Recall joy

"We had 50 happy years with Jane, and 14 with Lucy. So you can suddenly recall joy. It is available. You just have to reach down into your memory to find it."
Sir Richard Attenborough, speaking about the deaths of his daughter Jane and his granddaughter Lucy, both victims of the 2004 Tsunami in Phuket, Thailand.

I was reading the Daily Telegraph a couple of days ago when I saw a piece about Sir Richard Attenborough. He has a new film coming out called Closing the Ring (you'll find the trailer on the right hand column of this blog). I am a great admirer of Sir Richard's directorial efforts, Ghandi being one of my all-time favorite films and Cry Freedom another, so I couldn't pass up on reading this article.

The story spoke some about his new movie, but most of the writing centered on his coping with the loss of his daughter and granddaughter during the tsunami disaster of 2004. To paraphrase, he said that he had finally arrived at a point where he was able to recall the joy of memories involving his loved ones whereas immediately after their deaths, his box of memories seemed empty.

This post you are reading, has had four different incarnations. All of them dealing with topics of gratefulness and other suitable end of the year inspired issues but, for some reason, I wasn't really getting anywhere with them. Not only was I not going places with my writing but Mr. Attenborough's poignant phrasing was firmly parked in my head. I gave up and decided to figure out why.

You see, I am extremely capable of recalling the joy of just about anything. My own life is devoid of the monumental sadness that is now a constant in Mr. Attenborough's. Even at their darkest moments, my memories are balanced by instances of joy. My memory box is full to overflowing with the good stuff. I have joy. What's more, I've had the good fortune to recognize it as such when I might otherwise have not. I therefore concluded that my fixation on the words had nothing specifically to do with me.

Would you consider it presumptuous of my part to have arrived at the realization that what I really wanted to do was remind you of it?

I believe that there is always a time to be joyful. That's right, always. Joy can come in large bursts of color or in the most delicate of tints. Barring you being one of those unfortunate beings who have it truly bad and, don't we all know at least a little of how much suffering there is in this world? Then you, like me, can find something to be joyful about.

I don't mean to mouth platitudes but isn't this a perfect time of the year to do just that?

For an audio version of this post click here.


My life half-baked

When my husband and I started to date seriously, he was living halfway around the world from me. This was a complication in an already unconventional courtship but we got through it fine by being good planners and travelers. Having no other personal commitments beyond what it took to care for ourselves and with the advantages of generous vacation times at both our jobs, we ended up averaging a trip every month and a half for almost two years, before we made honest people of each other.

Did I mention yet that this feat required advance programming of the kind I excelled at? I was a successful planner. The kind of person who had her calendar locked up tight and good. I could tell you what I'd be doing six months in advance down to the week, sometimes even the day. I walked around with a palm pilot (the old time version of a blackberry) and a paper agenda for good measure. How come then, I barely succeed at getting out of the house these days without forgetting the kid's juice box or his nap mat? To see me now, you'd believe I'm the most disorganized human you've ever laid eyes on. I hardly manage to shower in the mornings and every accomplished task seems like it has happened by the skin of my teeth.

What's different? Truly? I'd like to say that having a baby changed everything and in a way, my son's existence is partly to blame for this malaise but if I have to point a finger, the actual culprit is my very own nature. I was always disorganized, I just hid it well and I fought against it constantly. With singular determination, I forged myself into something other than the true scatterbrain I am. It was like a straight jacket this organized persona of mine.

I've been told by my mother that I resemble her mother. With my own eyes, I've confirmed the truth of this. Grandmother and I, we start out a task and halfway through (sometimes not even that) something else calls out to us and off we go. By the time we come around to what we'd originally started with, time has passed and other semi-finished jobs litter the way.

Now where does my toddler fit into all this? He just makes it easier to get distracted. He's at an age where my main task is to put out fires with him. I haven't finished uttering the word no to something he shouldn't be doing when he turns around and does something else that elicits the same response. Under the circumstances, it's very hard to remain focused. My most productive times then are the early morning or the late at night moments. That's why I'm an early riser and a late sleeper. I'm finishing all my half-baked jobs.

What to do? Nothing much really, just keep on trucking. I'm beyond trying to return to that other self at this point. I'll continue to get everything done slowly and haphazardly but surely. No palm pilots, no agendas, only post-it notes like scattered breadcrumbs to show the way through the thicket of my tasks. Finding my head is a challenge but when I wake up in the mornings and find it still attached, I realize I've succeeded for yet another day.

For an audio version of this post click here.


All about my father

I can't exactly say why certain moments stick out clearly in my memory and this observation is especially true of those remembrances that deal with the early years of my life.

