customs/rituals, folklore, good luck/bad luck, health

The Power of Words

A few weeks ago, I consulted with a medical practitioner whom I hadn’t seen since way before the pandemic. When we ran into each other in the hallway outside his examining room, he declared, “You’ve really slowed down.”

       Verbally, I agreed with him, while emotionally I felt myself wither. Throughout the rest of the day, his words kept re-running through my head. Later, at home, my assistant asked me how I was doing. I told her that I felt myself fading, retreating from life. She panicked and the next day moved my jigsaw puzzle onto the dining room table from the screened porch where it’s much too cold to work on it. Now I would have no excuse to ignore it. And she rearranged chairs so I could resume pedaling my pretend bike to build up muscles in my legs. In summary, it had become a downer day for me because of the doctor’s words. This encouraged my assistant to instill a more positive attitude in me, to not give up. 

Medical practitioners should be more sensitive to the power of their words. Fortunately, not all my doctors have been so clueless. For example, in 2006, in a daze while walking down the stairs of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles with the words “terminal” and “home hospice” tumbling in my consciousness, I ran into one of my specialty doctors. I was happy to see her and my words came pouring out as I told her that my husband, Harold, had just been diagnosed as terminal and they were going to release him to die in home hospice. I was in shock and emotionally devastated.

        This doc listened carefully then opined, “Oh, Mrs. Dresser, you are a strong woman. You will be able to handle it.”

        “Strong woman?” I had never thought of myself as that, but while absorbing her words, I thought, yes, I AM a strong woman. Her words bolstered me and my confidence returned. And indeed I was strong enough to handle his care for a year. This time, it was Harold whose words heartened me: “I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Thank you for taking such good care of me.” 

         In retrospect, those two sentences were the greatest gift he could ever have given me. Never have I ever had to feel guilty over how I cared for him during his twelve months in home hospice. How lucky is that? 

          Parents, too, often forget about the impact of their words: “bad girl;” “naughty boy;” “dumb-bell;” Words that we express in exasperation can mark our children for life. Positive labels stick, too.

         Harold adored Italian food. One of our neighbors, Vivian, who was Italian, invited us over for a traditional family meal. Wonderful aromas greeted us as we entered: garlic; basil; oregano. Vivian warmly presided over the meal and biographically introduced her three sons. The eldest son was a bartender; the next son was a salesman, and when she introduced her younger son she said, “This is my son, Peter, and he’s special. Do you want to know why?”

 Of course, I answered, “Yes.”

         “Because he was born with a veil. After dinner I’ll let you touch the veil, and it will bring you good luck.”

An embarrassed Peter squirmed in his seat, and his brothers seemed uncomfortable, too, not proud of being ordinary instead of special.

Now, this occasion took place early in my marriage and before I became a folklorist, so I had no idea what the veil was. And I didn’t know if I wanted to touch a “veil” from a childbirth moment. Veil made me think of netting and the thought of touching old human netting was scary. Would it feel squishy?

A veil or a caul is a membrane that can cover a newborn’s head and face. It is part of the amniotic sac and is something the delivery physician just peels off. Because it is such a rare event, 1 in 80,000 births, over the centuries midwives and physicians have imbued it with supernatural powers. They say that it brings second sight, meaning the ability to see the future, or to become a healer.

 As soon as we finished eating, Vivian beckoned a reluctant me toward her bedroom. She opened a drawer in her handsome antique oak dresser, took out an old small white May Company gift box and lifted up the lid to remove a layer of protective cotton. Lying on a layer of another piece of cotton was something that look dried, and when Vivian took my hand to touch it, it felt like parchment paper. It wasn’t terrifying after all.

In Vivian’s family dynamics, how must her two older sons feel when their mom regularly spoke about Peter as being special, and through no actions of his own, merely by an accident of childbirth? How must Peter have felt with the burden of being labeled “special” by his mom? Did this encourage him to live up to that prophecy?  

