Friday, December 2, 2011

The Puppini Sisters... Got That Thing!

Retro glamour!  Long, shimmery dresses perfect for sashaying across a stage. Long white gloves. Artfully wavy hair, à la 1940s. And of course, red lipstick, sky high heels, and... three-part harmony!

Yes!  It's the Puppini Sisters! Not really sisters, but that's okay.

Imagine a little band of perfectly matched voices singing songs from the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and um, also Beyoncé... in the style of the Andrews Sisters.

Okay, don't imagine. Listen. Here's Mr. Sandman, one of my favorites:



I love those cheerful little bop-doo-wops sprinkled through the song like technicolor bubbles. Not a care in the world! Their music is like a fluorescent lollipop, but what keeps it from getting cloying is the fact that you can sense the humor lurking just beneath the surface, as if they are winking at you all the way through the song, saying, "We're just having fun here! Take a tour of pop culture with us!"

Speeding ahead a few decades, here's their cover of Blondie's Heart of Glass:



I'm sorry, but how could you not love that?  It's awesome. The original is such a jaded, resigned song -- "Once I had love, but it was a gas... soon turned out, he had a heart of glass. Oo-ooh who-oaahh..." But when the Puppini Sisters sing it, the rejected lover is almost skipping away, laughing at the whole scenario. Ha ha!  Oh well!  Look how that turned out. On to the next adventure! Life is too fun to mope over such silly things. Let's sashay away, shall we?  Let's go shopping!

Speaking of shopping, the Puppini Sisters are also fun because of their connection to Vivienne Westwood, where Marcella Puppini worked before she had the great idea of starting up a trio of singers. That's why their outfits are so much fun. They really go all out for their performances. Bring on the sequins!  Lots of 'em!

If they came to Xalapa or even to Veracruz or Puebla, I would go see them in a heartbeat. But for now, I'll have to be content with the 53 songs I downloaded on iTunes.

And in case you were wondering, here is their jazzed up rendition of that Beyoncé song, Crazy in Love:

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Sweep of the Hand

Tick-tock... sometimes I feel like I live racing against the clock, hyperventilating a little under the surface. Is this normal?

This is what I think other women's days are like:
Pie in the sky... food of fools.

Not that I spend all my days comparing. More like having a succession of small heart attacks. Because I have no time. Because I want to do it all, achieve 100 goals, and split my life into 20 super-performing segments, each of which will bestow a particular halcyon glow on my ultra-fulfilled life. Basically, I want to eat the world. Not as much as some women. But in my own small way, I'm out to conquer. Life is short, and I'm eager to make up for the Lost Years. 

And that's the problem, because when you try to be a mom, work from home, build a business, study an MBA, cook at least once every two weeks, and have a few small shreds of a social life, then you start to feel like things are getting stretched pretty thin. I know what my priorities are. But I keep trying to cheat the clock, as if I could really do all this stuff during two naptimes a day, or bifurcate my normally narrow attention span so that one eye is always watching Baby and the other is whipping off articles or translating texts. By the end, I feel like my brain is being split in two. 

This isn't just a gripe post, because I could be one of countless women who have no option but to drop their baby off at day care and go through the motions of thankless drudgery under fluorescent office lights, just enough to pay the rent and make up whatever the alimony payment doesn't cover. That, thank God, is not me. 

So it's not that. It's more like a question: how can I do this? How can I achieve all these things?

Clock hands move in two ways. There are the tick-tock clocks that mark off each second as if it were a discrete package, divisible from all those that came before and all those that will come after. They have a certain regularity, a rhythm, like soldiers marching forward in the changing of the guard. 

The other type is a silent sweep. The hand moves in one fluid, unstopping motion, like a river flowing downstream. No illusion of packaging time, no sense of a pause and then resumed movement. There are no seconds or minutes. Those are just artificial markers; true time courses seamlessly, quietly, like blood.

