Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Stepping Up

Last night I attended a meeting about the homeless situation in our town.

If you think politics is an incendiary subject, try talking to anyone about what to do when you have 400 homeless (200 sleeping on the streets, the rest in cars, vans and campers) as your neighbors.

Our council representative, Joe Busciano, is an ex-cop who served as a neighborhood lead officer and who knows many of his San Pedro constituents by name.  Busciano's service beat covers a large swath of the most challenging (and possibly unmanageable) part of the City of Los Angeles, including San Pedro and the Port, Wilmington, Harbor City, and Watts.  Why he ended up with such a huge district says a great deal about the political gerrymandering of City Council, some 26 miles to the north tethered to us by a thin, geographic thread created for the illusion we are connected. This tether was created back at the turn of the 20th Century, when Los Angeles wanted to control the new Port. Savy politicians convinced the small, working-class town on the bay to be annexed for promised benefits and bigger coffers.  But we were so far away from the bustling downtown L.A. business center and the wealthier residential areas that spread out over the next 100 years or so, that they came to see the increasing industrialized Port as a dumping ground for things they didn't want or think about. To begin with they didn't want to deal with the pollution that ensued, and the health consequences for thousands.  Ignored until nationally-funded activist groups finally pressured them to taking action it's been a bumpy road getting converted to less polluting methods.  And in the spirit of NIMBY, City council members who lived far, far away from us began seeing us as a powerless dumping grounds in other ways - for decades sober living houses and accompanying services for the poor sprung up and even today it is common to see a gaggle of recovering alcoholics walking heel to toe down our streets as they take their morning constitutional. Police coverage here is woefully inadequate - a friend recently reported that even when the alarm in their vacationing neighbor's house signaled a burglary in the wee hours and police were called, the morning light revealed their home ransacked and the front door wide open.

So much history, so little time.  But one of the consequences of being so far from the source of money and power meant that the huge District 15 we live in has only one representative and a lot of challenges.  Pollution, poverty, crime, and yes, the homeless, who have been steadily increasing over the last few years to the alarm of residents and business owners alike. And with this increase has come the most contentious and divisive amongst neighbors and friends.  Why anyone would want this job is beyond me but for any errors he has made I give Council member Busciano props for even trying. And stepping up into the heat.

Stepping up.

This is probably my biggest beef with the haters, complainers, boo-ers and even the justifiably angry.  When it comes to something like homelessness, opinions last night were right up there with welfare cheaters and the judgment that goes with it. The frustration is understandable, yes. There is a clear relationship between living on the streets and mental illness, drug use, sometimes in tandem.  People with no money and nothing to lose resort to crime to support their habit or just because they have a paranoid episode and go after a passerby.  It's a neat package and easy to tie up.  But because this isn't the whole picture let's unpack it and really figure out why things have come to pass the way they have.

We don't like anything that disrupts our daily life or feels too complicated to take on, we can get mired in the powerlessness that comes from a situation that has no easy or quick solutions.  Trump knows this frustration well and has banked on it getting him into the White House.  Some evil, schadenfreude part of me wants him to get the big-ass title he so desperately covets and then suffer the consequences.  The same anger and frustration that got him there will well and truly bury him because he cannot do any better than his predecessors.

But we don't have to run a country.  Can we do better in our small community when it comes to just one of the many issues we complain about?  I hear a great deal on FaceBook about businesses that have shopping carts full of stuff (one man's junk is another's treasure) the owners unwashed and sometimes out of it.  Residents see them and keep a wide berth. Downtown is financially struggling so having a lady sit on a bench next to your yoga studio and swear at the top of her lungs doesn't help.  And it's scary. One resident said she felt like a prisoner in her own home when an encampment (now gone) set up across the street from her.

When word got out that a facility to store belongings for our homeless population was being considered near a school, emotions erupted. The meeting last night was packed.  Close to 400 people came to express their anger toward Busciano and the task force he had appointed to look at the issue and recommend solutions.  A week or so earlier neighbors had spread the word about the proposed storage location through social media, quickly organized, had tee-shirts made, and took to the streets in protest.  At the resulting public meeting a mob mentality was in force when a clearly strained and wary Busciano tried to quell the rising tide of angry residents.  It was clear the location, one of three being considered, was now off the table, but it didn't stop the dozens who got up to shout the same thing over and over to thunderous applause.  It was as if years of frustration had finally boiled over, and it had only a fraction to do with the homeless.  It was more about feeling neglected, having trash-filled alleys, delays in city services, police response times, and all the things that affect struggling neighborhoods all over the country, all over the world.

So this is my question. After the angry shouts, and boos, jeering, and one accomplished goal of preventing anything involving homeless people near a school, will we commit to finding an appropriate location for storage so the City can enforce a law that restricts homeless individuals to a backpack during the day and reduce the shopping carts, tents, and litter?

Will everyone step up?

Will the crowd that had so much passion, find compassion and commitment to community service in there somewhere?  Will we 400 take to the streets and volunteer for neighborhood councils, alley clean ups, neighborhood watch events, area service providers, and homeless outreach?  Will we visit other storage sites, study the solutions offered by other cities, take the time to research and get signatures on a ballot initiative to raise the billions required from all of us to increase housing, services, job training? File a class-action suit to counter those from the homeless population's side? Find ways to get the funds and manpower to take drug users and mentally ill off the streets in the appropriate facilities? If government isn't cutting it then to seek private sector funding as an alternative?  Or will we empty the chairs and go back to our lives, looking to others to find, fund, and implement solutions?  Ideas and solutions  at this meeting were buried by blind anger, disrespecting those who came to talk to us, who work on the streets and with the homeless every day.  We need keep going, to do more to understand why decisions were made, rightly or wrongly, why this one solution was put forward.  And then we have to live with the uncomfortable reality that our work will not end with one step forward. One goal accomplished.

This is humanity.  We are not a perfectly oiled machine and biology makes for some sad and frightening aberrations, those who turn to violence, those who can no longer cope.  There will always be those who fall behind, who, no matter our anger and our rage, our frustration and harsh judgements will not magically provide the answer.  In that passion should be the motivation to do something constructive and practical about it.  I want to see more than the same 50 people who actually get out and do the work of connecting all the dots, who live with the complexity of the world, who do their small part, however and whenever they can.

And when someone who has a steady job, who moans about those who they see as sub-human losers because of the litter they leave behind, who then drop their candy bar wrappers on my front lawn, who dump their mattresses in the alley because they don't know how to call city services for a pick up and haven't bothered to find out, that's you I'm talking to, as well as those who are just so tired when they get home and work two jobs to make ends meet.  Whatever it is, it's not enough to look to others to solve our problems.  It will never be anyone else's job, whether at home, or out there.

It's a simple and as difficult as that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How Much Wood can A Woodchuck Chuck?

After seeing the video that's been circulating around about a 20-something social media activist who catfished girls around the country on Facebook posing as a cute guy their age, I took a look at Sweetpea's Instagram account.  These girls had agreed to meet up with this fictitious boy after only a week of fb conversation, despite their parents (who were in on the sting) assertion they were sure their kids would never do something that stupid.  The videos showed three girls, the youngest 12, either getting into a van with this 'boy', opening the door when their parents were asleep, or meeting up alone in a deserted park.
     I was planning to show Sweetpea this video but first I wanted to see just who were friends were on Instagram.  She doesn't have Facebook but also does Snapchat, 'for the funny morph pictures', she told us.

           Inspiration. Dalmatian just might be my spirit animal.

