Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hidden Kisses

It's not what you are thinking, this post of mine. Although hidden -- nay stolen -- kisses are a tempting topic to while away an evening of writing. You know, the kind of kisses I mean -- the soft gentle ones that at once comfort and confirm a quiet steady love. Or the first kiss of a brand new relationship -- the one that makes you tingle all over in anticipation. That leaves you wanting and thinking about what may be. Or the sad kiss of good-bye -- this is it, we were great together, but we are broken and we will never be repaired no matter how hard we try.

No, this post is about something more mundane and more profound -- my almost 30-year love affair with holiday cookie baking. I do not know why I started this although I suspect I can trace it back to fudge and friends in college. I can remember mailing a particular package off to London one year (his year abroad) and getting a thank you note some two months later because the friend in question was off gallivanting around the continent during his winter break. Fortunately, England has no central heating and the fudge survived until his return or so HE wrote.

So, here I am, a single professional woman of a certain age living in New York city who makes holiday cookes. Dozens of them. Every December. My friends think it's a bit of an oxymoron -- the overly committed, hard-driving, single career woman who bakes cookies. Did I say dozens? And, can I add usually no less than 7 different kinds? They wonder where I find the time -- and sometimes even ask "have you lost your mind?" Each year, I say to myself this is the last time I'm doing this but the following year, there I am pulling out the cookbooks and the clippings and the recipe cards with the goal of paring it all down. Making less kinds of cookies and making less cookies altogether. Each year, I am reminded of my apartment in the east 20s off of second -- the one with the stove so old that the oven did not have a temperature control. The one where I first negotiated with the landlord -- a new stove, this simply won't do I said when I moved in, you see I bake cookies in December and I wouldn't even know where to begin with this stove. I won -- and he got some cookies that year so I think he won too.

But as I scroll through the recipes, I see old favorites -- the chocolate chip mounds that require a little extra oomph than a toll house chocolate chip cookie; the fudge ecstasies that I now make with dried cranberries instead of nuts, and the oatmeal cookies that are the canvas for all sorts of flavor combinations (not just nuts and raisins for me). And new favorites, the peanut butter munchies and the homemade oreo cookies. And recipes I have never tried that may make the list this year.

I see recipes that make me laugh at the absurdity of the scope of my past enterprises -- I'll never make those again I think even as I look at the recipe and remember the product. The gingerbread teddy bears that require no less than 13 rolled balls of dough EACH and yields 16 very fragile and very beautiful little gingerbread bears. For some reason that recipe reminds me of my apartment on Riverside Drive. The apartment with the kitchen on a wall -- the kitchen with the stove/refrigerator combination unit and the sink that was smaller than my current bathroom sink. The kitchen with 1 foot of usable counter space. The apartment with a peek-a-boo view of the Hudson River and a neighbor who lined his walls with tin foil. A sheet on the floor, judicious use of tables, and I was off and running. That was the year of the hand-decorated boxes -- themed to the person on the other end.

Aah, there is the fudge -- the tried and true standby, the epitome of suburban cooking (like my chicken cordon bleu). The recipe on the back of the, gasp, marshmallow fudge jar. Ours is slightly different my sister would say -- it's not that recipe, that one from the fluff jar. In reality, it is a fudge recipe that involves fluff -- can't get beyond those two facts. It reminds me of a year early on in my adventures in holiday cookie-making where my roommate Gail and I decided we would make lots of different kinds of fudge. We collected our recipes, purchased a candy thermometer, and proceeded to make lots of different kinds of really interesting sauces for ice cream. We laughed at ourselves for days after that. And, the only fudge I know how to make has marshmallow fluff in it.

Over the years, a theme has emerged in my holiday cookie making -- it's the all chocolate show all of the time parade for me. Don't get me wrong, I still like ginger, sugar, and lemon tea cookies. It's just that I've noticed that most people on the other end -- without hesitation I might add -- go for the chocolate cookies. Leaving the others looking a little lost and forlorn -- and ready to be sent to the island of misfit toys.

I'm about 2/3rds of the way through this year in the holiday baking extravaganza. I've used up almost 7 lbs of flour and at least 5 bags full of chips. and just plain old white sugar, and the pecans, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Not to mention the bottles of vanilla, the coconut flakes, the bakers chocolate, the unsweetened cocoa, the butter, the confectionary and brown sugar. The wall kitchen is long gone -- I have a working food processor, a kitchen aide mixer, measuring cups for dry ingredients, and a spatula for scraping down the bowl. I even have a dishwasher and real cookie pans (the kind with air in them). No cooling racks for me -- still wedded to the tried and true waxed paper on the table approach of my mother, the queen of the NestlĂ©’s chocolate cookie recipe.

This year, again, I went through that very same exercise of "why are you doing this?", "do you have the time?", "is there a way to do less?” And, as always, I tossed those thoughts aside as I opened the book -- a small little present ($4.95 at Caldor's) from my mother and saw her beautifully formed handwriting:

And I flipped through the pages of that little book to my favorite recipe -- Hidden Kisses -- and thought, mom had it right on this front. Making and giving cookies makes me happy -- I like putting a little love (as a colleague remarked today) into each batch that I make. I like making the time in my overly busy life to make something that involves all of my senses -- taste, touch sight, smell, and even hearing (my oven has a kitchen timer now -- how grand!). I like the feeling that sending something homemade off to points West, North, and South gives me. A little home-made chocolate cornucopia of love from me to them.

As to my favorite cookie -- those hidden kisses -- they are just a little mysterious, a little misleading, and oh so rewarding if you take the time to bite into one. Because there is that chocolate kiss at the center of a simple cookie dough that surprises and delights everyone who meets this cookie for the first time.

I think I will have one -- perhaps with a glass of milk -- before going to sleep with visions of kisses dancing in my head.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


In just about six weeks, I’m going to Tanzania. The trip – which has been planned for some months now – is all about the African bush. This will be my 3rd trip to Africa and it is to be the first trip where I did not get sidetracked by other things – like culture, beautiful oceans, or history.

As planned, my niece Julia and I are starting out in a mobile tented camp (Serengeti under Canvas). The camp moves around the Serengeti with the goal of bringing guests within reach of great Wildebeast migration. The great unknown of the trip is that there is no guarantee that we will see herds here on the Serengheti or in one of the other camps. The wildebeast were early this year on their journey – passing across the plains in August as they trudged along on the vast circle that is the essence of the migration. We may see them here on the plains or we may see them up in Klein’s Camp or we may not see them at all. Regardless, this tented camp is to be my Isak Dineson moment – in a tent, under a starry sky falling asleep to the sounds of Africa

At our next stop – Klein’s Camp – we will be able to go on night drives. Night drives are memorable, not so much for the spotting of a nocturnal animal but rather the milky way sparkling against the inky black velvet of the great night sky. I see that so rarely from the overly bright East coast of the United States. It is a always a shocker when the guide stops the jeep, turns off the motor, and one is enveloped by the silence of Africa and the sight of the stars. That silence is composed of a thousand small noises – so quiet that the roar of a lion at a distance can be clearly heard.

