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.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

I'm in love with a Celebrity

Celebrity Solstice Solarium  lounge

Yes, it is true.  I thought I would never get there, but photos don't lie - I'm a groupie now and it will take a while before I realize that I'm back on dry land.

Yup, I've been lucky enough as part of the San Pedro Convention and Visitors' Bureau (SPCVB) to have the opportunity to board cruise ships as part of a welcome delegation and I've seen some amazing ships, though with more glitzy chrome and bling than I felt I could take for more than a day  After many tries, today I finally fell in love with a ship making its first ever port of call here in San Pedro.  Hello Celebrity Solstice!

Not that the benefits of meeting the various ship captains and enjoying their extraordinary chef offerings on all the many cruise lines that have welcomed us hasn't been a privlege. This experience, along with many others like this one, was made possible by the Grays, who once owned a nautical antiques shop and now are the owners of the SPCVB, a small but steadily significant tourist organization in San Pedro.  They love ships, and they made it their business to get in touch with the cruise lines - Princess, Costa, Norwegian Star, and many others who make San Pedro a port of call.  Apparently the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau has not yet realized that a hundred years ago San Pedrans (much to their regret) opted to be annexed by the City of Los Angeles in order for them to control the new port that was certainly going to become the lifeline of the West Coast.  They behave as if we fell off into the ocean decades ago, or perhaps they believe the misconceptions they hear from other people who have never been here.

San Pedro gets so many bad raps from so many quarters of the Southland it has become the punchline of a flat joke.  It may have been true back in the day when cruising along the once-industrial Harbor Boulevard with nothing more than cranes and container ships might not have been classically touristy, but if anyone wants to really experience San Pedro it's easy enough to just......go anywhere else in town.  Then you will experience the pristine and nearly deserted beaches, the beautiful marina filled with luxury boats, soaring cliffs leading to hidden coves and places for children to search among the tidepools for starfish and crabs.  Neighborhoods filled with fabulous ocean views, Catalina in the distance, whales passing by on their way north and south each year. There is a wonderful marine aquarium with a world-class research and aqua-nursery, winding seaside drives, destroyers and merchant ships to explore, fresh fish to grill overlooking the channels, and so much more.

But then you have to actually come here.

For years we have been chafing at the apparent inability of the people we pay at the LACVB to get in their cars and actually come down here to do their jobs and promote us as part of Los Angeles.  We are the city's only waterfront, chock full of activities, from artist galleries, quaint shops, places to hang out, lobsters to eat, and hidden treasures to explore.  We hope the next mayor will be revamping the work of this outdated bureau and finally giving back some of the millions of dollars we've poured into it over the decades.  In the meantime The Grays, and their nascent tourist bureau are putting the multi-million dollar bureaucrats up there in City Hall to shame.  It's us the Cruise Lines and their thousands of passengers remember as the friendly face of the town where they are docked.

The cruise ships docked here weekly, pristine white against the skyline, in front of dancing, musical fountains and the old fashioned red car street car cruising up along the boulevard are just some of the sights that make this town unique, and now that I've finally found one that is as beautiful inside as I imagined they should be (instead of the 90's style casino interiors that seemed to dominate the industry for many years), I finally want to go on a cruise.  In fact after visiting the Solstice I wanted to go home, pack our bags, and get back on for the rest of the trip to Alaska.

My sister, Deb and I have been talking about a sibling cruise and I now have a focus for that idea.  Celebrity is luxury cruising, but once a year they do a re-positioning route from Ensenada to Alaska (this is a one way trip) and the reduced prices are a great deal.  They stop in several West Coast cities, including San Diego, San Pedro, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver.  True, it's a bit older crowd, but after my disasterous experience aboard the Carnival where children multiplied in the pools like gremlins and ran screaming along the halls until 2 a.m., where there was no shady peace to relax and read on the entire ship, and only the clang, clang of gaming machines in the sub-zero interior, I was off, off, off the idea of getting on another boat until the Solstice came along.

I'm in love!

Solstice has all the amenities you'd expect on a ship this size (too large to go through the Panama Canal)  Shops, a casino, performance theaters, discos, outdoor activities, many different restaurants, clubs, and a variety of places to swim, soak, and relax.  This ship was built in Germany in 2008 and the decor is distinctly Soho modern with a retro nod to the days when trans-atlantic crossings were in comfort and style.

