paper instead.  It caught on in following years, and eventually became a key product of their company, Hallmark.
The process of wrapping a present can be tricky.  You’ve first got to cut the paper to the right size; if you don’t, trimming the ends after the middle part is secured requires precision so that it covers. but doesn’t overlap too much.  Invisible tape is preferable to cellophane, which shines on the seams.  We would never want anyone to think this package was taped, would we?  I used to teach a geometry lesson while gift wrapping: right angles and perpendicular lines, acute angles…
And then, ribbon.  I love wired ribbon that can be stretched and molded just how you want it.  I’ve given up curling ribbon and found it better to let the loose strands fall in a mass than having them boing like Shirley Temple’s curls.  I’ve also massacred those “easy pull” flat ribbon bows so often that I don’t buy them anymore.
I do like gift bags, which can be reused to the end of saving part of those trees.  As can the tissue paper that keeps the giftee in the dark about what’s inside.
Just before Christmas, when my dining room table is covered in paper rolls, flat wrap, boxes, ribbon, and tags, I look forward to the days ahead when family will gather and memories will be made.  The embellishments make it a little more happy.

The Gift of a Good Read

When I was growing up there was always a book with my name on it under the tree on Christmas morning.  It might be a Nancy Drew (The Mystery of the Old Clock), a popular girls’ read (Donna Parker in Hollywood), or a classic from Louisa Mae Alcott, but no matter what it was,  I spent holiday afternoons off school poring over a new story.

Later, one of the things I relished while Christmas shopping for our young daughters was choosing books for them, and these days I look for just the right ones for our grandchildren.  I still try to find books for the adults on my list, though gift certificates to Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books also serve the purpose.

Here’s one I recommend for anyone who prizes history and biography.  Edmund Morris, biographer of presidents and earner of the Pulitzer and American Book Award, compiled forty years of his work in 2012 in This Living Hand and Other Essays.  Some of the 59 pieces were previously unpublished; they range from researching Roosevelt and Reagan to describing his own journey as a writer and a naturalized American citizen.

I gifted myself the book in 2014 before we heard him speak in New York City.  I have been working on it since then, but admit I have not gotten to them all.  Absorbing individual essays is quite a bit slower than taking a joyride through a novel which keeps asking you to finish just one more chapter before putting it down.

Arranged in chronological order of the dates they were written, the first is from 1972, about a boyhood experience in Kenya when he discovered an improbable and forbitten fruit called a bumstitch.  The last is an explanation of his unorthodox point of view for Dutch, Ronald Reagan’s biography.  An illustration or photograph heralds each chapter, squeezing out more of its intent.


Morris is a master of thoughts and an artist with the words to convey them.  He writes of figures in history, music and literature: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Adams, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, James Gould Cozzens, Thomas Edison…

His time at work in the Library of Congress probably transcends that of any living writer.  We read about the great institution, which he compares to Thomas Jefferson’s brain, in one chapter: serendipitous experiences like holding a William McKinley autographed piece of silk once meant for promoting a campaign, and the voluminous journals of Theodore Roosevelt.  It is a place where he discovered original musical scores composed by the father of Clare Booth Luce, something Edmund’s wife Sylvia had dreamed of finding for her own book’s research.

Sylvia Jukes Morris, biographer of Luce and Edith Roosevelt, is also the subject of a chapter, but you have to read it yourself to get an idea of the admiration and respect her husband has for her.  It is great.  He paid her a high compliment in saying that if something happened to him while writing one of his books, she could finish it herself.

Edmund Morris’s writing is both serious and funny.  It comes from many years of trying to get to the bottom of what made people do what they did.  It is for readers of books, lifelong learners like himself; and not much like the noise of bits and pieces we get from electronic media today.  This is one of those books that may be called just one thing: a gift.

Clean House

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In the predawn of the day before Thanksgiving when most people think about the food they’ll be smelling in 24 hours, I reflect with sweat on my brow and most other places on what it takes to get the house ready.

I’ve been sorting things for weeks.  Books on shelves, knick knacks, dishes.  If I don’t get these bags to Goodwill before the grandkids come, they’ll think Santa has paid an early visit.

The race to have presentable surroundings for those I most want to remember them so is on.  I will therefore reveal cleaning tips you might not see elsewhere.

