Family Ties

Long ago I had a family in Switzerland. It’s difficult to explain and kind of a personal story, but among the treasures I’ve carried with me from that time are two plates. My Swiss family wasn’t exactly Swiss; they were Italian. They’d gone to Switzerland at the end of WW II when things in Italy were pretty dire. One of them was from Puglia, the other from Trieste. Pietro and Laura weren’t exactly “mom and dad” — “mom” could have been my mom, but “dad” only a much older brother. I’m still close friends with their son.

I didn’t speak Italian or any form of German, but my Spanish was decent, and my “mom” had taken care of a Spanish woman in Zürich when she first arrived in Switzerland so she and I spoke Spanish together. My listening comprehension in Italian was surprisingly good, I guess from watching Fellini movies over and over for years. My “dad” and I developed a unique language that drove their son crazy. He is multi-lingual as are most Swiss, but Pietro and I did fine with our language and spent hours wandering in the forest with Daisy the dog — talking! He loved cooking and taught me to make focaccia like that his mother sent him north with when he left Puglia at the end of the war. There were no opportunities in war-torn Italy and Pietro’s large family was very poor.

The story of the focaccia he traveled with is at least as good as the focaccia (which is amazing). His sister was already in Zürich and he was going north to join her and, hopefully, find a life. He said he only had a small bag of clothing and a giant focaccia that was supposed to feed him all the way to Zürich. Half was for him, half was for his sister in Zürich.

My experience with Italian trains is certainly different from Pietro’s back in the late 1940s, but one thing that remains is that they are prone to going on strike. When Pietro got to Milan, there was a train strike and he was stuck at the “Monument to Eclecticism and Fascism” — Milan’s main train station — for several days. All he had to eat was the focaccia so, when he finally got to Zürich there as none left for his sister.

My Swiss family was the “reward” for choices I made that were pretty crazy at the time, a leap of very blind faith. That leap took me exactly where I needed to go.

I wear my Swiss dad’s gold chain around my neck and wherever, I live, I hang two decorative plates they gave me for Christmas. The Christmas before my Swiss “dad” died of lymphoma (soon after New Year, 2000 😦 ) I was able to talk to him on the phone for a little while and speak Italian. Laura returned to Trieste after Pietro died, and I visited her there in 2004 when I went to Italy to study Italian. We spoke on the phone often, and, in the process of cleaning out all those old journals, I found her letters and noticed the linguistic evolution from Spanish to Italian. Family is where you find it and I miss them.

“Go Look it Up!”

Behind my dad was a book case he and I had built and on the bottom shelf were the 20 some volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia. Back in the day, encyclopedia salesmen went door-to-door in the post-war suburban neighborhoods, pretty certain the people behind those doors wanted the best for their kids, “Better than we had, that’s for damned sure.” My folks didn’t spring for the fancy white binding, but got the red library binding instead. *”Who cares how it looks on the shelf?” said my dad. “It’s what’s inside a book that matters.”

They had some pretty cool features like clear plastic (?) pages that you could lay one on top of the other and see continental drift — that kind of thing. I spent hours with it on the floor “looking it up.”

Fast forward, Boulder, Colorado, 1974. Fresh out of college, BA in English, married (shudder), employed by Head Ski for the Christmas production rush then laid off. Shit. I was the breadwinner. Not cool and very scary. Scanning The Daily Camera (which didn’t employ me because I couldn’t type fast enough) for job openings. Ah, here’s one. Publishing company. Call for an interview. A few hours later, sunny December day, I’m on Pearl Street, tromping up 20 some stairs, stairs right out of a Bukowski poem, complete with the bare light bulb hanging above the top landing. Knock on the door. There’s another young person — a guy — waiting. I sit down. “Hi.” “Hi.” We eye the competition.

Man in a cheap tan suit comes out, cigarette in his hand, and beckons us into his office — together??? We take seats facing his desk. He begins to explain that we will be going door-to-door selling educational materials. In very oblique language (which I don’t totally get, being a very weak aural learner) he explains the nature of the educational material. Suddenly the “competition” stops him. In the lilting tones of Flushing, NY, he says, “So, you want us to go door-to-door selling pornographic encyclopedias?”