     It had been a while since I checked in to Instagram and since we are following each other I didn't even have to go on her phone.  That's when I found out she had 180 followers and was following about the same number.  Yikes!
     When she got home that afternoon I sat down with her and showed her the video.  She kept making disapproving noises when the girls agreed to meet someone they had never actually seen in person. She sounded good, but then again that's what the parents of these victims had thought, too. Then I asked her to open Instagram on her phone and go through her list with me.  She had to tell me whom each and every one of the 180 followers were.  I couldn't believe she had gathered that many connections in the eight months since we'd given permission.  And this was only after weeks of discussion and some heavy negotiating on our daughter's part.  She knew the risks and that we would be checking without notice to make sure she was abiding by our rules.
     Except I'm not sure what rules we gave her.  Hmmmm.
Which points out the obvious flaw in our parenting boundaries.  Since we have no idea what it is like to grow up with the abundance of social media connections, we assume she would behave as we have, like adults.  But then again, I've been caught out more than once with privacy issues on Facebook myself.

I admit that I felt a wave of sympathy for  my 12-year-old when she had to go through the entire list with details on each connection and I was impressed that she could, without exception.  She was understandably nervous but obliging when I randomly checked on some of their posts.  So far just selfies, pet photos, and the kind of inspirational sayings kids at her age pass around, like, 'you have to grow through dirt to flower'.  But it did lead to a much longer talk about what it means to have 180 people as a community who stay in constant but often distant contact.  Friendly connections do not replace face-to-face gut instinct and time to get to know someone in a safe environment. There are some things that never change and I think Sweetpea got the message.  Never agree to meet somewhere with any one of those 180 'friends' whom you do not see on a daily basis and/or we haven't met.  And never alone.  Keep us in the loop, because we will not interfere except to counsel and monitor. Although this isn't an issue now, once she hits high school, going to Starbucks to meet up with friends will inevitably happen and we have to break through her assumption that the veil of intimacy is just that -  a digital creation without a reality check. She doesn't know 90% of these kids to any great depth and some of them have graduated into high school and their world view and needs are outpacing hers.

I love and cherish my daughter's curious mix of naivete and skepticism.  She's been known to pepper me with doomsday whatifs that defy logic but I hope she keeps these in mind when a cute boy whom she has on her list starts sending more than pet photos.  The rules may not change but Sweetpea is swilling around in her hormonal soup, so this soon to be 13 year old has one foot in childhood and one in quasi-adulthood, making a mess of her brain.  Dangerous times when we remember how much we thought we knew at her age.  Perfectly normal, but still risky.

oops someone just sent me a cat video.  Gotta go.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Privacy: Don't Mention My Name, Please

I've been learning more than I should at this late stage about the risks of being on Facebook.  Like most of my friends and family I use it as a convenient way to share photos without giving much thought to what would happen if the site went kaput and there were no books of photos to archive our lives as they used to.  We would all visually disappear because there is nothing left but x's and o's.  But this is just one thing to ponder. Backup?  It's all digital too, so we are in danger of cheating our ancestors of some pretty interesting stuff. The other worry I have is how much I reveal in this digital community.  If I was thinking about having a boob job I wouldn't put it on Facebook but in some way I admire someone who puts it all out there. I just wonder if ads for plastic surgeons would then start popping up, or Facebook's latest trick, the 'suggested content' which is really their way of circumventing ad blocker apps that some users have installed.  Either way, they have my number and I'm trying to limit just how much they know about me but it may be a losing battle.
     After viewing the Edward Snowden biopic, Citizen Four, I am assuming everything I write on this blog, and on Facebook is being stored, inventoried and perhaps accessed one day if it's useful to someone.  Both are a publishing medium, and as a resident of a small town, I am used to having limited privacy and find it a bit puzzling that the general public is surprised they don't have any either.
     Ahh, the Village Life vs. Urban Anonymity which has proven to be a fallacy.
     For most of our human history we were all known quantities - our lives, children, marriages, disagreements, status, income and habits were pretty much fodder for casual conversation in our small communities - if we had opinions they were shared in public meetings or got out around town via conversations at the market.  Everyone knew everyone - back in the day this was a fact of life.  Big cities sprung up and our growing ideal of privacy became possible through urban anonymity. Before the advent of e-communication and the internet there was a golden period where we assumed we could move about freely with very little observation or connection and this lifestyle solidified into our concept of privacy when, as a recent UK poll indicated, a significant number of us admitted to ducking into our homes quickly to avoid small talk with our neighbors.  Hence the empty streets with people who had no idea who shared their fences, or any concept of connected community, other than water-cooler talk or focus groups at work.  Eventually there wasn't anyone who cared about anyone else within view, it was just assumed we would look after ourselves, thank you very much.  And as intrusive as data gathering has become, the last bastion of anonymity may belong to the trolls who are mostly hiding behind fake names. Bullying, swearing, threats, and fact-denying opinions abound on posts and twitter feeds, but they are often unattached to a real person willing to stand up and take responsibility for them.  Below is a great article by Joel Stein on this phenomenon.

In my small town I've been involved in several social and political workgroups and I can tell you we are a tiny and familiar minority.  Most people don't attend neighborhood watch or council meetings,  don't get involved in political campaigns, most shop where they don't see another familiar face, no-one sees the ice-cream, soda and candy bars purchased in a moment of weakness. Now we find out, damn it, that someone is actually paying attention.  Maybe not our neighbor, but others who are gathering us like data bits and making significant connections.  Its a sure sign of our times that these connections are driven by capitalists just trying to make a buck.  They seem to be the ones who care the most about who we really are.  They know you are a size 14 and not a 10, they know you read gossip about celebrities and not the New York Times, planning vacations and visiting dating sites: they aren't judging.  In fact they eagerly embrace everything about you with the appetite of a whale scooping up thousands of tasty krill. Unlike the neighbor who disagrees with your politics, or the size of your car, or your use of lawn fertilizer, the most active gatherers of your every idiosyncrasy, the very fundamental of who you are as a unique person, are mostly just trying to get you to buy more stuff.

The fact that the government has jumped in to the data-gathering business shouldn't have been a big surprise.  The technology was there, and very tempting.  They claim they don't have time to parse the billions of information they've stored, and I tend to believe them.  Only because the gears of bureaucracy grind away so inefficiently and we have eager whistleblowers like Citizen Four, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, all the way down to the local level that its just impractical to think they are watching our every move like the drone cameras in 1984.
     But that doesn't stop us from trying. Only recently the City Councils of Palos Verdes and Manhattan Beach have floated the idea of putting cameras at the entrances to their communities to snap pictures of every license plate that comes through.  This is supposedly in response to a rise in crime, something they assumed would stay where it belonged in the poorer neighborhoods.  What's the point of having a wealthy enclave if you can't keep out the raiders at the gate?  As impractical as this idea is, I admit to a certain mirth knowing that they can't escape the realities of crime no matter the illusion.  It's just getting to be too small a world again, despite our best efforts to pretend otherwise.

How Trolls are Ruining the Internet, by Joel Stein

Citizen Four is available on Netflix.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Apps and the Big Bad Wolf

When Sweetpea was a baby I blogged like crazy.  The whole mommy thing sent my head spinning and the only relief I had was to write about it.  In the process I found the humor in everyday conundrums of planned parenthood and in turn this helped me to see the absurdity of getting hung up about certain unavoidable aspects of caring for a very small human.

