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


video


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:
http://www.khaledhosseinifoundation.org/about-ourwork.htm

For more information and great photographs for Maral Designs:
http://www.yelp.com/biz/maral-designs-san-pedro


Monday, April 08, 2013

Germany: Living with history

Like my father once confessed to me, I am not a traveller who likes to spend too much time in museums  or great landmarks.  My photographs, posted daily on Facebook are more impressions of these icons, given equal value with a vibrant purple houndstooth tulip potted on a doorstep, interesting shutters and gates, or a 19th Century cast-iron post box with a white dove in relief holding a long-awaited letter.

Who doesn't like getting a letter in these days of emails and tweets?

I was also chided by friends that we barely appeared in these photos, another weakness of mine - I am behind a fourth wall of sorts, the invisible observer, coming and leaving with barely a trace save for the images I capture.  In the foggy cold, hidden behind scarves and woolen hats, we may not have left much of an impression anyway, and that's the way I like it.  I'd rather live somewhere than visit, but often don't have the luxury of the time necessary to come in from behind the wall that separates tourists from reality.

Our trip to the Black Forest region of Germany came in the late, record-breaking cold of March, a foggy, grey, wintry landscape that slid even into April, with bedraggled but persistent shoots of spring bulbs forcing their way through snow just as we were decidedly undaunted by the lack of accommodating weather.  It hardly mattered because this journey was more about the connection we made to one family in the Medieval town of Freiburg than any great structure, no matter how many hundreds of toiling years it may have taken to present itself to us.  A family that came into our lives serendipitiously and created the impetus for the spring voyage to their homeland.  To Deutchland, the Fatherland.  The images and memories of war were never far from any of our thoughts and they flowed in and out of the conversations during long nights fueled by schnapps and mutual trust.

I am a postwar baby, distant enough from the two 20th Century world wars to not feel connected to them as a witness, but as I grew up and began the inevitable questioning nature of my life as a writer I began to get images and impressions from aunts, uncles and fathers who began, not unlike the spring bulbs too early in the season, to force their way out from under the wintry silence to talk about those years.  I learned that my father had never seen action - by quirk of fate he was too thin (and had grown three inches right before he became eligible to join) to be accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Although the intervention of his father, a paymaster in the army, provided him with a last-minute chance to switch from his army regiment as they readied to ship to England, he declined.  He had already bonded with his buddies and this probably saved his life.  Instead he was stationed in England where he worked as a military hospital orderly.  Seeing the gut-wrenching violence inflicted by conflict in the wounded that came in waves for treatment was enough, but not enough to give him the kind of post-traumatic stress that eventually felled his older brother as he struggled with alcohol addiction for the rest of his life.  He told me not too long ago that he opted to train for the Pacific front after Germany was defeated.  Most others were too wearied and scarred from years of fighting and were content to wait until they were de-mobbed, but my father left England almost immediately and was set to travel to a U.S. Army base (Canadians were not in the Pacific conflict).  But the war ended there too before he could make his way down.

I did grow up with a continual moving image of the stories of war. From Hogan's Heroes, to The Great Escape, King Rat, Bridge on the River Kwaii, Kelly's Heroes, later overlaid with black-and-white images of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belson, revived every time I came to know a child of one of the survivors.  I met many sons and daughters of parents who had immigrated to Canada after the war and these were men and women with scars so deep they cut into the lives of the children who were born to them decades afterwards.