The “competition” takes my hand. “C’mon. Let’s get outta’ heah.” We ran down the stairs and into the bright afternoon, still unemployed, but also not pushing pornography on unsuspecting parents. What?

Fast forward, 1992. My best friends are adolescent boys who live in my “hood,” a whole gang of them (5). We’ve spent all day at the BMX jumps working on our movie, then one of them, Jimmy, says, “Martha, can you help me with a report for school?”

“What’s it about?” He tells me.

I look at my watch. We have an hour before the library at San Diego State closes, and we’re only a few minutes away. “Sure.” I think of all the encyclopedias in the reference section. We park and run across the campus. We have 45 minutes.

These boys’ lives have never imagined a university. One of them even said once, “You’re just like us, Martha, even though you’re a lady, and you’re smart, and you work at a university.” That’s a compare/contrast essay I would LOVE to read. So, there you go. I was just like them even though I’m a lady, I’m smart and worked at a university. Fact is, I agree with that. I never had a group of friends with whom I felt so comfortable and authentic. Go figure.

As fast as I can, I teach them to use an encyclopedia and they — in all their post-bike riding afternoon blood and dust fall on the books in wonderment. Jimmy takes notes on the little papers left on the desks for writing down call numbers. He uses the stubby little pencils that go with the scraps of paper. It’s all we have.

A librarian, seeing us, comes over with a troubled expression. “Can I help you?”

I smile and say, “My son has a report for school.” She nods and hovers, but never bothers us again. A voice comes over the loudspeaker “The library will close in 10 minutes.”

“You about done, Jimmy?”

“Yeah, mom.

*Looking online for a photo of these books, I find they sell for $200 on Etsy as “shelf decor.”

Real Love Story in an Old Journal

I know how love is supposed to have been,
But my love didn’t turn out that way.
I have a stack of letters, tied with green
And every letter came from Italy.
A fall afternoon on a chaparral
hill became a lifetime’s love story.
Moon rise, while twilight held the day in thrall.
The lovers’ hearts remained a mystery
in that eternal moment. Letters filled 
These six thousand miles and thirty years.
Journeys, losses, loves; time does not stand still. 
Their two hearts hid predicaments and fears,
Written here, in my handwriting. Turning
pages, I read bewilderment — and yearning. 

I’m sorry. I got so wrapped up in this I forgot to use the word of the day, clink. Too bad, too, it’s pretty easy word to rhyme.

This is another Shakespearean sonnet (sort of) but it’s actually (OMG!) about love. I’ve been cleaning out and shredding journals and journal pages, but I found one yesterday I will not touch. For the most part, my journals are full of really dumb stuff. They aren’t “my past,” so much as me attempting to contend with some trivial problem in a former present. They are really mind-boggling examples of stream of tedium. As for my past, I’m its product, the fruit of it. I have kept things that I really do not want to part with — but it’s amazing after going through 7 of the 27 volumes of The Examined Life, the pile is pretty small. The question I ask as I work is, “How often have I needed to see this?” And most of the time the answer is, “I never need to see this.” ❤

“As for man, his days are as grass…”

15 As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. 16 For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. (Psalm 103, KJV)

As any regular reader of my blog knows, I spent 6 years of my childhood two miles away from the #2 Cold War target in the US, Offutt AFB, home of the Strategic Air Command. Most people from my generation have experienced school bomb drills and air raid sirens. Many people built bomb shelters to protect themselves and their family from The Bomb.

Mad Magazine was big in our house (never underestimate an irreverent Irishman with a dark sense of humor and the highest government security clearance) and among the song parodies that filled that magazine was this:

“Mine eyes have seen the horror of the coming of the Reds
They are tearing up Old Glory into 50 million shreds
They are hiding in our closets they are underneath our beds …
They are peeking through my window late at night when I watch (Jack)Paar
I have seen them in the glove compartment of the family car
They are hiding in the treetops they control the DAR
Let’s fight until they’re gone” (
“Battle Hymn of the John Birch Society” Mad Magazine)

And, of course, Tom Lehrer’s great song, “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.”