For a few years all this writing went into a big word-bin until our daughter reached what I fondly like to refer to as the happy years, when she was off to elementary school.  Here in this new world where I was no longer the focus, she put on her uniform, got  busy with basic learning (my speed), made friends, liked and wore everything I bought for her, and earned a laudable reputation around school as a very polite child.  I took out my parental surf board and just rode the wave for a while.  
     Oh, don't get me wrong, I did a lot of parenting during this formative time, most of it involving flash cards, sharing tutoring duties with my math-minded husband, encouraging her to run for various leadership positions, win or lose, and forging heart-to-hearts about various girl dramas that were mild compared to some I'd heard of.  We even started age-appropriate conversations about boys and gender perspectives on intimacy and related (read how we get to sexual) relationships.  She wasn't that interested at first (boys are weird) but with brain development and the long onset to puberty she began to ask more questions and down the rabbit hole we went.
     Now the conversations with our daughter have become quite complicated because she actually has a mind of her own (surprise!) and these tricky menstrual-era minefields run the gamut from boy crushes to iPhone apps that she absolutely, positively, unequivocally must have.  Enter bad guys mom and dad, who still have a shred of hip and cool when it comes to most of the stuff she wants to talk about, but are decidedly mean and unhip when it comes to social media.  And dating. Specifically her relationships with apps or boys.
     I view with unabashed longing my friends who have daughters the same age (now 13) who have zero interest in the opposite sex.  Or in social media.  Where did we go wrong, I wonder?  She is a self-proclaimed geek but this is really just a ruse as far as I'm concerned.  She doesn't do chess clubs or science fairs but she is in the marching band and this is how she claims her geek membership.  In reality I don't think she fits the stereotype.  Not like my friend's eight year old who speaks four languages, plays bridge and collects coins.  His future seems pretty secure as someone who may rule the world, technologically speaking.  I'm not sure where our kid is going to end up - could be anywhere from her interest in forensic science to being a waitress.  It's currently a toss-up.
     But the complexities of boys and apps remain on the agenda.  Pretty much swings between the two.  I have seen a couple of really powerful videos on Facebook about girls who end up accidentally getting connected to a teenage predator using Kik or Snapchat, and the scary consequences of befriending someone they've never met.  Even in person Boys are equally mysterious as far as understanding their potential to inspire, and to harm.  When it comes to this subject we balance on a very delicate line - teaching Sweetpea how to navigate her connections safely and honestly. Which in Sweetpea's case is not in her control when it comes to dating because that's just off the table until she's at least a junior in high school.  Sigh!  She seems ok with the idea that this journey is still ongoing and I really believe she gets that she's just not there yet in terms of holding her own as far as dating goes.  And although I knew of girls in my junior high who were definitely doing more than canoodling with clothes on, I now find myself in the position of trying not to picture this with our little girl.


Apps are another story and for another day.  Who knew 180 friends was 'normal' on Instagram?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Confessions of a Reluctant Composter and the Yuck Factor

 What happens to all those fruit and vegetable peelings we discard every day?  You know, the slippery, somewhat unsavory leftovers that we routinely shovel into the garbage to mix it up like a giant party with everything else.  Californians may or may not put them in the green recycling bin reserved for garden cuttings but more likely not.  It’s because we have not been conditioned to come to terms with the millions of gallons of waste we routinely pour into an overcrowded and problematical landfill somewhere far, far away. 

A recent visit to my Canadian relatives was an eye-opener for those of us who see the kitchen trash can as a one-stop waste solution.  The Ontario government there mandates recycling, ok they can’t really mandate except for businesses and apartment buildings but they’ve made it very easy to do by supplying all the necessary equipment for home kitchens.  Very high tech – a divided recycling bin for paper and plastic, and a small white lidded, under-the-counter container for organic waste. Recycling has become serious business in Canada after years of buy-in and behavioral conditioning. Almost everything paper or plastic is recyclable but if you put the wrong thing in your blue bin you get a note from the garbage collector with the offending item or items left behind. Organic waste goes into the under-counter container with a plastic liner and these and are collected curbside too. Interestingly, these containers did not smell, even when full. It was hard for me to remember what went where at first but eventually it became second nature.

The challenge here in the Southland is what to do we do with our recyclables when all we get is one giant blue and one green bin with very little explanation as to what is deemed recyclable and what is not? And no, a pizza box complete with globs of cheese and pepperoni stuck to it does not qualify.  In fact, most commercial recycling companies that purchase paper and plastic to ship around the world refuse our recyclables – they call it a ‘dirty stream’ because we put so much junk in with the good stuff.  And the very idea of a kitchen container for all those wet peelings seems foreign to us, and decidedly unsanitary.  I tried for a while to use a lidded ice bucket on the counter where I put all the peelings but every time I opened it the smell was, shall we say, hardly worth the effort.  Then there were fruit flies and even the occasional maggot invasion which was not for the faint of heart.  Still I plowed on, dumping my container in the green bin and wondering if it was really going to end up somewhere useful.

On my last visit to Ontario I discovered a composting system that the Japanese manufacturer, Bokashi, calls the ‘urban composter’.  My gardening cousins use it in their home and after a short lesson I found it online once I’d returned to Los Angeles.  This system uses a square plastic container that holds about 3 gallons and has an airtight lid.  A slotted shelf about a third of the way down allows for the liquids to pass through where it can be collected from the spigot and cup provided.  Layers of fruit and vegetable peelings, and even cooked meat and cheese, are added whenever there is a sufficient amount and then covered with a sawdust-like material that is provided. This material contains beneficial bacteria to break down the waste and to prevent odors.  A special spatula is used to compress the layer to get out any air and then the lid is popped back on.

When closed, there is no smell and the container is small enough to be kept in the kitchen or laundry room.  So far no fruit flies or maggots, and I’ve already collected what the company calls ‘compost tea’ from the spigot and put on my newly planted vegetable garden.  It takes about two weeks after the bin is filled for the compost to be ready  to put on your garden and then you start again.

There are larger versions for outdoors but the kitchen version is manageable for the first-timer.
With this model there is no giant and intimidating behemoth of a composter out back that you have to rake and shovel.  Just a simple, compact system that is both convenient and practical.  Now I know that everything I use is coming back to us in one form or another, nourishing strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, and lots of herbs.  Satisfaction, guaranteed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The DNA of Tarts

As part of my new path I have made and fulfilled a number of changes in my daily life and outlook.  Thanks to Greg Drambour in Sedona, who gave me my list, I am nearly there.  Just a couple more and I will have made my commitments.  Feels very good.

On Saturday I joined the California Writer's Club, formed in 1909 by Jack London, and still active with 1800 members in a dozen or so locations.  At my first meeting we met with a novelist and food writer and she gave us a few writing prompts.  Now that I am putting in three days a week writing, these help to focus and begin the process.  Writing about my food memories from childhood is easy:

The DNA of Tarts
Butter tarts –they sat on a plate in Nana Northey’s oak refractory table in the room that doubled as a living and dining room.  She had chosen to use the adjoining, smaller room as a parlor, a nod to her days as the daughter of a gentleman farmer in Norfolk.  In her childhood home there were servants and most likely a morning room, a grand parlor, a library, a snug, and a dining room that accommodated twenty guests.  Here in her two-bedroom walk-up apartment over a busy, unfashionable Toronto street, noisy with streetcars and vendors, she had raised four girls, cots for each in one bedroom, the other reserved for her and her second husband.  I never went in her room, it was always cloaked in half-shadow stillness, but from the door I could see the fancy spread and collection of dolls she made clothes for.
Pastry tarts were the only dessert she made – and she made them regularly. Butter, jam, and her homemade mince at Christmas. When we all crowded in on these family gatherings, our cheeks red raw from the wind, father left behind to find a parking space in the slushy, slippery cold, we headed straight for her tarts, coats hastily flung on the nearest bed, and devoured them with abandon, for she always made dozens.
They were little bowls of perfection. Flaky pastry cradled a mixture of butter, eggs, cream and brown sugar, cooled and firm as these confections were always served at room temperature.  To try them straight out of the oven was like putting boiling napalm into your mouth and so she made them the day before and stored them in Queen Elizabeth Commemorative tins, layered with wax paper.  Never runny, never adulterated with corn syrup as some did, the filling with its frothy top had a gooey texture stayed in your mouth so you could savor the caramelized sugar mixed with subtle, rich hints of butter and cream. Bits of pastry always stayed on your lips to be licked off later, and after the filling had all been devoured, there was a small crescent of pastry left to savor before all that was left was the memory.