In an old album there is a faded photo of me wearing a little blue coat, tiny red bows adorning my hair in pigtails as I stand in front of a fountain in Bogotá, Colombia. To get there from where I lived in Panamá, I took my first plane ride with my parents at the unripe age of two. My first memory ever comes from this trip. I am being lifted into my mother's lap as she points out to me the clouds in a blue, blue sky. There is no sound in my mental movie reel, nothing before and nothing after - just that one, brief and blurred moment - a lift into her embrace, her finger pointing and fuzzy whiteness against a blue background.

Fast-forwarding to the age of six, I distinctly remember packing my favorite lunch box with my most precious Barbie in her best dress and matching shoes. I had debated whether to fill the remaining space with my second favorite Barbie or an apple. I was about to march into my parents bedroom in order to tell them I would be leaving their house for good! I didn't want to go to bed at eight o'clock every night and my youthful act of emancipation seemed quite clearly the only course to follow. My mother and father had been watching television in their bedroom and at my decisive farewell, I remember them looking at each other in a silence ripe with their internal communication. If I was set on going my mother said, then they would do nothing to stop me. They would miss me, but I had their permission to leave. What would they do with my toys and room? I asked. Your sister will likely get them.

Without a single tear or voiced protest they kissed me goodbye and remained watching the TV. For my part, I marched down the stairs to the front door in utter confusion and I was so upset at having this unforeseen outcome be the result of my ultimatum, that in a fury, I banged the front door shut with all my might. I knew they hated that. The neighbor's cherry tree half-way down the block was as far as I got before the darkness scared me and the worry set in. My second best Barbie in my sister's destructive little hands? I simply couldn't bear it and this was what turned me back towards my home. My mother told me later how she and my concerned father had followed my progress down the darkened street peeking from the window of their bedroom. For a moment there, it had seemed to them that I was going to go through with it after all and my father was about to go after me when they saw me turn back.

Years later, I found myself seated at the dinner table of Mr. Ingemar Lundberg. He was not only the Swedish consul to Panama but also the father of my dear friend Carin. I was tearing into Mrs. Lundberg's exquisite Marañon tart when I heard my father softly correct a pronouncement about Panamanian legislative districting that Mr. Lundberg had just made. At thirteen, I cared nothing whatsoever about the subject but to my subsequently attentive ears, I heard my father easily and engagingly explain what is an otherwise extremely boring subject. In a few minutes, I observed the awakening admiration in Mr. Lundberg's eyes, it mirrored my own. That was the first time I ever saw my father as something other than just my father.

In his long and exemplary life, my father has been many other things than just a family man and my mother's husband. He's been a horse jockey, an apprentice tailor, a classical music radio presenter. From budding political activist he turned into a well-known politician in Panama, became a respected lawyer, a professor of Law at our state university, a founding member of the Panamanian diplomatic corps and a consummate diplomat. Amongst his many public titles he's a three-time Ambassador and twice, he's been named Under-Secretary of State for my country. All of his career he has parlayed out of a love of learning and an intractable integrity that many, even his opponents, recognize.

I am hard put to summarize in this post the many wonderful lessons I've benefited from by being my father's daughter but foremost in them is his egalitarian respect for others. My father knows by name and greets with equal effusiveness the boy that packs his bag at the grocery store as he does the many more prominent persons he deals with in his life. His facility to engage cordially with people is not something I have inherited but learned. There is one fundamental component to this lesson and that is politeness above all else. I have come far with just this one teaching and believe that the best and most memorable of my acquaintances stem directly from it.

Another lesson is that there is no other way but to march forward. Presented with moments of extreme adversity throughout his life my father has always been a warrior. His intrinsically optimistic personality is the fount from which he has drawn to survive many difficult moments and, on the occasions where I have been in a similarly difficult place, I have mentally invoked his ability to rally forth as a shining example in the face of my own weakness.

If I can say one last thing about my father and about how he has influenced my own personality so profoundly then, I must not omit to mention his love of family. My father loves quietly and deeply and there are no greater loves in his life than my mother, my sister, myself, and now my son, the extension of his blood-line. What this knowledge has given me is priceless and almost impossible to explain in just a few words. So many good things flow from it - my self-confidence, my constant desire for self-betterment, the loyalty and love I extend to others, the honesty of my dealings. He has loved me so well and selflessly that I, in turn, know what it takes to do the same.

Many are the days I have wished we did not live separated by so much distance - he and my mother in Panama, I in Houston with my husband and child but today especially, I wish it most. It is his birthday, he has turned 71 and I am not there to celebrate with him. Instead, I am writing him these words hoping he will read them and know how much I pride myself in being his daughter, how very much I love him. Te quiero papi, feliz cumpleaños.