Maybe the way we live is somehow similar. I always think of time in little boxes. I have to "package" it, fit things in. Scheduling is a type of surgery on time. Cut here, expand here, stitch here. Liposuction here. Discipline, more discipline!

Part of the reason why I love vacation is just the chance to disconnect from all sense of obligation, except for the essentials of getting to the airport on time. I turn off the computer, don't worry about any kind of to-do list. On our last trip, we stopped in a hotel in Veracruz on our way home, right by the port. It was somehow healing to just stand on the little porch and watch the people walk by, watch the docked ship unload its freight, let the seagulls circle and caw. 

Vacation, for me, is quietude. It's the earned right to go with the flow, to let life unfold in a more natural way, not to feel pressed and harried and too anxious to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee. Vacation is a state of mind, as surely as heaven is a state of soul.

The theologians say that a person in the state of grace, in that bright embrace of friendship with God, is already living a piece of heaven deep inside. Maybe it's too deep to access it in a tangible way sometimes, but it can come flashing through in a moment of quiet, just as a person estranged from God can feel a moment of hell surge forth in an unwanted pocket of silence and solitude. 

There are times when I feel that heaven is close, not in the sense of singing angels, but in the sense of being loved, a momentary boost of confidence and peace. Everything is going to be alright. I don't have to worry so much. Someone is taking care of me, just as He always has. 

And if those little flashes of heaven are hiding just under the surface of ordinary life, then so should those little oases of vacation. I repeat: it's a state of mind. It's a choice. Being on vacation is having the freedom to move slowly, to work with time instead of against it, to stop straining against its slowness or lamenting its speed. It means learning to respect that silent flow. 

And it occurs to me just now (because for me, writing is a small piece of vacation, a chance to slow down and reflect on my own time, at my own pace), that probably the best way to build oases of Vacation in my life is by touching those hidden wells of Heaven. What I mean is: prayer. I always feel too busy to pray in the mornings because the day is pressing down on me. I have my excuses. But it's really a choice. I can take 15 minutes out if I want to. I just choose not to most of the time because... I'm racing the clock. 

But if prayer stops the clock--if it puts me in touch, however briefly, with something eternal, something much more important-- than it could be the hidden way to stop fighting time and start working with it. Maybe I have been fighting the realization that it's time to let some things go, stop trying to grasp after every brightly colored ribbon that dangles itself before my eyes, and stick to what is most important. Simplification is possible, but the wisdom to do it right, the peace and interior balance to "go with the flow" in the right way, can only come with external help. 

The sweep of a Hand, like the wind in the trees-- it's something so quiet, but it can be so powerful. A wise Hand that calms a beating heart, brings a moment of clarity, and stops the craziness... at least for a while.







Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Green Dress


Sirens of temptation!
It's not buyer's remorse. It's more like a reflection on the power of temptation.

We went to the mall yesterday evening, JC and Olivia and I, just to stretch our legs and enjoy a change of scenery. I had it absolutely clear that there would be no more clothes purchases. We had already bought a small mountain of baby clothes for Olivia, plus a few extras here and there for moi and a certain husband. So... no more space in our suitcases, no more clothes.

But then we got to Anthropologie... and I was sucked in.

I love everything about Anthropologie: those antique-looking wooden floors... the artfully arranged racks of frocks and sweaters... all the space to walk around and admire the outfits from different angles... the artistic wall decorations that make you feel like you are in part art gallery, part clothing store... the giant tent with rustic furniture in the middle of the store, incongruously surrounded by long, glittering necklaces and bracelets (or are they napkin holders?), the rows of enticing teacups and-- look at those spoon handles! Inhale deeply: the air is scented with lemongrass and sandalwood. It's like being at a hybrid vintage clothes fair, antique show, and multicultural bazaar.

As for the clothes, it's the enticing display of different ideas and approaches that look so fabulously artsy on the size 0 mannequins, and that could possibly make me look fabulous, too...