Her tarts were made weekly, waiting for whenever we visited, later as students when we came to see her in her new, modern efficiency model on the 10th floor of a highrise for seniors.  They sat on a china plate next to a pot of steaming, Red Rose tea, cups and saucers mixed together in a riot of flowery patterns.  These tarts were the conversation starters, opening the way for a landscape of troubles, curiosities (such as the discussion about why our small breasts were so much easier to live with than the kind that flopped about in bed and necessitated a bra for comfort) and stories of England.  Nana’s stories were as exciting as our own lives, filled with WWI romances, punting on the Thames, ardent soldiers returning from battle, the loss of her mother in the Great Flu Epidemic, her father’s humor and playfulness, all a world away from our Canadian lives.  She told us she had run away with our grandfather, a mysterious man who ran an acting school where they landed in Montreal, who was perhaps a Communist, union organizer, flim-flam man, cheater of epic proportions, and long, long gone.  He had disappeared during the Second World War, and we only heard later that perhaps he had not actually gone to fight but to take up with another woman whom he called his wife.  I believe Nana was still a little bit in love with him, certainly she never spoke ill of him, the fuller picture came out in bits and bobs from my mother, who remembered sharp and tender moments all on the same path, but for whom she only came to miss much later in her life when only the softer moments remained. The wounds from a fractured life my mother dismissed more and more as time went on, transformed into legends of her mother’s bravery and stoicism in the face of poverty and disillusionment. Though buried beneath admiration for the parent left behind, the scars remained, bitter tracings through a life fraught with demons and ghosts. What remained though, was my mother’s love of pies, and though nearly blind and without a working oven, she still makes them with the same vigor and purpose as the women before her.
The raspberry jam and butter tarts were my Nana’s welcoming, they spoke of the old country, her roots, which were never nostalgic because she had made her break with her family and seemed more rooted in her new home despite the financial hardships and the loss of a widowed father she clearly adored.  Too proud to let him know he had been right, she never went back to England, and I am left wondering just how much he knew and for how long.  This charismatic and mysterious man she had stolen from her older sister’s embrace, the illegitimate son of a washer woman, a Jewish refugee from the European pogroms, the one who had enticed his bride to abandon everything she knew, bestowing on us unknown remnants of a history we live through the tangled web of DNA that directs our futures, even now. 
We choose the memories that sustain the woman who gave us our start in the wandering world, who gave us her version of chance and pride and resilience.  We are hers, and she was ours.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Raw: Street Fighting and Why I'm Taking A Break from The Weight Room

A few days ago I recalled my in-the-buff adventure in the Korean Spa.  A mere days later I'm back again with another commentary on a different kind of buff.  The kind fueled by testosterone. And not funny.  Not funny at all.

I am here to testify that, yes, there is a difference between the violence you see in movies and tv and the real thing.  Especially when it unfolds within a few feet of you.  I've watched enough Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, and spy movies as the rest of them, but two days with as many fights has left me with the sober question, where the hell have I been until now?

Two days ago my friend from the Korean Spa experience and I were doing our morning routine at the local Y.  After the working day begins this place is a study in contrasts.  Old folks mastering the art of retirement and giant bodybuilders who may or may not have jobs. In the machine room on the main floor these two mix fairly benignly, but its a different story upstairs in the heavy-duty free-weight area.  Gloves are mandatory, are too, it seems are the tiny muscle shirts and weight belts. Old guys, unless they are Jack Lalanne wannabes still towing barges at 80, are either too afraid to go in there are smarter than we apparently are.
     I suppose coming in with a purse instead of a Nike bag stuffed with towel, water bottle and assorted dirty clothes sets me apart but my friend is a regular there (and bigger than me) so I try to ignore the pitying stares of the hardcore builders. But on this day, something was brewing.  A pair of smallish men were shoulder-lifting some serious weight and had cordoned off the area with a bench.  Apparently this is bad form because another guy took exception to this and started to annoy them, first by doing sit ups on the bench, and then, I learned later, he lost his head and grabbed the barbells and smashed them into the stand.

This is when we became aware that something was going on and within five seconds all hell broke loose - two men wailing on each other and others pushing and shoving or trying to pull them apart.  The sound of a punch is not the same as the kind they reproduce on a Foley stage.  It's softer and sounds like a butcher pounding out a steak with his fist. And way, way scarier. The two men were totally out of control and ferociously powerful to boot - as they wrested and threw punches they were within inches of all kinds of deadly equipment poles.  We ran out of the room and interrupted the step class next door.  By the time the instructor rushed in the other men had successfully pulled the two apart and the one man who had started the fight took off, his nose bleeding profusely.
     No one had time to intervene and when we asked at the front desk why no-one had picked up the phone he apologized because he had been busy with a customer. He claimed he'd never heard of another fight like that but it was hard to believe, what with the crowded space and a lot of men pumping up furiously.  For what, I wonder, if not for this show of male dominance?

Ok, this was my first time witnessing an actual brawl between two people and because I escaped injury (5 feet over and may have been a different story) I thought it a bit of a good story and an anomaly.  But it left a deeper impression than I'd realized.

The next day I was sitting on the curb, waiting for my daughter at the exit gate of her middle school, chatting with another parent.  There were four or five of us milling around when I heard a faint commotion up the street where the high school property ended.

Then a shout from up the street.
"I'm gonna get you, n**ger! Your ass is mine...!!" I wasn't sure what was going on but before I could stand up, a teenage boy, shirtless and frankly pretty benign looking came striding down the hill.  To be honest, he was handsome and in the prime of his life, with golden skin and honey curls, and it took a second to realize it was him yelling, and the object of his anger, a group of other teenagers, was further down the street, directly in front of the middle school gate.  Everything after that happened so quickly - the cursing boy was followed by six or so others who, as they gathered speed, took on a frightening gang-like apparition, gearing up for a fight, hands balled into fists, their strides large rocking back and forth, almost primitive.
     By now we were all frozen, focused on what was about to happen and just as powerless.  The other boys turned and stood their ground, and while we and the two teachers who normally open the gate, the two groups smashed together in a wild melee, fists flying, kicking, scratching, shoving.  The teachers tried fruitlessly to stop what was going on but they, and the couple of dads waiting were outnumbered.  The boys were in a blind rage and nothing or no one could stop the wailing of fists, legs, pushing shoving. Some were beaten to the ground, others pressed against the fence.  One parent shouted to them he was a cop and in the face of a derisive snigger, pulled out his badge and shoved it in one boy's face but it failed to make much of a dent.
     Meanwhile, the kids had been let out of class and were coming toward the gate.  The teachers kept it closed and just as the fight started they stood there watching from the other side of the fence. Some parents kept their distance across the street for safety, some had their phones out taking pictures (or videos), and I started yelling, "There are little kids!  Little kids! Stop!.  One father got in the face of a fighter and there was some pushing and shoving - I'm sure all of us had our primal, parental instincts in force and we were all caught up in it, one way or another.
     I'm not sure if anyone called 911.  The two teachers trying to get control had walkies but not sure if they had time to use them - the confusion and violence took all of their attention.