Dad had a poster that said, “In case of nuclear attack, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.” Putting our heads down between our knees WAS one of THE bomb raid protocols.

None of this was very serious to me until I saw the film, On the Beach. It terrified me. I was 11.

For years I’d been lulled to sleep by the sounds of the B-52 jets down the street either cleaning out their engines or preparing to take off for the nightly flights to protect American air space. But the night after watching that movie, I couldn’t go to sleep. My dad came in to talk to me, and I explained that I was afraid of the bomb. I didn’t want to end up like Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck on a beach in New Zealand waiting for the fallout to get me.

My dad was very understanding and he explained that because we lived on a primary target we wouldn’t have to worry about fallout because we would be vaporized. Maybe not every kid would find that comforting, but I went to sleep knowing that a death like that was better than a long, drawn-out, painful, scary, debilitating death. At 11 I was concerned about the quality of life and death.

So that was my dad when he was alive, pretty young and pretty frisky.

Less than a decade later, he was dead, and not at the hands of the Russians in a moment of bright vapor, but after 20 years fighting a progressive, debilitating illness. It was my yellow cat under the bed, anyway, not the Red Army. He died of one of the many complications of Multiple Sclerosis, specifically, pneumonia. He was 46.

The last time I saw him alive was around February 18, 1972. I went to the nursing home to visit and do my homework as I did almost every weekend when I took the Greyhound home from college. He had been in a coma for a month or more. We knew what was happening. One of the tasks I often performed for him during that time was suctioning the mucus from his throat so he could breathe. A lot of things like that are deep down in my memory, like once (my brother told me) I’d done mouth-to-mouth on my dad because he stopped breathing. I think living through things like that, our memory just says, in the fullness of time, “Dude, I can’t handle ALL of this so some of it’s going into the vault, ‘K?” Anyhoo…

That afternoon I sat beside my dad, reading some poetry from some anthology assigned for school. I held his hand as I read. It was warm and alive, but not responsive to my hand, normally. But suddenly that afternoon, I felt him grasp my hand in return. That could be something awful — or not. I looked at him, and his snow-shadow blue eyes were open. In them was all the love in the world. We looked at each other for a long time, and I got the message that what was ahead of him was all right with him. Then I realized his sudden movement had pulled the IV out of his arm, and I had to call a nurse. That cascaded into having to phone my mom and my moment with my dad was over.

The next weekend I was up in Winter Park with my friend Susie and her family. Sunday morning, I wanted out of there worse than anything. They were hemming and hawing about driving down Berthoud Pass in the snow, and I was just, “We have to GO!” I was a real asshole, determined to get out of there. Their car was stuck in front of our cabin. I unstuck that mofo using cardboard. I wanted to leave Winter Park (instead of staying to ski?) and there was no real reason other than school the next day. Finally, we left. The pass was clear, the dorm was the dorm, and Monday morning came. I went to class. While the professor was lecturing, someone came to the door and the prof gestured to me to come up. “Your Aunt Martha is waiting for you in your dorm,” he said.

I didn’t need to be told, but she told me anyway. We went to my room, and I packed what I would need for a couple weeks. After that, all the bullshit of funerals and words began, and with all that, the important part; the inescapable personal lesson that death is irrevocable, permanent, non-negotiable, finito.

That was fifty years ago and the calendar this year — except for 2022 not being a leap year — is the same. Monday is February 28 just as it was in 1972. And, for some bizarre reason, I’m missing my dad more than I have since the year he died.

He wasn’t always my dad, and he wasn’t always sick. For a while he was a teenager attending high school in Livingston, MT and living with his aunt and uncle. He was — I know mostly from having found some of his high school homework — a pretty deep-thinking kid. As I wrote here a few days ago, he wanted badly to be a poet. His favorite book was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated in 1859 by Edward Fitzgerald. Here’s a poem my dad wrote when he was 17, clearly trying very hard to imitate the poetry in his favorite book.