No doubt, Peter felt some responsibility to become special. He was the only one in the family who not only earned a college diploma but went on to graduate school and earned a Ph.D. Certainly, he was not going to let down his Mom.

These are but four personal examples of how words affect us.  What has been your experience? 

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who attempts to use non-condemning words yet is not always successful (to which friends and family can attest).



I was instantly captivated when I saw the adorable dog with folk art decoration holding a serving tray. Advertised online via Facebook, it was described as being made of metal (other times wood). The ad touted that it was an end table made in Bali.

Tell me what you think.

What do you think of this so-called end table? For whom do you think it might serve? Children? The vertically challenged? © Photo collection of Norine Dresser, 2021.

No wonder the sellers failed to list the dimensions. This was a bad joke on me. And I fault no one but myself for failing to be more discriminating when evaluating the product. I was so anxious to purchase it for my brand new screened in porch that common sense fled.

The ad also claimed that the tray could be used for serving a drink or displaying a house plant. No way! The tray is made of cardboard and any water on it would cause it to deteriorate.This was not the only instance I got taken by shady online advertisers. At about the same time, I ordered two other items featured on Facebook. I fell in love with some silly-looking colorful backyard chickens, supposedly made in Ireland. Additionally, I ordered some spectacular solar lights for the yard, made in Germany. Now these purchases were very convincing that they were legitimate. Both kept sending me fake (in retrospect) shipping updates, nineteen messages in total. First they claimed the products were in transit within their phony countries of origin. Then later, they claimed the products had reached customs, then cleared customs; next they arrived in the U.S. and cleared customs here to then inch towards my destination in Las Cruces, New Mexico. But they never arrived.

In desperation, I contacted the delivery company, And when I clicked on it, I was directed to a google link entitled, “Fraudulent email Pay Pal scams.” There I encountered complaints from other shopping victims lamenting the no-show status of beds, vacuum cleaner, mini-chainsaw, laptop, sandals, and a music box. Does misery love company? No. One victim wrote, “Once they get your money, they scam you.”

I wish I could tell you that these were the only phony ads I have fallen for. I saw a great deal on Clark’s sandals but totally forgot the wisdom, “If it sounds too good to be true, it isn’t.” Sure enough, the shoes never arrived. Instead I received a crummy pair of sunglasses. You’d think I would have learned, but no. I excitedly purchased some Keen sandals in great tie-dye colors. Instead, it was not Keen but something equivalent to “Keenly.” When the shoes arrived they were only in black, yet I have been wearing them. They actually are the correct size.

I hope that by now, I have learned not to be an impulsive shopper. I rely on the internet for shopping because it has become difficult to do in person. I must now use a walker/rollator that I find difficult to load and unload from the trunk of my car. It’s so much easier to let my fingers do the walking.

I am so mad at myself for being such a foolish consumer. Do you know the feeling from also having fallen for an online scam? Are you willing to share your victimhood story? I hope so. But from here on, never forget the warning: Caveat Emptor – Let the Buyer Beware!

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who needs to be more cautious in future online shopping.


How Many Pigeons Do You See?

This Is What I See In My Backyard.


This Is What My Neighbors See.

St. Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy.

I received an anonymous letter:

            May 24, 2021

            To: Neighbor at ………

            Re: Pigeons

            Over the past few months, we have noticed an increase in pigeons which are creating a nuisance in the community.

            As a bird lover, I’m sure you understand that pigeons are altering the ecosystem. Pigeons run counter to ecology and conservation. These birds are invasive and are having a negative impact on our community.

            Over the past month, we have begun cleaning homes that are near yours. In trying to resolve this issue, we have worked to identify where the pigeons are coming from. On numerous occasions, we have observed pigeons feeding in your back yard then flying to neighboring homes to nest.

             This weekend we removed approximately 25 pounds of pigeon feces from the top of one home that neighbors yours. The pigeons are nesting in the HVAC units and damaging stucco with their feces.

