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Archive for November, 2009


Monday, November 30th, 2009

By Nancy Werking Poling

I’ve been searching for it. Looked at those who profess the loudest to have it. No sign of it there. Governors, senators who use its lingo to get votes—no, they don’t have it either.

But there it was today, tucked in the Christmas advertisement pages of the Chicago Tribune: True Religion. I never would have guessed: it’s a fragrance. And it must be the real thing. A 3.4 fluid ounce bottle costs seventy-nine dollars.

At first I thought the CD-shaped glossy paper had to be somebody’s idea of a joke, but then I opened the glued flap. A strong sweet odor immediately attacked my olfactory system.

To make sure everyone knows you’ve found True Religion, the ad says, you can carry around a brown denim duffle bag with a horseshoe pocket and a True Religion label. The bag comes with every purchase of $79.99 or more. I assume the horseshoe is there in case True Religion doesn’t get you quite everything you want.

I got to imagining the ad team that came up with this idea.

Bob: Did you see the news last night? Rally at Blessed Redeemer Tabernacle. Three thousand people. Sure wish we could tap into that market.

Roy: Yeah, and those folks have got the dough. Who do you think forked over for that humongous building? You seen the gym?

Clarisse: You may have something there. We feature sexy women in ads because we know men are more likely to buy perfume. They think they’ll get what the guy in the ad’s getting. We know too that there’s the guilty conscience factor. And what men are the most likely to have a guilty conscience?

Bob and Roy together: Christian men.

Bob: I see where you’re going Clarisse. A super religious guy—he’s got fantasies just like the rest of us, but he can’t admit it. You add a good dose of guilt to that and…”

Clarisse: You give it a religious look, some name that sounds holy, and I’ll bet my bra he’ll buy it for his wife.

However, not being Believers themselves, no one in the marketing department had any vocabulary to accompany their idea. The only name they could think of for the new fragrance was True Religion.

Since then, Helen, who attended Catholic schools as a kid, has joined the team. Ideas are already racing through her head. Next season’s perfume will be Scent of the Savior.

So long, My Sin

With Me on the Grand Canal

Friday, November 27th, 2009

by Nancy Werking Poling
Our living room sofa sagged. Years after everyone else had a color TV we only had a small black and white one. We seldom ate in restaurants. Yet, as soon as our children were on their own, my husband and I managed to include international travel in our budget.

We’re frugal travelers, following Rick Steves’ guides for seeing Europe, opting for hotels with bathrooms down the hall. On a three-week trip to Umbria, Italy, we stayed in convents that had been converted into guest facilities. Twice my husband was invited, expenses paid, to spend a semester teaching in Seoul, South Korea. I, of course, went along.

During our excursions my thoughts often turn to two men I met long ago, to their dreams of travel. David was looking back on his life, when we talked; Roy was looking ahead.

A seventy-six-year-old African American, David carried his tall, slender body with the grace and sophistication of an aristocrat. In youth, he’d used his long fingers and enormous palms to arch basketballs into hoops. In fact, he’d played for the Harlem Globe Trotters when the team’s primary purpose was to provide black athletes the chance to play serious basketball.

Having grown up in Indiana in the early part of the twentieth century, he spoke bitterly of the opportunities denied him. Upon graduation from Earlham College, he could only find a job as a custodian for International Harvester. Black men (even ones with a college degree) were considered intellectually incapable of operating factory machinery—that is, until the United States entered World War II and companies were short of personnel to run the equipment. David knew he was more intelligent and resourceful than most of his white bosses, but they told him what to do.

In the 1950s David, his wife, and their two daughters moved to Mexico City, where he taught English at a prestigious high school. Though he could afford few luxuries in Mexico, he was able to work as a professional man. He was respected. His children could grow up free from racism.

An avid reader, David particularly enjoyed reading about distant places. More than anything, he told me as he looked back on his life, he wished he’d had the chance to travel. If he’d been born fifty years later, he mused, he would have stayed in the States and become a professional black man who could afford to see some of the places he’d read about. He especially wished he could have visited Egypt.

Roy was about thirty years old when I met him back in the early 1980s. He’d recently moved into an independent-living facility for physically disabled adults. He was a good-looking young man, with dark curly hair and energetic brown eyes. He spoke rapidly and laughed easily.

Born with spina bifida, he had been institutionalized at birth because the attending doctor told his parents he would never be more than a vegetable. When the state of Illinois began clearing its mental hospitals in the seventies and eighties, officials discovered Roy. In all those years of institutionalization, he’d not only been denied formal schooling but had never been taught to do anything for himself. When I met him, several months after his release, he was enthused about all he was learning in a group home: how to cook his own meals, shop for groceries, launder his own clothes.