For an audio version of this post click here.


My Texas Heat

Little bits of white paper were flying crazily about the highway as I drove yesterday. Some were small enough that for a moment I thought it was snowing even though my air conditioner was on and outside, the temperature was unseasonably warm. Seeing them made me nostalgic for winter which was very unlike me because, I'm most definitely not a fan of cold weather nor of snow.

When I was a fairly young woman and about to start my university studies, I thought I wanted to become a simultaneous interpreter. Some other time I'll tell you what had made think I could be one but for the purpose of this story, all you need to know is that with this wish in mind, I'd applied and been accepted to a prestigious university program in Grenoble, France.

You probably know how it is. You finish your high school and you are just itching to test whether you are grownup enough to make it out in the real world without the parents. Somehow, I'd actually convinced myself up until the point where I wimped out, that I wanted both the separation and independence from them when in truth, I wasn't at all prepared to stretch my proverbial wings.

I thought about it too late but the closer departure time came, the further away Grenoble seemed. It was in the Alps... high up... in France! I'd never lived in Europe and I was mostly used to sea-level altitudes and tropical heat. How was I ever going to make a life there, so far from my family and everything I knew?

It's true that I'd gotten much self-important mileage from being spoken about as the daughter that was going to study in Europe but, when push actually came to shove, I realized this counted for little and I balked at leaving. That's how I ended up in Canada instead of France. Bonjour Québec.

After confessing my true chicken-heartedness, my indulgent parents discarded their initial efforts to get me to Grenoble and found me a Frenchy alternative within this continent. I didn't deserve it but their forbearance had a hand in placing me and my suitcases in the home of a Madame Thérèse Lacroix one afternoon in the fall of 1990.

Thérèse Lacroix was a friend of a friend of my parents. The mother of six children, she and her husband had only the youngest daughter still living with them and a large home with several empty bedrooms that had not been occupied for many a year. One of these she opted to rent out to me as a favor to hers and my parent's, mutual friend. At the airport, I remember seeing her nodding approvingly at my wintry getup as I arrived. I wore a hat that my mother had given me, gloves, a scarf, a thick turtleneck sweater, some sturdy oxford style shoes, dark tights, a woolen skirt and a heavy weather coat. I had come prepared, or so I thought, for winter.

As-tu des bottes? No, I'd brought no boots with me I replied, as she tut-tutted loudly at their absence from my belongings. Il faut que tu les achettes aussitôt possible. As soon as possible I was to buy myself some boots, she said. At that time, I had no clue why she seemed so fixated on the whole boot issue but I ignored it because I had more pressing things to worry about in my initial days of settling in. It wasn't until the first snowfall that I finally understood why boots were so important.

I wonder if you've ever heard of the Peninsula of Kamchatka? For the geographical layman, it's in Russia and for the non-weather trivia inclined, it receives about 110 inches of precipitation yearly, mostly in the form of snow. That's a lot of snow. Approximately 9 feet or more of it. Go ahead, take a guess as to which other part of the world comes in at a close second for the snowfall title of the year? Good guess! - Québec.

...So, I plastered my nose against the window and marveled at the wintry blizzard raging outside. It was beautiful. A perfect traffic stopping, stay-at-home with a steaming cup of chocolate and light-up-the chimney, kind of storm. In Washington DC where I'd had my first snow experiences, I'd never seen anything that could compare to this. Within just a couple of hours a thick blanket of powdery whiteness covered everything and it seemed like life should have come to a standstill. I had short-lived visions of staying inside my new home for the next couple of days and weathering it out. No such luck. In Québec, heavy snowfall of the constantly accumulating kind, does not, I repeat, does not, interrupt daily life. If it were to, as Madame Lacroix so sagely pointed out, nothing would get done. It snowed all the time in Québec during that winter, the snow never stopped falling and the air never heated enough for it to melt. I had to live with it and wade around in it and basically, struggle through its incredible quantities.

For the next four months, before I started begging my parents to let me come back home, I roughed it out in sub-zero conditions and more snow than some people will see in a lifetime. I survived, semi-thawed, by learning my way through the underground tunnels that crisscross the city and which allow its inhabitants to get from point A to B without having to walk above ground. I also got myself a pair of impermeable, plastic-soled, fleece-lined, knee-high boots. Though I sank into deep snow at almost every turn, my feet and legs remained dry for the most part and I was so grateful for my boots that I've kept them after all these years.

Because of the time that I lived in Québec, the very idea of snow metamorphosed completely within my head. It went from picturesque to inconvenient nuisance, from romantically atmospheric to a portent of gloom. I grew to dread the unending snowfall and the tall walls of dirty snow piled so high it franked all sidewalks and streets. Snow, snow, interminable snow everywhere. Are you truly blaming me for wimping out again and wishing to leave?

My parents certainly didn't and, at the end of the semester I bid Madame Lacroix a fond, if hasty farewell, quit Québec City and went back home where I congratulated myself on my narrow escape from death by ice coffin and told everyone how I'd happily live in a snow-less place for the rest of my life.

Today, through no design of my own, you find me here in Houston. Snow has fallen once and only fleetingly, in the four years that I've lived here. I haven't missed the snow, truly... I'll just chalk up yesterday's longing to temporary insanity on my part while I continue to wilt gracefully in this, my Texas heat.

For an audio version of this post click here.


Why words matter

I remember my father telling me once when I was young that the act of cursing demonstrated poor vocabulary skills as well as a distressing lack of imagination.

Amongst the many parental pronouncements he has made throughout my life, this particular one has stayed with me and I credit it indirectly with blunting a large part of my desire to curse or utter a profanity even to this day though unfortunately, it has never managed to kill it altogether. The kids at Starbucks yesterday, will take full responsibility for accomplishing that.

Picture my afternoon - In order to pick up some shirts I'd left the day before, I pull into a parking space at my local dry cleaners which is next to a Starbucks. Sitting at an outdoor table I observe a gaggle of teenagers doing the teenager-y thing: amplified talking, public ribbing, some awkward-looking flirting is also going on. I notice all of this while I hunt for my claim slip because teenagers fascinate me for the simple reason that I anticipate my son's growth and behavior to run more parallel to what is current now than to the kind of straight-laced upbringing I had. To see how they act is to perhaps see how my own son will act when he gets to be their age.

Claim ticket found I open my door to hear the following attention grabbing exchange:

Boy 1
No way! Gettaoutahere! You A-h_le! F__k you man!

Boy 2

Naw man, f__k you!

At this point a girl puts in her two cents worth (is it really worth even that?)

You sh__t-faced a__s-h___les! F__k you both! S__t! You f___ face! Don't DO that!

She whacks out at Boy 1 who then proceeds to call her a whore.

I could be somewhat wrong in repeating the order of this horrendous exchange for you but unfortunately, I think I got most of it right.

Whisking myself into the dry cleaners, I waited for my shirts and mentally told myself that MY CHILD would never act this way. Five minutes later, my business concluded I step out to this choice bit of words:

Some boy (can't tell if it was 1 or 2)

You're a whore Stephanie and your friend's a whore too!

Stephanie (while laughing)

You wish I was your whore A-h_le! F__k you!

Poor Stephanie, she actually looked like she thought that was a superb comeback.

I really couldn't stand much more of this so I got into the car and jacked up my NPR while I pulled out of the lot.

Later that evening, I remember lying in bed thinking how prescient my father's words to me turned out to be. Poor vocabulary... both in their choice and repetition of words. Lack of imagination... conspicuous for its crudeness, its rudeness, dare I call it... lack of flair?

Today's youth is, amongst other things, in a sorry verbal state. They also seem to be deficient in the self-respect and respect for others department. No one should allow others to denigrate them verbally and I should most definitely not have to be subjected to this kind of language in public while tending to my afternoon errands or otherwise. More importantly, parents should look upon a deterioration of their children's communication skills as a slippery slope. Whatever happened to verbal courtesy and personal manners? Whatever happened to words longer than just four letters? When did children, and in my book teenagers are still children, start referring to each other in such derogatory terms as a matter of routine? Where are the parents to put a stop to this? Are they perhaps setting the example?

I would like to think that the majority of adults do not speak in their homes, amongst themselves, as these children do in public for everyone's non-benefit. Be that as it may, how it all started or developed is moot at this point, how it may end is as clear to me as all the terrible things that happen in this world can seem clear only in hindsight.

When my son grows into a teenager, I will not be there to patrol him always nor on a daily basis. I have no desire to do that anyway. It would be silly to believe that he will never say bad words out loud either. I do hope though that for him, this behavior is the exception rather than the norm. I would hope also that through example, my husband and I would succeed in teaching him that how one greets and talks to other people, especially the ladies, is of extreme importance for reasons other than just observing the niceties. Politeness and courtesy exist for a reason and up to a certain degree, public behavior is very often a mirror of the private life.

In my case, I pride myself upon my meager vocabulary skills and I vouch wholeheartedly for my vivid imagination. My father's teaching has served me well on many an occasion when I've been able to make my displeasure or discomfort known without the use of insults. Perhaps, repeating my father's words will work for my son, the way it did for me. Setting the example however, is foremost in my list of priorities. Guess that means I've uttered my last tarnation!