Archived Post August 2009

August 2009

What Matters



“. . . Roll down the window, put down the top.  Crank up the Beach Boys, baby don’t let the music stop.  We’re gonna ride it till we just can’t ride it no more. From the South Bay to the Valley. From the West Side to the East Side. Everybody’s very happy ‘Cause the sun is shining all the time. Looks like another perfect day. I love L.A. (We love it) I love L.A. (We love it). Look at that mountain, look at those trees, look at that bum over there, man he’s down on his knees. Look at these women there ain’t nothin’ like em nowhere. Century Boulevard (We love it), Victory Boulevard (We love it), Santa Monica Boulevard (We love it), Sixth Street (We love it, we love it) We love L.A. I love L.A. (We love it), I love L.A. (We love it), I love L.A. (We love it)!”
                                                                                                                                              ~ Randy Newman ~

          Having spent many of my formative years in an area prone to earthquakes, one of the things which you get used to, besides the ground shaking and dishes rattling are relatives and friends from “back east” calling to see if you are okay, every time the news reports a tremor.  The answer was always yes, we are okay.  Maybe something had fallen off of a shelf or we had spent a few minutes standing in a doorway or crouched under a school desk, but even the Northridge Earthquake which I happened to ride out at Melody’s, a friend from high school, had been okay for me. 

         Late last night, I sent a quick email to Melody to find out if she and her family were okay.  The news of the fires in Los Angeles looked ominous and while I hate now being one of those “back east” over reacting to sensational news stories, I was still worried.  She thankfully replied quickly, as no reply would have been more upsetting.  Her children were safely tucked away with her sisters, but she had literally been in the smoke for days, and the fire lines were creeping closer to her home.  This is not the news you want to hear.  With the evacuation lines only blocks away, she ran down a quick list of what she had been doing, and what she would take with her, if she had to leave.  The rest was in God’s hands.  She sounded exhausted, and my heart broke for her.  The news does not appear better today, as the fires seem to have gotten worse where she lives.

          I went to bed thinking about what Melody had said, and needless to say had a restless night.  Faced with life and death, it seems that we quickly assess what matters and figure out what we try to save.  She had of course already secured what was most important, her children; but I pondered what she must be facing and I thought about how difficult it must be to stand staring at what we come to call our life – the things which we collect, dust, arrange and rearrange, and wonder how much of our house can we fit in our car? 

         I know that now living in a place where we have to deal with hurricanes, it is certainly a check list we have made. What is it that matters and why?  It is of course the why, more so than the what, which weighs on you.  Kate well knows our list includes a couple of old Bibles, things on the walls, as I have a tendency to frame more than I should, the photo albums, the laptops and our magic super secret drive, where Kate, our security expert locks down our world (I feel certain she will be unhappy for me to publish this secret), and bedding – yes, we have an issue about our pillows and blankets.  The list then grows.  If there is more time or more space, clothes and the overnight bag would also come, scattered mementos, and Pooh mugs and hall closet full of coats – Kate’s collections, not mine. 

            Thinking about Melody, I could not help but remember her scrapbooks, which she did not mention trying to save.  When I was in high school, I made a scrapbook.  It was sad truly.  I glued and taped ticket stubs and theater and baseball game programs into an old green scrapbook which I bought at a second hand store.  I went in chronological order and captured my four years at Delano and El Rancho High Schools.  There are a few pictures, ribbons from football games, political souvenirs, airline and train tickets, and notes and cards from friends and family members, as well as, a graduation announcement.  I went on to make a similar collection documenting my freshman year at the University of Redlands, where Melody and I had gone off to college together – though she wisely abandoned me there after the January term that we spent in Mexico, which earned a tiny scrapbook, that Glenda, a post for another day, inherited.   I then made a book for my trip to Panama, the summer after my freshman year, and my first trip to Europe with Glenda.  That was it.  I gave up scrapbooking.  Melody, however, took scrapbooking to an entirely different level – she quite literally created works of art and history that managed to perfectly preserve moment in her life, with extraordinary care and detail.

