Friday, November 30, 2007

Missouri: Where Christmas is Safe

On Monday, Missouri State University’s dean of the College of Humanities ordered a 20-foot Christmas tree taken down when a faculty member reportedly said the tree showed a “a lack of sensitivity” to people of other religions.

By Thursday the Christmas tree was back up. Two big Springfield News-Leader stories later, the Christmas controversy is now happily resolved.

Before you jump to the conclusion that this was another politically-correct attack on Christmas, let me say I think it was more a case of someone eager to get the decorations up without fully involving the university community in the process. Universities are like that where consensus building is big. In the beginning, the original tree was secularized with non-religious decorations and displays from other faiths had been planned.

Missouri’s “Santa,” Gov. Matt Blunt issued a directive to state agencies that no state employee be chastised for saying “Merry Christmas.” Woo Hoo! Christmas is safe in the Show Me State.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Limoncello for a Liquid Christmas Gift

All of my Christmas gift ideas this year will be unique in some way, and none will be over-the-top expensive.

If you get started today on this first idea, you should have a batch of pretty good limoncello right before Christmas that you can divvy up for your best friends. I am not going into the details since my son and daughter-in-law have posted their limoncello recipe on their Vino e Vittles blog. This wonderful Italian digestivo is nice packaged in little bottles, and Jeff and Natalie give a low-down on where you can get the bottles as well as how to procure and clean the lemons for the best possible product.

Of course, the lemons we find in the U.S. and Canada are quite unlike the huge lemons you see everywhere in Sorrento, but this is the best limoncello recipe out there and comes very close to the limoncello you’d find being made on Italy’s Amalfi Coast in Sorrento.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is It Old-Fashioned to Send Christmas Cards

Jeeze, I had to go back and edit yesterday’s post title. I got the countdown number wrong. Today marks the 27th day until Christmas. Why didn’t y’all point out my error?

I was at the post office on Monday and I’d recommend getting those Christmas cards and packages ready if your local post office is anywhere near as busy. The line snaked way long even though they had all clerk positions open. Maybe it was because once you finally get to the clerk, he or she makes you feel like you are the most important customer in the world. Well, that’s been my experience so far in Springfield, Missouri.

I decided to come back later for the Christmas stamps, but did you know you can order them online and save a trip and gas?

And I thought, is it old-fashioned to send out cards these days? I like the photo cards but can never find a suitable picture to inflict on family and friends. I am not photogenic to put it nicely. I always look like a prison inmate let loose on good behavior. Unlike some folks, I also love the Christmas letters a couple of friends send out each year.

Even though I have made cards with my own designs, I found myself picking up a couple of boxes at Target this year. Only after I got home did I discover they were made in China. That strikes me as strange and I wish I’d gone to more trouble to find cards MADE IN AMERICA. Is every blasted product made in China? Well, I think nearly everything in Hobby Lobby is. It bothers me because I wonder if are we buying ourselves out of our position as an economic world leader just to save a few cents.

Sorry for the digression. Now, go mail those cards!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

2nd Annual Christmas Countdown--28 Days

I’m a little late getting started with the Christmas Countdown. My spirits are a bit down and maybe thinking about this wonderful season will help. Bear with me long-time readers if I repeat myself, but I’m sure there will be plenty new to write about. However, for the first post, I am reprinting last year's kickoff. Here it is:

As I promised, I’m launching my countdown to Christmas with my favorite Christmas book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. I was a new mom 30 years ago when the president of the Alabama Alumni Association, Ann Pritchard, gave Bill a copy of this classic. Sometime in the next few weeks we will sit down and reread the story of the horrible Herdmans and how they and those all around them discovered the real meaning of Christmas. I get choked up each time I read the words aloud. If you have kids and have never read this book, rush right out to your bookstore or order it online (paperback and hardcover available at Amazon), and please read it to them. If you don’t have children, please read it anyway to remember why we celebrate this day. It’s short and wet your pants funny. And yes, it’s sweet and sentimental.

An excerpt from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever:

The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.

The toolhouse burned right down to the ground, and I think that surprised the Herdmans. They set fire to things all the time, but that was the first time they managed to burn down a whole building.

I guess it was an accident. I don’t suppose they woke up that morning and said to one another, “Let’s go burn down Fred Shoemaker’s toolhouse” . . . but maybe they did. After all, it was a Saturday, and not much going on.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Damn the torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead!