“And should it be, with yourself you are not ‘friends,’
How expect you more than the bitterest of ends?
Where will you find life-long, true, companions?”

Nowhere. This is a lesson I have learned, dad, and you were right. ❤

My dad, at age 17, was pretty wise. When I was 40 or so I realized I was embarking on the part of life my dad didn’t get to live. I hope I did all-right with the gift I’ve been given. I loved my dad — and I liked him. I know that even though I only “had” him for a short time, I was fortunate in the man who was my father. ❤

New Year’s Eve Memory from My Misspent Youth

It’s been years since I’ve labored under the fardel of a reticule — or partied on New Years so, Rag Tag Daily Prompt, perhaps I should write about New Years past. The most peculiar New Year’s Eve in my memory was 1978 going to 1979 (I think). In 1978 the divorce from my first husband was final. The year was hard, finances were tight, grad school seemed a million miles away, my boyfriend-like-person was complicated by which I mean mostly gay. That day I performed my clerical job at the College of Law and drove home in the cold, feeling like I might be coming down with something. Only part of that (awful) apartment in Denver was heated. Friends — a couple, Bob and Diane — had let me know they were bringing me a party.

I had no idea what that meant but at 10 I was dressed up and ready. They arrived with champagne and cheese and we proceeded to get lightly, happily, drunk. My neighbor called from down stairs to ask if we wanted to come down and join HIS party. He and his friends were doing lines. Uh, no thanks (shudder) but that was the late 1970s in my world.

At midnight I realized the point of New Years Eve. It’s the acknowledgement that a bad year is OVER and CAN’T come back. (That’s all well and good but 2020/2021 taught me that isn’t necessarily true. The possibility of a new and sinister status quo exists.)

My boyfriend-like-person called from Aspen to tell me he wished he were with me. Well, if wishes were horses, etc. At 1 am I knew I was sick and sent Bob and Diane home. I went to bed with a fever, and, apparently Bob and Diane didn’t fully close my front door.

At 8 am I was awakened by — God, what WAS his name? Mark… That was it. A law student who had come to fix me New Year’s breakfast complete with champagne and strawberries.

I did not like this guy, and I’d told him. We’d gone out a couple of times, and they were both absolutely not my cup of tea. Among other things, the guy was boring which is, truly, one of the bigger problems in a wouldbe boyfriend. The boyfriend-like-person was NEVER boring. I’m also a pretty superficial person and the guy wasn’t what I considered good looking. Yeah, I know beauty is skin deep, but we have to look at that skin. I’d already told him I wasn’t interested and I certainly did not want him in my house. But, being a law student (it’s all about argument, right?) he took it as my playing hard to get (who WOULDN’T want him?) and began serious wooing. Waking up to a pretty table with a breakfast on it after a night of drinking? A table set and breakfast prepared by someone who’d more-or-less broken into my apartment? Seriously. That was not to be born.

“What are you doing here?”

“Happy New Year!”

“I’m sick. Thanks but, no.”

“There’s champagne with strawberries and waffles!”

“Yeah, but why are you in my house?”

You see how it went. The good news is that he married one of my friends the following year. I introduced them to each other. Little match-maker me. ❤

The BEST part of that New Years was what I saw outside my bedroom window later that morning. Here’s the backstory. At some point(s) during the two horrible years preceding, my VW had been rear-ended AND I’d been in a minor head-on collision going the wrong way on a one way street, side street, near one of the dormitories of my university. Nothing that rendered the car undriveable, but I didn’t have the $$$ to fix any of this. That morning I looked out of my bedroom window to see that someone, driving home from a New Year’s Eve party, had skidded on the ice and hit my downstairs neighbor’s car so that it was up over the back of my VW. My neighbor and I went out that afternoon to look at this situation. It looked like his big Buick was humping my VW. Clearly I wasn’t going anywhere and neither was my cokehead neighbor.

Whoever had done it had left notes telling us he would lose his insurance if we called the cops etc. and he was willing to repair our cars outside the system. We were skeptical, but we called him. What else were we going to do (well, call the cops but…) The upshot was that my car was repaired — back and front — just like new. Thinking back to life in my 20s? Even at the time it seemed like total chaos.