And then it broke up - the instigator and his boys took off back up the street snickering and yelling more insults back at the other boys.  The gate opened and the kids streamed out, parents hustling them off and others getting into waiting cars gesticulating wildly with their stories.
     My daughter saw the whole thing, and when we got home I was still in the grip of an enormous surge of adrenaline - I paced around the room, stunned and frightened.  What if there had been a weapon? There was something old-fashioned about this fist-a-cuffs rumble, but this was pure luck.  And our kids were there, pressed to the fence, waiting.  Vulnerable.

I called the high school and talked briefly to the Assistant Principal.  He thought one group might have been truant boys who had tried to get on campus the day before.  The campus police had been summoned to disperse them.  Since it had happened so close to the high school, it is possible the other boys knew this was coming and had tried to leave campus by the back gate which is why they were by the middle school.

Two fights in as many days.  A witness, I realized I had not come away unscathed.  I wanted to fix it, to protect my daughter, to make the violence I'd seen go away.  And in the scheme of things, in the world we live in, in the world of war and anger and racism and genocide I realize I've had it pretty good.  I made it this far without ever being touched by the dark side of human beings made physical and very real.
     I can't imagine what it must be like for people caught up in a life of violence.  But now I have a small, a very small window into the fear and the lingering vulnerability.  My own small version of traumatic stress.  I can write about it, I can help my daughter process it, but I can't take that memory away.

I am different now.  Just as we all are when we go off the cliff of our experiences, when we fall into the unknown.  In the end we have a reckoning and a choice. I choose to stay and keep this small part of our world from reaching a tipping point.  I see the complex fabric, I live the risks.  I live my convictions because to ignore reality is to let the bullies win.

And I will protect my daughter for as long as I can.
Ironically our kids had been dismissed that day right after a school-wide assembly with a guest speaker who was there to talk about ways to resolve conflicts in a positive way.  He was quite inspiration, Sweetpea told me.  She loves her school and all the amazing teachers and opportunities it provides. She has a chance to be in a marching band among the best in the state.  Her world is opening up, little by little.

"Oh, and there's an F-word scratched by the soap dispenser in the school bathroom," she added, as we made our way home.

Sometimes protecting our kids is more difficult than it looks.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Korean Spa 찜질방 is not for Sissies

Part of making new friends is joining in.  And last week I was included in a Facebook invite from a fellow parent I met working out at the Y.

"Join us for a B#@tch Slapping Session!"

Perhaps I should have taken serious note of the title of this invitation because she wasn't far off.  Turns out a bunch of girls signed up for a salt-scrub and massage at a local Korean health spa and I had no idea what I was in for.

I consider myself a fairly wordly traveler when it comes to massage - after all, I've had my feet legs, back, arms and hands expertly manipulated in several countries, including China, where my husband joined me once - his session included shaving and a (declined) offer to brush his teeth. The Chinese revere massage and consider their version, tui na, to be essential to overall health.  Typically, massages in China are about the equivalent of $15.00 for an hour's worth of very pleasurable tweaking of the yin/yang meridians.  These sessions take place while fully clothed, relaxing with feet in hot, scented water, while enjoying a hot cup of plain water (forget the tea, the Chinese believe hot water should be consumed daily for maximum health), and an assortment of chewy candies.

So when I was invited for a massage at a very reputable establishment, the Riviera Health Spa in nearby Lomita, I thought it would be a relaxing way of getting to bond with my new gal pals.

Riviera Spa (details below) is an upscale version of a full-service spa common in Korea called a Jjimjilbang - two squeaky clean floors of relaxing and healthful luxury, Asian style, including a juice bar and Korean-style cafe. When you enter and pay for your treatment the hostess hands over a spa outfit which you are cautioned to wear when entering the second floor mixed gender area.  Other than that, women and their young daughters are free to roam about the pool and massage area in their birthday suits. I'm a veteran of Burke Williams so this isn't anything new except the women here don't bother with clothes even when chatting in the common areas, drying and styling their hair and putting on make up.  A bit too free-thinking for my British sensibilities, especially since they were all size 2. Oh, well, I'd paid my money so there was no turning back.

After depositing my clothes and valuables in an assigned locker, saying hi to my friends who were off to their massages, I donned the cotton outfit that resembled a prison duo with orange pants and top, then took an elevator to the second floor where I explored the various saunas.

This is not Sweden.  Koreans believe in the healing and rejuvenating powers of minerals, so there are three different dry kiln or Hanjeungso saunas (about 126 degrees). I ventured into the first, a room completely constructed from bricks of pink rock salt. The calcium, magnesium and iron in rock salt is supposed to be good for the respiratory system and general purification. The floor was thickly carpeted in loose salt chunks and an experimental toe step revealed they were just shy of the temperature of burning coals so I had to leap onto a thermal pad meant to lie on and then work my way across to one furthest away from a wicked looking heat unit stacked like coals behind a log fence.  10 minutes in this inferno staring up at the intricate design of salt bricks on the ceiling was enough and I hopped my way back to the door, but not before getting one last hotfoot at the stone threshold.  Whew!  I spied a cold sauna across the way and went for that, passing through a large open room with mats where men, women and children reclined on a bamboo floor.  They were all Aisan and stared at me as I hurried past, perhaps because, unlike them, I wasn't wearing the traditional head covering fashioned from a small spa towel called a sheep-head.  Apparently this is polite in a spa, but I had no idea what I was doing. I have provided instructions for this attire in case you decide to go and want to blend in.

My next visit was to the Clay Sauna, meant to stimulate the lymphatic system and detoxify the body from heavy metals.  This room had a thick carpet of bamboo mats but there was a section that one could only describe as the ball box in a Gymboree - the idea being you nestled into this box of small clay balls and let them go to work.  Also extremely hot so only someone with the skin of a bear paw could manage this so I stayed on the bamboo mat and settled for breathing in the clay walls and ceiling.

Ten minutes later I was back in the cold sauna, kept at about 65 degrees.  A marble-encased wonder that felt amazingly wonderfully fabulously refreshing after a good roasting.

The last spa was the jade room, and more of the same breathing in of jade bricks surrounding me. Advertised as good for hormonal balance and especially appealing to the ladies.  In all cases I lay on a bamboo mat with a wooden head rest that was surprisingly comfortable.

Then I was summoned for the salt rub and massage.

Once back down in the pool/massage area (these areas separated for men and women) I was greeted by a lady in black lace bra and panties.  Confusion??
    "You my next appointment," she said by way of introduction.  Why, I wondered, do the massage ladies wear these outfits instead of something, say, more clinical like a cotton robe.  I got my answer later....

She spoke very little English but pointed me toward an area next to the soaking pool behind a half wall where I discovered all my new friends, naked as the day they were born, covered in as much oil as it would take to roast a peanut.  Thankfully they all had thick seaweed masks on so I couldn't tell who was who, but there was something serenely beautiful about all these glistening bodies, large and small.

Undressing (rather casually I was proud to say), I was directed to lie next to my friends, on a massage table covered in heavy clear plastic.  I slid on  rather like a porpoise onto a viewing platform and then she went to work.