I have a new venue for blogging if anyone cares to check it out. Our local Gannett-owned newspaper, The Springfield News-Leader recently started Ozarks Right and Ozarks Left blogs. Guess which I am?

I have already found out the perils of expressing an opinion. Likewise, I will now be a lot more careful in drawing lines in the sand. I’d forgotten that one might have to cross them. Missouri’s Democratic blog, Fired Up, got all fired up over something I wrote about me not going to vote for Hillary Clinton and wrote something like I wasn’t much of a Democrat. That didn’t bother me, but at first I got a little mad when they made fun of my “funny hat.” Then, I thought, there are worst things to say about a person.

The other peril of this venture is that the News-Leader also prints on the opinion page some of our posts. So far they have printed three of mine, and I’m afraid I’m going to gain a Grandpa Simpson’s reputation.

But my motto is best expressed by the words of Admiral David Farragut, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” which I love so much I created a t-shirt at CafePress with the quote.

Recipe for Sweet Potatoes

Note: I usually have to bake this a little longer than the recipe indicates. Also, watch the potatoes while you are boiling them as it is easy to overcook them.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Talking Turkey

I’m doing a little shopping for Thanksgiving dinner today. My two sons, daughter-in-law, husband, granddog and I will be together Thanksgiving for our traditional dinner. Last year I wrote about my Thanksgiving “disaster” and if you are so inclined, you can pop over and see what dumb thing I once did.

Stories abound of similar cooking disasters. Feel free to share your mishaps if you dare. Or better yet, share a pleasant memory.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

And Now, the Rest of the Story

I love to hear from readers, especially when the post concerns them, as was the case I mentioned yesterday. Today, I’m sharing with his permission, the e-mail I received from Chris concerning his Royal Air Force grandfather.

It was with great interest that I belatedly read your blog entitled ‘Remembering Young Lives Cut Short on a Hot Alabama Day’ (dated August 9, 2006). It was particularly interesting as I was with my mother at the time, whose father (my grandfather) was the RAF pilot Frank Marhoff who you refer to in your article. It was quite strange but pleasing to see that someone on the other side of the world, who neither knows our family nor is connected to it, has taken notice of a grave that only one of us has ever been able to visit.

My mother was three years old when her father died in that plane crash and so far she has been the only family member to visit the cemetery in Montgomery, a lifelong ambition which she finally managed to achieve in 1988, some 47 years after he died. In 2005 when I was in the USA to write about the visit of the England national football (‘soccer’) team, I did myself toy with the idea of breaking off from visiting family in New York to fly down for a couple of days, but was unable to get it into my schedule. Maybe I’ll get there one day. I would certainly love to see it as the graves look beautifully set in your pictures.

My mother was interested to see all the flowers around the grave and your explanation of how they are cared for, as during her visit in 1988 the grave looked quite different – either it was before the flowers were added, or it was the wrong time of year, but she was certainly impressed by how it looks now (or at least last year, when you took the photo).

Just out of interest, out of the many graves there, why was it that you focussed my grandfather? I’m always interested in these chance happenings.

Just to fill out the picture a bit in case you’re interested, after my grandfather’s death in 1941 my grandmother never remarried and brought up the two girls referred to in the newspaper cutting by herself. She emigrated briefly (for two years) to Australia in the 1950s, before returning to the UK and eventually relocating to the Cambridgeshire area of England to be near my mother in the early 1970s. She died in the early Nineties. Had my grandfather lived, he would now have four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, plus one more on the way, as my first child is due in January. It’s strange to think that a life cut so short has so much that comes from it. But I guess cemeteries like the one in Montgomery are full of such stories.

I have a box of photos of my grandfather in Alabama and my mother has all the letters he wrote home from before his death. We even tracked down a Pathe newsreel clip that features him briefly during his training in the US. Plus we also have a photograph of him meeting Jack Dempsey while in the States, as featured in the clippings you linked to your blog. At least there are a few things to pass down to my first child alongside my mother’s few early memories of the man. One way or another, Frank stays alive in the family.

Many thanks for writing your article and spending some time visiting my grandfather’s grave.

Best wishes,
Chris Hunt

And in reply to my request to publish his e-mail:

By all means share the email – the whole thing has cheered my day up. I didn’t post it all as I thought it might clog up your blog with too much information for the wider world. However, I’ve just posted another comment because of a bizarre coincidence. I was looking at the below link with my wife after showing her your blog. After noticing the date on the headstone, she pointed out that it would be the anniversary of his death today.