The featured photo is me in my VW sometime in the late 1970s. It was taken randomly by a traffic camera and I found it online. How’s that for weird.

Later this morning I will head to Del Norte to take down my show and see if I made any money. I was thinking; how many of you never heard of Del Norte, Colorado until you read my blog? Well, here is a map so you can more completely imagine the wonders. The arrow points in the direction of Monte Vista.

Once Upon a Time I Sang

As a kid living in Nebraska for six of my life’s formative years, I met some refugees without fully understanding their stories or their situations. One of them was my piano teacher, Hans Baer, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He told as much of his story as he felt a 13 year old needed to hear, but in the past few years, through a really amazing series of events, I learned more. Through this blog, I was contacted by a German historian who was putting together a book of the stories of the Jewish musicians who fled Germany for Shanghai. I’d written about my piano teacher. The book was finished recently, MUSIKER UND MUSIKERINNEN IM SHANGHAIER EXIL 1938–1949 . The ultimate sweetness of THAT — for me — was that she attached her articles about my teacher and his wife. As I read them I was happy that I’d actually contributed a little something. He was a remarkable, unforgettable, inspiring man, and I was so lucky to have had him as a teacher, not only of piano but of life philosophy.

The other refugees I met during that time of my life came from Spain. Was one my 7th grade Spanish teacher, Dr. Espinosa, or Espinotha. The very school to which I rode the bus. 🙂 He was pretty adamant about that th sound. He organized our class one year to come to the Spanish/American Club in Omaha to sing Spanish Christmas songs.

Eight of us learned to sing some traditional Christmas carols in Spanish and a few South American songs. We had to dress up in grown up clothes. It was my first time in nylons. They felt creepy on my legs, like they were crawling around. It was pre-pantyhose and maybe I was wearing my mom’s girdle. We all went out in the very cold Nebraska December to sing to a group of old people from Spain. They were refugees from Franco’s regime about which I knew nothing.

Over the course of my teaching life I got to know refugees from all over the place and the stories carry one common thread — hope. My student from Somalia was walking across the campus with me one day and said, “Ah, my classmates. Everything bothers them. They just haven’t had to run away from bullets or watch their village burn.” He and his sister had fled their home, not knowing if their family would survive. Their mother had said, “Go!” and they ran. They did find their family and all of them refugeed to the US, but…

I’ve thought a lot about the role of hope in our lives. Hope is totally absurd. To take this absurdity forward into the dark and dangerous unknown, and sometimes with NOTHING else? “Well, what do I have to keep moving forward with? Shit. I got nothing. Necessity. Wait, I have this, too, this small and irrational thing, this tiny bird…

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Emily Dickinson

Hope keeps humans from sinking into the twin abysses of dread and loss. The irony of real hope — in contrast with “I hope Santa brings me a” or “I hope I get the winning lottery ticket” — is that when you need it, you probably don’t have anything else. I believe it’s an evolutionary strategy that kept our ancestors going forward when they had no reason to. “Tomorrow will be a better day.” Well, probably not, but it’s a lot easier to go to sleep if you think so. Hope fuels determination and will, powerful forces for change.

Back then, we sang this beautiful Chilean Christmas lullaby, “Arruru”. I don’t think we sounded like this. The melody is what we sang, but the words are a little different. I’ve pasted the “real” lyrics below.


Señora Doña María aquí le traigo a mi hijito
Señora Doña María aquí le traigo a mi hijito
Para que le meza la cuna cuando llora su niñito
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Bajando de las montanas allí vienen los pastores
Bajando de las montanas allí vienen los pastores
Para ver el nacimiento han sufrido los rigores
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Iluminado el camino la blanca estrella en Belén
Iluminado el camino la blanca estrella en Belén
Resplandece en el cielo sobre Jerusalén
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús
Arrurú, Arrurú, duérmete Niño Jesús

Loose translation: First verse; Here Mary brings her little son and lays him in a crib, she rocks the crib when he cries and sings, “Arruru, sleep little Jesus.” Second, The shepherds come down from the mountains. It’s a hard journey to see the birth. Third, Their way is lit by the white (bright) star over Bethlehem, lighting the sky over Jerusalem.

