Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Room With a View

My husband set up his tripod at 3 a.m. to capture this active sky. This was the view from our hotel room on the night of our 24th anniversary. In its beauty and drama and paradoxical serenity, it was probably a good metaphor for our day.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Curating Hate

Glenn Beck said: "This is a day that we can start the heart of America again ... it has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with God ... turning our face back to the values and the principles that made us great."

Field Negro said: "Back to the values that made us great? You mean like the ones that said it’s cool to enslave people because they weren’t really people? Those values? Sorry, I think I will pass. Whenever I hear certain folks talk about going “back” to the good ole days, it makes me a little nervous. I will just keep it pushing forward if you don’t mind."

I'm with the Field. 

Fox News agitator Glenn Beck organized a "Restoring Honor" rally in the shadow of Lincoln and Martin yesterday, not coincidentally the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The stated goal was to inspire a return to "the principles of the founding fathers," which coming from Beck is code for a return to the time when rich white men ran everything and black people were considered by law "two-fifths a man."

Ironically, this return to the principles of the founding fathers doesn't square with the opposition to the Islamic Center near Ground Zero, because didn't the founding fathers hold up freedom of religion as a sacred principle? Beck and his Tea Party followers are spouting some scary stuff, people. More code talking with dangerous intent. I have this uneasy sense that this is what Germany in the mid 1930s sounded like, felt like. It's all about fanning the flames of hatred, of us versus them, of enshrining white legitimacy and the vilification of "the other"—blacks, gays, Muslims, immigrants.

To wit: Last week in New York, a passenger asked a cab driver if he was a Muslim. When the cabbie replied that he was, the passenger lunged at him, screaming, "This is check point! I'm taking you down!" while stabbing him repeatedly in the throat, neck and face. Fortunately the cabbie, a naturalized American since 1973, survived. But this is what Glenn Beck is inciting. This is what Sarah Palin with her "Reload!" mantra, is inciting. 

This is not supposed to be a political blog. It's meant to be a little family blog with photos and a bit of therapy thrown in. A place to write myself out of a funk, or set down moments I want to remember. But today, my funk is all about the extreme right's careful curating of hate.

Even the staging of Glenn Beck's event appears deliberate—take a look below. There are many photos from Hitler's speech at Nuremburg to support the possibility that Beck's rally was intended to stoke a very particular kind of sentiment, consciously or more likely unconsciously. I just can't bring myself to post more photos from that hateful event on my sweet little family blog.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fighting for Henry

Henry, younger
Katie Granju continues to fight for answers to what happened to her beloved son Henry, who died of injuries sustained in a brutal beating coupled with a drug overdose in late May. I continue to be haunted by this story, in part because I realize Katie could be any one of us caught up in a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. Katie's story makes me pray, because I too have teenagers, including a son born just 3 days before Henry. This week my husband and I delivered him to college. How different the story could be, and how deeply grateful I am that there were no tragedies greater than a broken cell phone. I believe that if certain things had been different, Katie, too, might have seen her son, an addict, turn the corner and fulfill the promise of the good loving man she knew he could become.

1. If someone had called the police after her son was beaten, instead of offering him another dose of lethal opiates, Henry might have been here.

2. Henry lay for most of a day and night, battered, overdosed and nearly lifeless in a house with two unrelated adults. If one of them had had the presence of mind to call 911 hours earlier, Henry might have been here.

3. Henry tried to call his mother before going to that fateful drug buy in a Knoxville parking lot. The call never came through. If he had reached his mother, might Henry have been here?

So many painful what ifs. But Henry is not here. And now Katie fights for answers that will give meaning to the pain she is going through. She believes that Henry's story can yet heal us. Take a moment to visit Katie's blog today. She asks some hard, disturbing questions.



Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Case of the Broken Cell Phone

My son is addicted to his iPhone. I don't mean that in a figurative way. I mean it in the most literal way you can imagine.