And I wonder if that's the appeal of fashion: that mixture of tangible, wearable art and the fantasy of becoming someone different when you slip into an outfit that incarnates a certain attitude or idea. In fashion, idea becomes image with seamless elegance. You are what you wear. What you wear speaks volumes about how you think, how you view yourself, how you approach the world-- and of course, if shapes the way others view you.

In Anthropologie, it seems as if the governing idea is the image of a woman with an artistic flair, a fearless willingness to try new shapes, a sensitivity to unusual colors and prints, an adventurous spirit (hence the tent?) with a sense of playfulness and an eagerness to embrace the mood and ethos of other cultures. Anthropologie is for women who could possibly get away with wearing an asymmetrical Indian sari-type dress to work, smartly accessorized with a statement necklace and maybe some sandals. Or wedges? I'm not sure, because I'm not that woman. I would love to be, but nature didn't give me the designer genius gene. It's sort of okay, but not really, because the truth is, I love fashion and deep down I believe that lack of taste and lack of money shouldn't prevent me from bringing out my inner fabulousness.
Fifties housewife splendor!

Back in Anthropologie, I was floating along in a sort of ethereal contentment, absorbing the mood of the place and the thousand tiny details that make it shopping heaven (or hell, once you see the price tags), when I saw The Dress.

It was love at first sight. It was a shirtdress, reminiscent of the prim 1950s dresses that January Jones wears in Mad Men, with a fitted bodice, a trim little waist, and a flared skirt that goes to the knees. And the color!  It was a lovely autumn green. Perfect for tights and boots amidst falling leaves.

The temptation begins with imagination, you see. Then it comes to fruition in action. I trucked it over to the dressing room with my treasure.

In the outrageously spacious changing area, the saleslady was oh so enthusiastic and nice.

"Oh, you picked the shirtdress!  Oh, that's going to look fabulous on you! I can't wait to see it!"

Temptation gets stronger when someone else voices your own secret hopes with such uncanny precision.

"And what's your name?" she asked, with a bright-eyed smile, writing it on a mirrored panel on my dressing room door. Personal attention duly noted, I thought, just like Starbucks in the olden days when they used to write your name on your cup for you and then shout it out with a hint of peevishness and anxiety over the noise of the coffee grinders.

Back in the dressing room, the dress was too small. As if on cue, the dressing room lady chimed out, "Do you need anything, Trish?" There's that touch of personal attention again. I wasn't fooled, but I was almost touched.

She must have flown to the rack and back, because three seconds later, the Object of Desire was helpfully proffered through the door.

Missing the tights and boots, but this is the idea.
Once it was on, I was turning this way and that, admiring it in the mirror. Oh my God, I actually look kind of good!  I was thinking. That was almost enough to make me buy it. That and the mental image of pairing it with tights & boots amidst autumn leaves. I would be the incarnation of the Autumnal Girl. Idea becomes image.

"Let's see the dress!" said the sales lady, as if she were my best friend, eager to share a great find with me.

I came out a bit shyly.

"Oh my GOD!" she exclaimed. "It's perfect on you! That color with your skin and hair is just perfect! It's like the dress was made for you!"

"I'm not totally sure," I demurred, although I was just on the verge of the tipping point.

"Let's go to the mirrors," she said. At that point, I knew I was a sunken ship.

As we walked across the dressing room lobby, I discreetly noted her outfit: a multicolored sweater dress paired with a chunky statement necklace in complementary colors and some fun boots. There are some women who make an effort to look good simply because of a personal sense of aesthetics, or perhaps because of an artistic quality that spills over into the way they dress. Good for them! They make the world more beautiful with that little bit of extra effort.

In front of the three-way mirror, she found the secret button to push me over the edge.

"You know," she said, stepping back and eyeing me up and down with a connoisseur's eye, "that dress would look sooo good with maybe some brown tights and some booties? Do you have any brown ankle booties?" she asked.