  • You’ll be amazed how much faster your kitchen floor dries if you wear your thickest cotton socks while pushing the automatic steam thing across it.
  • If you knock your head against a globe on the dining room chandelier and dust doesn’t fall like snow, you can probably skip wiping it down.
  • Don’t worry about oven/dishwasher fronts – it’s what’s inside that needs attention.
  • Squirt a little lemon juice over everything that’s not fabric-covered.
  • Windows – I don’t have anything to say about them.  You can either see out them or you can’t.
  • Try not to think how many valuable small items have been sucked up by the sweeper when you’re vacuuming and hear “those” sounds.
  • Every sheet and pillowcase in the house must be sent through the washer and dryer.  This is one time a guest room should look like a magazine photo.
  • Send a note of appreciation to the manufacturer of disposable toilet brushes, which should be named the invention of the last century.

I feel so much better when housecleaning is done.  I’m thankful I don’t have to do it for another year.

The Summer Before the War

Polished reviews I saw online for The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson’s second novel (Random House 2016), did not wholly mesh with what I was thinking when I put it down.  If I had based my decision to read the hefty 450+ page work of historical fiction about 1914 England on what they said, I may have opened it later than sooner.  It’s a good thing my sister gave me a hardback copy for my birthday.

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The war is World War I, of course, then known as The Great War.  A young Latin teacher named Beatrice Nash leaves the clutches of her extended family to take a job in the small town of Rye in East Sussex.  Because an aunt controls the trust left by her father, it has been next to impossible for the 23 year-old unmarried woman to live on her own.

Beatrice does break away, riding by rail to Rye.  She is up against human walls on several sides: the mayor (and his farcical wife), the landlady, the town gossips, and the barrister who would take a percentage of her small income for himself.  But her savior is Agatha Kent, a middle-aged woman who had pushed for her hiring.

Another protagonist of the story is Agatha’s nephew, Hugh, a young doctor; among several antagonists is a nobleman who blames the death of his son on Agatha’s other nephew, poet Daniel.

I suppose it was to engage more readers that reviewers of The Summer Before the War invoked the memory of small and large screens for comparison: Downton Abbey (at least three) and Star Wars (!) (one).  This is an injustice to the printed page.  Readers do not need wardrobe departments or special effects men to make them want to know about the world of the past.  They count on authors like Simonson to draw them to it.

We do agree that Simonson’s exquisitely orchestrated word pictures equal those in her first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, also set in her homeland but in modern times (She now lives in Manhattan).  “The Wheaton’s garden could not be anything but a felicitous scene: the emerald of the lawn, the rightly pitched white marquee heads of summer flowers, nodding above the ladies’ linen and cotton dresses.  The uniformed servants, a small navy, ferried trays of sandwiches and buckets of ice across a green sea…”

Most social remarks made by the critics about this book touched on discrimination of women of the time and a public oblivious to the horrors of modern warfare just ahead.  “‘I avoid the papers altogether,’ said Daniel.  ‘I’m pretty sure wars would be shorter if we weren’t eager to read about them.'”

But nobody mentions the father/daughter relationships key to the plot.  Poignant but pathetic, it was/is often the way love is shown.  I can’t understand it, having had a pretty fair-minded dad, but I know it exists.  Beatrice’s father thought the best way to help her was by leaving older family members to control her inheritance, even though she capably took care of him in his last years.  A Belgian refugee professor treats his young daughter with tenderness but abandons her at the worst possible time to save his university’s books.  Mr. Tillingham, a character suggestive of Henry James and supposed surrogate father to both, is ultimately concerned most with his own writing.

Another very interesting part of the tale is the presence of the Romanies, commonly known as gypsies.  From reading about the Edwardian Period in Indiana I also found news articles about these mysterious people.  “In a small clearing, two lean dogs emerged barking from under a dark wooden caravan with a black tar roof.  A shaggy horse tethered to a long rope looked sideways from one large eye but did not bother to take his mouth from the long grass.  The old woman sitting on the caravan steps was as wizened as a dried apple and, though the day was hot, was wrapped in several shawls.”

The gypsy lady, an unlikely friend of prominent citizen Agatha, has a main role along with her great-grandson, a bright boy whom Beatrice tutors before school begins.  The injustices he suffers are unnerving, tragic and catastrophic to the future of the town.  The irony is that few people realize what he could have become and done for them.  Doctor?  Barrister?  Scientist?  Author?  They will never know.

I appreciate Simonson’s notes about her research at the end of the novel.  She was raised in the places she describes, so knows how to relay feelings her characters would have had and expressed.  She read actual copies of hundred year-old newspapers; shortly afterward these were morphed into microfiche.

“Microfiche and searchable digital content cannot replace the thrill and serendipity of reading a full newspaper just as my characters would have done…”  I feel the same way.

The sting of this year’s election lingers with those who know women are on an equal plane with men to lead, govern, and plan for the future.  Beatrice’s summer before the war a century ago is a harbinger of the same.