After that, we go to Ngorongoro Crater where we will bask in the lap of luxury at the Lodge on the rim. I have friends who have stayed here – they talk about the drive down into the caldera -- a long extinct volcano that is something of a natural zoo – permanent home to some 25,000 animals. In my mind, I see it as being a bit like Noah’s ark with all the creatures of the world gathered safely in one place. The game viewing should be wonderful, the meals spectacular, and the time at the lodge relaxing.

The next stop is to be a small camp (Lukulu Selous Camp) in the Selous Preserve – a camp that features bush walks and canoeing as opposed to jeeps. I am looking forward to that -- the notion of getting out and walking – perhaps tracking a herd of elephants – is exhilarating. We are traveling during the short rains so perhaps more canoe’ing than walking

I plan trips like this far in advance – travel is my biggest vice and of all the places I’ve been (29 countries, 6 continents), Africa is the continent I come back to time and again. I weigh the options – and there are many – doing my own research and working with travel agents who know the lay of the land (in this instance, Ginger at Heritage Tours). At this point – with the trip just six weeks away, I’ve made my final payment, scheduled an appointment for vaccinations and to pick up malaria pills, and have papers in hand to get a Tanzanian visa. Planning done – count down begins.

Or so I thought.

Travel is about the unexpected – the beauty of a broken shell on the shores of Cape Cod; the magnificence of a sunset in the Australian outback; a Condor soaring on an updraft in Patagonia; a lodge with space for eight solely for you in South Africa; an unexpected river landing in Alaska. I plan a trip but am prepared for the unexpected.

Two days ago, Ginger sent me an email to tell me that the small tented camp in the Selous Reserve is closing early for the season. Normally it would close in late January but those early rains – the same ones that sent the herds across the Serengeti in August – mean this camp will be closed. Shuttered. No room for me and Julia. You “must be disappointed she wrote” and, I suppose somewhere inside I am but there is a part of me that is shouting with glee! Here is an opportunity to change the construct of the trip. To plan a different ending and to rethink those 12 days in the bush.

The options are not infinite but all are tempting. There is another lodge in the Selous Preserve that I could go to – one that features fly camping and will accommodate shorter walks in the bush. And then there are the beachers and turtles of Zanzibar with a visit to historic Stone Town and perchance to the Spice Market. There is an allure to ending this trip with four days basking in the gentle warmth of the Indian Ocean – days interrupted only by snorkeling or perchance a fishing trip or maybe even a diving lesson. Days for walking along the beach or napping on a swinging bed. Those are the types of days that I long for when I’m sunk into the hurly burly of my day-to-day life.

That night in a fly camp on the sandy beach of a river has great allure as well. I suspect that is the more true Isak Dineson moment -- a more bare bones approach to the wilds of Africa than the mobile tented camp on the Serengeti. It holds the promise of a quiet moment to be alone with my thoughts as the sun drops in the sky with the sounds of Africa around me.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reading and Writing

I am a facile writer – by that I mean I am comfortable writing a wide range of documents and can generally write pretty quickly. Lately, at work, I’ve been looking to make every word count, putting myself on a word diet as it were. That kind of work writing is always with purpose – I know where I want to go when I sit down to write. It’s about writing the most compelling grant proposal (show me the money!), the strongest letter of support, the best analysis of a piece of legislation, the most strategic memo. It’s not always easy to write with purpose but I always manage to get it done.

I am also an omnivorous reader. It started in the first grade when I read my way through those laminated cards that we had instead of primers. Although I’ve slowed down a bit – too much else to occupy me (work, friends, newspapers, magazines, television), there is nothing I treasure more than a finely written book. I look forward to traveling because that is when I get most of my reading done. And, I adore my kindle because now I can carry a small library with me in less space than a single book. Gone are the days of hauling 2-3 books everywhere because “I just am not 100% sure what I want to read.” The one thing that has changed over time is that I won’t finish a book if I don’t like it. I think that is a function of having less time and wanting that time to be enjoyable.

This week, I read substantially all of this blog with a critical eye. I found that I liked my writing (always a good start). An inveterate editor (never wrote a sentence I couldn’t rewrite the next minute), I saw some spots that could use some editing and some phrasing and alliteration that I fell in love with all over again. All in all, I was pleased with what I’ve written.

I did notice that I tend to wander – one week it might be a travel story and the next it is a eulogy that was not delivered. There are some things in here where I poke fun at myself and some stories that I obviously needed to tell. Some of the writing is strong and powerful and some is just me riffing on life. In some posts, I’ve dug really deep, bared my soul as it were, and in others I’ve been a little coy – leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. What is clear though is that it is my story unfolding. I like that. I like me.

Before stopping to read my own writing, I had been mulling over writing and the journey that it takes one on. Enough started out to be a road map for the future – so that my nieces and nephews would not wonder what to do with my mortal remains once I depart this earth. Morbid, I know, but it does seem like they should know what I want so they are not left to guess. After the first paragraph though, it was as if I had sat down with an entirely different purpose in mind. I was literally swept away by a story that somewhere inside of me I had been burning to tell. Over time, I had told bits and pieces of both the story and the story within the story. But they were just that, bits and pieces. A listener would be hard-pressed to figure out how those bits and pieces are a part of the fabric of my life. As would I.

There are other pieces of both stories that I will likely flesh out over time. Cruel things said and battles over choices made and unmade. Simply put, the story that poured out of me that night did not require that sinew on the bone, it just required that I honor a friend and her memory in a way that I hadn’t done before. Cruelty and unkindness could come later – a coda to this first piece about friendships and hardships.

I think that is the difference between the writing I’ve been doing here and the writing I do in my work. This writing is a journey and like a journey it has little twists and turns and unexpected detours. It’s like going to bed with the next day planned down to the last minute. And the next morning comes and it’s about the coffee, the paper, a good book – and you know, spending a day in my pajamas is AOK.

So, where do writing and reading intersect? Perhaps in that nascent desire to write a novel – but not just to write the novel but to have people WANT to read the novel. Not necessarily because I desire fame or fortune, although those would certainly be a nice outcome! More because I’d want to be able to transport others in the ways in which I’ve been transported. Spending hours with Calvino, Tolkien, Baum, Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Austen, Wharton, Alcott, King (Stephen). It’s an eclectic list this author list and by no means is it complete – just a flavor of the people who have transported me to a different place, a different time, a different way of thinking and being.

All that reading leads to a bit of a road block in terms of this novel writing idea. Each time the synapses start to fire and I begin to think I’ve got it in terms of a novel idea, I pick up a book or read a review and think to myself “someone has been there and done that. I can’t possibly do it better.” That’s not just a writer’s block – that is like arriving at the mouth of a tunnel only to find that it is buried under 10 feet of rock slide and you’ll be climbing the mountain instead of driving through it. A not insurmountable challenge but a challenge none-the-less.