The Admonition Heeded

At 6:30 the little girl and her brother were out the door and on the school bus. It was a long bus ride — an hour — winding through the small towns and farmlands of Sarpy County, Nebraska. Ed, the driver, turned from the kids’ S shaped street onto a major road and then headed west toward Papillion where he would pick up two more kids then across the cornfields to Ralston, one kid, then back east into Omaha where the bus would fill and arrive at school.

Fields stretched out to the horizon on all sides. Shallow streams flowed toward the Missouri River and disturbed the regimented rectangles of the corn fields, their brief valleys filled with trees. The little girl watched the mists rise in the hollows as morning warmed.

Everything was something to see.

Nebraska’s cold gray and white winter. The green-roofed white farmhouse on the low hill, standing determined and solitary, sheltered by tall cottonwoods, the icy road, the deep snow, the bus stuck, tromping together through winter, the kind farmer who let Ed use the phone. Four kids sitting around an unknown woman’s kitchen table while the tow truck pulled the bus off the ice and out of the snow. “Thank you kindly,” said Ed, shaking the farmer’s hand.

“Think nothing of it,” said the farmer. “You kids learn good today, OK?”

A Good Time Was Had by All (even me!)

“But you can’t do that if you don’t stay for a while. A tourist never gets to know the people.”

“Wow. The Chinese seem like really nice people. It’s nothing like we hear on the news.”

“You’re a good story-teller, Martha.” (Wow…)

Nine people showed up to listen and I couldn’t have had a nicer more responsive or welcoming audience. The first two who showed up were my special guests, Perla and she brought a surprise, Nancy, a really nice woman I seldom get to see. She works two or three jobs. They came from Alamosa, 32 miles away. It was good they arrived early because I needed help setting up. Then two women I didn’t know arrived and they pitched in, too. For this event, Louise daughter and one of the members of the County Board made cookies. I brought my electric tea kettle and tea. I also had some Chinese “cookies.” They exclaimed over the dragon napkins and no one complained that there were no spoons, no sugar, but no one cared. I was charmed again by the reality of life here.

The lectern was almost as tall as I am, so I sat on a chair and spread my reading on a piano bench. We started on time and, like the teacher I once was, the “reading” was, yes, a reading, but almost equally a conversation. I have never spoken to such engaged listeners. Everything that was supposed to be funny, they found funny. The spots that made me cry made THEM cry. “Home on the Range” in particular. That told me clearly I’d done a good job conveying my love for China, its incredible distance from Colorado, and the inevitable moments of homesickness. I hadn’t obfuscated anything.

I read in two parts — Chinese New Year and then a break for tea and cookies (and questions and to talk to people) then Christmas. No one wanted it to end. That blew me away. One of the most fun parts was the part in my book where the title — As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder — is made clear. My audience learned the meaning of that phrase and how to say it in Hainanese. Ah-kyak-a-looie. I could use it through the reading and it was beautiful to see them smile in recognition. ❤

One thing I meant to take with me yesterday to the reading was my little statue of the story teller. I guess I didn’t need him, but I’d have liked his company.

Why would I take it? Well, I believe that people who tell stories are a chain of mutual inspiration throughout time. Lao She inspired me, he and his beautiful play, “Teahouse,” which is about (hold on) a tea house in the old days when people came to hear stories and drink tea. Lao She haunted the teahouses of his Beijing neighborhood as a child and dreamed of growing up to be a story-teller himself. Here is the beginning of the play, as Lao She sets the scene:

SCENE: Large teahouses like this are no longer to be seen, but a few decades ago every district in Beijing had at least one, where in addition to tea, simple snacks and meals were served. Every day bird fanciers, after strolling about with their caged orioles and thrushes, would come in to rest awhile, enjoy a pot of tea, and compare the singing abilities of their birds.