With that, I was sold. Never mind that I felt the wind go out of me a little when I signed my name on that credit card receipt. When the sales lady wrapped my beautiful green dress in tissue paper and sealed it with a little sticker before carefully placing it in the bag, I felt like love had come to fruition. I was going to walk through autumn leaves with a lovely little 1950s shirtdress in the perfect green (to complement my hair and complexion, of course) and all would be right with the world. I just need some brown booties.

But of course, I won't be buying anything for a few months. I am, after all, firmly resolved...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Big Bad Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, my ally in absurdity. 
There's Virginia Woolf... and then there's Tom Wolfe. It's been a few decades since I read To the Lighthouse, so I don't have much instant recall of scenes and characters, just the memory of a tremendous melancholic nostalgia after reaching the last page. If books have flavors, Woolf's would be subtle, bittersweet, and lingering, with hints of cherry and oak...

Wolfe, on the other hand, would be like a plate of something spicy and brash, something that hits you like a slap in the face and makes your eyes widen with surprise and delight. Spiced calamari, perhaps?

I love Tom Wolfe and I chuckle my way through his novels and essays. So far I've read The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Painted Word, Hooking Up, The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Maumauing the Flak Catchers, and The Right Stuff, which I'm about halfway through on my Nook. My next conquest will be A Man in Full, which took him fourteen years to write and was his attempt to "cram the world into a novel."

Wolfe is... a different breed, yet thoroughly American. His novels, set in the modern cityscape, are full of keen observation of the absurdities and hidden vanities of human nature, and rich in the kind of unforgettable description that makes you see the world in a different way. Best of all, they are based on real experience of the world as it is, the result of Wolfe's journalistic approach to novel writing. When writing A Man in Full, for example, Wolfe spent hundreds of hours in the newsroom setting, watching and observing the flow of conversation, the atmosphere, the way people interacted, the demands of the different jobs and how they interacted. When writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, he spent hours on Wall Street watching how the bonds salesmen worked and related to each other. He got the flavor of the place and the rhythm of the dialogues because he was there. He had enough interest in "the real" to immerse himself in it. Then the novel flowed from his real experience. He could create "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," as Marianne Moore would say, because he had studied real toads in their natural habitat.

And toads they are. Many of Wolfe's main characters are very flawed men, which provides endless fodder for keen-witted comedy. This is what I particularly enjoy about Wolfe. It's not just that he is so good at getting us to laugh at other people; it's that, through his so delightfully flawed characters, he helps us to laugh at ourselves and to accept that this world is laced with more comedy that we would perhaps care to admit.

Through the lines, Wolfe invites us not to get too pompous about ourselves, not to take ourselves "so goddam seriously, for chrissake." I love it. I love the crassness, the rudeness, the directness, the pages full of characters who curse and scrabble after their petty interests... the flashes of generosity and the immediate relapse into private cost-benefit calculations, and then the surprising moments of self-transcendence amidst the everyday reality of all-consuming vanity and self-seeking.

Wolfe exaggerates, of course... but his exaggerations are just the magnification of something that is really there, like a skilled caricaturist who captures the subtle signs of an unconscious, habitual disdain in a subject's face and magnifies it into an all-out sneer. Just a few strokes of the pencil and the person's inner world is exposed, like Bill Clinton's bulbous nose as the emblem of a bumbling personality, or George Bush's close-set eyes as the dead giveaway of myopic determination. That's Wolfe. It's not that his characters are total caricatures, but that he has a knack for capturing and exaggerating certain traits to comedic effect.

A delightful description of Park Avenue through the main character Sherman's (money obsessed) eyes:


"The median strip on Park was a swath of yellow tulips. There were thousands of them, thanks to the dues apartment owners like Sherman paid to the Park Avenue Association and the thousands of dollars the association paid to a gardening service called Wiltshire County Gardens, run by three Koreans from Maspeth, Long Island. There was something heavenly about the yellow glow of all the tulips. That was appropriate. So long as Sherman held his daughter’s hand in his and walked her to her bus stop, he felt himself a part of God’s grace. A sublime state, it was, and it didn’t cost much. The bus stop was only across the street. There was scarcely a chance for his impatience over Campbell’s tiny step to spoil this refreshing nip of fatherhood he took each morning."