            I know that today scrapbooking has become a hobby and growth industry which still leaves me in shock, when I walk through craft stores.  My sister, Joy, is a true paper artist and has even taught classes on scrapbooking, but back in the good old days, when Melody and I began scrapbooking there were no clever little machines, stickers, and cut outs – it was just sheer ingenuity.  Melody found books with acid free paper, from Hallmark, I think.  Who knew?  She took perfect pictures, when taking photographs was an unaided art – film, camera, and eye – no Photoshop and digital camera and one-click fix.  Melody cleverly wrote captions for all of her photographs – brilliant!  Oddly, twenty years later one does forget people’s names and exactly where some picture was taken or why it had mattered.  She even had a bookcase designed to store her scrapbooks.  I have always thought I would will my four little scrapbooks to Melody, though I know they would feel grossly inadequate in the presence of her master pieces.  I can just imagine what she has created to document her children’s lives. 

            I wanted to write back and ask her about the scrapbooks, but I did not.  I also wanted to hop on a plane and offer to help man the garden hose, but I did not do that either.  Instead, I went to bed and again thought about how spread out our lives are and how much I wish I could pull the people I love in, and force them all to live on my street.  I know that is not an option.  It had been a long week.  My cousin had surgery in New Mexico, my brother-in-law had surgery in Massachusetts, Kate was off to Puerto Rico, on business, and Melody and her family were facing raging fires in Los Angeles. 

            Among the treasures Melody mentioned was a Mickey Mouse bank I had given her years ago.  She had determined that would be saved.  I was touched that it mattered to her – not the bank maybe, but the memory of the bank – the memento of our friendship.  I had laughed this week, as Kate washed a green glass plate, with an etched design, and commented on how it had been so wise of us to buy the plate, as we got so much use of it.  Kate is famous for having no memory of where the things in our life came from; the green plate was not the exception. 

        The plate was a gift from Lia, who now lives in Greece, an ocean away.  I do love that plate, and I actually remember the day she gave it to me.  She had found it in west Los Angles, during a lull in one of her classes, at UCLA.  I keep fruit on that plate, and often use it to serve cookies or cheese or anything else, as it seems to make all foods look better; but also because it daily reminds me of the many wonderful meals Lia and I used to share.  Melody’s wire dress sculpture sits beside Lia’s plate, next to Beth’s candle holders, on top of the book case which Charlie, Kate’s grandfather built, in front of a painting which Stephanie made – that is why the things matter. 

          We do fill our life with things to dust and organize but all of the things have meaning and they remind us of the people we love, even when they are miles away.  I am worried today.  I understand that as we stare at life and death, paper and glass objects may have little value; and that the people we love are kept in our hearts and minds – a lesson repeatedly learned for so many reasons, including exile.  But there is comfort in seeing the things which remind us of the people we have loved and shared our lives with, even when they are currently miles away.  Nevertheless, I hope that you and your family are safe today Melody, and that your home and your scrapbooks are spared this devastation.  I am remembering with you and of course praying for you, your family, and the City of Angles, where so many of my fondest memories were made.  That is all for now.

~ M ~

August 2009

Inspiring Lives


‘In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad.
One day somebody in the crowd identified me. 
Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. 
Now she stated out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
            ‘Can you describe this?’
            And I said: ‘Yes, I can.’
 Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”
                                                                                                      ~ Anna Akhmatova ~

           There are moments when all is right with the world.  Over the weekend, my kitchen swirled with delight.  Sweet and savory aromas intermingled, embracing in a provocative dance of taste, texture, and color which would beckon my guest to the table. 

           As I prepared for the arrival of our dear friends, Marcial and Adriana, whom I have often mentioned, on these pages, I thought about our last visit on the 4th of July. 

            Marcial and Adriana, along with their two remarkable children, will be celebrating their fifth anniversary, in the United States, on August 31.  Before a single soul lifts their voice to protest wet foot dry foot or any other foot, they emigrated from Canada, where they had migrated to, from Cuba.  Like so many immigrants before them, their years in the United States have been marked by countless hours of hard labor, working not only to assimilate and master a new language, culture, and country; but striving to establish a new life for themselves and their children.  Rarely, has a conversation transpired between us all, where I am not left marveling at their tenacity and latest accomplishments. 