As I write this, I am sitting in the first class cabin of a Delta flight from St. Louis to New York. The upgrade started with a simple request to see if there were any upgrades for purchase and ended here in the first row of the plane, upgraded for free at the last minute on a day that most flights were delayed. I wonder if there is a story – and not a hijacking or terrorist story – in the lives of my fellow flyers. The pilot across the way is deadheading home – he looks exhausted and is sleeping peacefully with his headset on. Is he going home to a bowl of soup and ESPN? To a partner? To a family? Or is NYC just an overnight stop and he’s scheduled to fly out first thing tomorrow morning.

The man behind him gazes wistfully out the window. Did he lose someone today or is he just mulling over a meeting that perhaps did not go as well. My colleagues from the conference we just attended are back there somewhere – flying home to first babies and teenage children who are home alone (the teenagers not the babies).

All these passengers have a story to be told – and not the crazy stories of the passengers from Lost but rather the stories of ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. People making everyday choices as they make their way through the day. As we begin our descent through the clouds and my ears start to itch and pop, I can only wonder. Would I want to read that novel? Would you?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Last week, I went to a memorial service. Filled with memories, music, and love. It was beautifully planned. And there was meaning in what family and friends had to say. Portraits finely drawn -- everyone touching a different piece of this man's life, of his legacy. This was the memorial service of a great man -- a much beloved icon who was the change he wanted to see. The death was unexpected and quick -- a vibrant soul in his 80s with a lot of life left to live. He died as he wanted -- with his boots on. The house was packed with those who had come to pay their respects -- a veritable who's who of the world he inhabited.

It reminded me of a memorial service for one of the dearest friends I will ever have. Passionate about what she did -- a natural advocate for her patients, her family, her friends. She grew up with parents who were marching on Washington and advocating on behalf of migrant farm workers. She had a childhood that I, from my safe middle-class upbringing, could only imagine. She could hold me spell bound with her stories. And she would leap into the fray to fight for what she thought was right.

A story within a story.

I well remember those last days of my aunt's life. Her court appointed guardian, armed with all the health care proxies and orders that I needed, it was still a struggle to let her go. Sheila wasn't going out with her boots on -- no sirree, she was in the last throes of a full-blown dementia that had started out with self-reports of little people living in her ceiling. A warrier woman in a man's world -- her life is a story for another day.

When I tell about how she died, I will often say that I fought on multiple fronts so that we could let her go. It was the ending battle of a war that began when I first started to pay her bills. Sitting in her apartment, sorting paper, and gamely trying to carry on a normal conversation about those little people living in the ceiling.

It was Lisa though who made the last argument that freed her -- who took up my fight, my burden, and bore it for me on those last few steps. I had arrived on her doorstep -- armed with all our favorite goodies and a story to tell. A story of a visit to a nursing home, an IV fluid being started by the doctor on call, and a nurse that was crying about her baby. Her baby -- my aunt -- a woman who would have likely chosen to die much earlier in this journey if it had been left to her. The crying nurse who only meant the best. Who had called the doctor on call to ask that IV hydration be ordered. Made the call despite a clear notation on the chart -- no artifical nutrition or hydration. None. Nothing. Nada.

Yet, there was that IV, there was that crying nurse, and there was I -- unable to cause pain to someone in so much distress, with no strength to pull the plug -- for what seemed like the umpteenth time in a battle that had gone on far too long. Drained and spent by the last few weeks -- weeks of parsing out a palliative surgery rather than a restorative surgery with a doctor who wanted to restore. Weeks that included learning that the nursing home DNR would not carry in the ambulance or the hospital -- one needed one executed for each setting of care. That's three doctor's signatures, three times of saying, these are her wishes, she would want to die. Weeks that included a family meeting around the meaning of artificial nutrition -- how would my Aunt define it and what would she want. A family meeting where for the first time ever in all the years that my aunt resided there -- they brought her to attend it. To preside in her diminished state over my decision on her behalf. A silent witness to my voicing that enough was enough.

"I just couldn't," I said that night after I told my sad tale of woe about the feelings of a Catholic nurse as they intersected with what I knew to be right. Feelings that so overpowered me with the rawness of the emotion that I couldn't pull that plug yet again. Looking back, I am in awe at the love that nurse had for her baby, my aunt. At the time, I dismissed it but it was true -- that was her baby and I was taking her away. Forever.

"You have to," Lisa said -- "if that IV runs all night, Sheila could live another week." How stark, how cold those words must sound but they brought me comfort because I knew that -- even without the favorite foods from Citarella -- the next words out of her mouth would be: "I will call and take care of this." And, she did.

She called, she got the doctor on call and the IV was removed. Just like that. And, a couple of days later, my aunt exited this world. It was fitting that she would exit on a Shrove Tuesday -- this gregarious woman who built a share house on Fire Island and filled it with laughter and good times. As I remarked to my Mom -- she left at the height of the party before the penance of lent and that is how she would have wanted it.

I am indebted to Lisa for carrying me those final steps. Just as she was indebted to me for all the ways in which I had taken care of her. Small things though -- those were my specialty. Helping with the laundry, the cleaning, the grocery shopping. Fronting the rent if money was short. Many a dinner delayed or interrupted by a patient. Visits to the hospital and coping with the wide emotional swings of steroids as she coped with a progressively debilitating disease. Fitting seeing Africa around her love affairs with not one but two men in Malawi. Living through the terror of unreturned calls until I and others said -- "if you don't answer, we are not going to panic. We am not going to worry. We will be here if you need us."

At times, it was a friendship that could be consuming of me, of my aspirations. Because of her illness, her needs were greater and who she wanted to be was so much larger than who I wanted to be. She had been the change she wanted to see almost since childhood whereas I had been the caregiver, the nurturer, the friend. It's not so much that I was someone different than the woman I am today -- it was more that I was growing up and finding myself. That last year of her life was the year I started to be the change I wanted to see. That was hard on our friendship but I supose inevitable.

At her memorial service, one of her friends said in that serious way he had, we all knew that we would be here together for this purpose some day. Just not this day. Not this soon. In a gathering that included her patients as well as her friends and family, we did not speak of that decision she had made but only of the person that she had been. In the midst of the impassioned eulogies about her great promise, her great commitment to her work, her great achievements -- I spoke of her love of strawberries and other small things. I think I wanted people to know that that change agent was also a woman with an obsession for jewelry, a love of odd little movies, and a laugh that I can still hear in my dreams.

Looking back, I don't think she just woke up one day and said enough but rather she approached this final decision in the same way she approached most things. Organized. Efficient. Final.

She left no note but I think it all boils down to " enough." Enough of the struggle of living with a rapidly progressing, debilitating disease and knowing where it will lead. Enough of retooling my vision of who I am and what I can be to fit my more diminished outlook. Enough of working so hard to try and make it all work. She had envisioned a life as a change agent and through a sad twist of fate, she'd been handed a disease (or maybe even two) that had put her on a long, slow, painful path to death. She knew that the path she was on would not be easy. Just days prior to her death, a new red scooter had arrived and she had taken it for its first spin. It was cherry red and really quite cute. It was the first -- and last -- acknowledgement that her future held a wheel chair. Because, quite simply, she changed her future.