Go-betweens (marriage arrangers) and those who had deals to discuss also frequented such teahouses. In those days there were always friends about to calm things down. The two sides would crowd around these mediators who would reason first with one side then the other; then they would all drink tea and down bowls of noodles with minced pork (a specialty of the large teahouses – cheap and quickly prepared), hostility transformed to hospitality. In sum, the teahouse was an important institution of those times, a place where people came to transact business, or simply to while away the time.

In the teahouses one could hear the most absurd stories, such as how in a certain place a huge spider had turned into a demon and was then struck by lightning. One could also come in contact with the strangest views; for example, that foreign troops could be prevented from landing by building a Great Wall along the sea coast. Here one might also hear about the latest tune composed by some Beijing Opera star, or the best way to prepare opium. In the teahouses one might also see rare art objects newly acquired by some patron – a jade fan pendant, recently unearthed, or a three-colour glazed snuff bottle.

Yes, the teahouse was indeed an important place; it could even be reckoned a kind of cultural centre. We are about to see just such a teahouse. Just inside the main entrance is the counter and a cookstove – to make things simpler, the stove can be dispensed with if the clatter of pots and pans is heard off stage. The room should be large and high-ceilinged, with both oblong tables and square ones, and traditional teahouse benches and stools. Through the window an inner courtyard can be seen with more benches and stools under a high awning. In the teahouse and under the awning there are hooks for hanging bird cages. Pasted up everywhere are notices: “Don’t discuss state affairs.”

Lao-She, “Teahouse”

For an hour, as I took those nine people on a time machine to China, there were no “state affairs,” or disputes, or politics, or Covid. It was just The Old Mother and “Home on the Range.” Lao She understood the magic and power of a story told by a human being to other human beings. I didn’t, fully, until yesterday. I’m not an “aural” person, but most people are, more than I am, anyway. It was a lesson for me if I do this again, not to underestimate myself but to continue doing the thing I believe my life and my art deserve and that is my service to them.

It was a beautiful experience and I appreciate all of your encouragement as I’ve contended with, you know, public speaking…

Here’s a beautiful piece of music. Jean Michel Jarre was in China when I was. I’d already enjoyed his music. I don’t remember when I bought this — or how. An LP? A cassette tape? A CD? But it is — for me — very evocative. There are films on Youtube of his concerts and travels at that time.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again…

I have watched a couple of films from the early 80s — box office films from back when I was too cool and arty-farty for that. And too broke. They do reflect the times (1980/81) and both of them I’ve watched so far were good enough. They weren’t superficial and the characters were 3 dimensional. One was Starting Over the other was Rich and Famous. Neither was a great work of art, but the women in the films were, though not quite my age peers at the time (they were older), going through a lot of the same things I was going through (divorce, career, confusion) at the same time. No one was fabulously rich — at least not in the beginning. Their teeth were not white beyond human brushing abilities, and even when they changed costume, they sometimes put on the same outfit (oh no!!!) I don’t remember the clothes being so ugly, but I guess they were, but there were some cool shirts.

Female identity was a theme in both films, and it was very murky. All the women in the films were trying to sort THAT out. At the time these movies came out I was doing pretty much what the women in the films were doing — graduate school, trying to sort out a life post-divorce, and, past that, a life on my own. What DID I want to be when I grew up? Their apartments looked similar to my apartments. Their boyfriends looked like mine. Their dilemmas were similar to mine.

It was interesting time travel. The films made me think of a quality I wish I had more of as a person and that is emotional courage. I don’t have much of that. I’ve made some mad leaps but (usually) without the emotional courage to follow through. Leaps should not lead to a pocket of black doubt and easy discouragement, but that’s what has always happened. I guess I was primed for that realization because yesterday I also lifted the veil covering the shelves, protecting the books from dust (it’s a burlap bag that once held organic Guatemalan coffee) and looked at a few of the volumes of The Examined Life. They are full of emotional doubt — well, there’s other stuff too — but a lot of emotional doubt. The final volume — 2005 — ends with a note I wrote a couple of years ago summarizing the whole mess when I went through them and put dates on each book. Love requires the most emotional courage and remains a complex and inscrutable question throughout the 23 volumes.