The "nip of fatherhood" -- fabulous! The sublime and the stingy side by side -- love it!


And then there is the description of strange happenings that disrupt the ordinary flow of the universe, especially for a bystander who watches in a state of disbelief. (Note: Kovitsky is a judge in the Bronx, and the "enemy" on the other side of the mesh are the defendants being transported by van from the prison to the court for their trials. This event is seen through the eyes of one of the court's lawyers.)


"Kovitsky stared at the window, still trying to make out his enemy through the heavy mesh. Then he took a deep breath, and there was this tremendous snuffling sound in his nose and a deep rumbling in his chest and throat. It seemed incredible that such a volcanic sound could come from out of such a small thin body. And then he spit. He propelled a prodigious gob of spit toward the window of the van. It hit the wire mesh and hung there, a huge runny yellow oyster, part of which began to sag like some hideous virulent strand of gum or taffy with a glob on the bottom of it. And there it remained, gleaming in the sun for those inside, whoever they might be, to contemplate at their leisure."

The last phrase, "to contemplate at their leisure" is just as fabulous as the nip of fatherhood. 


I know there are those who say that Tom Wolfe is more of an entertainer than a true writer. Wolfe has three critics (John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving) who have denounced him as such. Wolfe calls them "my three stooges" and wrote a fascinating essay about how these writers in particular are perfect examples of why there have been no truly great American novelists in recent years. He calls them "effete" and notes that their books, full of sentimental characters with vague "inchoate longings" and "wistful glances," lack the force and power of true observation. The problem with The Three Stooges is that they write from their belly button, not from reality. They need to get out of their comfortable mansions and out on the street. They need to talk to someone else. They need to learn about how other people think, and stop creating characters that are just projections of what they think a properly literary character should be.

Wolfe's rebuttal to his Three Stooges was quite a challenge. But it's refreshing and it applies in a broader spectrum of ways.

What about "religious folk"? Don't we fall into the same trap as the "literary folk"? Religiosity divorced from reality... can it have any value? St. Teresa of Avila said that the saints are found "amid the pots and pans." I think that was her way of saying to the more mystically inclined sisters, "Get out of your room and get real."

When I look back on my own "religious experience," I cringe a bit. God, I was so naive! So gullible in so many ways! And so quick to believe myths that fit the flawless image that I thought priests and religious people were supposed to have! Reality is so different from what I imagined then. I was living in some kind of a fantasy. I was so out of touch.

I don't suppose I will ever be fully in tune with reality the way God sees it. But each day brings me a step away from naive idealism and a step closer to a faith built on reality. Through the process, I am learning that one can get upset and angry-- which is, I confess, a reaction I have been struggling with very much-- or one can develop a deeper sense of humor, maybe a gallows humor that is able to laugh at absurdities even when they hurt. It has only been through prayer that I'm finding my way to that second reaction, mainly because there have been a few times when I almost felt like God was laughing at me with conspiratorial sarcasm, in the way that only a dear friend can, in the way that makes you break down and laugh with him.

I do think that God teaches us to laugh at the absurdity of our own expectations. It must be that humor and humility walk hand in hand.

This is, I think, why Tom Wolfe is so dear to my heart right now. He paints terrible, tragic scenarios that overwhelm his characters, who lose everything (no happy ending in Bonfire, unlike the movie!)... and yet, he does it with such trenchant irony that you find yourself looking at the comedy hidden within a character's downfall. And then, when the main character does fall, he discovers himself more fully through the process; it is not a fall from grace, but a fall into grace and into the revelation of his true humanity.