My massage lady began to vigorously scrub every inch of my body, and I mean every inch.  Nothing was spared and I'm sure she took the top two layers of my epidermis off.  She wore two hand mitts  generously covered with the same coarse rock salt I'd been breathing in earlier, combined with soap.  She worked efficiently, lifting legs and arms this way and that as she scrubbed.  I barely had control over my place on the table it was so slippery - and sliding around was the most inelegant thing I've ever been subjected too, never mind the nooks and crannies she found with those mitts.  There were times when she covered bits of my exposed body with a warm wet towel but usually I was splayed out in every position that would have made a porn star envious. After flipping me around a few times and pouring buckets of hot water to rinse off the salt and soap she then got me off the table and indicated that I shower in the area next to the tables, then I returned for part two of this bizarre experience.

At this point I totally got the purpose of wearing bra and panties because this woman was up close and personal with every stage and she was covered in everything I was.  I'm surprised they didn't go naked as well.

Back on the table, my skin was as squeaky clean as the taut surface of a balloon. I was told to lie on my stomach and then she poured an enormous quantity of unscented oil into the small of my back and began to give me the massage part of the treatment.  This experience was somewhere in the grey area between relaxing and downright painful.  Practitioners here give a deep-tissue accupressure massage, and she was all over me, often nimbly climbing on the table and using her knees and elbows to work hard on various muscles. Grunting and groaning was inevitable, and sometimes she pushed the breath right out of me. At some point she added a generous dose of peppermint oil to the gallons she continued to lather on and my skin tingled and nostrils opened up, which was good because it was getting hard to breathe.  Flipped onto my back, she slid me up the table until she could get to my head and then she put some kind of soap in my hair and dragged a stiff bamboo comb through it with the same vigorous intensity with which she had gone after every other part of me.  Then she put a warm towel over my eyes, and applied a thick, gooey mask of some kind of seaweed and then spent the next thirty minutes massaging the front side.

At some point my friends were finished - I heard them talking in the warm soaking pool next door, and then the massage lady took off my mask, bid me to stand up and then she doused me with buckets of warm, milky liquid.

I was done.

When I wrapped my towel around me and got back to the change room I wasn't sure if I'd ever come back, but my skin is the softest it has ever been, as close to a baby's bum it will ever be again, so I am re-thinking this option.  I still prefer my weekly $20/hour tui na massage which includes a heavenly reflexology treatment, but I feel the allure of the soft skin and the new me that has emerged.

For your Korean Spa experience:

Riviera Health Spa

How to make a Sheep Head covering:

1. Fold the towel length ways 3 times
2. Fold the ends over themselves to secure
3. Turn over and find opening
4. Pull apart until the size of your head, and pull it on

You will have two knots on each end that, when placed on your head, will have the effect of a sheep's head with small horns.

Good luck!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tracking Your Happiness is a State of Mind

Recently I heard a story on NPR's Ted Radio Hour about a project, Track Your Happiness, started by Matt Killingsworth who is a doctoral researcher at Harvard.  The real-time survey asks thousands of participants to answer iPhone, text-driven quizzes at random times of the day, and was approved by Harvard Committee for Use of Human Subjects.  The idea is you are supposed to answer as quickly as possible to keep the responses fresh and linked to certain times of the day, perhaps tied to  circadian rhythms.  It's one of a few studies attempting to track and understand the ebbs, flows, and causes of happiness on a scale down to its dark opposite.  In real time.

I thought I'd join in.

Each time I got a text I had to stop (if it was safe) and fill out a short quiz. They popped in at all times of the day and night.  Questions ranged from charting my state of mind from very happy to very unhappy, to other more detailed requests as to where I was, who I was interacting with, did I feel lonely, did I like my job, to did I sleep well? Although I exceeded my meager text allowance for the month (causing some scrambling to change my plan), I was able to answer most of them on time.  I wonder what that says about me? Rule-following Canadian? People-pleaser? Curious subject? Hmmmm

Three weeks and about 75 surveys later when I finished Round One and was released for six months.  In that time I probably learned as much as Killingsworth about what makes me happy and the results, which were sent to me after I had completed the first round of questionnaires, were surprising.

I'm a bit of a worrywart (what is the entomology of that word??) and tended to remember these pearls of anxiety when charting my past, but I discovered during this process that my warting apparently is limited to short durations, usually right before I fall asleep, and they don't linger.  Yes, I do have crises to manage at other times of the day, for one thing being the president of a school PTO is no cakewalk, but these moments of angst are also fairly contained.  It was the act of having to quantify my feelings at random times during the day that revealed I may have emotional ups and downs, they are quixotic, intense, but not malingering.  Capturing unhappiness in my day wasn't easy.  Most of the time when asked, I felt pretty good.  Happy.

What I came to realize, the part that surprised me, is that I actually was very good at shutting down the spinning wheel of anxiety as I worked through a problem, or after a reasonable time.  I'd either solved the particular dilemma, or shelved it for later review.  I knew this to be true because when asked a mere hour later about my happiness level, it had returned to normal.  There have been certain problems that lingered in the past, but for the most part, I had figured out how to put them aside with a bit of directed meditation and a conscious choice to stay in the present. Drinking a good cup of coffee, eating one of Jacaranda's amazing scones, talking with a friend, brushing my daughter's hair, holding my husband's hand -the present is mostly pleasant.  Bingo!

I wonder what my data will reveal when added to the thousands of other results.  I now know, for example, that I often have and want to do things at the same time, because they asked about this all the time.  I think that's good.  Except for today when I came home and found piles of wet poop all over the bedroom rug, which I stepped on and tracked around like a smelly bear.  Cleaning this up was not a have-to-want-to example.  But many other tasks, like getting up in the dark to make breakfast for Sweetpea, taking her to school with my hair standing on end, toiling away at the gym, these are things I both have and want to do.  Apparently being satisfied with your life, no matter what it is, is one major key to happiness.

According to early data released by the study, entrepreneurs score best on the happiness scale - I guess being the boss has its perks, though who knows who is absorbing the unhappiness trickling down to the lower ranks who must obey and protect their paychecks.  As a writer, I'm technically an entrepreneur, or at least I don't have a boss to answer to anymore and this lack of an overseer has definitely taken one major stress out of my life.

While I was taking this survey I had to answer some pretty intimate questions about my life and because I was assured this research would remain anonymous, I tried to be as honest as I could.  Some who know me well would be surprised that happiness can thrive despite devastating turns in the road, which proves the point that being rich, famous, and living to be 101 doesn't gift you with peace of mind.  It's all in your perspective.

I consider myself quite lucky, all things considered.  Life is unpredictable and nothing illustrated this more than a short incident the other night when I was driving our homestay guest from Japan back from a gallery opening.  We were chatting away when right in front of us a car went through an intersection and was T-boned on the passenger side by another one going quite fast.  I stomped on the brakes, we both guest gasped and froze with disbelief.  He had just gotten off the plane, the father of a young baby, let loose for a short vacation before starting a new job. He was on his way to spring training in Tampa to see his favorite Japanese players with the Yankees.  He was sitting in the seat that would have been hit by the oncoming car just one short space and two seconds ahead of us. Luckily for the driver of the other car, there was no passenger in the side that was crushed and she was ok too. It wasn't until later that I'm sure all of us realized what had really just happened, or had not happened to change our lives.

We've all had our share of close calls, probably many, many more than we even know.  One close call is no different than another in my book, whether it be a scary brush with cancer or a car length away from a drunk driver.  This knowledge keeps me grounded in the present, and yes, feeling darn pretty happy, all things considered.

If you are interested in participating in the Track Your Happiness Survey, here's the link to sign up.  You may learn more than you bargained for, and I hope it's all good.