A warrier to the end, she chose to go out with her boots on. When her mother called me that morning as I got off the plane in Boston, I knew that this was it. The call that I had known would come some day, the call to say that Lisa is gone. The memorial was like the one I attended last week - big, filled with love and remembering. Yet, the sorrow was different -- it was the sorrow of knowing that someone had died before fulfilling her promise.

I remember a conversation with a friend following her death about the nature of courage. Is it more courageous to fight the battle until the end or to know when to surrender? We agreed that what Lisa did took a great deal of courage. Now a little bit older and a little bit wiser, I think that that question -- to be or not to be -- requires courage no matter the answer in the face of debilitating disease. Lisa knew the battle she would face and once that cherry red scooter appeared in her apartment, it was inevitable that she was going to have none of the future that scooter represented. She was not going to live a life that was any less of a life than the one that she had envisioned for herself. That takes courage.

Choosing to embark on the journey with the cherry red scooter takes courage as well. You know that you are embarking on a journey that will be difficult and long and, at least in Lisa's case, filled with pain. I do not know which choice I would make -- I can only hope that I will have the courage to make it.

A decade later, this is the eulogy that I wish I had given for my warrier friend. A proper send off for a life well-lived and a woman well-loved. A eulogy that reminds people that the taste of fresh-picked strawberries on a warm summer day is just as much a part of a person as being the change that you want to see. A eulogy about how friendships have their ups and downs but that the good ones survive and flourish. A eulogy about supporting each other as best we can. A eulogy that spoke about the choice that she made and the courage that that took.

Lisa, this one's for you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Among my obsessions, men have figured large.
There was the Irish contractor who showed up on my doorstep to bid on my apartment renovation. Seamus. The kind of man that made my knees weak. I obsessed about his bid for a week and whether he would be the lowest bidder, would I be able to justify hiring him? His bid was low enough. We dated, we fell in love, we broke up. And then I obsessed about that -- what had happened, what had we done wrong? I've come to realize that somethings were just not meant to be.

I've also obsessed about my work -- oh, ok, I obsess about my work in the present tense. That obsession varies from day to day. Some days, it's will I ever be able to get everything done? Most days, it is about are we doing the right thing? Could we be doing better? Could I be doing better. A dear friend gave me a copy of Bright Dawn in the hopes of curing this particlar obsessive behavior. That's an uphill battle though -- learning to love my shoes, to love what I have and embrace what I've achieved. I'm working on that.

Currently, I am obsessed with Blogspot's blog stats. Before anyone points it out, I do remember what I said in Fear of Failure -- that this blog is for me. Since then, I've acquired 8 followers which is kind of cool. One of them is a bit of a mystery -- Husker Fan. When you only have 8 followers -- you notice the strangers more easily.

Then blogspot added blog tracking software to its offerings and I've been in the grip of a data obsession ever since. All of a sudden, I can see how many people have viewed my blog, what they are viewing and when they are viewing it, how they arrive at my blog, and where they live. Of the search terms that get people to my blog, my favorite is: "Rapa Nui Bathrooom with Bedroom." Dang, I should have included that the Altiplanico had a bathroom with an indoor AND an outdoor shower. But then again, writer friends have commented that I don't score particularly high marks on the practical information when I write about places I've been. That's probably because to me, half the fun of a trip is planning it. I savor every decision in the way that Robert Frost savored two roads diverging in a wood.

I can see the geographic spread of my traffic -- most is from the United States (and I'm convinced that half of it is my own traffic into the blog). I've had eight -- count 'em -- page views from Kenya! Was one of those the person who googled "harem of zebras" when searching aol image? A lot of my traffic seems to come from google images. The Easter Island shots crop up there. Hmm, maybe I should be obsessing over watermarking my photos instead of the statistics on my blog?

Can the obsession with statistics co-exist peacefully with the principle that I'm going to write about what I want to, when I want to? I think it all depends. Right now, the obsession is a reflection of that side of me that is competitive -- the side that looks at statistics as a measure of progress. I'm going to work hard at keeping it the obsession under control and continuing to write for the joy that that writing brings.

After all, what fun would it be for me if I kept a blog that was about what's on the top of your mind when you launched the google search that got you to this page?

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Today, the family and friends of a wonderful man gathered graveside on a beautiful early autumn day to say good bye. Somewhere in NYC, a baby was born and an old woman died. Today, I puttered around putting my apartment back together while watching a riveting match featuring Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Five sets and a king was dethroned. Today was a beautiful day in the neightborhood, and there is the rub.

This morning was that kind of early autumn morning that should make you glad to be alive. I don't like these kinds of mornings so much anymore. They remind me too much of September 11, 2001. The day that New York and the world came to a grinding screeching halt. It's hard to imagine it, some nine years later, but on that day we just stopped. We stopped traffic. We stopped planes.. For moments on end, we all stopped breathing as planes hit buildings and those buildings fell down.

It didn't feel like it would be that kind of day when I woke up that morning. The city had that just washed feel, the sun was shining, and the air was gloriously clear. In my usual "just enough time to be on time mode", I got on the subway on the upper West side early to go to work. You know the drill -- not one minute to spare in the itinerary. When the train stopped just shy of Penn station, you could hear the collective silent groan of everyone in the car. "Not today, I don't have time for this." When we finally pulled into the station, I reached for my cell phone to call the office to let them know that I would be late for my 9:00 o'oclock call. "All circuits are busy" was what I heard so off I scampered to work. I stopped for my cup of cart coffee, arriving at the entrance to the Empire State Building sometime after 9:00. Only to find the building being evacuated.

Security had no time to talk. No time to answer questions. And so I took myself, my cup of cart coffee, and my book across the street to the Starbucks to wait it out -- still oblivious to the events of the morning. I am blessed in that I can read a book and block out the world around me and that is what I did. Until I felt a presence across the table, a tourist, I think a Japanese tourist. She asked if this seat was taken and I said no. She sat. She pulled out a brush and brushed her hair. She began to fidget and then she asked, do you think they will open the observation deck today? I said I wasn't sure why it had been closed to which she responded, "two planes flew into the World Trade Center, do you think they will open the observation deck." I said, "no, I don't think that they'll do that," packed up my things and ventured out into the street -- figuring they also weren't likely to open the offices anytime soon so I might as well go home.

The street was pretty chaotic. I ran into a colleague who was in a hyper-manic state. His father worked in the Trade Center but he was pretty sure he'd be ok. He dashed off (his father was ok). Another colleague and I walked together towards Penn Station. Each intent on getting home. I was the more fortunate one -- spotting a cab heading up town on sixth. I can not remember if she made it on to a train before they stopped running. I do remember that the world no longer seemed so pure and pristine when I got back to the upper West side. I headed upstairs, collapsed in my chair, flipped on the tv and watched the North Tower fall. At some point that day, New Yorkers were asked to stay home. So, like most of the country, I continued to watch events unfold on television -- turning to Peter Jennings because he seemed the most calm in the face of this storm.

The days following 9/11 are a blur -- the inevitable return to the Empire State Building was marked by long, snaking lines with IDs required and a number of evacuations. We dutifully developed a safety plan for ourselves -- identifying a meeting spot, buying flashlights, facemasks, and bottled water, learning the stairs, "just in case." After all, we were working in what had become, once again, the tallest building in the city. We wanted to be ready for any eventuality. We took comfort in the rhythms of work. We no longer wanted office space with a view -- the 8th floor was just fine.

Today, September 11, 2010, was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. A picture perfect early autumn day. They are finally making progress at ground zero. Tennis is being played in Forest Hills. New York city is still a hurly burly world. Life, it goes on. Different yet oddly the same.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Paris Found

Recently, I stayed in the Paris Violets room at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Osbispo, CA. Yes, the same Madonna Inn that houses the wonderful dancers from a different era and the Safari Room that I wrote about in my last post California Dreamin'.

On the face of it, the Paris Violets Room is not nearly as mad as the Safari Room. That is, until you notice that the paintings in both halves of the room are wired for light and once those lights are on, you are transported back to some '50s Parisian fantasy. The paintings are like something Lucy and Desi would have had in their bedroom on I Love Lucy. This side of kitsch now, that side of elegance then.

This is not going to be a post about those paintings although they will help to set the mood as we stroll back in time to my very first trip abroad somewhere shy of 30. And if you are anywhere close to the Madonna Inn in California, you should stop by if only to use the pink sugar shaker to sweeten your coffee in the Copper Cafe.

That first Paris trip -- a seven day junket with my friend Pam where we planned to hit all the high points and some of the low points. I grew up in a family that did not go jaunting off to Europe for vacations. Summers you would find us piled into a station wagon (a big rose one with wood on its sides) heading to my grandparents house or to the Connecticut Shore. Once in a while, we'd see a week on Cape Cod or up in Maine. But mostly the shore or the Litchfield Hills for us in the summer. A few times we drove to Florida for winter breaks -- I still have the ticket stubs from when the Magic Kingdom was only 8 rides and the rest of Walt Disney World was just a glimmer in Walt's eyes. For those trips, our parents would pile us in somewhere around 3:00 or 4:00 am, hoping all the while that we would sleep until 11:00 am before the cacophony of "are we there yet, he's touching me, i have to go to the bathroom, I'm hungry" began.

As a young adult, I had constructed vacations around friends who had work trips that were taking them to exotic places like Los Angeles, visits to my brother in New Mexico, weeks on Cape Cod, and places I could get to in my trusty ford pinto. Those were all easy trips -- involving a little planning, a hope that the weather would be good, and a desire (at least for the Cape Cod ones) for cute boys with whom we could dance and flirt.

This was to be my debut -- international traveler, owner of a passport, the first trip outside of US borders (ok, ok, we had gone to see Niagra Falls from the Canadian side when visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousin in Buffalo when I was little but I don't think that counts as international travel).

That first passport, I can remember filling out the application and bringing it to the post office at Bishop's Corner in West Hartford, CT. Although living in NYC, it just somehow seemed safer, saner to go back to my old home town to apply for this thing that would free me to see the world. I can remember when it arrived -- so blank, so longing to be filled with stamps, visas -- physical representation of what would soon be a host of wondeful memories.

Pam and I couldn't get enough of talking about this trip -- the anticipation was as good as the trip itself. We had booked ourselves into the Hotel Esmerelda in the Latin Quarter -- a room at the tippy top of the hotel with a casement window that we could fling open to the sun and sky and crawl up into to read a novel if we so desired. I was carrying the Hunchback of Notre Dame -- like a pairing of fine red wine with a perfectly grilled filet mignon. Our room looked down on to Saint Julien Pauvre Square -- the site of at least one lunch of baquette, cheese, and a bottle of wine purchased on the fly from the local markets.

This was going to be Paris on the cheap -- we were never going to sit down for our morning Cafe au Lait (standing at le zinc was so much cheaper), lunches would be baquette's and cheese, and dinners would be good but well-priced. Two ladies on a budget -- that was us. The trip got off to a great start as we shared our seat with a young frenchman wending his way back to Paris. We whiled away the time talking to him about our plans and getting his advice on where to eat and making a firm plan for dinner in the middle of our trip. That morning would see this jet-lagged duo seeing the Arche d'Triomphe the hard way (who knew there was a tunnel underneath as we dashed across to the safety of the isle luggage in hand?) and wandering around Notre Dame like ghosts as we waited for access to our room to "freshen up".

It was a glorious week -- the only sunny week that June -- and we did all the things young women on the loose in Paris are supposed to do. We went to the Louvre and sped our way through the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory (recreating Audry Hepburn's pose in Funny Face even as we raced to our next stop) and then to les Tuileries for wine, bread and cheese. We adhered to our plan of cafe au lait at le zinc -- in the small cafe adjacent to the hotel and to an English bookstore near and dear to my heart, Shakespeare and Company. We wandered the banks of the Seine, meeting Ronnie (who would later visit Pam in New York) and watching the boats float by. We shopped the prints at the bookanistas and the flea markets and marveled at the fowl and fauna caged and available for purchase.

We climbed to the top of Notre Dame and Sacre-Coeur but only went to the first platform at the Eiffel Tower (who wants to wait in line for the lift?). We toured l'egouts -- marveling at the engineering that went into this subterannean Parisian sewer and we traveled out to Versailles to walk in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette. I can see her at the center of her court in this most luxurious of palaces. Insulated from the world outside by the men and women of the court who wanted nothing more than a heir to the throne. I have a photo of a small boy -- probably around 10 -- gazing out longingly to the grounds as the docent droned on about life in the palace before the guillotine would cut that same court's life short. There is a symmetry to "let them eat cake" and "off with her head" -- no escaping that. We visited the van Goghs at the Musee D'orsay (still an all time favorite museum) and had dates with boys who hardly spoke English on our night with our plane friend, experiencing the romance of the artist's bridge under a Parisian moon.

Most of all -- we drank Paris in, leaving time between all the running around to see the sites for those impromptu picnics, strolls on the Seine, and along the Champs Elysee. For a dinner with Pam's American friend living in Paris with her baby daughter. To sit -- finally -- towards the end of our trip in that small cafe by the Seine to write in our journals, read our books, and just drink in the ever-changing scenery of a Parisian street.

Practical Matters
Just buy a good guidebook, book a flight and find a room at your price point and go! Be sure to leave time to take in the sites as opposed to "checking them off" on a "must see" list. Sink into the rhythm of the place by walking on the Seine, feasting on cheese, bread and wine, and sitting and nursing your cafe au lait as you while away an afternoon debating how to choose from the endless options that Paris offers.

Friday, September 3, 2010

California Dreamin'

Tonight, I took a shower in the waterfall shower at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Osbispo, CA. The Madonna Inn is mad genius at work -- every room is done up to a different theme and we just happen to be staying in the safari room -- home of the aforesaid waterfall.

The Inn is also home to a passionate group of the most wonderful dancers who clearly spend many a night here dancing to the tunes of Hank and Frank at the Gold Rush Steakhouse. Well into their 70s and 80s, this group of regulars knows how to cut a rug -- in heels and shiny wing tips. From the swaying white-haired vixen whose gentleman friend did not dance to the tiny man with the widow's hump twirling around the floor with his hand on his partner's butt -- they were like seaweed gently wafting along in the tidal pull. One could imagine them at home in the Rainbow Room in New York -- waltzing as easily with the city aglow behind them as they twirled under the pink chandeliers.

This is a place that is about as far afield from the yurts at the Treebones Resort in Big Sur which is where I slept last night. Oddly, these two places to rest one's head go together in the same way that Venice Beach and Morro Bay; Ohai (stay at the Emerald Iguana) and Santa Monica; or Cambria and Solvang go together. California -- it's a big state.

This California road trip (vintage 2010) was really all about the yurts at Treebones. They sit perched high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. The first night we rolled in after a foggy drive up the coast to a warm and welcoming lodge and a VERY cold yurt equipped with a small gas stove flanked by two Papazan chairs. The Nancy's Squared had arrived -- foregoing the yurt equipped with a ping pong table for the yurt that had two queen-sized beds (with lots of warm and cozy comforters) and those aforementioned chairs. They were a great place to sit as we warmed our feet by the small gas stove. A bit hard to escape though -- obviously chairs designed for the young. Dinner was ribs that fell off the bone and the house special salmon. All bedecked with fresh vegetables from the organic garden. No cell phone. No internet. No television. Just a bedazzling array of stars and a resort that includes a human birds nest overlooking the pacific.

Falling asleep to the sound of the sea lions barking and the gentle breeze blowing through the trees was priceless. At some point, that first night, right below our yurt a memory was made as a young man proposed to a young woman 'neath the stars in a nest made for two.

We spent the following day driving up the coast to Carmel for a walk on the wide, white sand beach (alas, no Clint Eastwood to be seen) and a leisurely drive back down for a stop at the Henry Miller Library and a short hike to Mcway Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It's a nice hike out to the vista point -- a bonus was the blue whales cavorting off in the distance.
In Big Sur, it is all about the vistas which greet you at every turn as the highway switchs back and forth along the high bluffs of the central california coast. Our yurt -- much warmer after a sunny day -- welcomed us back with its cheery red airondeck chairs offering a perfect view of a pacific sunset accompanied by the birds chirping in the trees. A midnight trip to the bathrooms up top the hill brought another opportunity to breath in the fresh mountain air and drink in the stars.

I could see living in El Sur Grande -- anchored by the moutains behind and refreshed by the sea vistas below. Looking forward to the colors of the setting sun because that would mean another night of stars at play in the inky blackness of the night.

Practical Matters
I flew into San Diego (Jet Blue, JFK to SD) to meet up with my friend Nancy -- it is easier to fly into LAX or San Francisco. Our route took us from San Diego to Santa Monica where we overnighted at the Loew's Santa Monica -- enjoying an early morning walk on the pier and a quick tour of Venice Beach. Then it was on to Ojai -- a wonderful little mountain town just inland from Ventura. Our room ("Leaf" at the Emerald Iguana was approximately $220 for a small cottage with a full kitchen and separate living room (breakfast included).

From Ojai, we meandered north, stopping in Solvang for lunch and quick tour of this small slice of Denmark in California -- where we whiled away a bit of time. From Solvang, it was on to Morro Bay for the night where we stayed at the Blue Sail Inn (~$129).

Then it was off to Big Sur for a couple of nights at Treebones Resort (~$230/night for a yurt with 2 queen beds -- breakfast (freshmade waffles) included). We started the drive back to San Diego and, on a whim, landed here at the Madonna Inn -- in San Luis Obispo -- for a couple of nights (rates vary, the Safari Room was $259) and then it's off to Moonlight Beach (the Inn at Moonlight Beach, ~$200/night including breakfast) where we will hang with the ladies for a day of shopping, laughing, and eating.
Then, it is the long flight home to NYC to start planning my next California road trip. Mojave Desert anyone?


Sunday, August 15, 2010


For Rita and Jackie.

Every once and a while, I can pinpoint what I know to be true to a moment in time. This is the tale of one of those moments.

My first memory of WWII is of a book in our living room that described a German POW camp. There it sat with my parent's wedding album, the family Bible, and other assorted flotsam and jetsom that collects on coffee tables and side tables in living rooms across the country. Spiral bound with a leather cover it is likely the first thing that I read about WWII. It had line illustrations of the camp and us kids knew that our father had been in one of those camps after being shot down over Germany during WWII. He never really talked about that time -- we knew this because we had the book. I read that book in the hope that I would learn more about him from its pages. And I did.

So there was the beginning of an understanding of World War II. The real life version of "Hogan's Heros" and life was not so pretty as a German POW but as an officer, my father probably fared ok. He embodied an American tale -- fighting soldiers gone to war, shot down, force marched back from the front lines. Over time, I layered in the french resistance, the blitzkrieg over Britain, and the terrible end of Hiroshima as I learned about the "great war".

I can't remember when I first read the Diary of Anne Frank or began to learn about the Holocaust. I do know that I read about Hitler's final solution -- adding facts as if that would somehow help me to understand the terrible atrocities that had been committed. Those facts swirled around in my head with that dashing picture of my father and his crew in their leather jackets -- together but distinct.

One cold night in college, Elie Wiesel read to us from Night in a slow, wavering voice that filled the college chapel. "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky."

And I understood a bit more this parallel story of the great war. I understood but it was still distinct from my story -- which was of a heroic father who had flown off to war. I always wonder if called whether I would have gone. To this day, I don't know the answer.

One day, after college, when I picked up my cleaning from a dry cleaner that I'd been going to for a couple of years instead of the young girl who usually took my cash and handed me my clothes, it was an older man. My father's age. He asked me about my name -- noting the bj -- wanting to know where I was from. "Mostly Irish," I said, "with a little French and German thrown in but the name is Danish and I guess I'm a typical American mutt." He slowly rolled up his sleeve to show me a number stamped on his arm. And, although I don't precisely remember what he said the gist was that Denmark had done well by its Jewish citizens in WWII. I left basking in the reflected glow of my bloodline. And, the next time I was at the library, I looked up just what those Danes had done and found that they had supported their fellow citizens and helped them to escape the Nazi death camps. I knew a little bit more but yet again found myself wondering if I would have been as brave as the Danes had been -- would I live up to that bloodline that meant so much to the survivor at the dry cleaner?

If you've met Jackie, you know that she is a bit of a force of nature. She sped through high school and college graduating early and landing in New York city where she worked at Columbia University in the office of development. She would come to visit me in my little office (where I struggled to write grant proposals for a boss who liked to edit sentence by sentence rather than proposal by proposal) and we would chat as office mates often do. Chatting turned into dinners, movies, and adventures with the two Bills and other assorted friends. Since those early days, we've eaten our way through New Orleans -- visiting all the white table cloth restaurants -- and toured Las Vegas and the Mall of the Americas with the ladies. There are smaller road trips along the way -- up to Disneyland and to Laguna Beach for the art festival and all around San Diego from Hillcrest to North County. More importantly, we've been there for each other through lives little and big trials. She knows all my ticks as I know hers. It's been a pleasure to watch her kids grow .

I was Jackie's maid of honor at her wedding to Don and, wow, was I an ornery maid-of-honor -- I'm still not sure why she didn't fire me. The wedding had to be the weekend before my brother's or the weekend after (so I could use my free flights) and could I please just wear a dress of my own choosing? This was, after all, the last wedding I was going to agree to be in -- might as well go out with a dress I already owned and could use again. It was only later (about ten years later I think) that she confessed how much she hated that dress. By then, I had earned my stripes as having rescued the top tier of the cake before it totally slid off and fixed the remaining two tiers as her other friends distracted her. We were so good that eagle-eyed Jackie did not even notice the problem until she and Don were viewing their wedding video. With the video as proof, in typical Jackie fashion, she got a discount on the cake.

I think that is when I first spent time with Rita, Jackie's mom. She was the quiet and steady presence in the midst of the tension that can only come from out-of-town family, a wedding that included lots of bride and groom personal touches (while, make that bride), and a dad with a camera (did those flowers actually fall off the pedestal?). When Arlene (Jackie's mom-in-law) burnt the sleeve of her dress, Rita figured out how to fix it so that it wouldn't show -- deflating the big bubble of hysteria that was about to emerge on all sides of the bride. Like Jackie, Rita is a collector and her house is full of things that make her happy. An animal lover, she is a regular fixture at the zoo where she takes weekly walks. She is a wonderful artist -- electing vibrant colors that make me smile (you can see her art at Jackie's online store -- www.peaceloveandshopping.com/THEartgallery). She is, above all else, Jackie's mom. Mother of my friend.

We are coming to that moment now where facts became knowing. Somewhere, among our many journeys (physical, emotional, life), Jackie and I went to DC together. I asked her this week when that was and we think it was circa 1996 -- when Jackie was pregnant with Danielle. Don was there for work and among the activities Jackie and I undertook was to see the Holocaust Museum. We showed up at the appointed hour and received our identities. Here is a museum that asks you to walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before. We set off on our separate journeys.

It is a powerful museum, it walks you through the Holocaust, layering new knowledge about Hitler's final solution with every turn. Black and white, sepia photos of smiling families who are no more, shoes, a lone boxcar and a gas chamber, oral histories, and film come pouring out at you the way the water pours of the rims of the world's great falls. Together, they tell a most horrific story. Lest we forget. Underneath it all, there is a hope that by telling the story, we will not let this happen again. Yet we do. Armenia. Cambodia. Argentina. Chile. Darfur. Rwanda. Different yet the same.

Jackie and I journeyed through the Holocaust Museum -- sometimes together and sometimes apart. And I learned more. I remember reaching the end and being over-full -- of images, of facts of pain. Yet, I still did not know.

At the very end, we landed in front of an ordinary wall filled with names. Just plain black type marching along on a white wall. Name after name after name. These were the righteous -- those who had stood up to be counted. Who, like the Danes of my ancestary, had helped strangers and friends alike to escape. Who had hidden them in attics and barns and beneath the floorboards. A silent army of the courageous who with everything to lose themselves, still stretched out a hand and said come here. Let me help.

And that is the moment -- in front of that endless wall of black type on white that it became real that my dear friend Jackie was the daughter of a little girl who had been hidden during that war -- the great war with the dark underbelly.  A little girl named Rita and not Anne. A little girl who would grow up to be a vibrant woman with a love for animals and an artistic streak. A little girl who would give birth to another little girl named Jackie who would give birth to two more little girls named Danielle and Jessica.

And that is the moment that knowledge became knowing as I looked at my friend and imagined a life without her. That is the moment that I cried as we searched for the name of that long ago family that had saved her Mom. That is the moment that I finally knew why we all need to remember that time, those events -- to remember that number tattooed on the left forearm of a dry cleaner in Connecticut. To remember two little girls named Rita and Anne. One who escaped and one who did not. To remember and honor those who took a risk to save a child, a family, a stranger, a friend.

May 2012 Coda:  I've updated this piece based on a newsletter article from the LA Times thet Jackie unearthed -- Holocaust Survivor and Saviors Reunited:  Lithuanian Couple Sheltered Rita Feitler and Her Mother.   It is funny the way our memories glide over certain events and highlight others -- I remember Rita coming to NY for this event but I don't think it impressed upon me the way that day in the museum did.  Or maybe that day is the essence of knowing -- when you feel it in your gut and in your heart as well as knowing it in your mind.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Yonas and Stasia Ruzgis.  How brave they were.  Courage comes in many forms -- theirs was selfless.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Of Fedoras and Bunions

"Daddy, do you have your hat," I can hear Grammy's voice as she and Grampy would prepare to sally forth. She in her mink with a perfectly coordinated silk scarf and he in his fedora. Somehow, I ended up with the scarf, the fedora, and for a time the mink. I can remember wearing the fedora around college and then around town. At some point I jettisoned the mink and more recently the fedora went out the door. The scarf remains -- a mix of oranges and golds tucked away in a box with various other scarves acquired during my life. Scarves that I no longer wear but somehow can not bear to part with.

Somewhere there are pictures of my grandfather wearing that fedora and my grandmother in that mink. I know that she used to wear it as she caught the sun in Elinor Village when they wintered in Florida. The fur was damaged as a result -- with the shoulders and collar turning the color of straw and feeling just a tad rough (under the arms was just as soft as could be). Somewhere there is a picture of a younger me wearing that fedora -- jauntily tipped at just the right angle. An article of clothing that could at once make me feel like a cool girl but also could just bring a smile to my face because it was grampy's.
He and I never had the easiest of relationships. I was the kid who was reading Deliverance (scandalous!) at too young of an age. I remember his voice drifting up to the bedroom in Washington, CT where I lay curled up with a book -- that book. "How could you let her read that, he said to my mother. She kind of laughed and told him she had stopped trying to screen what I read once I started to check books out of the adult library. Things got a bit heated and I started to read faster (who knew, maybe she'd take it away, see his side of things). To this day, I wonder if she had actually read Deliverance at that point -- did she know what was causing him to make such a ruckus? Did she know that I also devoured Valley of the Dolls up in Maine? I think for her, it just mattered that I was an omniverous reader -- constantly with a book. Seems kind of funny now -- those books being scandalous that is.

Grampy was quite something -- feisty and climbing trees well into his 70s. He could bring my aunt Monica to tears of frustration (and use of valium) just by the way he gave directions to Lake Quasipog. In the family lore (the stories you carry around), she turned the tables on him once, slippng valium on one of their last trips to Florida, dropping it into his coffee just so she could get him from point A to point B. I think it was likely the early stages of his dementia which would never really conquer his spirit but gradually take his mind.
I remember the way he coped with his bunions -- cutting holes out of his black leather shoes and wearing those with black socks and a bathing suit to Mt. Tom. He would shed things into a neat pile and unerringly find that rock near the shore so he could execute a shallow dive. Often, he would join us kids in standing on our heads as we played in the shallows of that spring-fed pond inat the end of a hot summer day.

As I sit here late on a Wednesday evening with my own throbbing bunion, I am wondering if I will hit a point where I have to cut holes in my shoes to get myself through the day. Unlike the fedora. Unlike the mink. I can't just toss this thing that is growing on my big toe joint out because it no longer suits me. In reality, it's a pretty small bunion as bunions -- or bumps as my sister calls them -- go. Like the fedora though, it ties me to an earlier memory of a man who was opinionated, strong as an ox, and stubborn as could be.

I wish I could meet that man again as I turn the corner into the 2nd half of my life. I'd like to meet that woman who married him as well -- Grammy of the afternoon Manhattans that Jimmy (my father) made just perfectly. She was the softer half of this duo -- always gracious and someone who you wanted to help. On many a summer morning we would hear her voice from downstairs asking "Daddy, do you think they're awake? Frosty (the dog) go get them up." And there they would be as we tumbled down the stairs, blueberry pancakes (a Grampy specialty) at the ready to fortify us for the day.

It would be great to have one of those breakfasts now that I'm old enough to appreciate it. Instead, I have a scarf, a throbbing bunion, and the memory of his and my fedora. And that is enough.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Rapa Nui

Horses, horses, dogs
Green hills. cerulean sea
Waves pounding on rocks
That is the haiku that I wrote on my first night on Rapa Nui. One of the most remote places on earth -- Easter Island is some 2,000 miles from Tahiti and Chile. An archeologist's dream -- but will we ever really understand the culture that created the giant Moai. Perhaps more importantly -- do we need to?

I am particularly drawn to places where I can walk in the steps of those who went before me. I hate it when I can only look but can not touch -- or more importantly can't stand smack dab in the center of a space and imagine what it felt like to be of that civilization, of that time. How did the Christians feel as they waited beneath the coliseum and heard the roar of the crowd? What was it like for the harem dwellers of the Alhambra as they waited for the Sultan's call? Was being chosen a good thing or a bad thing?

How did Doris Duke feel as she built her own private Shangri-La on the shores of Oahu? A place where she gathered up treasures and encased them in a home that had the wide, blue pacific ocean as backdrop? Did she feel like a poor little rich girl or did she feel blessed to create her own private oasis surrounded by the art of the Ottomans? How did the Mayan ball teams feel as they took to the court at Chichen Itza -- knowing that the losing team would see death in its ranks?

I arrived on Rapa Nui with scant little to go on other than that it is the home of these mystical, monolythic statues left by a civilization about which we know little. The statues that I had been longing to meet, to come to know. Some have imagined that there were alien hands at play here -- how else to explain these giants? Others posit that the statues were created by humans and that they honor the dead. They surmise that the civilization "died" as a result of the devastation of the island's natural resources as trees were felled to move the Moai from the quarry to where they would stand guard.

This is my Rapa Nui -- a tiny green slice of paradise amidst a vast blue sea. An island where it is quite likely that everyone knows your name. A place where I could rent a car and get back in touch with the joys of driving a stick shift. The purr of the engine as I shifted up -- a sound that is hard to come by these days. The sheer excitement of setting off on one's own with my niece Julia to navigate. The memory carries the knee-jerk suspicion of being alone in a vast landscape when that guy on the motorcycle decides to stop behind your jeep for what turns out to be a sip of water. The kind of terror that comes from living amongst large crowds and hardly ever being alone. All of this to occur after a short orientation with a local Rapa Nui tour guide that included the most amazing lunch in his aunt's backyard. A home-cooked meal and good conversation betwixt and between seeing the sites of his Rapa Nui.

My Rapa Nui has waves crashing on rocks and sunsets that seem to go on for hours with each passing minute bringing a new color to the sky and a new shade to the ocean and the statues. It has a hotel with no tv and horses munching on plants outside your sliding glass door. It is a place where when you turn a corner, something new awaits you and where the cemetary lights up at night. A place where the whole island turns out to celebrate new year's eve on the westward facing coast and where one should really have a flashlight even if the moon is full for walking home from town after dark.
My Rapa Nui has horses, cows, and dogs wandering free. It is dotted with remnants of statues that were erected for who knows what reason. Statues that pretty much all had their backs to that beautiful cerulean sea when standing erect. Monoliths that mostly were toppled inwards with those same backsides to the elements as the next civilization swept in and destroyed that which they did not understand or that which they did not believe in. An early precursor to wars to yet to be fought -- humans at their most base.

My Rapa Nui is a place where I can imagine those that went before. I am the master carver who has toiled for days on what is to be the largest Moai on the island. Together with my fellow workers, nay my friends, we have seen this Moai start to take shape under our expert hands. A Moai that would never make it out of the ground. Never be erected to face inward because we started it at the end of a civilization that had destroyed my beautiful island to make these monuments. Yet, I loved this child and its brothers and sisters. They were my creations, my gifts to the island, my children. I am the master carver who survived the downfall of my culture by hiding in a cave below the cliffs with my family as a cultural revolution raged above our heads. I, together with my fellow carvers, participated in the birth of a new civilization even as we mourned the loss of our own.

My Rapa Nui is a place where I can take the threads of history and weave my own story as I criss cross the island in my little red jeep. It's a place where all the roads are less traveled. A place to feast on the sights and sounds of the present while dreaming of those who have gone before. That is my Rapa Nui.
Practical Aspects
All roads do not lead to Rapa Nui. Lan has flights out of Santiago, Chile that are generally full both coming and going. To get to my Rapa Nui -- skip the Explora (http://www.explora.com/) -- that's kind of like staying in an African safari lodge with daily gourmet meals and tours with experienced guides. You need that in Africa but not on my Rapa Nui -- it's small and easily navigated. So stay at the Altiplanico (http://www.altiplanico.com/) or any one of the B&B's that are closer in to town, schedule a one-day tour just to be oriented, and rent a jeep (rent ahead so you are sure to get one). Do eat at the restaurants that are in and around the town of Hanga Roa and do ask which fish was caught that day and order it. Finally, remember to walk around and behind things -- you never know what you might find. Like the rare statue that was toppled face up and that lies dreaming of her Rapa Nui as her twin bears the brunt of the elements and slowly fades away by her side.