            On the 4th of July, they had invited us to dinner, to see their new home – the finished product, if that is possible with a house.  Kate and I had been there during the moving-in weekend, to share in the joy of achieving home ownership, and that portion of the American dream; but what sheer delight to see the fruition of their efforts freshly painted and tastefully decorated.  We sat down to an exquisite dinner.  I do not think Adriana will mind, if I give Marcial most of that credit, as it is he who is the chef in their home.  Marcial is an excellent cook, and like Ms. Julie, one of two people who so often cook for us.  Thank you both. 

            After dinner, we toured the Big Five Club, which Marcial and Adriana had joined, since moving into their new home, and where the family was enjoying working out – yes, they also all look great.  The Big Five Club was a very pleasant and unexpected surprise, in my continuing Cuban education, since moving to South Florida.  Years ago, I read a small paragraph about the club in Joan Didion’s book, Miami, not imagining that I would one day tour the grounds with actual members who happened to be friends.  The Club was created in the late 1960’s by Cuban exiles who had once been members of either the Biltmore Yacht and Country Club, the Casino Español, the Havana Yacht Club, the Miramar Yacht Club, or the Vedado Tennis Club, in Havana, before the Revolution of 1959.  It had been the hope of those exiled founding members to create a place where the best of Cuban culture and family life could be preserved and celebrated in America.

            Yes, I confess to having watched too many Doris Day movies, as a child, and being overly impressed by the notion of country clubs, but strolling through the grounds of this club stirred me in unexpected ways.  As we walked and heard the history of the club, which has been victimized by both Hurricanes Andrew and Wilma, and certainly been transformed by time, I could not help but marvel that Adriana and Marcial had found this wonderful place to play cancha, (a racquet game) and do aerobics.  Standing in front of a bust of Jose Marti, I looked at Marcial and Adriana and thought their American dream was over flowing with bounty. 

            This weekend, we were ostensibly getting together to celebrate Marcial’s birthday, which we are sorely late in doing.  However, it was impossible for his moment in the lime light not to be eclipsed by his daughter, Patricia, which I do not think he minds.  Yes, Patricia has also had a recent birthday, always something worth celebrating; yet even more noteworthy, after having graduated from high school with the highest of honors, she is about to embark on her collegiate career.  Patricia, who was recruited by some of the finest colleges and universities in the country, has chosen a prestigious Ivy League campus, in New England.  While I have had no part in her accomplishments, I cannot help but feel proud of her and overjoyed for her and her family. Congratulations Patricia!

            It is been an honor to listen to her parents, during this last year, as they spoke of this process, and to now watch as they beam with well deserved pride, as their daughter gets ready to partake of yet another piece of the American dream.  This is an accomplished young woman who is equally at home in both the sciences and the arts.  She has a seemingly endless appetite for knowledge and worked tirelessly to succeed and prepare to make her mark on the world.  I cannot even imagine what wonders await her; but I wish her the very best as she ventures off into yet another new world. 

           She graciously and patiently tolerated all of the advice which Kate and I offered, though at the end of the day, I think her life is proof that her parents have already instilled in her the tools she needs to go forward and live life to its fullest.

           Allow me to also add that while her younger brother is not yet ready for the Ivy League, I have no doubt that this young man, who is also an outstanding scholar, athlete, and well rounded individual will continue to succeed, maintaining the family’s high standards, in his own right.

           On Saturday, I called Adriana, to check on some detail for Sunday, and found her studying.  That evening they were going to a dance, at their club, but the afternoon was dedicated to preparing for an exam she would be taking at work.  As long as we have known her, she too has been expanding her field of knowledge and further mastering her skills; just like her husband, whom Kate has always said was the most dedicated person she has ever worked with.  This is how the American dream is achieved.

           After dinner, we have Cuban coffee.  I serve Marcial in one of my eBay purchases.  A Limoge demitasse from the World’s Fair in Paris.  He immediately brings up Jose Marti’s travel to Paris, and I think, ah yes I do so love these people.  While Marcial is one of the computer wonders of Kate’s world, he is also a man of art and history and literature.  What a lovely and inspiring evening.