Being a writer like yourself, I’ve always found the story of my grandfather very interesting – even though it’s a very ordinary story. He was among the first shipment of RAF trainee pilots sent to the US to train to fly, but he didn’t die a war hero, he wasn’t special to anyone outside his family, but he’s always been a big part of our family’s life and history. My grandmother certainly never got over him and my mother still thinks about him regularly.

As a child I grew up fascinated by the photos of him in his uniform on the base in the US and the picture of him with Jack Dempsey. It all seemed a million years away from our lives. My other grandfather fought in the First World War (and lived to tell the tale), but in some ways I thought that the idea of Frank travelling so far away to the US (and being pictured with big American cars in the background, alongside strange looking American road signs) was in some way more alien than the idea of my other grandfather fighting in Ypres. I’m sure one day I’ll write about it myself!

All the best,
Chris Hunt

Note: if you click on this link, you will see a photo of Frank's grave, which was posted less than a month ago. I suppose another story lies in the photographers who post these photos.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fallen Heroes

Last year I wrote a post entitled, “Remembering Young Lives Cut Short on a Hot Alabama Day.”

I had visited Oakwood Cemetery Annex in Montgomery, Alabama, where Confederate sons of the South rested near the graves of British airmen sent to train at Maxwell Air Force Base during WWII. Yet many more visitors come to see the grave of country music legend Hank Williams than pause at the graves of these fallen soldiers.

This morning, a reader named Chris left a comment about the old post:
It was with great interest that my mother and I belatedly read your blog. The RAF pilot you refer to, Frank Marhoff, was my grandfather. It was quite strange but pleasing to see that someone on the other side of the world, who neither knows our family nor is connected to it, has taken notice of a grave that only one of us has ever been able to visit. I shall email you more fully care of your blog address, but once again, thanks for taking the time to think about my grandfather.

We all want to think that our time here on earth matters—that someone notices that we were born, lived and died. Maybe we aren’t a famous celebrity. We might not have invented a new medicine, flew to the moon or ran for political office. Yet, the human in us wants to know that life is precious and that our time here, short as it is, mattered to someone.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Borat’s Back

Did you hear? Borat, the lovable and highly offensive faux Kazakh reporter, has come out with a guidebook about Kazakhstan and the US and A.

So far, comedian Sasha Baron Cohen has been talking up the book via e-mail interviews, during which Borat said when asked about the U. S. presidential election by Celebrity News Service, “I cannot believe that it possible a woman can become Premier of US and A—in Kazakhstan, we say that to give a woman power, is like to give a monkey a gun—very dangerous. We do not give monkeys guns any more in Kazakhstan ever since the Astana Zoo massacre of 2003 when Torkin the orang-utan shoot 17 schoolchildrens. I personal would like the basketball player, Barak Obamas to be Premier.”

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Internet Ads

While checking out to see local restaurant reviews, I noticed the banner ad at the top of the page was for Friskies’ cat food by Purina. Not wanting to “unlock a world of sensory delight” I skipped rolling over the ad in favor of reading about human food, which is what I wanted to find out about in the first place. Next I was treated to an ad from Marlo Thomas to “Please help St. Jude save her life,” referring to a young child at the hospital she helps with fundraising.

I think a little bit of targeting is needed here. In my own little blog, I signed up for Google ads and so far it’s been interesting to see what they assign to me. My post about Uncle Jim’s death brought an ad for onshore drilling. One day, I noticed one for stun guns. Still haven’t figured out that one. I guess I’m most happy to see ads for my Alma Mater, the University of Alabama. And those kitchen sinks.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Comfort Food

I so rarely spend the afternoon in the kitchen these days. Husband is easy to please or maybe I should say at least he doesn’t complain and meals can be rustled up quickly and simply. However, yesterday I took the time to make some comfort food. You know, the stuff we grew up with—macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, mashed potatoes or chicken potpie, which is what I set about making.

The steam from the boiling chicken warmed the kitchen while I searched for my old recipe. Yes, it had been that long and I have never been one to remember recipes. When I couldn’t find the tried and true, I used the Joy of Cooking version. The peas and parsley were okay now that son was away in college. The rhythm of peeling and chopping went quickly and soon the veggies were sizzling in a glob of butter, unsalted for good health. Another glob melted and melded with the flour, half n half and chicken stock for the cream sauce. Soon the de-boned chicken met the chopped carrots, celery and onions, and I topped them with a purchased piecrust. Love pies. Hate making the crusts.