Watching the old movies — and looking at the last few years of The Examined Life (2000-2005) — I was struck also by how many lives we all live — how many I’ve lived and the streams of people who’ve wandered through my lives. There are letters from students, and photos of them pursuing their dreams and thanking me for the encouragement. There are emails from a friend who meant a lot to me for a long time, who died suddenly of a coronary. All of these lives and lives and lives.

Yesterday ahead of the Fabulous Tea Party which will take place today I went to Del Norte to pick up a centerpiece. The florist/gift shop/coffee house is run by some Mennonite women. I like them a lot. The young woman who helped me asked what it was for. “Oh, my friends and I are having a little tea party tomorrow.”

“That sounds nice,” she said. “Is it a special occasion?”

“Well, my neighbor is Swedish, my grandma was Swedish and the party is for St. Lucia’s day which is actually next Monday but that won’t work for us to get together.”

“What do people do on St. Lucia’s day?”

I told her about the oldest daughter, the crown of candles, of 12 days leading up to Christmas. “It’s sweet and beautiful,” I said.

“Have you been to Sweden?” she asked me.

“No, but I’d like to go. In winter. I like snow,” I said. We’re all wanting snow down here right now.

“Oh! I would too! I’d love to go to Sweden.

I heard something in her voice that struck a chord in me. Wanderlust. A unmarried Mennonite girl with wanderlust. I wanted to buy her a plane ticket and then make THAT film. ❤

Smelled Like Teen Spirit


Back in the 90s, the days of Grunge, I lived in the hood — City Heights, San Diego. I liked the music of the times very much. I even went to a bunch of concerts and listened to it on my boombox in my garage on the weekend if I was working on an art project. In those days I was busy with the famed and immortal “Barbies Battle of the Bands; Benefit Concert for Cellulite Victims.” For what it’s worth, if you ever think of making a sculpture with Barbies, don’t. Mattel has LOTS of rules about that. I only got so far as making the instruments and stages and designing costumes for my two bands — The Black Widows (punk) and I think the other was The Bottle Blondes (girl band). All that remains of the monumental project are the guitars and parts of the drum kits. It was fun, but when Lucio, a little neighbor boy, came up to hang out with me and draw pictures one Saturday and asked, “Aren’t you kind of old to play with Barbies?” I began questioning myself. Otherwise, I was teaching and hiking a LOT and didn’t know I was on the cusp of getting a great job (1999).

My next door neighbors had teenage daughters, and the oldest was about to turn 15 which meant, as they were Mexican, it was going to be time for her Quinceanera, a fancy ball to mark the entry of a girl into womanhood. It involved a BIG party. None of us in the hood were wealthy (ha ha) so I didn’t know how that was going to go. I have never been to one but I heard stories and read journal entries from students over the years. It is a BIG deal.

One of the biggest events of the Quinceanera is the waltz.

A Quinceanera in Pasadena — really, aren’t those every little girl’s dream gowns?

After months of practice for the waltz, the moment finally comes during the reception. It is assumed that the Quinceanera (young woman) prior to this date has not been able to dance with anyone before. It is at this time that the Quinceanera will dance the waltz with her chambelan and accompanied by her damas and other chambelanes. This is a major highlight of the celebration. Other important highlights will follow such as the toast and the cutting of the cake. (Source)

So…there I was one late afternoon in November, I was in my little house grading papers with my six dogs hanging around, and I heard uncharacteristic music coming from the front yard. Huh? Strauss and giggling. Strauss and laughing. Strauss and “No, pendejo. ¡Asi!” More laughter. After a while, I decided that I REALLY needed to put my truck in the garage, right? It was an emergency. As I walked to the garage I saw one of the loveliest pictures from my life in the hood. All these kids, wearing the baggy-jeaned, Dr. Martin, grunge fashion of the times, had a boombox set up on the girl’s mom’s car. It was pumping out waltzes and they were practicing.

I loved it.

P.S. That girl later bought my house!