Now he had dreams, and his foremost dream was to travel. First he wanted to see the western United States, then Japan, maybe even go to Australia someday. I don’t know if he ever made any of those journeys. I hope he did.

Two men from different backgrounds, different generations. Each limited not by his intellect or desire but by a society that determined worth on the basis of skin color and physical ability. Two men, curious about the world.

In my travels, I have journeyed for them as well. As I sat at the bow of a waterbus on Venice’s Grand Canal, the spray blowing in my face, I was aware of their presence beside me. The awe I felt as I entered St. Mark’s they felt as well. On a trip to Korea, I hiked up to the Buddha of Sokkuram, passing uniformed school children. I laughed at their antics, listened carefully as they shouted to each other in a language I didn’t understand. David and Roy gazed up at the gigantic Buddha with me and found delight in the sounds of the children.

I will continue to take their spirits with me as I travel. We’ll get lost in the winding streets, marvel at ancient architecture, eat local fare in outdoor cafes.

Everywhere, they’ll keep reminding me what a privilege travel is.


Thursday, November 26th, 2009


Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. I have been in Ottawa, Canada with my husband for a week, to keep company with his brother John who is going through radiation for his nose cancer. Today happens to be the last day of his 35-day treatment. John is responding well. He cannot talk much due to the damage to his throat cells and tires easily. But he remains active and is in good spirit.

I arrived a day before my husband to replace Agnas, John’s sister who had been here from San Francisco for three weeks. I went to the hospital with him and Agnas on the day of my arrival. It had been a long time since I visited a friend in a hospital. Expecting to see cancer patients in the radiation department, I was a bit nervous. I watched John sign in and chat with his dietician. I sat on a long sofa by Agnas and observed the people around me. What caught my attention first was the two young nurses who constantly came to the lounge to call out patients’ names and accompanied them to see their doctors. They were both extremely warm and patient. They stopped to address the questions of a patient here and there, with caring smiles. One of them was so stunningly pretty that I found myself staring at her. Her large eyes, gentle manner and tender voice must be a great comfort to her patients.

Of course, one could not escape from the scenes of the sick. There were patients on IV tubes lying on wheeled beds in the hallway, a heart-wrenching sight that reminded me of how fragile our lives could be. Then, I saw a middle-aged man walked by slowly with an older woman leaning on his arm. The woman hunched way over and moved with difficulties. The man helped her to settle in a large chair and whispered to her softly that he would take care of some paperwork and be back shortly. When he turned to go away, I noticed he was limping. The kindness and care he extended to the older woman was touching.  

As I walked through the hallway to get our car close to the entrance, I saw more people attending their sick family members or friends. As the two young nurses, they were attentive, gentle and patient. In a place where people come for treatment of illness, most likely terminal or painful ones, I saw human empathy and care at their best.

I was deeply touched. At this difficult time and place, it’s only natural to reflect and feel thankful for our health, the treatment we receive when we are sick, and the support and love we share with one another.

Happy Thanksgiving.  

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

Events at Chicago Sister Cities International

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009
Chicago Cultural Center

Chicago Cultural Center

The China Committee of the Chicago Sister Cities International held two large events yesterday—The Green Energy and Technology Summit at the Cultural Center during the day and the Shanghai Gala, an annual fundraising event at Maxim’s in the evening. A delegation of 30 people consisted of government officials and business executives from Shanghai, Chicago’s sister city in China, met with their U.S. counterparts and joined the Gala.   

I volunteered to be an interpreter for the one-on-one meetings between company representatives from the two countries. Each 15-minute pre-assigned meeting moved smoothly. Among the crowd, I noticed a friend who came at my suggestion—he runs a successful family business in construction. I was pleased to learn that he met with a solar energy company during the “match” session and had scheduled another private meeting with the company the following day.

At the Shanghai Gala, I sat by a Shanghai city government official. We chatted about their trip the delegation would go to Montreal, a sister city of Shanghai in Canada, for another similar meeting. Despite the rainy and windy weather in the last couple of days, he marveled at the contemporary look, cleanliness and beauty of Chicago. We also chatted about a variety of issues in China, from the current school reform, migrate workers and their children’s education, the care for elders, to corruption. He was open and straightforward. I was impressed and gained a deeper understanding of the scale of changes, not just economically, but also culturally and socially, in China.