Coming to Germany brought with it so many images and stereotypes, it was difficult to find a blank space with which to begin. Our hosts in Freiburg were the first Germans we truly spent time with, and their warm and generous welcome contrasted vividly with the occasional chilly glances from some of the older generation toward our multi-national family as we passed them in our travels (a new experience for us as Angelenos).  Difficulty accepting anything 'different' is a human quality and I remember feeling the same way in rural Kansas when we visited my in-laws and I'm sure it would be a very different story in multi-national cities like Berlin. These strangers who passed us were only a small part of our experience very different than the many kind and helpful innkeepers, shopkeepers and guides we met along the way. When people asked us later if we found the national character to be distant, we could only really speak with any depth to our welcoming hosts, as they were the heart and soul of our visit there, the fabric of lasting memory.   In this regard we were so lucky: Our families were destined to meet  because we'd hosted their daughter, Christine, an exchange student the previous year and her grasp of English was so good that we spent many long hours talking over the dinner table.  It formed a lasting bond that motivated us to visit her in her home town of Freiburg.

Almost at once our newly formed group fell into an easy comradarie, and we found them to be  extraordinarily forward-thinking, generous, and candidly introspective as we compared our cultural differences.  But what struck me was how seamlessly the subject of the WWII came into conversation, a subject I never would have dared broach on my own.  The first time was when we were poring over a map of the city to map out our way to various points of interest when Seigfried, who was a child during the war, pointed out that most of the buildings had been rebuilt after the area was nearly decimated in a bombing raid by the RCAF.  Siegfried was born during the war years but had children later in life.  His son, just eighteen, looked a bit askance when his father brought it up, but we took it in stride.  What was there to say?  We were simply glad that he, and the beautiful historical buildings painstakingly reconstructed to their original grandeur, had survived somehow.

References continued to pepper our evening conversations, sometimes to the relationship between Germany and the U.S., still resonating with the gratitude felt by most due to the sense of forgiveness by the Allies after the war and the desire to get the country back on its feet, in stark contrast to the policies of the Soviet Union who wanted a weak post-war neighbor to assimilate into its empire.  I would hear these references and then at night in our hotel go online and educate myself - The Berlin Airlift to a starving a city trapped inside Soviet East Germany, the building and separation of the Wall, the terror of East Berliners escaping the checkpoints, a fractured nation trying to put itself back together.

There were other conversations that touched on Germany's cultural personality, disciplined, industrious, and a hearty disposition.  A constellation of traits that at the best of times brings it prosperity (as it does today as the strongest member of the EU), and then, as can happen with a healthy tree that grows unabated until it begins to dominate everything around it and block out the sun, was what Siegfried referred to as the fear by outsiders that Germans would become 'too strong'.  Our world history is made from the fabric of conflict - thousands of years of history between nations and tribes large and small, a century encompassing two major wars; so many millions dead, so many scars, and questions as to the mystery of  our human inability to temper and control the forces that can begin so productively.


But it was the last meal we had together, Easter lunch, where the worlds came together in ways that were so unexpected.  Siegfried's younger wife, Angela, a beautifully voluptuous doppleganger for my sister Peg, had invited her mother, sister, and brother-in-law to the feast and we sat at a long table laden with traditional holiday food prepared for us.  Not everyone spoke English at this meal and there was a lively interchange of both languages, translated and commented on, and it was nearing the end of the meal when Christine was scrolling through photos on her iPad and found several of her mother and father's ancestors.  These old photographs inevitably led to stories of the young men pictured who had been in the wars, and Siegfried then left for a moment and came back with a packet of letters tied in a string.  He explained they were from his relative who had been in the Russian Front in the latter part of the last war.  Written on onion skin, the envelopes bearing the familiar stamp of Hitler's Wehrmacht (Military), and written in orderly script with a fountain pen, Christine opened one and read the account of misery from a young soldier who would soon die, a lonely boy who despaired of ever seeing his family again, who railed against the empty promises of his superiors who told him they would soon be home - "they have said this for years", he wrote.  He seemed to have no answer for his purpose in a cold and desolate land where he was stranded, and there would never been a definitive one for the Germans who would inherit and grapple with his failure.