            In addition, the pigeon feces is (sic) causing health issues for those of us with breathing issues.

            We are respectfully asking you stop feeding the birds for a short period to eliminate the pigeons and look for other ways to feed small birds.

            Thank you in advance for your consideration and attention to this issue! We THANK YOU!!!

Now if this letter had not been sent anonymously, I would have responded directly, attending to each of the charges. I then considered posting this note on the Next Door Neighbor Website. However, after reading previous comments about bird poop, the audience takes the subject too seriously. And as the owner of my local Wild Birds Unlimited store reflected, “If you have water or trees, you will have birds.”

Generally, when I look in my backyard there are either no pigeons, or two to four. No way could those birds produce 25 lbs. of bird feces. And by the way, did my accusers weigh the bags? And why? And can they tell the difference between pigeon poop and dove poop?  

As for the pigeon feces causing health issues, I have severe asthma, but I certainly can’t pin it on the poor pathetic pigeons.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, fresh bird droppings have not been shown to present a health risk. They quote the CDC as saying that fresh bird droppings on surfaces such as sidewalks and windowsills have not been shown to present a health risk. Of course, they recommend that people avoid contact with any animal droppings but add that good hygiene such as washing hands and leaving shoes at the door, are adequate preventions if someone accidentally comes into contact with animal droppings.

Pigeons are not altering the ecosystem. They serve as food for peregrine falcons, hawks, foxes and martins. They also maintain and regulate insect species and weeds. Additionally, they play a part in seed dispersal by eating seeds and distributing them. Pigeons regulate insect populations as they are omnivores eating both plant and animal matter. And their poop is a great fertilizer.

So do I feel guilty as charged? Not enough to stop feeding them. And how can I discriminate against the pigeons and doves (sometimes called desert rats) and only feed the finches and quail? Besides, those pigeons and doves desperately try daily to access the finch feeders. They end up eating what the smaller birds spill on the ground.

I am sympathetic to neighbors having to remove bird droppings from the air conditioners or on their roofs. However, I do not feel culpable for this. I was advised that the city tried to get rid of the pigeons on the downtown plaza and somehow have gotten them to relocate in this general area. For that, I am not responsible.

I am willing to take responsibility for my actions and inactions. In this case, however, had the complaining neighbor been enough of a mensch to confront me directly, we could have had a meaningful discussion.

They say, ” J’Accuse?” I plead, “Not Guilty.”

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who is also a bird lover. And although she prefers just feeding the quail, finches, and thrashers, she cannot discriminate against the doves and pigeons and other undesirables.

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able/disabled, health


As of 4/1/21, over 76 Million people have been fully vaccinated in the U.S.


For me, it was a no-brainer.

When the Salk vaccine to protect against polio was first released, my son received his injection at age four. About ten days after that, the nursery school he attended took the children on a field trip to the Los Angeles Music Center. This was during the 1950s when passengers were not required to wear seatbelts, so the little darlings piled into the car packed in like sardines.    

Approximately two weeks later, three of the nursery school children began exhibiting polio symptoms: fever, headache, neck stiffness, pain in the arms and legs, weakness, vomiting, PARALYSIS.  The nursery school shut down. Not only did the children become infected, but they also passed the virus on to siblings and parents. One victim was a father who had been a dentist. He recovered for a while but was severely affected and could no longer pursue his occupation. He succumbed to the after-effects at an early age.

One day, I accompanied a nursery school mom to visit her son at Rancho Los Amigos, a facility in Southern California that accommodated a large number of iron lungs. For me, it was chilling to see children’s faces protruding from these frightening-looking tanks. For the parents, it must have been devastating.


Iron lungs helped patients breathe. They are now obsolete because world-wide polio has been almost eradicated. Today, ventilators are the go-to device for breathing assistance, especially common during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, our two nursery schoolteachers, who had been in such close contact with the children, felt especially vulnerable. After consulting with their doctors, they received large doses of gamma globulin. This was costly but health experts believed that gamma globulin boosted immune systems, and that might be one way to fight off this crippling disease. When the teachers submitted their medical bills to the nursery school parents, some parents balked at paying for the shots. I couldn’t believe it. These two women put their lives at risk in caring for our children. Why should any parent deny them this protection?

Even though my son had received the Salk vaccine less than ten days before the field trip, I believe that antibodies were already beginning to form in his body, and this spared him.

When I was growing up, poliomyelitis was the summer scourge, and no one could figure out how it was transmitted. Swimming pools were suspect because the numbers of infections rose during the summer. Consequently, public swimming pools shut down if one of the users came down with the disease.

At about 17, I met a boy a year or so older than me. I’ll call him Joe, and at that time he was on the rebound from a girlfriend named Betty. Joe and Betty had been childhood friends and during adolescence their friendship blossomed into romance. Now they had broken up.

Joe was a live wire, an identical twin with a dynamic personality. Not only that, but he and his brother sang together and often performed at social events. I fell for that, too. But not long after we began dating, Joe took a summer job as a counselor at a children’s camp. Unfortunately, several cases of polio broke out at the camp and everyone was placed under quarantine. Guess what? As fate would have it, Joe’s old girlfriend, Betty, was also a camp counselor at the same camp. During their confinement, their romance re-ignited, and he sent me the equivalent of a Dear John letter, and we would not be seeing each other again. I like to joke that after meeting me, Joe realized that Betty was the one for him. Eventually, they married.

I was crestfallen for a while, but not for too long. Yet whenever I think about polio, memories of my broken romance re-surface. More importantly, memories of the miracle accomplished by the Salk vaccine come to bear. That is why I was delighted to receive two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. After receiving each of the injections, I felt jubilant. Additionally, when my family recently celebrated Passover, a memorial to overcoming obstacles and enjoying freedom, we tied it to the COVID-19 vaccine. This vaccine has provided us with an opportunity for protection against the pandemic that has claimed more than half a million lives in the U.S. alone.    

I am also enthusiastic about taking any other vaccines that have the power to protect me from flu, shingles, pneumonia, tetanus. And why not? I am a believer in science.

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who, as a mom, was equally positive when she learned that her four grandchildren had been vaccinated against mumps, measles, chicken pox. These were damaging, sometimes fatal, diseases of their parents’ childhoods. Thus they were spared.



My yard has been certified as a Wildlife Habitat.

This is the sign that officially makes my yard a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wlldlife Federation. Photo by Mariah Chase.
© Norine Dresser photo collection, 2020.

Since I first moved into my Las Cruces home in 2012, I have been birdwatching in the backyard. Although I would love to be a real birdwatcher and travel the world, or even closer, to observe our feathered companions, that is pretty hard to do when using a cane, as I must do. Birdwatching requires looking up with full attention. But looking up is hazardous for a klutz like me with natural tendencies to trip and fall. The only solution is to have a stationary bird center where I can observe from the stable environment of my dining room table.

What does it take to have one’s yard become a certified Wildlife Habitat? Naturally, food is one of the first requirements. I installed bird feeders right away. I ordered the usual supplies: bird seed; suet blocks; quail blocks; bark butter bits; worms. When the sales person at Wild Birds Unlimited asked whether I wanted live worms or dried worms, I made a quick decision, “Dead ones, please.” Why? Because if I ordered live ones, I would have to feed them celery every ten days and store them in the fridge. That became my line in the sand, and I opted out.

Another necessity is water. In addition to a solar-powered fountain that sits on the ground, I also have two other pans where they can drink. However, birds don’t follow my rules. Some bathe in the water rather than drink there. Others do both.

One must also provide a place where birds can shelter their young. I ordered two different kinds of bird houses and picked the perfect spot to place them. However, my backyard adviser, Liza Chase, warned me that if I used that chosen location there was too much sun and the hatchlings would cook in our desert sun. OOPS! The bird houses now sit in the shade of a tree.

So far, these are two different styles of bird houses. The upper photo shows a more standard bird house for finches, while the lower photo shows multiplex living quarters, also for finches that abound in the yard. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2020.
Gambel’s Quail resemble California Quail. This photo is a bit misleading because the yellow on its chest is actually more like a creamy white. Its black mask and orange cap indicate that this is a male.

My favorite visitors to the yard are the Gambel’s Quail. When I see their bobbing top-knots as they scurry around the yard, I automatically smile. They are my daily meditation as I get caught up in watching their dramas: taking dust baths in the holes dug for them by the bunnies; keeping track of their errant young – and there is always one straggler; one standing sentry at the top of the fence overlooking the brood and ready to sound an alarm if danger approaches. And they are the best parents. They tend to their young for a long time, guiding them even as late as their teenage years, yet nothing is as precious as seeing parents escorting a string of baby feather balls.

Did you know that Roadrunners are a part of the Cuckoo family? And that
seems so appropriate, too, because they are such silly looking birds. I love it when they visit my yard, although their presence frightens some of the smaller birds.

Roadrunners make me laugh. The yard mostly clears when they are around, although surprisingly, I’ve observed a bunny chasing one off. I can only surmise that baby bunnies must have been hiding nearby. While they are in the yard, they are usually on the hunt for lizards. When I first started learning about birds, I told Kristi Lane, the owner of my local Wild Birds Unlimited store, I wanted to feed them, too. That inclination was squashed when she said, “They’re carnivores, you know.” And they have a bad reputation for eating quail eggs.

Cooper’s Hawks are predators that visit
my yard. They are rather small for hawks, but that speckled chest is an easy identifier.

Birdwatching has its dark side, too. Sometimes a Cooper’s Hawk will chase a dove into one of my large dining room windows. The crash into the window creates a sickening “thud” that reverberates through the house. Then after the stunned bird falls to the ground, the hawk pounces; feathers fly, and the hawk devours its prey. That doesn’t sit well while I’m having my lunch.

You can learn a lot by watching the backyard action. Pecking order has real meaning. At the bottom of the pecking order are the mourning doves but the white winged doves have priority over them. And the quail have seniority over the doves.

Knowing how much delight I receive from bird watching, Liza came up with a great idea. she thought I would enjoy hearing them, too. She set up a baby monitoring system so that I can hear them when I am in my bedroom and in the dining room. After a short while, I have become quite adept at distinguishing between bird sounds. The only creepy part is at night when I hear unfamiliar sounds, and it’s too dark out there to identify the culprit.

Other regular visitors to my yard are grackles, who elicit the response, “The sky is falling,” because they commonly look skyward; finches of many varieties; curved bill thrashers; hummingbirds; pyrrhuloxia (a kind of cardinal); sparrows; and mockingbirds.

This plaque was a gift from my dear friends, Mariah Chase and Roxana Gillett. Roxana participated in the gift despite my having previously gifted her with twelve pink flamingos that did not thrill her. The flamingos have since migrated to my yard where they have multiplied over the years. The bunny (Cottontails) population in New Mexico has greatly diminished due to some pandemic that has been causing their deaths. Now instead of having three to five every day, I only have one.

During this pandemic, I have been enjoying ZOOM meetings of the Audubon Society. Recently, one presenter said, “Birdwatching keeps you sane.” I must agree with her. Each morning as I record how many infections and deaths have occurred in Doña Ana County in the last 24 hours, I then turn my head to watch the birds and surrender my worries.


Norine Dresser is a folklorist who has always loved birds. When living in Los Angeles, the Scrub Jays depended on her for daily doses of peanuts that they took from her hands. When they saw her car pull into the garage, they sat on the front steps hand railing and squawked at her to let her know they were hungry.

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