Exchange programs like this expand business relationship and understanding between the two countries. The Chicago Sister Cities International did a wonderful job in organizing such an event, and more, extended its hospitality by inviting all the Shanghai delegation members as guests to the evening Gala. And I am proud to say that my daughter Lisa, who works for the Chicago Sister Cities, played a key role in putting the events together. I observed her greeting guests and taking care of logistic issues from a distance. She was professional, poised and beautiful. From time to time, she sought me out and introduced me to some guests she wanted me to meet. I knew she had worked very hard on these events. The night before the events, she, along with several co-workers and China Committee members, worked to the wee hours in the morning. She showed no sign of fatigue, however, and I was filled with pride. When four fellow China Committee members came to me through the evening to tell me how they enjoyed working with Lisa, I beamed with delight. They used terms such as “smart, hard-working, efficient, reliable, and fun to work with” to describe Lisa. That ended my busy day with a perfect touch.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China


Tuesday, November 17th, 2009
victorian lady sewing
Image by Shakey_Hans via Flickr

My friend, Jian Ping, the author of the compelling Memoir of China – “Mulberry Child” – was devoted to her grandmother, who raised her during the difficult years of the Cultural Revolution, when her parents were detained and imprisoned and the family suffered persecution and deprivation.

She recently expressed some surprise at the level of interest and questions she receives about her grandmother, Nainai, from members of her audience during her many speaking engagements.  She had great love and admiration for her grandmother, who devoted her life first to her husband, then her children, and then the children of her son, who was Jian Ping’s father.  This old lady, who hobbled around with bound feet in the Chinese tradition, asked for little, had no personal agenda, and gave unconditional love and devotion to her charges. 

But I’m not surprised that Jian Ping receives much interest on this subject from her audience.  America is a nation of immigrants, and we all have grandparents, most of whom left their countries of their birth to escape war, pestilence, poverty, or persecution and seek a better life in the U.S., land of opportunity.

As we look back at our grandmothers, we are all amazed at their strength, love and devotion to their responsibilities, without complaint or reward while learning to adapt to their new home land, usually living in abject poverty as they struggled to create a family home for their many children.

My own grandmother falls into this category.  She was the second wife of my grandfather, whose first wife had produced four children and then died giving birth to the fifth.  He then married my grandmother who gave him six further children, and my grandmother thus had to bring up ten children, four of whom were not her own.  She however devoted her love and attention to all of them equally and throughout their lives, those children and their children looked on her with the utmost respect, admiration and love.

My grandfather died when his youngest child – my father – was seven years old.  He was fifty-years-old and left my grandmother with ten children to raise with no money and hardly a roof over their head.  She never remarried and spent the next forty-seven years as a widow until she died at the age of ninety-five.  She was a deeply religious woman, but one who did not push her beliefs on her children.  She cooked, sewed, cleaned, and scrubbed her whole life.  I remember her food as always being delicious all from her own special recipes, for which she had no written record, but complete judgment of the contributions to the contents. 

She spoke English with a thick Polish accent (sounding to me like the late Pope John – they both came from Krakow), and her English writing was poor to non-existent, as was her reading.  Nevertheless, she had patience, wisdom, strength, and old world remedies to overcome any obstacle or illness.

My parent’s generation and certainly my generation did not have to face anything like these hardships.  We are now grandparents.  I often wonder whether we will receive such admiration and respect from our children and grandchildren.  For the most part, we have had a privileged life in a modern society where our expectations are so much higher.  I truly believe we can never match the strength, character, and unselfish devotion of my grandmother or all the Nainai’s in the world.



Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

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Open Mindedness

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009
Chinese Children in Class/Time Magazine

Chinese Children in Class/Time Magazine

President Obama is visiting China this week. After a “town hall” meeting with 500 students in Shanghai, he goes to Beijing and meets with President Hu Jintao and tours the Forbidden City. President Obama’s China visit turns the focus of many people and the media to China again.

In the West, most of the media coverage on China is negative—Tibet and Xinjiang issues, human rights and democracy, and environmental issues, to name a few. There is no denying that many problems, including the above, exist in China and need to be addressed. But as China emerging in record speed as a world political and economic power, anything positive should we notice and recognize? An article on Time Magazine this week covers just that. The title on the cover “Five Things We Need to Learn From China” by Bill Powell immediately catches my attention. I pick up the issue and start reading immediately.

Mr. Powell is a senior Time reporter stationed in Shanghai. The five lessons he lists are as follows:

1. Be Ambitious

2. Education Matters

3. Look After the Elderly

4. Save More

5. Look over the Horizon

(link to the article:,8599,1938671,00.html)

Some of these listed lessons are deeply rooted in the traditional Chinese culture, and some are new phenomena, but all reflect key social and economic developments in today’s China. I resonate with Mr. Powell’s observations. However, what strikes me is how, toward the end of his article, he quotes a statement of “a smart American who lived in China for years,” but avoids identifying his source, apparently at the request of this American. For this person does not want to be labeled a “panda hugger,” a “timeworn epithet tossed at anyone who has anything good to say about China.” It reveals how one-sided the situation when it comes to China in the West, despite its free, democratic environment.