          There are no complaints that the government has somehow failed to properly provide or cushion their landing, nor are there expectations or demands for someone else to meet their needs.  Instead it is an evening of self-empowerment and the opportunities that America offers.  The hardships we all know and face, but how shall we deal with what is difficult, complicated, and exhausting?  I feel proud, and yes I think of my father.  I remember my father taking us to see the Statue of Liberty, soon after we moved back to the States, from Puerto Rico.  We climbed into her crown, up winding stairs which grew smaller with each step, and I think about the pride that my father instilled in us, regarding America.  He never stopped being Cuban, but not even Patrick Henry matched my father’s oratory skills when speaking about what America had to offer; and how there was no place else in the world like the United States. 

        Marcial and Adriana have also taken their children to Lady Liberty and to tour our nation’s capital; and I well remember the excitement they felt at being able to so easily access the halls of government.  America is and I think will always be a country of immigrants.  We are enriched by those who come here and choose to make this their home; I am, however, not naive.  I know that sometimes no matter how hard we try the best that we can do with lemons is lemonade; but there are those moments when genius creates lemon curd or lemon meringue pie or lemon sorbet.  God given talent and ability, nature and nurture, opportunity and plain old luck do play a role in our lives and what we are able to make of them.  Yet, I think there is a part of us, as a nation and a people, which is often lulled by the comforts we have always known.  Of the many things we can provide our children, after faith, I think travel and interaction with other cultures and countries is one of the greatest and longest lasting gifts. 

          After our visit to the Big Five, we went back to Adriana and Marcial’s home, where cradled by nostalgia, he began to speak about Patricia’s early childhood and how difficult it had been to provide for her the basics needs of life.  Pureed chayote, a gourd not traditionally consumed by Cubans, was the mainstay of her diet, and he spoke of soap, to wash her diapers, as if it were more precious than gold.  He continued talking about having eaten brown sugar, to appease his own hunger, until now he can not bear to even look at it – you do what you must to survive.  There were many stories left unspoken, and the romantic in me thinks that after Patricia cures cancer, ends hunger, and establishes world peace, she will find time to write her family’s story.  Until then, I shall continue to celebrate their efforts, with respect, admiration, and gratitude for their friendship.  That is all for now. 

~ M ~

 August 2009

 Visions of Sugarplums


“Hello All!
I know it is only July but it never seems to be too early for this family to start thinking about Christmas right?”
                                                                                                           ~ Beth and Kyle ~

          A couple of weeks ago, I had a long strange Monday.  I awoke to find everyone, in my household, engaged in telephone calls.  I turned on my computer, and instead of reading the news, I checked my email and found a surprising note from my niece, Beth.  She and her husband, Kyle, had been talking about Christmas, and thus began a series of very clever emails that came from Maine, Massachusetts, Florida, and Australia. 

          Beth and Kyle were proposing some changes in our Christmas gift giving, and as the day progressed suggestions were made, ideas were proffered, and suddenly there were more members of my family engaged in this “conversation” than there had been in any conversation since last Thanksgiving, when we are normally all together.  It was a lovely Monday. 

          I ended my day alone, watching Avalon, while everyone else, in my house, slept.  Avalon is a film which chronicles an immigrant family, of five brothers and their progeny, as they acclimate and assimilate to America and the 20th century.  I remember having seen the film when it was first released in 1990.  As I debated whether or not to check it out of the library, I vaguely recalled that it was a good movie, but that there was something about it that I had not liked.  That evening, as I walked, on my treadmill, I watched it again and recalled that it had been its unhappy ending which I had originally found disturbing. 

          The movie family is initially quite inviting.  Like so many other families, this one pooled their resources to help bring family members to America, and get started in a new life.  They often gather together to discuss the family’s business and to celebrate life.  You find the women working and chatting in the kitchen, and fussing over their children who have instant playmates in their cousins; while the men seem to mostly sit around overseeing their empires after laboring in the wall paper business all day; and telling and retelling their stories, as they offer sage advice.  You feel that they are living a full life in the houses and yards filled with people and tables overflowing with food, loud conversations, occasional arguments, tears, tragedies and enough smiles and hugs to heal the heartaches. 

          The “perfect” movie family is fine until two things happen: one is that they decide to cut the Thanksgiving turkey, without waiting for the brother which is perpetually late and then forever insulted that they did not wait for him, and vows not to return to the family Thanksgivings; the second is the advent of television, which is initially watched for hours, collectively, even though the screen is blank except for a test pattern. 

       As the film progresses and television networks are created, you slowly see the television gain more prominence and power in the family’s life.  By the end of the movie, the narrator of our movie is off to an assisted living facility and his son and family are eating Thanksgiving dinner in front of the television on folding TV trays. 

       I feel rather certain that the writer/director of Avalon did not intend to make a film about how television has become our substitute for human contact; but watching this movie, alone, walking on a machine instead of in a park, it was hard not to feel the isolation of our society.  Instead of playing baseball or going to a stadium to watch a game with thousands of other people, how often do people simply sit in front of a television screen cheering alone? 

        I love television.  It truly is one of the marvels of the 20th century.  The television has allowed us to watch man as he landed on the moon, as we have so recently been reminded, to behold, as hostages and prisoners of war as they are freed and reunited with families, and to ring in new centuries around the globe.  Through television the world and our universe has become smaller and more familiar.  The television and now the computer monitor have become what we gather around to follow breaking news, which we now access with more speed and accuracy than what could have been imagined a hundred years ago.  It is also for so many the differences between silent days and nights and contact with at least some form of humanity.  So often, the television and its counterparts are used as baby sitters for our children and companionship for our seniors; but I cannot help but reflect on what we have also lost.  I wonder if we are simply watching life instead of living life.  Are we using television to replace human interaction?  Is it easier to simply reach out and tune in, to make believe people, instead of dealing with ways to meet our need to touch and interact with other real, live, people? 

        I know many folks which are lonely and often embarrassed to admit to their loneliness, as if they were somehow guilty of something instead of simply being isolated.  In the United States, advances in our standard of living mean that we now have more private space than any previous society – and oddly seem to need rooms to house said televisions or pool tables or simply extra dining room tables, which often seem to live out their entire lives without being utilized except to hold an occasional Thanksgiving dinner. 

          Globalization and technology have created options and opportunities which I certainly would not want to see changed, but I also mourn, at least the concept, of the old neighborhood, where the people you love live within walking distance, as opposed to flying distance.  I wish that our families lived closer and that we were able to interact more freely.  It saddens me to think that we wait for Thanksgiving or Christmas to gather together to share a meal and play charades. 

        I will admit if technology has taken away it has also given.  Our expanding world has also been contracted by technology.  The telephone, computer, and social networking have created a new kind of intimacy which is there for the taking.

         When my mother was here, Kate and I established a Facebook account for her.  What my mother most likes about Facebook are the pictures!  She loves looking at everyone’s photographs, and being able to post a new Bible verse every day.  I think she is still navigating much of what Facebook offers her, but she also has embraced Biblegateway, and sending email – there are issues with following links.  Though she has not given up her local newspaper, which she says is one of the highlights of her day.  She likes holding that local paper in her hands, flipping through the pages and discovering what goes on about her.  I can well understand it all.

         It is only August, but I am already looking forward to the holiday season.  I know that we like to complain about how commercialized the season can be, and how they begin sooner and sooner each year.  Yes, there is something to say for the fact that retailers do begin to push the sell of merchandise sooner each year, and not even I, an avid lover of Christmas want to hear carols in October.  Perhaps the reason we all begin thinking about holidays so early is because we are actually simply thinking about how much we miss the people that we love and are looking forward to gathering around the table and sharing a meal while the conversations get too loud, we eat too much food, and play silly games. 

         So yes, I wish that our family “conversation” regarding Christmas had been in person, but I accept that at least for now, it must be on-line; and I am grateful to Beth and Kyle for beginning the dialogue.  That is all for now.

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