I happened to have on my iPhone, photographs of a diary that my aunt had given me last year to copy - a small pocket-size red-leather daily calendar carried by my grandfather during the first war, written in cramped pencil as he laboriously recorded the battles raging around him as he hunkered down in his trench, the accounts ending only when he was shot in the leg and removed to a hospital where he wrote pages and pages with the refrain - "today it is very bad, the pain is very bad."  Although he almost died from his wounds, an infection that was controlled by a miracle in pre-antibiotic days, he survived to go home though his brother, Townley, the handsome, cocky, and brave younger brother, did not. Townley was one of Lord Strathcona's Horse, a famous armored mounted unit that ended a centuries-old tradition with one last charge at Moreuil Wood in March, 1918.  Despite his assurances in a letter home that he felt invincible, he wasn't.

Siegfried then told me his father had also been in the Somme - and imagining as we had to, the men opposite each other in this desolate place, we sat in silence at the table considering the testament in these documents, an extraordinary connection of the pain and suffering brought on by war, the prices paid, the loss of innocence and purpose.

So many images of Germany remain, many of them magical, as we toured a wintry landscape filled with picture-book villages, and the cobbled streets of towns rich with history.  Some of them were unbidden, as the many times I would stare out into the forests and wonder if I had to flee would it be dark and silent enough to shield me.  I couldn't help it. I want to know my own true nature, what would I have done faced with surviving against such odds. My history is not yet written, not all of it, and these exercises are not limited to the Black Forest or the formidable winter Alps separating death from freedom.  We live in an uncertain world and madness bubbles up and reminds us that we are all called to be watchful.  Here, in the land of war and peace, we were by the grace of this family, linked to the history of a place still so fresh in the souls of all its inhabitants, whether they spoke to us of it or not.  We were so fortunate to be entrusted with the bridge where we could meet and feel out this connection.

This memory remains above all.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

SpaceX: The New Normal

I grew up with the NASA space program in the news at regular intervals but I had no ambition to be an astronaut until I was too old and hadn't enough of a grasp of basic math to realistically consider this as a career option.  But by the time I had reached the cosmic age of 40 the idea of going into space had become a bit of obsession.  A dreamy one, to be sure, but linked in with a newfound fascination with theoretical physics in general, superstring theory in particular. It seems I skipped the basics and went straight to Einstein territory which made perfect sense to me.  Which is odd given I was still adding some numbers using my fingers.

Paper astronaut for a day - no other photos allowed


When I say I'm really, really bad in math, I am also proof that old brains can still learn because now I'm back in fourth grade with Sweetpea, learning about algebraic formulas, variables, and building a backbone of memorized times tables.  I have to do this in order to check my daughter's homework and it can easily take me twice as long as it took for her to dash it off.  But miracles happen. Weeks of correcting thirty-two math papers as a volunteer in her class every Monday and I may be able to keep up yet.

I most certainly will never be at the level of the hundreds of MIT/Cal Tech/or other Ivy League graduates who had found employment at SpaceX, one of three new private space enterprises in the U.S., but I was grateful nonetheless. A friend won this amazing opportunity at a fundraiser and was kind enough to include me.  Yippee!

I was here to see rockets.

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, is located in nearby Hawthorne, and was begun by Pay Pal billionaire, Elon Musk.  It's a knife-edge, dot.com culture run with massive brain power and a work ethic tuned to making the space industry competitive and accessible.  With two successful launches and dockings with the International Space Station (the second just this week), they've proved the nay-sayers satisfyingly wrong.  Musk recently told reporters he named the capsules Dragon because of a remark made when he was starting the business that his dream was about as viable as Puff the Magic Dragon. Another of their rockets, the Falcon, is named after Hans Solo's craft in Star Wars. Musk, who knew nothing about rockets before founding SpaceX, was bright enough to bring aboard enough starting expertise to become an expert himself and is in the office at least three days a week when he is intimately involved in every aspect of R&D.