As I applaud Mr. Powell for his defiance against the “panda hugger” label by writing this article, I want to advocate open-mindedness. There is so much the West and China can learn from each other.

Jian Ping, Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.


Friday, November 13th, 2009

by Nancy Werking Poling

Daddy leaned back in his easy chair, the worry lines disappearing from his face. It was the happiest I ever saw him: evenings when my mother played the piano. She’d run her fingers up and down the keyboard, smoothly modulating from “Some Enchanted Evening” to “I love you truly” to “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”
Her Sunday audience was equally appreciative. My, how she could pound out
“Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross.”
From the time I was born it was a forgone conclusion that I’d inherited Mom’s musical genes. And she made sure there was ample opportunity for me to develop any musical talent I may have had. Our family lived in a two-bedroom cinder block house in Tampa, later Orlando, Florida. Our main dinner courses often consisted of meatloaf or Spam. Yet from her meager household budget Mom managed to set aside funds for music lessons.
It wasn’t that I disliked practicing; I was indifferent. Dutifully, my feet dangling over the piano bench, I’d play “Country Gardens” over and over, never committed to perfection but to getting the job done so I could go out and play with my friends. During my lessons Mrs. Haywood would inevitably say through gritted teeth, “In four-four time, Nancy! A quarter note gets one beat!”
Recognizing that I wasn’t piano material, Mom signed me up for violin lessons at my elementary school. Week after week I sat among a row of children, our violins tucked under our chins squawking “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Several months of my practicing at home convinced Mom I wasn’t violin material either.
But she didn’t give up. When I was in fifth grade, she bought me a marimba. Maybe she assumed that since I lacked the fine motor skills necessary for the piano or violin, I might be able to hammer out a tune. But the marimba isn’t a suitable instrument for the rhythmically challenged.
In junior high I signed up for band. I liked the idea of wearing the red and white uniform in parades. When the director, Mr. Baird, asked what instrument I played, I told him the marimba. He decided that qualified me for the rhythm section, specifically for the glockenspiel. Good news for a thirteen-year-old girl, as the drummers were all boys.
One day, while planning spring concerts, Mr. Baird came across a piece for orchestra with a marimba solo. He asked me to perform.
Of course I couldn’t carry the marimba to school on the bus, and Daddy drove our only car to work every day. So I practiced on my own at home, never with the band.
The day of the concert arrived. After a Sousa march it was my turn. Mr. Baird placed a microphone in front of the marimba. The band played its introduction.
I dove in, hammering with four mallets, going up and down that wooden keyboard, paying little attention to whether the score called for a whole or half note, a quarter note or an eighth. No matter how fast Mr. Baird waved his baton, the band couldn’t keep up with me.
One would assume this humiliating experience would mark the end of my musical performances. Not so. When Agnes Brown, a wiry middle-aged woman, decided to share her own talents with senior citizens, she thought some “young blood” was needed too. She offered me five dollars a performance to play my marimba.
Agnes Brown’s own talent was unique. She played a Theremin, a precursor of the synthesizer. From outward appearances, it was merely two metal antennas standing about a foot apart. The location of the performer’s hands moving up and down the space between the posts determined the tone, allowing her to create a melody without touching anything. The Theremin had an eerie sound, and I’ve since learned it was used for horror movies. But folks applauded her renditions of “Silver Hair Among the Gold,” “I Wonder Who’s Kissing her Now.” They loved me too: a short, plump, curly-haired thirteen-year-old banging out arrhythmic melodies.
I don’t know when my mother finally accepted the truth: that I had no musical drive. She never made any accusing remarks, just let it go. She did warn me though, more than once: “Someday you’ll regret you didn’t stick with the piano.”
In my more than sixty years, I have a lot of regrets. Giving up piano lessons hasn’t been one of them.
Except maybe during the last two years of my mother’s life. Probably because of strokes, Mom’s brain and hands couldn’t work together when she sat down at the piano. Her once agile fingers now stumbled through old hymns and popular songs of the forties.
Tearfully I watched her, wishing I could ease her frustration. I pictured myself at the piano while she sat in the easy chair, her head leaning back, eyes closed, a look of pleasure on her face. Oh, I thought, if I could only play for her. “Some Enchanted Evening” maybe, or “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Dramatic Changes

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009


Every time I meet with a delegation from China, I am amazed by their revelation of the dramatic changes taking place in the country. A recent reception of a delegation from Yibin of Sichuan Province that I attended at a large law firm in Chicago was no exception.

This delegation was headed by a Deputy Mayor and among the representatives of local companies were President of Grace Group, the biggest supplier of viscose filament yarn in the world and General Manager of Yibin State-Owned Enterprise, one of the main shareholders of Wuliangye Group Co. If you have ever been to China and tasted its well-known “white liquor”, a strong alcohol made of grain, you may have heard of the brand. Along with Maotai, it’s one of the best recognized consumer products in China.

What fascinated me was that Mr. Feng, President of Grace Group, didn’t talk much about the key products of his company or the company’s international development plans. In his brief presentation, he focused mostly on the new vision of the Yibin City development—a two-stage, enormously ambitious plan. From the amount of investment required to the preliminary blueprint, it sounds more like a dream. Yet if you look at what has happened in the Pudong New Area in Shanghai and what is happening in the Tanggu District in Tianjin, you know such miracles can, and will be turned into reality if they put their resources and efforts to them.

All the new development, however, comes with a price—environmentally, culturally, and socially, in addition to the immediate economic benefit. While I’m thrilled to see tremendous improvement in various aspects of life for most of the people, I also hope the decision makers in China today will take into consideration of the long term impact of such drastic changes and the interests of future generations to come.  

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

Remembering a Remarkable Woman

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Sunday night I learned of the recent death of Virginia Davidson. When I think of who I want to be like “when I grow up,” I think of Virginia. In fact, it was Virginia I had in mind when I created the character of Margaret, in my novel, Out of the Pumpkin Shell.

Of the five women in the narrative, Rose is the victim, the one our hearts embrace. Of the other four, only Margaret is without quirkiness. In her seventies, she’s a poised, thoughtful woman of athletic build, with white hair and dainty earrings, a touch of blush. She appears to be aging gracefully, behaving as we’d expect an older woman to behave. But when she sees the chance to correct an injustice, to right a wrong, she doesn’t hesitate.

Which brings me back to Virginia Davidson. The mother of four, she probably had the organizational skills to fit civic and church (Presbyterian) responsibilities into her schedule. Nothing out of the ordinary. But in 1976, the year she turned 60, she was asked to chair the denomination’s Task Force on Homosexuality and the Church. That assignment seems to have given her new direction. She recognized an injustice and worked for the rest of her life to right a wrong.

She was a founding member and moderator of That All May Freely Serve, “a national organization devoted to opening doors for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Presbyterians to serve in any and all leadership capacities, including ordained office.” For twenty years Virginia traveled the country with Janie Spahr, That All May Freely Serve’s evangelist/interpreter. Virginia is quoted as saying, “Janie and I are the ‘Thelma and Louise’ of the Presbyterian Church, but we’ve never gone over the cliff!”

No author’s imagination could create a woman like that!

Nancy Werking Poling

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Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Blog. An intimidating word for this woman in her sixties, who hasn’t even figured out the features of her cell phone and sends out a distress call every time she has a computer problem.

If you’re going to write a blog, you have to have something to say, don’t you? Maybe not. I came across more than I want to know about how Baby Carla is growing. But from there I moved to Jan Erikson’s blog about Day of the Dead in Poland, where she’s visiting. I’m intimidated. She takes the reader on an insightful, sensitive journey to a country long oppressed by its neighbors. I can’t be that eloquent.

Maybe I can write something to show I’m well-read. But I’m just now getting around to my first book by Russell Banks. (I gravitate toward contemporary women authors.) I just read on-line about how the Baylor study found a lot of women have been hit on by clergy. Too depressing for my first blog entry. Maybe later.

Something compelling, like how I survived being abducted by North Koreans when I was in Korea last year. I did go north of the 38th parallel with a group of 500 South Koreans for one day. That’s hardly abduction. Or how I’ve overcome my fear of anthills or my addiction to NPR, neither of which is true—though I try not to step on anthills and I do listen to NPR nearly every day.

Can I get an interesting blog about my struggles with insomnia or my sundry aches and pains? No, that’s what an old lady would write about, and I’m not—oops, I am but I don’t want to highlight that.

The problem with keeping up with a blog is that eventually I’m going to make it evident that I’m inarticulate or stupid or shallow or all of the above.

Why did I agree to do this?

By Nancy Werking Poling, author of OUT OF THE PUMPKIN SHELL, Spinsters Ink, pub.; available through, amazon, and many independent book stores