 Simple and elegant - no contrasting patterns, crazy colors and refreshing absence of fake wood

Berthed in the new dock overlooking Cabrillo Beach

 The dining room - retro cool

 One of the many clubs - note private rooms along the windows

 Sunny Pool Deck (there is a shady pool deck too, along with a spa and salon)

This library is the kind of intimate space you'll find all over the ship

The Lawn Club

Michaels Lounge

Michaels lounge

View from the croquet lawn to San Pedro

Monday, April 29, 2013

Germany: Returning Home

When we travel it is difficult to know what will stay with us when we come home and pick up the threads of our daily life. Once the photos have been posted (gone are the slide shows in a darkened room over cocktails and cheese balls), we simply move on.  And as you know, not much makes it on to this blog unless I am particularly moved by an experience and it can provide a skewed postmark to what may have been actually much more of a whole cloth journey than it appears (with a thankful nod to our wonderful hosts in Germany, who gave us the trip of a lifetime).  But I don't know how to go about it in any different way and in some ways this  space is all I will have when most memories have vanished.  I need to keep this in mind.

Fact is, I do not have a very good memory for certain details and rely on others for this Herculean accomplishment. Each period in my life has a memory keeper in the form of a friend or a sibling: For example, I have forgotten almost everything that happened when I was in theatre school, that crazy emotionally-charged wild ride through the machinations of our still-immature brains.  Most of it should be buried as it was a constant assault on my ego and not pretty given how fragile I was when I started there. But I do recall certain events, mostly cringe-worthy, as we lived fully vulnerable in the daunting and critical eye of our teachers who were pushing us to dig into our interior worlds and pull out everything usable for the sake of authenticating our performances.  My memory of these times is limited to a collection of snapshots, among them: trying not to giggle as I examined, upside down, the face of my new friend Sally in a classroom exercise.  Doing a sense-memory exercise (God, there were endless versions of these) with blindfolds on and our hands in a variety of food substances which we put in our mouths and savored. Lying on the carpeted floor and breathing with our diaphragms, one of the few things that stayed with me to this day. Singing lessons when I discovered my voice had gone from an alto to a high soprano. Performing Dylan Thomas' poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light...." in a darkened room, listening to others do it better....damnation!  Sitting in the school lounge reading bits of Margaret Atwater's poetry, releasing my feminist wings as delicate as those of a dragonfly because we were already equal were we not?  There was the prickly stiffness of the starched fabric of my costume as Sonya in Uncle Vanya, one of my only good performances near the end of school term.  And boys, of course, especially the one who was way out of my league that I pined after, and the one who became famous, the boyfriend who farted in bed at night and left me thinking that this relationship thing was not what I'd imagined it to be.
   I can conjure up a a good number more of these bits and pieces, but when it comes to specifics, my friend Sally is the one I turn to. She remembers the names of our schoolmates, my boyfriends, the color of the princess phone in our attic kitchen, the people who lived in the flat below us, and the names of our landlords.  My sister Deb does the same for our childhood memories, and it isn't often I take her on when it comes to those facts and figures because I will certainly be wrong in almost every case.

So when I look at the piece I first wrote about Germany and the connection with the past wars which engaged our countries I cannot help but wonder why it was the initial post-card. Why not the breathtaking landscape that we hiked in, the sharpness of the air, clean and unencumbered by city and smog, the winding paths to castles shrouded in mist, the horse-drawn wagon that lumbered up the path, nostrils steaming? In Lake Titisee in the Black Forest where cuckoo clocks are made by hand, I spent an entire morning studying them in all their variations, admiring the extraordinary workmanship of intricately carved wood and the movements of little people chopping wood or dancing, waterfalls with real water, cuckoos that made all manner of entrances and sounds.  The rest of my family, along with a very patient Christine, left me alone to immerse myself for so long even the sales girl gave up.  I finally made a decision, and wondered then where I would put this piece of art, a little kitchy and certainly with more personality than a clock deserved to have, but I didn't care.  I had snapped off the branch of a tree in this forest and I wanted to bring it home.  A cuckoo clock, chiming as it does every hour, making a group of merrymaking dancers swirl to the rhythm of a minute hand, will certainly not let me forget.  I want to put it over the kitchen sink where I will see and hear it every day as it's the second busiest room in the house and certainly the friendliest.

I have my photographs too, and the memory of exploring winding cobblestone streets in three different languages, all within a short distance of our base in Freiburg, with people whose company and conversation I happily soaked in over steaming cups of dark chocolate and shared pastries.  Part of the joy as a traveller is hands-on experiencing things that  are passing through the centuries untethered to us, knowing they will flow on to an infinite future.  I think that's why we travel, to engage on a grander scale and perhaps become larger in the moment because of it.  And on a personal level, the most memorable trips are also about the essence of the more ephemeral aspects of the journey, the things we do not expect, the moments of deep connection that provide a more complete understanding of our human nature, seen through a different lens.  But it does involve other people, and that's a risk.