Musk was not in the day we had our tour, but we were given amazing access to almost everything in the plant (with the exception of a room with Top Secret government clearance for reviewing certain documents - hmmm about aliens, perhaps?).  Our guides, the assistant to the CFO and COO, along with a very nice guy who's job at SpaceX is to bridge the technological gap between scientists, builders, and laypeople, brought us into their conference room and showed us a couple of videos about SpaceX and their story.  Then they led us past offices with the names of several NASA astronauts (who are more likely consultants and spokespersons), past a vast network of cubicles filled with above-mentioned very young engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and into the plant where they build their rockets.  Our guide told us they take all their employees straight out of school, and do not employ any ex-NASA staff.  His explanation: "These kids are used to a 24/7 challenge environment in school and they have the work ethic we need here."

As a commercial enterprise SpaceX was envisioned as a cost-effective, one-size fits all model, with a fraction of the workforce NASA once employed (I think the construction crew numbers were 20,000 vs. 100 at SpaceX).  In a re-purposed aviation hangar, they make everything in pieces, and most of them are re-usable after re-entry.  Our first stop was to view the two Mission Control rooms they've built which will be in constant use because they plan to be putting missions out every day.  Inside these glass-walled rooms with their banks of giant screens, technicians launch SpaceX missions from Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg Air Base.  Gone are the days of blinking digital screens and clunky hardware.  The technicians we saw in Mission Control that day were running dozens of computer models and launch scenarios as part of their R&D.  Nothing in this building is wasted.

The SpaceX hangar is basically an assembly line - many of the workers in this area are not engineers or computer geeks, but they work in close proximity and in relationship with them.  They are welders, fitters, metal guys, working in aluminum, carbon fibre and a few other proprietary materials developed by SpaceX.  These materials are so secret that they don't even issue patents, lest the technology be 'borrowed' by others, as has been so often the case with China and other developing nations who don't want to put in the time  themselves.  One such material was the new two-inch coating they put on the capsules to replace the heat tiles developed by NASA.  This material resembles ceramic but is lighter and a thick skin of it covers the capsule seamlessly so no tiles can break off.  This material, which is formed, extruded and baked into any shape they want is also re-usable, along with the entire capsule.

In this cavernous building with eight story ceilings, pieces of rockets lay and stood in various stages of assembly.  From what I remember (and for more complete information visit the SpaceX website) they have three different models and they all use the same propulsion system.  One is a basic, unmanned capsule for re-supplying the Space Station (SpaceX's current contract with the U.S. Government), and the other two are in development - a manned capsule (we saw the current prototype) and a cargo ship for taking satellites up to orbit.

All are straight up, old-school models and unlike NASA's vehicles which required massive moving vehicles, a 747 host, or barges to move around, these units are all made to transport on a standard tractor-trailer.  According to our guide, NASA's shuttle might have looked pretty, but rocket fuel is dangerously volatile and failure is a reality (as we all know from previous disasters). SpaceX engineers and designers decided to keep the payloads on top of the fuel, rather than joined to it.  They've even developed a quick release system so that if things start to go bad, the payload can be quickly separated and with it's own propulsion system, descend safely back to earth.  An important factor in a commercial venture where your payload must be delivered, or in the worst case, put on another launch.

We spent about three hours there, and marvelled at the simplicity of this assembly-line approach.  The first cargo ship, a large egg-shaped module, was under construction when we came by, and because it's made of only 4 inches or so thick of honeycomb aluminum covered with a baked skin of woven carbon fibre, the whole thing is feather-light by rocket standards and can be moved by a few men.  We gathered around one of the three 10' shiny aluminum engines that mix fuels and oxygen in a delicate dance to provide the massive lift necessary.  Our guide promised he would explain how it worked so we would understand and he delivered.  SpaceX is currently working on how to bring these massive (and costly) engines back to earth - currently all of the rocket stages that provide the initial propulsion separate near the edge of space and burn up on re-entry.  As part of their reuse and recycle ethic, the engines are currently the biggest loss during a mission.