Track Your Happiness

Mongolian Invaders

Over the years we've had some pretty interesting guests stay with us.  Mostly students who are as polite as all-get-out, even a student from Thailand who insisted on washing the dishes every night and on two occasions when we had dinner parties. It felt weird sitting there chatting with friends while she labored away but there was no stopping her.  She had been raised in a rural village far from Bangkok and I think her mother warned her to be a vigilant guest lest she bring shame on her family back home.

We've hosted students and visitors from many countries, including Japan (lots of them), Turkey (the party girl who's silk delicates I was afraid to wash lest I ruin them), Thailand (all with odd names like Cake and Fame due to the popularity of English nicknames from non-English speaking parents), the Basque region of Spain (sweet but perhaps the shyest of the bunch), Malaysia (the bacon-fryer who left us with a coating of grease on all the kitchen walls), Russia (handsome and studious), and our favorite visitor, the dental student from Germany who dazzled us with her warm, open nature and excellent command of English.  Having visitors from around the world can be an eye-opening experience, but if they don't speak much English it can be a limited one.

Despite the variety of home countries we had never had the opportunity to take students from China.  Turns out not many wealthy kids from China come here to take over-priced ESL classes, or in the case of many of the visiting groups, spend 2 hours in 'class' and the rest of the day in Disneyland or some other hot tourist destination.  Mostly because they learn English with relentless energy and precision back home, and these classes must seem pretty mickey-mouse by comparison. In late 2013 I was contacted by a travel agency operating out of Shanghai as they were starting to bring students to the States for the first time.  Given that Sweetpea is from southern China I thought this would be a great experience for her and even though we very rarely accept more than one guest at a time (except the 9 and 11-year old girls from Japan who were braver than they ought to have been), I said we would take two teenagers.  Scrambling to convert our guest room from a double bed to two singles, linens, towels, pillows, etc. was only accomplished by the subtle and not-so-subtle cajoling of the husband and self-proclaimed sherpa, who dragged beds hither and thither until at last we were ready.

Alice and Catherine (their ESL class names) arrived from their home city of Baotou, an industrial mining city in Inner Mongolia.  I had to look it up, surreptitiously of course, because both these girls were braniacs and I didn't want to appear to be a provincial dolt.  Alice in particular had an impressive command of English, later I found out she traveled all over China to compete in foreign language competitions.  Not sure we have an equivalent here but apparently they love to go against each other in debates, spelling bees and essay contests.  Her English was almost flawless, with just barely a trace of an accent.  Not bad for a 15-year old.  The only problem was she laughed derisively every time we tried to repeat a Mandarin word.  She was a perfectionist so we eventually gave up.

We quickly learned that Alice and Catherine were also picky eaters, something new for us as or past students always seemed to attack our food with unbridled gusto.  Alice's reaction was more like a comedy routine: She would stare at the plate of food for a good minute or two, then pick up a fork and turn over items like they were foreign objects and then wiggle or flop them about.  Sometimes, if the first examination met with her approval, she would lean down and take a good sniff, then make a variety of faces. Luckily there was something comical about it all so we would end up laughing, despite the fact that most of her meal ended up in the garbage.  As far as I know the girls existed on hotdogs and hamburgers during their daily outings and not much else.

There was something refreshingly child-like about both teenagers and they fit in well with our family because we have let Sweetpea grow up slowly.  No torn tops and shorty shorts in 5th grade.  Nor hours in front of television showing teen dribble and teen problems with sex and alcohol, something routine among other 10-year-olds she knows at school.  Our teenage guests played a lot of games back home, cards, jump rope, mahjong, imagination play and group games in the school yard.  So very different than highschoolers here.  They both had iPhones but somehow they were more in balance with face-to-face interaction than here in the U.S.  So while they were with us we played games every night: Clue (which they loved), Mexican Train (a Domino's variation), and poker.

Some of our exchanges were surprising.  Education in China, we learned, is a wholly different process.  When Alice saw our 5th grader's algebra homework she let us know that she had studied the same problems in first grade.  At first I didn't take her seriously - it seemed incomprehensible that a 6-year-old could handle the complexity of the work our daughter was doing.  She looked through Sweetpea's math textbook with interest and declared, "they jump around too much!".  She went on to explain that they stayed with one math subject for months, repeating and repeating until it was set in stone.  "16 pages of multiplication and division of fractions," was typical of each area of mastery. In first grade. She was mystified at a system that tried to cram so many different concepts into a school year, and it made sense.

We also discovered that Alice and Catherine were having two different educations.  Because Alice showed an aptitude for math in middle school she was in the math and science track in high school.  Catherine was in the history and literature track.  What was astounding about this separation was that Alice's education no longer included history, geography, or literature.  She professed to know absolutely nothing about any system of government in the world outside China.  Catherine, on the other hand, had no math after 8th grade.  Or science.  No wonder the Chinese are struggling with lack of innovation and are accused of routinely stealing patents of every sort from other countries.  Part of their innocence might be attributed to this lack of a whole education, and it does keep graduates in the dark about many aspects of global life.  What both girls told me when I gently probed into politics in China was that they did have local elected representatives.  But no-one seemed to know exactly what they did so they were apathetic about voting.  The girls didn't seem to see any difference between China's system of government and Western-style democracy but since Alice, who spoke better English, had never studied geo-politics, this was hardly surprising.

As the week drew to a close we were sad to say goodbye and the feeling was mutual - including effusive hugging and exchanges of emails since China cannot access Facebook.  They did leave a couple of interesting parting gifts: The first was a large package of tsutai tsai, a type of salty milk tea, a staple beverage in Mongolia considered beneficial to health.  To understand just how different their palate was I made a steaming cup and took an experimental sip before choking and spitting it out in the sink.  It was impossible to force my brain to drink what tasted like a tea-flavored gargle mix.  It certainly helped me to understand why our Western dishes were so much of a challenge.  Now we're  looking for a Mongolian here to take the large bag of tsutai tsai off our hands.....

And the second gift was unintended but lasted much longer: Alice came to the U.S. with the mother of all Mongolian cold viruses, coughing, sneezing, drinking copious amounts of hot tea, Nyquil, Dayquil, and chewing on cough drops.  Like any holiday-goer, she was unwilling to curtail any of her  plans, so beginning with the 18 hour plane ride in re-circulated air she spread this horrible plague to perhaps hundreds of hapless victims who came into contact with her at Disneyland, Universal Studios, and countless other tourist destinations.  Cheerful Typhoid Alice.

In the end we were the most visible victims: Our whole family came down with this awful illness, which included days in bed, coughing fits that lasted weeks, antibiotics, fatigue, and strange bouts of hot and cold chills that sent us back to our rooms.

 As they say in Mongolia, "Sain bain uu?" (are you well?)  Hell no, thank you very much!

We won't be forgetting Inner Mongolia for a very long time.  It was a mixed blessing for sure.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Only five more numbers to go

I admit it.  I bought a Powerball ticket.  When my husband mentioned the gigantic pot which by now everybody knows was over $600M, I didn't tell him that I'd actually put $2.00 down at the local 7-11 until he said he was in two pools at work and had purchased a couple more in one of the area's 'lucky' stores.  Then we sheepishly had the 'what if' conversation.

Turns out I actually had one number this Saturday's drawing, one more than I usually have.  Perhaps I should publish a 'do not pick these numbers list' as a warning to others if they are going to insist on playing regularly, which I do not.  My Powerball ticket was worth absolutely nothing but it does remind me of the time my sisters and I bought a ticket in the Lake Huron beach town of Southampton years ago when we were vacationing together.  We had four of the six numbers and when I called my sister, who was holding the ticket, to find our what our windfall was she gave me the good news: $2.00.  Are you kidding?  The Ontario lottery sucks eggs.  And that's all I'm going to say on the matter.

I have purchased a few lottery tickets over the years but I never expect to win and four of six numbers is as close as I'm ever likely to get.  I just like thinking about what I would do if I became an overnight half-billionaire.  It's a good exercise that one hopes would be actualized if the numbers did fall into place.  I've heard so many sad  stories about lottery winners who ran through their riches in months or years and ended up exactly where they'd been before, except worse for the hangover.  But I know there are many others out there who have done something useful with the money, and I don't mean buying a Masarati or taking early retirement and touring the world.  The kind of money that this mysterious (and so far intelligently anonymous) person in small-town Florida just won isn't just the kind of wealth that sustains a lifestyle, it can change entire landscapes, fund cloning research, create a superpac for the NRA, get Jesus or an Imam in the White House.  Frightening possibilities if you happen to be on the other idealogical side of this newest Forbes 500 member.  At this point I am hoping the winner just buys a really big house in the Bayou and sends all his friends and relatives' kids to college.

For my part, I like to think about what this kind of money could do and it's an interesting exercise in challenging thinking and the complexities of real social change, something no amount of money can magically force .  When I start thinking this big, I realize that politicians usually start out this way and then hit a wall pretty quickly.  No, too frustrating....

I have pretty much everything I want already so thoughts inevitably turn to how I could support change in small, manageable increments especially when it comes to my neighborhood. The problem with most wealthy activists is they have no idea how to start small.  My plan in three or four parts: First I would offer the guy down the street with the two crummy, neglected and weedy houses with 10 cats lying around on the front porch, enough money to make him go someplace else.  And then I'd tear the boxes down and put up two enticing little cottages for urban pioneers who just might turn up at the Neighborhood Watch meetings and shop local.  Now that the one hair in my soup is dealt with, on with more lofty goals:  I could put together a fund to give a grant to anyone willing to convert their San Pedro lawn to drought tolerant landscape and then pay for 20 years of maintenance. This could significantly reduce water usage in our area and create habitats for butterflies, honey bees and birds.  Having a drought-tolerant yard may be easy for the first two years but it takes work to maintain it and without help it could, over time, devolve into a weedy mess. I know because we've managed ours without a gardener and it's not as easy as it looks.  Along those same lines I'd fund a program for backyard organic farming, paying experts  who already exist in this business space to come in and build gardens, plant fruit trees, then maintain them and share the bounty with the homeowners. I'd also fund a solar paneling program for households to get them off the grid.  Although there are a couple of companies offering to install paneling at a very low up-front cost, it's attached to the main DWP power grid (the idea being the solar power feeds in and DWP pays it back) so it only reduces costs for the consumer and keeps them dependent.  This conversion would also include a maintenance program to ensure householders are secure.  Even if the fund brought in a few hundred new people, that would be enough to make a difference.

I would buy the big empty lot up the street that used to belong to the old ice-house, build a theatre and bring in world-class entertainment for subsidized neighborhood prices, along with workshops to empower kids and build confidence.  And I would fund scholarships, not just for university, but for technical schools and trade apprenticeships and/or schools.  I believe too many kids who have no aptitude or interest are being told they must to college and as a result we don't value all the other skills that make our communities run smoothly.

The idea of having that much cash I didn't earn (and therefore feel in some ways will always be the peoples' money) is just that: an idea.  For those of us who buy tickets, even as rarely as I do,  I don't regret the mental canoodling this buys me.

I just hope the person who is now $600M richer does something good with their gain.  A very practical postscript to a very impractical purchase.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mum's gone cuckoo


Mother's Day is a day when you get to stay in bed until someone kicks you out or you get a cramp in your foot and have to walk it off. Or smell the french toast cooking and decide that watching Lark Rise to Candleford on BBC America is as much culture you can take before noon.
     I loved getting the flowers, snapdragons and big gerber daisies, and the socks.  I love getting socks because for some reason I can never find the ones I like but Sweetpea has an eye for them and roots them out for every suitable occasion.  But the best part about Mother's Day are the handmade cards, and the sentiments in the one you get from the man who knows you became a much better person the day our daughter arrived.  Sweetpea is getting quite funny in her advanced age of nine, and I like to think it came from me but I know it came from her father so she better have some good jokes ready when his day arrives in June.  Payback time for the plastic faces, bad puns, and general goofiness that comes from his end of the table every dinnertime.  It may come as a surprise to those who think my husband is a reserved and mysterious person.  Take it from me, he's not.  He just loves a good audience and a toddler got him started eight years ago and he's never stopped.

Yes, I was pampered all day and given a break from laundry, but I still had to water the strawberry plants, and the blueberries, and the avocado tree and the.....well you get the idea.  It was bloomin' hot yesterday and life goes on. But the best part of the day was learning how to prepare and can peach jam.  One of my presents was a six pack of canning jars (tactfully accompanied by a coupon for a facial and peppermint foot scrub) because we had a bumper crop of peaches this year.  Since I missed most of them last year when I was in Ireland I was determined to a) not let one of them go bad on the tree, and b) deny the snails one more juicy meal.
     Did I mention how much I hate snails?  It was difficult to explain to Sweetpea because she has two of them  as pets in a turtle terrarium (thanks, Spongebob), and she can't understand why I want to kill every one of them I find.  But when the peaches began to ripen she finally understood.  The snails, despite various anti-snail methods including ground eggshells, lids filled with beer, and tiny spikes around the trunk, manage to slime their way up the tree and insert their tiny jagged teeth into the bottom of almost every peach....just as it has reached ripened perfection. In case you are wondering, snails can live as long as 5 years, 15 in captivity. I bet you didn't know snails had teeth, either.  Believe me, after watching them decimate a carrot in Sweetpea's terrarium and then shit it out in record time, I am a believer.  They also love to wait until the strawberries are one second away from being ready to pick to strike.  They come in the dead of night and then slime away before we get up.  It's not a fair fight.
     I denuded the tree on Saturday and on Sunday pitted 50 small peaches to make what turned out to be a mere four jars of jam.  Four little jars, I might add.  Pure gold.  I used the freezer method because while I received the canning jars, I did not get the canner, which apparently is necessary for boiling the jam-filled jars.  But freezer jam tastes better anyway because the peaches are not cooked, so I'm looking forward to eating a bit of the tree's bounty over the next few months and thumbing my nose at the snails.

Finally, there is the cuckoo clock now installed in the kitchen.  It was my official mother's day present - and it arrived from Germany in time to chirp the hours on my special day.  For those of you who want a quick, zen-like break from your busy day, just watch the video above and, if you follow the pendulum back and forth long enough and ignore the dancers marking out the minutes, you may actually lower your blood pressure. Please remember it took me two long hours to pick this one out and it cuckoos every hour on the hour whether we like it or not.

It was a glorious day, as I'm sure it was for all mothers who have children, or who love nieces, nephews, honorary children, etc.  It's a great job.  However, there is a postscript to the festivities. Mother's Day actually ended this morning because I got a sheepish phone call from my husband who said he forgot that Sweetpea had put a special notice in the local newspaper for me.
     "But it's in the trash!" I wailed.
Oh well, I spent the next hour in the blinding 90 degree sun rifling madly through a very stinky garbage pail out back looking for the paper until I finally found it stuck to a pizza box.  The page my husband had me look for is now tacked to the bulletin board in the laundry room while it dries out, but I can make out the words very clearly:

I love you Mum.

You just can't hear that enough, no matter how hard it may be to get to it.

Happy Mothers Day to everyone.  Just for fun pretend the day lasts all year long.