If we are open to it, sometimes traveling takes us places we cannot foresee.  And sometimes our memories fade until only the essence remains.  I'm going to keep writing until the whole picture is revealed.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Middle age: The Goat Years

I remember vividly a conversation I had some years ago with a co-worker who had just turned 40.  This woman, a gorgeous, dark-haired femme fatale of Greek or Spanish ancestry, maybe a mixture, told me in no uncertain terms that when a woman hit 40 their body would start to go bad faster than potato salad on a hot day.
     She'd just had her birthday and was now 41 and apparently in that 12 month period between celebrations things had started to go horribly wrong.  Nothing life-threatening, mind you, just the kind of things that one takes for granted: strong bones, low cholesterol, endless energy, stomach of iron, non-wobbly arms, etc.
     Apparently she was grappling with all of the above in one degree or another, which was unfortunate because she was the designated looker in our office, wearing very high heels and tight skirts, glossy hair tumbling down prettily, tossed occasionally as she passed the worker-bees in their cubicles.  I think she had taken for granted her special place on the pyramid of wannabes and it was a shock to realize that she was.....human.
     I nodded sympathetically when she came into my office with her dire warnings about aging.  But what she didn't know was that I was actually a couple of years older than her (not that it was any of her business) and I didn't have any of the aforementioned maladies that had suddenly descended on her.  But then again, I am more of a Pippi Longstocking, than a Kate Middleton and everyone knows (especially Pippi) that red pigtails are the secret to longevity and good health.
    What I wasn't to know at that point was that certain things were beginning to happen as estrogen flees, as it does for all of us now that supplements are strictly forbidden, and over time, oh so slowly, they began to manifest.
     So what am I confessing?
     I have great blood pressure, no cholesterol, heart problems or the like.  So far I have the same energy my much younger friends have who, like me, have hoisted babies, run after toddlers, and now must have the brain superpower to solve our elementary school children's advanced algebra problems and outwit them in every-increasing games of 'but why?"
    When I began this blog eight years ago I was, like actress Nia Vardolos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the mother of an adopted child and an Instant Parent (the title of Nia's new book).  And for a while there I was floundering, alone without much help and parents who were far away both geographically and from the memory of other grandchildren who were already growing up into scientists and engineers.  Being an older mother did give me new lease on life and may have staved off some of the reckoning that comes with... well...getting older.
    However, I have discovered some weird things that make me believe the human organism is very odd indeed.  Take facial hair.  My mother has always had peach fuzz, and like mine, is delicate, very blond, and almost invisible except if you put me under a strong light and stare.  But at some point my mother's peach fuzz started to mix genders and went from quaintly feminine to alarmingly and pointedly masculine.  The field was invaded by some random DNA from a Victorian uncle with stiff whiskers and bushy eyebrows. Some of the blighters are long enough to point out the directions on a compass.  And quite effectively too.
     My mother has macular degeneration, which she has successfully staved off for more than a decade to lead a fairly normal life, but she cannot read anymore and she certainly can't see the whiskers either.  It's kind of a yin/yang thing because what she doesn't notice, she doesn't care about.  But even with good eyesight they're trickly little devils, like weeds they find innocuous places to crop up and can be hard to detect.
    Which brings me to my face and the peach fuzz I inherited, along with a host of very good genes from both sides.  Although I have no idea what happened to the skirted beauty who once flowed through our office as if on a chariot of good luck and hope she has found balance, I do know that she was right about one or two things.  Or six or seven.  I now find myself regularly feeling my face like a hairsuit man who needs to shave before dinner, rubbing my hand along the contour of my chin feeling for the stubble that yes, inevitably comes back every week.  My mother warned me never to pluck because she said they would come back stronger than ever.  Oh, the things my mother warned me about that I completely ignored!  Aside from bushier and bushier eyebrows which I trim with the precision of a Japanese bonsai fanatic, I now sport a billygoat chinny-chin-chin and naught can be done about it.
    I suppose I could spend a pot of money and have the offenders electrolyzed permanently but then what fun would that be?  I've come to like them.  Maybe I'll give them names.  They do remind me that I've been damn lucky to have had not much else to complain about in what is becoming an increasingly longer life.
    My father has always said I'm a glass half-full kind of person.  Let's just hope I never have to put my teeth in it.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Kite Runner at last

Trying to get back to a normal sleep routine after a topsy-turvy travel schedule from half-way around the world is a mixed blessing.  A couple of nights there was a tangled bundle of arms and legs stuffed like a tortilla between the two of us as our daughter's internal clock tricked her around 2 a.m. and she wasn't about to hang around in bed all by herself. Climbing over me and shooing away the dog sandwiched in the trough seemed like the next best thing to not missing school.
   I might have woken up on and off myself a few nights in a row but I did catch up on movies - some very good ones that I'd somehow missed. For this clandestine activity, a subscription to Amazon Prime and an iPad by the bed is very helpful, along with a pair of earbuds, a couple of times covered by a sheet like a kid with a flashlight and a really good book.