The company model works brilliantly because of the symbiotic nature of both aspects of the process: The R&D team works in close proximity to the construction process, and what they envision they can test quickly as they go along.  There is even a 3-D printer where they can create a part specific to their needs and use it right away.

In this age of global crisis and the specter of a war-mongering Republican once again in the White House, this visit to the land of dreams realized was a balm to the creative and inspirational soul. Musk has told his staff that his goal is to retire on Mars and he's 41, a thrilling possibility to envision.  I understand where he is coming from because I've always argued that we would get off this planet and begin our next historical migration before we fixed our inter-populace issues here.  I'm a realist, and being at SpaceX confirmed human beings seem to be moving ahead much faster on one area of our brain development than the other.  We can get to Mars but we cannot settle our differences and live in peace.  Such is our struggle.

SpaceX: The Final Frontier. For a girl who wants to go to space, this three hour tour of the fantastical world of Mr. Musk may be the closest I get, but it was a tactile connection that was as satisfying as any I could have imagined.

For more information on SpaceX, visit them at http://spacex.com
Over and out.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

London Papyrus

My time in London was short and focused on gathering research on Margaret Forde.  The public records office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast yielded precious little: A letter from Margaret's husband, and older Mathew to his son, on microfilm, and tangential references to the family, but not much else. There were many references to the Fordes in the massive Abercorn collection because Margaret's family came from a long line of this Earldom.  For those interested knowing more about the Abercorns, now a Dukedom which survives and still remains intertwined socially with the Fordes to this day, here's a link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_of_Abercorn

One gem I did find at PRONI was Margaret and Mathew's 1670's original marriage settlement, a giant piece of supple vellum, very thin calfskin which was the choice for all legal documents and proved to be quite durable, pliable, preserving ink better than anything on paper.   The vellum documents in the Forde's collection were in excellent shape, but unfortunately this one at PRONI was in such degraded condition I didn't dare unfold it more than to view the top of the document, and even then, bits of musty brown pieces flaked off.  The box was damp, and the reference title mis-labled (the date was incorrect) and it was disappointing to think PRONI couldn't do better.  But to their credit when I brought the document up to the archive assistants they promised it would be taken to the manuscript restoration team for evaluation.

The marriage settlement, which outlined the dowry offered from the bride's family to the future husband and an allotment provided by the father of the groom (an exchange of money and property that only involved the men as was the custom) was the closest I came in Ireland to touching something that my ancestor had put her hands on.  There is no substitute for this kind of continuum, and thrilling to think that the DNA from her resting arm as she carefully signed her name to the document was mingling with mine as I gently swept my finger across it.

But there was a promise of more in London that kept me going.  The current Forde heir told me he'd seen a letter from Margaret to her sister, but when I registered at the front desk of the British Library and obtained my mandatory reader's card, there seemed to be no mention of this or any other document referencing the Fordes in the searchable database.  Discouraged, I mentioned this to the people at the reception desk, and one of them said he actually remembered the letter from when he'd been working in the manuscript department. Quite a lucky coincidence given my few days there.  More importantly he cautioned the letters were not located under the Forde name but in a subset under a different author.

If it hadn't been for this friendly staffer, I might not have been as persistent with the archivist in the manuscripts department who eventually located some of the letters.  Although the elusive Margaret Forde item wasn't there, I did find a series of letters to one of her sons, from husband Mathew, and sister, Lu.  During this time period it became obvious by the tone of the father's letters that Mathew II had ditched his university education and was hanging out with his other 'gentlemen' friends doing pretty much nothing except lounging in his club, eating well, and playing cards.  His father, who was experiencing scant revenues from his tenants due to various skirmishes between the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland, was feeling the pinch of his son's debts in London.

The letter that most interested me though, was from his sister Lu,  because the desperation in her pleas to a wayward brother was evident in the tiny but meticulous script that covered every available inch, and sideways on the margins - faded but still readable on the square of linen paper bearing the fold marks from it's original small square shape sealed with wax as was the custom. It was a true window into the language, culture, and humor of the day.

I've excerpted a small sample here, with highlights.  Many words are spelled differently and are not errors. I've included some of the old words, but I've reconstituted some of the contractions that make it difficult to understand (i.e. y(r) is 'your' and y(u) is 'you') 'ye' is used interchangeably for 'you' and 'the' but should be clear in the context of the sentence.  I also added some punctuation because, as I mentioned in an earlier post, they don't use it and it can be damnably hard to understand in its absence:

To: Mathew Forde, Esq
The Golden Cup, Covent Garden
September 12, 1695


I am very sorry to find, my Dear Brother, so uncharitable as not to comfort his poor sisters in affliction, for I assure you we were never in more need of it, your time, your attention, and your greatest satisfaction we are capeable of receiving would be to hear often from you.  .....I have been a great while in debate whether I should write to you or not, but my good nature has got the better so last night I was much afraid I could not have brought myself to stoop soe low but I find great misfortunes like mine humbles one mightily as well as ye pleasures of London make you take apon yerself.  But when I consider yet you have to write but once to our faire kindred in Dublin yet (we) are so deserving.  I don't much wonder yet you should not think of a country girle, you may venture to call me for I am in despaire of going to Dublin before I see you.  Your honor we have lately  acquired has disappointed us of our expectations.

(she goes on this vein for another 30 lines before finally getting off on to another topic)


As for news, you don't deserve I should send you any, nor indeed I have not much at this time. We have been very dull ever since ye parliament for it has taken away most of our fine sparks as we have a very great want of my Lord Anglissy as he used to furnish us with all ye diverting news of London.  I suppose you know of all ye weddings yet has been in Dublin so I will only give you an account of one we are like to have here in our neighborhood.  It is between Mally Masterson and one Mr. Wise, who is very far from being (a gentleman like you) but he has 7 hundred a year and ye thing was proposed by his friends before the young couple saw one another and there was no great love in ye case.  He came to see us the other day and we were sent for to give our opinion of him but I never saw anything more comical. He never was in Dublin but once, but had the good fortune of meeting with an extraordinary dancing master, whom he lives for, and he could not rest till he then takes part in dancing a minuet which he did with his girl and ye company burst out laughing and they were forced to break off in ye middle of ye dance with the poor lover who was very sorry but had not the sense to take it all in.  I could say a great deal of him but fearing I have bored you already.
       I must now bid you adieu assuring you I am, Dr Brother, your affectionate sister Lu.
      My sister is so gerry with you yet she wishes me to say nothing for her poor George is going to Dublin to be flux'd for his eye.  Mr. Dawson and Mr. Carr bid me to give their service to you and tell you they have a very great want of ye at ye Tavern where you used to meet.

Eventually Mathew III came to his senses and returned to Dublin to take over his father's estate, and also stood for parliament in Dublin.  But later correspondence with this father (who by then was in better financial straits), showed he was still a bit of a spendthrift as he wanted to enlarge the house in Seaforde (possibly a 'shooting box', a smaller mansion used for hunting season as the main estate was south of Dublin) and his father cautioned him to scale back the project, and to be cautious with the equally ambitious architect.  These renovations were never made, and the house was destroyed by fire in the early 19th Century.  The current house was rebuilt shortly thereafter.

Below is a sample of a legal document from the 17th Century on vellum (this one is actually a handwritten copy of the original made by the solicitor because of its importance).  As this one, from a private collection, was several pages long it was bound with a large 'staple' top left made of something that looks like cat gut (flexible but strong).  All documents carried various coats-of-arms wax seals of the parties involved attached to tiny vellum tags at the bottom, and other seals as required if it was folded and secured for privacy.

Documents at PRONI and the British Museum could not be photographed nor photocopied, so I had to transcribe them all by hand.




I may not yet have put my hands on a letter from Margaret Forde, but these other snippets are equally valuable as they illuminate both the differences in our time, and the similarities of human nature, which changes much more slowly.  Probably much more slowly than we would like to admit, as the answer to conflicts seem as quixotic as ever.  Women in love.  Marriages of convenience.  Wayward sons.  Religious & Ethnic War.

Something quite rich to mull about as I start working on the framework for the new novel.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Old Families

My very deep thanks to the Forde family for their generosity as they shared so much of their lives and history during our brief visit there.  As I look forward to the next 12 months of research, reflection, and the painstaking process of creating a story worth reading, I am acutely aware of the boost all of these have been given by my time in Ireland.  Some gifts are truly priceless, and they change you.....


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Carriage House, Dundrum

View from Dundrum Castle

Decades ago in California there used to be reasonable and interesting B&B's like the one we found in Dundrum, a tiny village on the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland.  But now these 'small hotels' have morphed into ultra-luxe, romantic getaways with a hefty price tag to match.  The idea of a true home-based visitor experience has become a commercial enterprise, and travelers are the poorer for it.

The Carriage House B&B



Fortunately, this kind of unique visitor experience with its taste of local culture and cuisine is still to be found throughout Europe and the UK.  And The Carriage House B&B, with its views of the tidal Dundrum Bay leading out to the wild Irish Sea or the flower-filled private garden out back, offers just the kind of pampering and personal service that brings closer the joy of exploring an area.

With prices under $90.00US per night,  (a bargain for a pair of travelers sharing) the room we had featured crisp ironed cutwork duvet and linens, simple and elegant, with comfortable beds.  Owner, Maureen, has converted four of the bedrooms in her house for guests.  With a private en suite and plenty of fluffy towels, our bedroom was furnished with just enough useful antiques (desk, chair, mirror) to not overcrowd, and the cushioned window seat looked out over the water beyond.  This active tidal bay was fascinating as it emptied down to the sandy bottom during the morning hours, allowing farmers to dredge for the scallops and clams we enjoyed at the local restaurants for dinner.  As the day progressed, the water level rose enough to float boats, and this swift process made for great viewing, but tricky for swimming, which is prohibited.

Maureen prepared a full breakfast for us every morning, including homemade jams, and my favorite, rhubarb compote.  Rhubarb is popular here in Ireland, along with black currant and I enjoyed these flavors in everything from yogurt to throat lozenges.  The back garden of the B&B was filled with birds who feed off the fruit scraps our hostess provided, and although not at the time of our stay, she usually keeps a hen house out back as well, for fresh eggs.  The hearty wheaten and soda breads were all baked locally.



The Carriage House is located on the main street, but traffic is sporadic and quiets completely at night when the only passers by are on their way to the slightly bigger village, Newcastle, to the south.  During our first day there we hiked up a steep hill behind the B&B to Dundrum Castle, where  neighborhood boys were playing soccer.  We were the only other visitors, another advantage of off-season traveling.  Once a stronghold overlooking the bay, this castle was built in the 13th Century , destroyed, and rebuilt over the centuries as so many are in this area, subject to various invasions, (including an ancestor, King John, in 1210), religious skirmishes, and a civil war.  You can still see the battlements, and the grassy, enclosed keep where knights practiced their swordsmanship, and the view to the village below is as charmingly bucolic and a picturesque as one imagines Ireland to be.





Since Dundrum has only a couple of restaurants and the main one was closed the night we arrived, we drove down a few miles to Newcastle.  This larger seaside town at the base of the Mourne Mountains is a true holiday destination, with plenty of activities for families, old-fashioned candy shops, and several beaches, some with swimming pools adjacent.  There are also natural sulphur hot springs in the southern edge of town, some enclosed and some built onto the beach.

The weather this time of year is variable and although we had sunny periods, the windy days were also spectacular on the open sea.

Newcastle on a stormy day