After the half hour or so in the oven, my creation met with approval. “This is really good,” said my better half, “and better than the ones you used to make. They tasted like frozen.” See, I told you husband is not one to complain. I wonder what else I could improve?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Picking a Good College

Ironically as I checked out the results from the latest National Survey of Student Engagement, College Boy called me on his cell-phone.

I disavow the overused helicopter label but will admit this son stays in touch more than his older brother did 11 years ago. That’s a Millennial trademark by the way. This year’s findings show
“Contrary to what some educators believe, students who frequently talk with the parents and follow their advice participate more frequently in educationally purposeful activities and are more satisfied with their college experience. This is also true for students with so-called ‘helicopter parents’—those who intervened with institutional officials to solve problems their student encountered on campus.”

Approximately 313,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 610 four-year colleges and universities in the U. S. and Canada participated in the survey.

Other findings of note: When faculty members provide guidance and feedback on projects and papers, students are more satisfied and say they benefit more in desired ways, students who study abroad report greater gains in intellectual and personal development than peers who don’t, internship or field placement is the most powerful form of senior experience and 13 percent of first-year students have parents who frequently intervene with college officials and another 25 percent had parents who did so sometimes.

USA TODAY has a searchable database of 257 schools organized by institution type. NSSE benchmarks are compared to the average in five categories: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences and supportive campus environment. For the first time this year, some colleges and universities are sharing this typically private information with the public.

A push for greater transparency and a growing dissatisfaction with the much-hyped U.S. News & World Report rankings are perhaps behind the willingness to go public. It’s certainly a great tool in research during the search for the right college.

Here in Springfield, Mo., Drury University’s rankings are well above average in all areas for first-year students and for seniors in all but one area. In four out of five areas, Drury’s first-year student benchmarks were at least five points higher than the average for peer institutions. And that is a rather strong indication that Drury University is providing an excellent education for her students.

And in case you were wondering, CB's college, Hendrix, fared pretty good too and is a particularly supportive campus, which is very reassuring even if one is not a helicopter parent. And I swear I am not!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Thanks Lowe’s

Since I will shortly be chronicling our sad and frustrating battle with American Home Shield over our home warranty contract, I wanted to heave some positive feedback in the direction of a corporation that did a fine job for us.

We purchased our new toilet and sink from Lowe’s here in Springfield, Missouri, and opted to use their installation services. We bought the fixtures on Saturday and the install department followed up with several calls along the way. The installer called on Monday to set up an appointment for Thursday. He arrived ON TIME! Although we experienced a minor problem because the faucet we were sold didn’t fit our sink’s holes and a trip to Lowe’s was necessary to switch it, Lowe’s charged us the original price instead of passing on the cost of the more expensive version. The installer went on to put in a dishwasher while we exchanged the faucets. He returned in about two hours to finish the job.

Kudos to the folks at Lowe’s and our installer Caleb. We are very happy customers and we will gladly turn to you again.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Encouraging Minority Entrepreneurship

Springfield’s Drury University and St. Louis-based investment firm Edward Jones announced a new scholarship recently targeted at minority students in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas but open to students throughout the country. Drury is offering 10 $10,000 scholarships for incoming freshmen and “will change the face of the university,” according to Interim President Todd Parnell. Coupled with other institutional financial aid, it will be possible for a deserving student to have his or her tuition completely covered.

Now I know this may not seem unusual for an institution of higher education to offer diversity scholarships, but it is significant for this area of the Ozarks because there are so few non-Caucasians here. Our population here in Springfield is over 90% Caucasian.

The Edward Jones Minority Scholarship Program at Drury University will open many doors. Students who receive the scholarships will also interact with local and national business leaders through Drury’s Edward Jones Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and they’ll participate in internships and training with Edward Jones. Last year Drury’s Board Chairman John Beuerlein and his wife, Crystal, partnered with Edward Jones in donating the money to establish the Center, and Drury is fast enhancing its reputation for providing a great business education with an emphasis on preparing students to soar in today’s global economy.

I suspect many first generation college students will have a shot at a top-notch education because of this generosity and foresight. And this first generation college graduate thinks that’s a right fine thing.

Note: Check Drury's Web site for more information at

photo: Emily Pitts from Edward Jones is charged with implementing the firm's inclusion initiative.