I love to go to films on my own and I see almost every good one that comes out but surprisingly I missed The Kite Runner and this one I watched in the early morning hours of the weekend. Embarrassingly tardy since I've worked on two fundraisers for the novel's author, Khaled Hosseini, who has a foundation that provides shelters for families and educational opportunities for girls in his native Afghanistan.  I got involved because Hosseini is the cousin of a friend, the amazing Maral who owns a unique clothing boutique in our small downtown shopping district.  Maral has an ongoing and ever-changing collection of couture, runway one-offs, and other exquisite pieces which she mixes with finds, small design labels, chunky Afghan jewelry and one treasure after another.  The fundraisers I've helped her with are fashion shows featuring items from her collection and she manages to make the women (mostly customers) of every size and shape look beautiful, fabulous, and very sexy.  Who wouldn't want to wear clothes like that?

Maral was very excited that Hosseini was to be the beneficiary of her show and auction, and he sent along signed copies of The Kite Runner, and one of A Thousand Splendid Suns to auction off.  The novels had been recommended to me many times but during periods when I was writing myself and was avoiding reading someone else's good work.  I think I thumbed through a copy at a bookstore and had a general idea what it was about but the film was so visceral and stunning I felt like a complete fool for having waited so long.
    The experience left me with an overwhelming desire to see Maral.  I knew her father had passed away when we were gone,  but it wasn't just that.  I'd been skirting around the edges of her culture, brought in as an observer, but only to the immigrant she had become, straddling worlds, one very far away.

The store was quiet when I arrived, and Maral wasn't there.  A friend, also Afghani, was minding it for her.  I browsed through the racks and somehow the subject of Hosseini's book came up.  She smiled and told me that her story was not so different. When the moujadin were fighting the Russians, she had three small children under five years old, and a comfortable life in an upscale neighborhood of Kabul.  Life before the Russians is remembered in many fictional works by Afgani authors, none more poignantly than in The Kite Runner.  Everyone with enough money to find a way out fled during this time, and that included Maral, her family, and her friend, who as she stood there, calmly recounted her exodus.  
    They left everything in their house.  Furniture, artwork, dishes, photographs, toys, clothing, everything.  Forever. She had one small bag, two children in hand, and a baby on her hip.  When they neared the Pakistan border, she told me, they ordered everyone out of the car.
"They told us it was too dangerous because the Russians would bomb any vehicles near the border," she told me. "So I had to walk for two hours carrying my baby."  She was smiling as she told me this, but I knew that the distance from the memory was hard-won. "You know, in Kabul in those days, before the Taliban, we wore Western clothes, like this," she indicated her skirt and blouse.  "And we had to put on a burka when we fled, it was so dark and difficult to see, I kept tripping on it."

As a fellow immigrant I do understand something of a sense of loss when it comes to being separated from your primal roots and I asked her if she ever wanted to go back, even for a visit.  He people, after all went back thousands of years there.
"No," she answered firmly.  "I am afraid, and it is not like it was when we lived there. The people are different."
A pre-war scene from The Kite Runner came back to me - the vibrant, noisy markets, busy daily life, children running through the streets with their colorful kites, hundreds of them dipping and diving in the sky. Then the images after the Russians and the Taliban had swept through, the litter, broken buildings, fearful shadows, skies empty of the now-forbidden kites.

"But what about your children?" I asked Maral's friend.
"They grew up here," was her simple answer. "They are happy and I am happy.  I have my mother and father, aunts, uncles, cousins. Everyone I love is here."
    Her daughter, she told me, married a Japanese/American man, and another child married a German. It was clear the family with an ancient familial legacy had truly embraced the new way of things and it had changed their future forever.

American troops may be muddying the political and social situation in Afghanistan but families like hers are here to stay and the connection, at least for the foreseeable future, is gone. And by a trick of fate and the growing personal connection to Maral's world, mine, it appears, is just beginning.

For more information on Khaled Hosseini's work in Afghanistan:

For more information and great photographs for Maral Designs: