Sunday, November 30, 2008

Home Improvements

OK, I give. I can’t wait to be done with the home improvements. When we bought the house in May, we had a list of repairs and renovations that needed to get done. The two biggest jobs were the roof and the deck. If you read my blog over the summer (and into the fall) you hear all about the roof saga. Now we are in the midst of the deck repair. We planned to save money by doing it ourselves, but Ron is not as young as he used to be (surprise), I don’t have the biceps I had as a stage carpenter, and Sudi is in school (has limited time) and has no carpentry experience. Replacing a 1300 square foot deck is quite a project. So we hired a wonderful contracting firm to do some of the work and provide consultation. You would think that you wouldn’t need a permit to replace an existing structure with a structure of the same size, but bureaucracy rules. Ron had to submit the drawings and apply for a permit from the county (which we got).

Our contractor sent a couple of young men with good backs and knees to take out the old deck, which they accomplished in less than a day and a half. Ron, Sudi, and I put the bad wood into a dumpster (with the help of our friend Calvin) and then Sudi and I removed the nails and screws from the old Redwood decking. Then we hired the contractor to have his young men treat the Redwood with an icky smelling chemical to prevent fungus and they reused that good wood in the framing for the new deck. We paid them to frame it in, including the stairs. Next Ron, Sudi, and I will lay the new decking on the frame and then Ron will build the railings.

After we had the house inspected and before we bought it, we got estimates on having a contractor do all the work to replace the deck. (Not the contractor we wound up hiring, but a couple of other ones.) Based on the estimates we saw at that time, we will probably manage to replace the deck for half the price of having a contractor do the whole thing. The contractor we did hire to help us out is wonderful (we have made a new friend). He and his crew did a great job. I am not looking forward to having them leave and finishing up on our own, but can’t afford to pay them to do much more than they have already done.

Last week afforded me a moment of amusement in the midst of the sawdust and chaos. Ron came home from work on Tuesday and sat down in front of the TV to relax. Meanwhile, the contractor’s crew was out in back working on the framing. I came in from the grocery store to find a full crew of four guys out back building our deck while my darling husband watched reruns of Tim Allen’s Home Improvements on the TV. Isn’t there something wrong with that picture?

Stay tuned, new deck soon to come. Watch this space.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving Blessings

A few years ago, I attended a reunion with six of my high school girlfriends (all raised in Schenectady) at a condo rental on the beach in New Jersey. Suzanne and Kate came from the D.C. area, I came from California, Cathy came from New Mexico, Amy from Cincinnati, Laurel from Florida, and Barbara from upstate New York. The idea for the gathering emerged when Suzanne emailed the other six of us on the day of her 50th birthday. A buzz of emails ensued and before we knew it, we had agreed to have a reunion at the Jersey Shore the following summer. I had seen Cathy only a few years before, but I had not seen Laurel in more than 30 years. Similarly, some of the other women had stayed in touch more closely and others had not.
On the Saturday night of our weekend together, we cooked and ate a fancy dinner in our condo. Ron and I have a tradition in that when we sit down to a special meal with friends and/or family, we join hands around the table before we eat and each person has an opportunity to say grace, give a blessing, or share a few words with those assembled. I insisted that my girlfriends join hands and share words. Many lovely, moving, humorous, insightful, and astute words were spoken at that gathering. We cried and laughed and, because we were a group of 50-year-old women, quite a few of us had hot flashes while saying those astute words.
My words at the table went something like this:
I am thinking this evening of the many places in the world where this gathering would not be possible, where seven women who grew up together would not be alive and in good health at the age of 50. We live in a place and time filled with blessings and good fortune. Our life partners and our children are alive and in good health; and our brothers, sons, and husbands have not been killed in battle, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, or harmed for their beliefs. None of us has been raped or tortured. Our daughters are in college or will one day have the opportunity to attend college. We have each succeeded in our chosen professions and have made a contribution with our daily work. We have the freedom to leave our families behind for a weekend and spend it in each other’s company. We have an abundance of food, we come from secure homes, and we have kept our children close to us, raised them with love, and seen them flourish. There are many places in the world where this is not possible, where women only dream of the lives we lead, and where a weekend gathering such as this would never occur. For this reason, I am deeply grateful for the miracle of this evening’s meal in your company.
In these difficult and uncertain times, I give thanks for the beautiful home I have, the health of my family, the abundance that I have received, and the love that flows to me from the many extraordinary people who have come into my life and shared the wealth of their personal gifts. May we live to give thanks for all these blessings on many other occasions. Good thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Breaking Bread in My Mother's House

I recently wrote an essay about Mom opening her home and her heart to all our foreign students. I want to share an abridged version with you here on the blog as this week’s column.

My mother prospered in her life and she believed in sharing the wealth. There was always room at her table for another chair. Educated as a social worker, she was an expert listener and had a hunger for knowledge about what made people tick. Her fascination with people prompted her to sign on as a placement coordinator for the Exchange in International Living. That is how I became the “little sister” to a Taiwanese brother, a Palestinian brother, and a Turkish brother, and shared my dinner table with countless other foreign students from around the world while I was growing up.

Mom placed foreign exchange students in host homes for one month before the students went off to an American college. The host home placement was meant to assist the student in adjusting to American culture. One of the greatest challenges, of course, was providing some of the more exotic students with familiar food. It should come as no surprise that one thing that particularly contributed to homesickness for these students was the strange food in America. They yearned for their mother’s and their grandmother’s cooking.

One of Mom’s greatest successes was an African student who could not find anything to eat in America that even vaguely resembled the food he knew from home. (This was back in the 1960s, when international cuisine was not as prolific as it is today.) He was a picky eater to begin with and he was utterly miserable until Mom did some research and instructed his host home mother to feed the young man steamed spinach and peanut butter. He loved it.

When my Taiwanese brother first arrived stateside, he was an adventurous eater. Unlike the African who wanted familiar food, my Taiwanese brother was game to try whatever Mom cooked. Unfortunately, he was so polite, that he refrained from telling her if he didn’t like something. He just ate it and declined the next time. If you knew how polite he was, you would understand the enormity of his response when Mom attempted to feed him cottage cheese. He took one taste and set his fork down, gagging. Mom apologized, so did he, both of them embarrassed. He blurted out, “That stuff tastes like glue.”

My Palestinian brother was the youngest of seven children from a Christian Arab family in Beirut. His older sister lived in our home town, taught English at the high school, and spent two years laying the groundwork to get her little brother out of Beirut before he was conscripted into the army. Only weeks before his arrival, his sister was deported to Canada. Before her hasty departure, my parents arranged to host her brother upon his arrival. He lived with us for over a year, then went to college nearby, and finally emigrated to Canada to be near his sister. While he stayed with us, Mom learned how to cook an assortment of Lebanese dishes. She discovered an import store in a nearby town and took my Palestinian brother there to seek out foods familiar to him from his home. Thus, she had a good source for imported food when she took in my Turkish brother. My Turkish brother lived with us for only a month; however, he returned to us for part of the summer and during most of his college vacations while completing his master’s degree because he couldn’t afford the airfare to return to Istanbul.

Mom’s open door policy and involvement in the Exchange in International Living led to her most challenging culinary moment, which occurred when I was a freshman in college. I returned home for the Jewish Passover holiday and, although I was not particularly observant, my mother was. She kept a kosher house, meaning she would not cook meat and dairy together in the same meal and she did not prepare un-kosher meat or fish (such as pork or shellfish). She had painstakingly trained the Taiwanese, the Palestinian, and the Turk in how to keep kosher so they wouldn’t accidentally mix up her meat and dairy dishes or silverware and un-kosher her kitchen. For Passover, she removed all her plates, cups, and silverware from her cupboards and drawers and replaced them with her Passover kitchenware (a meat set and a dairy set). She taped many of the drawers and cupboards shut, covered others with plastic, and she removed all prohibited food from the house. For one entire week, her kitchen produced only foods deemed kosher for Passover in the Ashkenazi tradition, which forbade any foods made from grains (except matzo) or legumes. No wheat, rye, barley, rice, pasta, beans, lentils, peas, soy, soy oil; the list goes on and on.

On this particular Passover, when I returned home, Mom had a houseful. My paternal grandmother, a diabetic with a heart condition, had moved in with my parents. She was on a restricted diet. My Palestinian brother, a Christian, was in Lent so he couldn’t eat meat. The Turk, a Muslim, was in Ramadan, so he couldn’t eat anything at all while the sun was in the sky. He had a pre-dawn breakfast and was pretty hungry each day by the time the sun officially set. I am vegetarian (no meat or fish). If memory serves, at that time a friend of mine (a lapsed Anglican), visiting from Scotland, was living with my parents while recovering from a medication allergy that had landed him in the hospital while touring the U.S. He had never met a Muslim or a Palestinian before. I was the first Jew he had ever known. He had no idea what Jews ate during Passover and relied on the Muslim and the Palestinian to help him navigate the kosher kitchen because Mom had taught them how to keep kosher. The Taiwanese was not present during this particular Passover season.

Armed with little more than twenty boxes of matzo, dozens of eggs, six jars of borscht, and ten pounds of gefilte fish (an acquired taste to say the least), Mom faced the dubious task of preparing a meal every evening for this eclectic household, which, by-the-way, also included my two younger brothers and Dad. Let me add that my youngest brother was an extremely picky eater who lived on ketchup sandwiches for most of his childhood. (Ketchup and matzo?) The food situation was, to say the least, mind-boggling. On my first night at home, Mom laid the ground rules. She informed all of us that she had filled the refrigerator and cupboards with kosher-for-Passover food and that she was not cooking for us. She told us to forage and prepare whatever we liked or were allowed, at whatever time we wished or were permitted to eat. “Just don’t un-kosher my kitchen,” she ordered. And that was that.

When Mom fell seriously ill in 2003, prayer circles of every religious denomination in places around the globe spoke her name and prayed for her recovery. And when Mom passed away in 2005, my Taiwanese brother drove four hours to her memorial service, my Palestinian brother flew in from Canada, and my Turkish brother phoned from Istanbul to tell us how much he wished he could be there to break bread with us in my mother’s house.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Obama Era Begins

What a week it has been. Tuesday evening I had a house full of friends who joined me to watch the returns. I have spoken with so many people who were not willing to believe we had a win until they declared it official because we have been disenfranchised twice before when the election was stolen from our grasp. I read one story about a man in Florida who slept in the room with the absentee ballots until election night so that no one could steal them! I was afraid to hope. But Obama is all about hope, isn’t he?
Ron was in Chicago, at ground zero, visiting his family. He didn’t go to Grant Park because you had to buy a ticket to get in. So he watched on TV at his sister Wanda’s house. He called me just after 8:00 my time hollering his head off. I was in the kitchen. “They just declared him the winner,” he whooped. At that moment screams and yells erupted in my living room as my friends saw Obama declared the winner on MSNBC. “It’s real, isn’t it?” I asked Ron. “They can’t take it away from us, can they?” He responded by asking, “Are you crying, Baby?” And I was.
The group celebrating at my house were a bunch of older folks and within minutes all the cell phones lit up as everyone’s children called. Our children. With a future again. I spoke with them, both so excited to have voted to make history. The guests in my house wept and hugged and rejoiced. My friend Margo said, “I never realized I was this patriotic, but I feel so patriotic. I’m proud to be an American again.” My thoughts exactly. My family, like Margo’s, fled anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe only a couple of generations ago. We expected so much from our new homeland. It has taken a long time to stand and deliver.
On Friday night I went to synagogue, where I asked the rabbi to help me say the prayer for coming safely through life-threatening danger. Our little congregation opened the ark together, put our hands on our Torah (our scroll is a Holocaust survivor), and spoke the prayer, which thanks God/Source/Spirit/Creator for sustaining us and nurturing us through a dangerous time. We made it through. The days ahead will not be perfect, perhaps not even smooth in any sense, but we have moved into a new era. I feel an evolutionary shift occurring. All things are again possible.
I want to share with you a pastiche of the words sent to me in response to the “WOO-HOO” email I sent out on Wednesday morning celebrating the win and inviting everyone to our inaugural ball here at the Villa on January 20. After these voices, you’ll find a picture of our new team. Love and light to you all. Rosa sat, Jesse marched, Oprah spoke, and Martin died for this moment in history to arrive.

It’s not just a new day, it’s a new era! I’ve been weeping on and off all morning, and did the same last night. I’m over the moon and ecstatic. I still can’t believe it either – I feel like I really do belong to this country after all (I was starting to wonder). –Julie Mozena, San Rafael, CA
I feel as if we have been let out of a cage and can take a wonderfully full deep inspiring breath!! –Naomi Puro, Berkeley, CA
At one point as I lay in bed, I looked out at the black sky with the shining stars and started to cry. Obama's election is like one of those stars in the dark sky. When we look up and see those lights from so long ago, it helps us feel connected to others throughout time and to remember that there is something
greater than us at work here. – Margo Frank, Ukiah, CA
The only disappointment for me was the passage of Proposition 8. Damn. Otherwise, it was a marvelous night. I will be there for the Inaugural Ball. I will even rent a tuxedo and wear my shiny shoes. –Calvin Johnson, Healdsburg, CA
Of course, the celebration this morning is dampened a bit for us by the fact that Kevin and I, along with 10% (or so) of the population lost an important civil right. We got married last Monday (“again” – our commitment to each other was in Paris in 1997, as you know) as a preemptive action in case Prop 8 passed. And, unfortunately, the religious right (including the Mormons) was successful at throwing us to the back of the bus and back to 2nd class citizen status. Oh well, we know we’re married “in our hearts”, but legislated discrimination hurts. Now that we’ve broken down one barrier and put America in a better place, we’ll just hope that we can continue until EVERYONE is equal, huh?! – Dave Larson, Berkeley, CA
I new you would be excited about Obama, and we are delighted, too. – Helen Lawrenson, Fife, Scotland
When I voted, I swear I stared at my ballot for a good 15 seconds before I moved to the next page. It looked SO good to see: D - Barack Obama and see the red X next to it. I lingered over the ballot and took longer than I needed to before I hit "Submit Ballot." Also, I read the words to the Black National Anthem again today and they have a lot more meaning now. – Keith Sowa (my nephew who served in Iraq for 2 years), Baltimore, MD
Isn't it amazing to regain the feeling that we actually live in a democracy again?!?!?! It wasn't until the concession speech that I could relax the fear that the shadow government was still going to pull the rug out from under us. – Elizabeth Raybee, Potter Valley, CA
I am hopeFULL and ecstatic. Maybe I should consider a job in Washington starting in January. – Lori Hinrichson, Putney, VT
When I called, my dad couldn't speak because he was crying. Mom was popping champagne. –Liz Logan, Marietta, GA
Yes, we are all jubilant!!! What a great time to be witnessing better times. I wonder how many other African-Americans did not get the chance to show what they have to offer because of color blindness. –Sylvia Winer, Schenectady, NY (a lifelong friend of my mother’s)
I can't believe it; for the first time in 8 years my brain is not hurting. – Jan Heissinger, White Plains, NY
Oh Yes We Did! Over this long 8 years, I've become so accustomed to carrying the burden of our destructive Federal Government that I forgot what real hope for the United States feels like. Last night, we counted down the seconds until the last polls closed and CNN announced the victory, then cheered, danced; The noise was deafening. Outside, bells were ringing and hundreds were in the streets high fiving everyone they passed, even those in passing cars. My car is wrecked from a recent accident; My basement is infested with hundreds of wasps; I don't know where the money will come from to pay my bills; and I am HAPPY! – Brother Bill Wachspress, Lawrence, KS
Could not work all day just had CNN sitting on my computer and zooming back and forth watching and counting. It's been a long time coming and I keep thinking singing (poorly) that Nina Simone song - It's a new day, a new dawn. –Pamela Miller, Auckland, New Zealand
Mom if you don't sit down and calm down somewhere… – my darling daughter
This has been the most emotional election I've ever experienced in my fifty years. I am filled with hope and elation - I feel so happy and proud of my country right now! I have been particularly moved by the stories and faces of older black folks, who are descended from slaves, who grew up under segregation, who weren't able to vote, who had to go to the back of the bus, who now can see someone who looks like them holding the highest office in the land. What joy they must be feeling today! And yet... Here, in California, those same voters have told me to go back to the back of the bus. More people voted for the right of chickens to have bigger cages than voted for Leslie's & my right to be married. I am trying to hold onto hope, the realization that the world has already changed so much more than I ever thought possible when I came out thirty years ago -- our day will indeed come. Three steps forward, two steps back. – Eris Weaver, Rohnnert Park, CA
Joel, who has been very active in the campaign, including making forays to Pennsylvania to campaign whenever he has a break from classes, called last night. I can't remember the last time I heard such excitement in his voice, probably when he was a little kid at Christmas. As corny as it sounds, I am feeling proud to be an American today. –Tom Tift, Albany, NY
Today almost every child in the After School Program couldn't wait to tell me that Obama had won and that he was our 44th president! The excitement of the children about a new president is something I have never seen before. How many children see themselves in Obama and see a bigger world of possibilities for themselves? I don't remember a time in life when I knew, I felt, that I was in the middle of history that I was experiencing the world change. The thrill of watching the videos from around the world of people celebrating, having my college-aged daughter, filled with joy, call and hold up her phone so I could hear the sounds of the spontaneous celebration that erupted in the quad at her dorms. – Janice Gartin-Kessler, San Pablo, CA
WOO HOO IS RIGHT MAH SISTAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My prayers remain strong that this new day will continually be blessed with good and just works! – Vera White-Crowl, Richmond, IN
Woo-hoo indeed! It's a new day. I can feel change in the air. Though very sad on the loss of civil liberties. [Referring to the passage of Prop. 8] It‘s the “end of an error,” as they said in Pravda. – Jennie Schacht, Oakland, CA
Prayer for the day from my sister-in-law: Barack atah Illinois, Elohenu melech ha'olam, boray p'ri ha-electorallandslide. –Deb Wachspress, Yardley, PA

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Words for Election Day

My dear college friend author Julia Alvarez sent me the link to this piece she wrote about the election for "Conversations with America" and I feel compelled to share it with you. It says it all.

Every Election Day when I get to vote, I cry. I do. I see people I know and people I don't know, old people, young people, parking their cars to claim their one vote, people who disagree with me and people who agree with me. But mostly I see ghosts. People who made this happen for me.

You see, I'm remembering. I'm remembering people from the Dominican Republic, the country we fled in 1960. I am remembering those who could not leave the dictatorship, the tios and tias, uncles and aunts, who wanted me to have this day. Some were freedom fighters, who died trying to win this right for me. Some were just scared, everyday people who lived without ever having had this day for themselves. I owe them my thanks, and I thank them by voting. On this day I get to say what kind of a world I want! I know the price tag of being able to have this right.

When I hear people say they're not going to vote, that it won't make a difference, I think, give it to me! I'll recycle it! I know a bunch of people who can use it. I'll send it to Piti, a Haitian worker in the mountains of the Dominican Republic, who dreams of some day studying in this country; or to Mari, who takes care of my mami and papi back in their homeland and asks me to bring her to the United States every time I visit. Or I'll send it just down the road right here in Vermont to Felipe or Telma or Roberto, Mexican migrant workers who are helping our local Vermont farmers stay on their farms, workers whose own children were born here, children who will one day be able to say what kind of a world they want because their parents thought of them.

I want everyone who can vote to vote. And as they do, I want them to remember that someone back then thought of us. I want us to vote not just for ourselves but for the children of the future, American or not.

The first settlers of this continent believed: "The earth is not given to us by our parents; it is loaned to us by our children." I want us to think about that debt and vote for the candidate who best remembers that promise and that promissory note - what we owe the children of the future: a green, viable, livable earth; a human family at peace, solving our problems together.

Relatives and friends in the Dominican Republic died so I could have this day. Forty-eight years later, in Weybridge, Vermont, a citizen of a whole other country, I get to vote because they thought of me. Now it's my turn. I'll vote thinking of children whose names I don't know and whose nationalities don't matter, but who deserve a future we have to start paying back to them. Someday it will make a difference that we thought of them today.

Copyright 2008 Julia Alvarez.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Blog Column and Tuesday Election Looming

I plan to explore opportunities for getting a gig writing a syndicated web column. I don’t know the first thing about how to do that, but I expect it’s an option that’s out there. To practice writing a weekly column, I’m going to switch the format for my blog. I’m going to post a column on Sundays. This will help me develop the discipline to write something once a week. I know that some of you check in regularly to see what I’m writing about and I would appreciate feedback in comments (or email) about how this column idea is going. You know me, always ready to take the plunge and try something different. Sudi once told me to stop having so many epiphanies. Life would certainly be so much simpler without the epiphanies.

I may need to write a mid-week blog on Wed. depending on the outcome of the election. I know they say Obama is leading by a wide margin, but I have been robbed before and I remain wary. Twice burned, thrice shy. I have been suffering panic attacks. I joined a prayer circle on MySpace for the Obama family, to protect them from harm. That’s one fear. After King, the Kennedys, Malcolm, Medgar, what can I say? I am terrified for his safety. May he and his family remain protected. I also fear another Corporate-Republican Machine strong-arm election fraud theft. What will keep them from saying there was an upset? Is there enough security at the polls this time? Is Diebold’s computer voting system tamper-proof? I have had my hopes dashed before.
And this time I am more emotional than I have ever been about an election. Because he’s Black? Certainly, although I keep reminding people that he’s biracial (I don’t buy the one drop of blood rule). Because he’s smart? Absolutely. Biggest reason. Finally I won’t have to suffer the embarrassment of having the village idiot as the president. And, AND, he will have the intelligence necessary to face the tough problems. He is a problem-solver. Because with a largely Democratic legislature, he will have the opportunity to finally make a real difference in the lives of so many people who are struggling to make a life here? Ah. That’s the important piece. The change we need is more than a slogan. I think perhaps we have a person who is up to the task. And finally, finally a dynamic, charismatic leader who can truly inspire people to rise to the challenge and make a better world. I do love America, this imperfect union, and I hope that on Tuesday I will witness us in one of our finest hours.