On Monday, we packed up the car and drove our 18-almost-19-year-old son five hours north to deliver him to his sophomore year of college. Coincidentally, it was for my husband and me, our 24th wedding anniversary. But the two of us enjoy this parenting gig so much we were not in the least bit put out at spending it ferrying our eldest and his bangarangs (that's Jamaican for "belongings") back to school. At least, not until our son walked into a bike rack on campus and broke his iPhone.

He could not believe it wouldn't turn on. The thing looked perfect, no cracks, no scratches, no dents. Just a blank, dead screen. And this during his first hours back on campus, when everyone, everyone, was texting plans for the last two days before classes started. Never mind that our boy was also still working out his withdrawal from his overseas camp cronies (including a young woman) via texts between here and the United Kingdom (a lot of the counselors at the camp he worked at are British). He ran back to his dorm room and plugged the phone in to charge, in vain. He googled troubleshooting tips for iPhones that won't turn on, to no avail. At that point, he called us.

We had just finished checking into our hotel and were on our way to a late lunch, just the two of us. Of course, we ditched our immediate plans and rode to meet his emergency. We swung by the campus and picked him up, and also his cousin (my niece who goes to the same college), and drove him to the AT&T store to see if he could salvage things. He was distraught, but he had just been paid for his summer job so he had the money to replace the phone. The problem was, there was not a single iPhone of any incarnation to be had, not after all the international students had purchased their spanking new phones. My son buried his head in his hands and moaned. He seemed to be in physical pain. His mood plummeted. He got crabby and snarky. I tried not to get crabby and snarky back (with minimal success). He didn't want to go to dinner with us after all. Could we just drop him back to his dorm so he could be miserable in peace.

That's when I told him that even though we were acting like our anniversary wasn't a special day, in fact it was, and could he please look past his tragedy for a moment and act like he cared. I was hurt by what I saw as his spoiled, self-absorbed behavior. My husband tried to take me aside to entreat me to let it go. He knew my son was operating on one hour of sleep from the night before (after he packed, he had gone out to meet friends in New York, a see-you-later bash to welcome the new school year). And my dear husband, also the devoted owner of an iPhone, understood better than I did just how much had been lost. "You put your whole life in that thing," he told me. "Just let him process it."

So I backed off. And my son did decide to come to dinner with my husband, my niece and me. At the front door of the restaurant was a big group of college kids who yelled to him when they saw him. All of them were fellow trackies (members of the track and field team). Why hadn't he been answering their texts, they wanted to know. The rest of us continued into the restaurant, so I'm not sure how my son responded. From his dejected posture I surmise that he shared his predicament and explained that he was now obliged to have dinner with his family. There was much sympathetic backslapping and then he joined us inside.

I ordered one course and ate quickly. I was grateful for the chatter of my niece, as my son was mostly broody and silent. I could see he was exhausted both from running his body for too long and from the emotional toll of not being able to connect with friends he hadn't seen all summer. I wanted to rub his head and tell him I appreciated the effort he was making, but I thought it would irritate him. Instead I just acted like everything was fine, and then we took both kids back to their respective dorms and went back to our cushy hotel. We chose a nice one in honor of our anniversary, and we weren't disappointed. The service was wonderful, the little grace notes in the room just perfect.

But the next morning, I awoke with a hole in my chest, missing my boy, knowing there was no immediate way to contact him short of staking out his dorm room, which even I knew not to do. I sent him a message on Facebook inbox and asked if he'd had any new thoughts about replacing his phone. The evening before, he had refused to consider getting any phone other than a new version of the one he'd broken, but now I suggested he get a cheap phone just so he could stay connected while he worked out what to do.

As my husband and I were driving to breakfast, he called from his roommate's cell phone. I repeated my suggestion about the cheap phone. He agreed and asked if he could go to breakfast with us and then he could pick up a cheap phone at the mall. Otherwise, he could ask one of his friends with a car to take him. I didn't bother to pretend that I didn't welcome the chance to see him one more time before we left town. Once again we diverted our plan and went to pick him up from his dorm. We had a pleasant breakfast, though he was still a little down.

Afterward, we took him to a Radio Shack where he purchased a Go Phone, slipped in his SIM card, and began to visibly brighten as all the missed text messages started rolling in. Then he figured out from talking to an AT&T rep in the mall that even though they didn't sell his version of the iPhone any more, he could find replicas online. She had just purchased from Craigslist the exact model he wanted, 3GS, 16 gigs, white casing, for $200. He brightened even more. "Pops," he said, "can I hold your phone?" And right there, while walking alongside us in the mall, he pulled up a page full of possible replacements.

Now he was himself again. Or rather, he was his better self again. And so was I. We proceeded to shop for detergent and a laundry hamper and garbage bags and other such sundries of dorm life. He even invited us up to his dorm room when we dropped him off, a smart move, since of course we helped him organize things a bit. But then his roommate arrived home, and I didn't think it right for us to linger. So we hugged our boy and said our goodbyes, and then my husband and I set off to finally celebrate being married for 24 fast and wonderful years.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Status Update

On Facebook:

My teenagers are back in the fold for a brief sublime moment after their summer adventures. They have no idea how happy it makes me to gaze at their sleeping heads.

Friday, August 20, 2010

My Old People

My aunt, the one who lives in the Bahamas, sent some pieces of her jewelry with my mom, and asked her to give them to me and my daughter. For my girl there was a round, faceted crystal necklace and earrings to match. For me, there was a string of pearls so vivid you knew they were the real thing. "Why doesn't she give this to one of her daughters?" I asked my mom, confused. "She wants you to have it," my mom replied. "She said she gave other pieces to her girls."

Then my mom pulled out some jewelry boxes of her own. "I brought these for you," she said, handing me a black velvet box which contained diamond and emerald earrings and a necklace to match. "After we retired, I told your dad to give me emeralds if he wanted to give me jewelry, because that's your birth stone, and it would be going to you anyway." Then she proffered a blue hinged box. Inside was a silver tie clip with a small scrolled design that I remembered so well. It was the piece my dad wore every day, along with his decades-old round-faced watch, which my mom gave to my son some years ago. Sitting in a drawer in my mother's house in St. Lucia for the 14 years since my dad died, the tie clip had become a little tarnished. But there it was, a memento of my father, a thing he had touched every day.

I suddenly understood why my old people are trying to give away pieces of their lives. It is so that they will be remembered and thought of by those they have loved after they pass on. I recalled my Uncle Charlie offering his box of tools to my husband in the months before he died. That box of tools now sits in the back of our Jeep, and every time I look at it I remember my uncle.

I took the tie clip, and the pearls, and the diamonds and emeralds, and the crystal pieces. My aunt and my mother are not gone from this earth, not yet. Thank God, not yet. But I will cherish these offerings. Of course I would have remembered my old people without these objects. But holding my dad's tie clip I realized how much it will mean to have something they touched and enjoyed while they were alive. So I will cherish that they wanted to give these tokens to me and to my daughter, as I will cherish every moment that I still have with them here.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Talking in Code

There has been such a hue and cry in New York City about whether an Islamic community center and mosque should be built at a location near Ground Zero. I listened to the outcry in its early stages, not particularly attentive because I just knew that common sense would prevail and the mosque would be built, freedom of religion and all that. Then I realized the rhetoric was getting more strident, not less, and soon the Tea Party was involved, marching in lower Manhattan with signs bearing hateful slogans, and the president himself was weighing in, and the polls this morning showed that 63 percent of New Yorkers and 62 percent of Americans were hotly opposed to locating a mosque near to the place where almost 3,000 Americans perished in the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Would anyone have objected to a Christian church being built on the site of the Oklahoma City bombing? The terrorist in that attack was an avowed Christian, yet people would have seen any Christian monument as a gesture of hope and faith and healing. Four blocks from Ground Zero, however, a mosque represents to most of those polled a recruitment center for terrorists. In this equation, every Muslim is a terrorist. Some Tea Party members have even gone so far as to propose that the building of mosques in America be banned altogether. These, of course, are the same Tea Party politicos who advocate repealing the law that says all children born in the U.S. are American citizens, even those whose parents are not already citizens. Ironically, many of those making such statements are the descendants of immigrants and refugees themselves, only their ancestors came from Europe, not Mexico—brown babies is who they're really talking about here. Their outrage is code for "Brown babies will never be true citizens of America." It's part of the Tea Party's drive to "take back our country." But take it back from whom, exactly?

I'm naively dismayed by the ugly rhetoric about the mosque at Ground Zero, though I expected as much from the immigration debate. Tea Party conservatives seem devoted to whipping up racial fears as a means of securing their political base, and they rally arround any issue that holds the promise of that. But I refuse to believe that they will prevail. The young people I talk to on college campuses, those I meet through my children and in my work as a journalist, are far more open-minded that the epithets thrown around by Tea Party rabble rousers would indicate. By law, the forces of fear cannot stop the building of the mosque in lower Manhattan. Last I heard, the constitution of the United States of America was still the governing document. Freedom of religion. And all that.

All the Magical Children

Some of the cousins at Sea World, summer 2001.
See them here eight years later.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Meanwhile back at camp

My son is a very fit physical being, which fascinates me, given the extent to which I am not. His body works optimally, and I love to watch the way he moves, with such unconscious ease of motion. I am glad he was able to find that particular expression in the gene soup that was given to him. 

Here's my son doing swimming instruction at camp. These were on the camp website this morning. 

And here's one of the goofball we all know and love:

Both kids come home this weekend. Then they have one day to do laundry and pack again before leaving for college (my son) and soccer preseason camp (my daughter). Talk about overscheduled.

My daughter called me this morning for her social security number. She was filling out her very first tax withholding form. I asked her if she missed having down time between Italy and camp so she could process her travel experiences. She said no, it was a good thing that she'd gone right to working at camp. She said the other kids from the trip were feeling very melancholy and wanting to go back to Italy, whereas she was busy and happy in the woods.

Then again, my girl has always had a particular talent for being fully engaged in whatever is happening right now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

24 Years

I love this man. In a week
we will celebrate 24 years.
That's us on our honeymoon.

Companions on the Way

Well, what a tsunami of emotion passed through yesterday! I am happy to report that my mom and niece arrived at 2 a.m. this morning, both hale and fresh-faced despite the late hour. My mom is certainly smaller, as if she's shrunk a couple inches on all sides, but her spirit is as robust as ever, and I am so thrilled to have her here to just hug and spend time with. Truly, I can hardly wait to get home from work today just to see her.

My friend Steve from Shadows & Light left me the most wise comment this morning. It possesses an awareness no doubt cultivated in his Buddhist practice. Steve, I so appreciate your taking the moment to tug my sleeve and remind me that we are each here on our own soul journey. I will try to remember what you've said in the weeks ahead.

For now, my best service is to take care of my mother. She is so grateful for everything, she makes it easy. I am feeling grateful, too. Especially for those who walk alongside me in this life. And for everything, really.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Sorrow This Morning

I am sad. So very sad this morning. It's Monday morning, for one thing, a bleak, gray day, and my husband has already left for work, so the house is quiet, lonely. My mother arrives from Jamaica tonight, along with my niece on her way back to college. I am about to be very busy, too busy to tune in to what I feel, which can be good, except when the feelings lie unattended beneath the surface, coiled and waiting to strike.

The last time my mom was here, which was June to December of last year, I swallowed so much of what I felt because I just wanted to make her happy. But it was hard in many ways. My mom gets so distressed by what goes on in her big sister's household, the way my addict cousin behaves towards her 91-year-old mother. It breaks my mother's heart to see it and she cannot accept that she cannot make it better (you begin to fathom where I get my own fix-it stripe). And so she tries to explain to my aunt what she needs to do, how she needs to interact with her daughter, and my aunt, of course, doesn't follow her advice and my mom gets frustrated and hurt and saddened by the daily abuse (not physical, but abuse all the same) that my cousin metes out, the harassing and brow-beating my aunt for any dollar that comes into the house, the conflicts with the home attendants, the way she will take unused groceries back to the supermarket for the money, the mess she leaves in her wake, the intoxication. My mom cannot grasp that she cannot fix any of it. My aunt will not allow her child to be turned into the street, and no one will allow my cousin to come live with them (you cannot blame them) and the recent attempt to get her into rehab failed, so she is in my aunt's house to stay. My mother cries all the time at what her big sister must endure in her final days. "She doesn't deserve this," she weeps. "She was such a wonderful sister."

I can keep what I feel about the horror show over at my aunt's house at arms length most days, but when my mom is in town, her involvement is so complete, her desire to fix things for her sister so second-nature, that I spend all my time trying to shore up my mother's mood, moderate her distress, create a peaceful cocoon around her. I get sucked right into the vortex of what is going on with my aunt and my cousin and I have no real skin to keep the terrible sadness of it at bay. I absorb the mood around me. I drink it all in. And then minor shifts in the wind become major tragedies. My husband might be cranky over something at his job (he has a very difficult boss), and I will feel it as a deep personal rejection of our connection, when in fact it has nothing to do with me, with us. My son, engaged by his life at college, won't call or text, and I will feel that as abandonment and lack of love, even though I know better.

I am bracing myself for the emotional rawness I always feel when my mother is in New York. I love her dearly. I want her here with me. More than anything I want to make her happy and comfortable, to make her feel as cared for as she has made me feel my entire life. I want to take her places, fill her life with stimulation and experiences. But there is only so much I am ever able to do, given her increasing frailness of body and the larger realities of our lives.

I miss my kids. I feel so alone. The sorrow this morning is overwhelming.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sweet Summer Night

It's been a long, hot summer in New York City, but yesterday, the punishing humidity finally broke and the citizens came out  in grateful hoards. All summer the streets of the city have seemed unnaturally empty, and I couldn't figure out whether people were at their country houses or just indoors, unwilling to brave the heat. Maybe they were just indoors because last night the streets were filled, the atmosphere almost like a carnival.

My husband and I and one of our friends went to hear Ruben Blades at Jazz Out of Doors at Lincoln Center. I had walked by the plaza earlier in the day with another friend, where we discovered that free outdoor concerts would be happening all day. But the main event was last night. By the time we arrived, well before the evening concert was to start at 7:30 p.m., the place was packed, with nowhere to sit or stand except by the steps at the back of the bandshell area. Once the music started, we realized that we couldn't hear very well from there, the sound was too diffused by trees and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, so we decided to leave and have a glass of wine together in a sidewalk cafe.

We strolled back to the main plaza and watched the fountain do its dance for a while, along other refugees from the concert, then we found a table right there in the outdoor plaza cafe and sipped and chatted and happily people-watched, one of the great entertainments of the city. I loved being out in the New York night, the air so gently breezy, the twilight so crisp, the people coming and going in animated silhouettes against the lighted fountain. The very air was full of that particular electricity that makes me love the city, even after all these years.

My husband and I will have been married 24 years in a week. He is still my favorite traveling companion, the one with whom I most enjoy sharing nights like this. We walked hand in hand with an easy, aimless feeling, and I realized how much I have missed being outdoors this summer, especially with him.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I'm not particularly clear on what I'm feeling lately, hence the picture-heavy posts. I figure I can use this space to record photos I want to look back on until I'm ready to write my way out of the fog. My mom arrives this coming Monday. Her flight gets in at midnight. After that, I will no doubt be too busy to ruminate. Already I'm cleaning and sprucing up her apartment. On Sunday, I will lay in groceries, including lots of colorful fruit. And I will buy her flowers.

Here are some pics from when my mom first moved into her little studio across the courtyard. We call it her treehouse.

My mom's windows are large and airy and look out at trees.
The ceilings are very high, giving the space a loft-like feel.

Those are my feet. I'm snapping this pic while lounging in my
mom's recliner. The lamp is a lovely fake Tiffany number. 

This is the view from my mom's window one rainy morning.
She chose this studio for the green she sees outside. 

Say Cheese

We dropped our daughter off at camp this weekend, and spent most of the day in the woods with her and our son and some of his camp "siblings." It was visiting day for the campers, so most of the kids were off campus with their parents, which left the young adult counselors free to pose for pictures at will. All these kids, now in college (but for my daughter), have sprawled and slept in and filled my living room for years now. They do grow.

Student Chefs

American teenage chefs in Asti.
My girl is second from the right.

Brand new chef uniforms.
You can still see the creases. 

From a text my daughter sent me right after her group got to Asti and the culinary part of their trip:

ps. WE GOT OUR CHEF UNIFORMS. THEY ARE SUPER ADORABLE AND HILARIOUS AND CHEF WORTHY AND SOOOO LEGITIMATE with the hat and the apron and the coat and we have checkered pants and like a napkin to wipe our hands its soooooooooooooo fancy.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Full House

Tomorrow we drive our daughter up to camp in Connecticut, where she will be a counselor assistant for two weeks, making a little pocket money before August runs out. She is in her room packing again, having done her laundry and put away everything just two nights ago. One of her friends, a young man my husband refers to as Young Master K., is keeping her company as she packs. Nice kid. He's one of my daughter's best friends from school. 

We've had a houseful this week. My cousin and her two daughters and another friend of ours were in New York from Maryland. In addition, my daughter and some of her friends went to the beach yesterday and a couple of the kids came home with her to hang out some more. One is sleeping over. People are resting their heads everywhere, on the bed and on comforters on the floor in my son's room, on the pull out sofabed in the living room, on the trundle in my daughter's room. I feel two ways at once: I am a little overwhelmed with all the feeding and caring, but I also love all the activity and laughter and crosstalking and people falling over one another. I grew up like that. 

Still, the time to debrief with my daughter about her trip has been limited. But it's okay. We spent a wonderful day together on Wednesday, waking up slow, then eating asparagus spears grilled in olive oil and black pepper for breakfast (she made them), then a good ole American burger for lunch (my daughter was craving one), then her doctor's checkup, then a movie (Twilight Eclipse), then Bed Bath and Beyond for new bathroom mats, then Urban Outfitters for some jeans shorts for camp, then Duane Reade for replacement toiletries for camp, then the supermarket for houseguest groceries, then strolling home in the heat close to 9 p.m. Soon after that, my cousins arrived and the party was in full swing.

Standing in the middle of Broadway earlier that day, waiting for the light to change, my daughter took my hand and said, "You know what would suck? If you felt awkward with your mother. That would really suck. I don't feel awkward with you at all." And then she put her head on my shoulder and we both sighed happily.

Life is made of such moments. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


My daughter (center) with her host family
in San Sebastiano, Italy.

She's home! My daughter's Italy group arrived home near midnight last night after spending practically the entire day in transit in Paris. There was much hugging and crying among the teenagers at the airport during the leavetaking, although my daughter told me later that when she saw us, her parents, and when I held her, her tears were from happiness at seeing us. She swears this is true! She says five weeks of traveling with the same 11 people was just long enough to be ready to come home, despite the fact that the entire social, cultural and culinary adventure was, by all accounts, an unqualified success.

The absolute highlight for my girl was her 18-day stay with her host family in a village in Napoli. This is a photo they took in the courtyard of their home. I am struck by how happy my girl looks, and by the loving way the family encircles her. I am very moved that on the other side of the world, people I do not know took such good care of my daughter, making her feel welcome and cherished and fully at home. Thank you, Montella family, for seeing, really seeing my daughter. Our home is open to you should you ever wish to visit New York.

One of my daughter's host sisters is her age.
They are such beauties.