So Tom Wolfe gives us these imaginary gardens with real toads hopping through them, toads that teach us about our own warts and help us to have a good laugh. I don't care what the Three Stooges say. To me, that's good literature.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Surviving the Apocalypse

I recently e-mailed me family in New York and Washington, DC, asking if they felt the earthquake and how it went. My sister's response from DC:

yeah it was kind of crazy!  I was just sitting in my cube talking to someone and suddenly things started moving.  There's an apartment building being built next door to us so we thought maybe there was an explosion.  But then the shaking stopped and started again and was stronger.  Everyone was just shocked/confused.  So we're all milling around the hall, kind of figuring it was an earthquake.  And then we were told we had to evacuate, so we all filed down the stairs.  Is it wrong that I went to the bathroom first?  Either way I'm glad I did because we ended up standing outside for 45 minutes until we were ordered to go back in the building, grab our things and leave.  So we were dismissed the rest of the day.  Several people went to the trauma counseling center down the street to grab beers and play pool.  And by trauma center I mean the bar.  Naturally, I sought counseling as well.  

The national cathedral lost the tip of one of its spires.  I can see the cathedral from my rooftop (it's only a mile away) but haven't checked it out yet.  Now that we're under a tropical storm warning with Irene coming, I doubt i'll be venturing outside much this weekend.  Never a dull moment here!  

***

And now for my dad's response (from Rochester, NY, where nothing was felt):

It was Hell.  We thought the entire East coast was going to be swallowed whole.  I'm not sure how we got through it .  We didn't actually feel any tremors up here in New York but still it could have happened.  Just thinking about it gets to me.

Hell on earth.

And now I have to worry about Hurricane Irene crushing all my fellow citizens up and down the Atlantic coast.  Look at that monster.  Let's hope lake Ontario stays calm.  It's supposed to be sunny up here but you never know.  Gosh, I don't want any rain getting on me.

Easy, Irene... easy...






Monday, August 22, 2011

Lullaby

To my daughter Olivia, aged 9.5 months:

Lullaby

Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
my little one,
my baby.

Like a tender ewe, you are
looking up at me
with unblemished trust.

Your cheek is like a half-pear,
dusted with the shadow
of long lashes.

Your smile shines through your eyes,
filling your mother's heart
with delight.

How sweetly you speak, my love;
your wordless babbling is music
to my ears.

You are all innocence,
all beauty,
all purity,
the faultless reflection of love and joy.

Come, my baby,
to your mother's waiting arms.
You have ravished my heart
with the sound of your heartbeat,
with a single movement of your finger,
with your very existence.

Come, my little one,
let me nourish you with my own life,
with my milk,
with my prayer.

You are mine, but even more,
you are His.





Elixir of Choice

The forbidden grape.
It is the evening, and the Husband is off at a weekly men's meeting. The Baby is asleep. And I am enjoying a glass of wine, together with some bits of gourmet chocolate foraged from the pantry. The trick is to take a sip of wine while the chocolate (preferably dark) is semi-melted in your mouth. The flavors run together like a river of decadent pleasure, and the caffeine and alcohol kiss and cancel each other out.

Today we went to the pediatrician's for Olivia's bimonthly checkup. Since I am breastfeeding and my husband gives me The Eye every time I pour myself a second glass of wine, I took advantage to ask, "And if I have a glass of wine, does the alcohol enter into the milk?"

The doctor, bless his dear heart, said, "Of course not."

Feeling heartened, I asked, "What if it's two glasses of wine?"

"Tampoco," he said. (That means, "Not either.")

Thinking of last Saturday, I asked, "And what if I have a mixed drink with a hard alcohol, like with vodka?"

"Not a problem," he said.

"What if I have several?" I asked. Like Moses, I didn't want to press the issue too hard. But I had to know. And more importantly, The Husband had to know.

"Don't you worry at all," he said. "The alcohol doesn't pass into the breastmilk. The only thing your baby might feel is a bit of a hangover the next morning."

Something tells me (OK, the La Leche League tells me) that that's not quite right. But it gave me ample occasion to give my husband a big grin of "See?  I was right all along!" And the enjoyment (followed by instant remorse) of his sheepish grin.

I will regulate myself as I usually do. I'll probably stick to one glass of wine, maybe two. Hard liquor, not so often... and Baby will get formula if I go too far on a given night. But still, it's nice to get a carte blanche to drink what I want, especially when I know another pregnancy will leave me drinking V8 while everyone else is enjoying a Cabernet Sauvignon.

And so it was that a few hours later, with JC away and the baby asleep, I was busily planting a corkscrew into a bottle of Merlot, watching its silver arms rose like Moses standing vigil over a battlefield. When I pulled the arms down, the cork went "pfft!" and then "glug-glug-glug" into the waiting tulip glass, fat and rounded with expectation. I waited a bit, then took the first sip of burgundy heaven, letting the warmth course down into my stomach.

Silence, a bit of time to myself with my Elixir of choice... what more could a woman ask for on a Monday night?

One day, when I am rich and no longer need to work, that question will be accompanied by a few hours of leisure time, free from the weight of pending work from the day, free from the prospect of translating while buzzed on chocolate and wine. I cannot ever fully relax. But I like to pretend that I can. Mothers who work must take their rest when they can, even if it is in media res.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Cooking Up a Storm

One needs a big head to fill such a hat.
Ever since my husband and I decided to host weekly dinners for other couples, both relatives and friends, I've been practicing the art of cooking.

The Art of Cooking, mind you. From scratch, using all natural ingredients. The Real Deal.

The ideal in the back of my mind is, of course, Julia Child. And one of my driving motivations is to impress our guests with my effortless mastery of all things culinary, including the arcane fine points where cooking becomes alchemy. Who needs stewed tomatoes when you can make tomato sauce from real tomatoes?   Canned foods are beneath The Chef's dignity, and unworthy of our most excellent guests, say I, with an elegant flourish of my whisk. 

One day, when I am old and accomplished, I shall flutter around the kitchen like a diva on her stage, in perfect command of my orchestra of vegetables, meats, pastas, fruits, wines, pastries. It will be a simmering symphony of scents, a veritable heaven for The Husband, who will enter my sanctuary only to nod approvingly and perhaps taste an exquisite bit of sauce before wandering off and straightening a fork on the already-set table. 

One day I will get there.  But for now, I am usually hunched anxiously over an online recipe on my laptop, which is perched precariously on the baby's plastic high chair. There are road blocks on my way to greatness: figuring out how to convert ounces to kilograms, realizing after the fact that I should have started the sauce before making the salad and that-- oh God-- I forgot a key ingredient. And what exactly does "browning" mean?  

Even for a neophyte, there is something so primordially fulfilling about cooking for special occasions. It's a thrill to toss the tiny pieces of garlic into a pan full of hot oil and watch them sizzle. Ladies and gentlemen, the garlic has arrived! Small but powerful! And now the onion, a force to be reckoned with! I swish them around until translucent, then toss in the green peppers. Then the tomatoes!  And then... the tour de force... the wine!  

The kitchen is soon steeped in a heavenly scent and I feel like I am working magic, engaged in an eminently creative task (even if I am just diligently following the recipe, like my mother has always insisted). The vegetables and spices are responding!  It's working!  It's going to be delicious!

And since I finished an hour later than the dinner was supposed to begin, I have an additional miracle to be grateful for: like good Mexicans, our guests are fashionably late. Two hours, to be exact. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it is nine o'clock at night and... dinner is served!

Ta-ta for now... 


Monday, August 1, 2011

Parting the Skin Sea

Today: a day of contrasts.

Death sometimes takes away the person you'd least expect. Three days ago, one of my husband's aunts (his father's cousin) was hit by a drunk driver gunning his car in reverse. One minute Emma was out buying tamales for her family, and the next minute she was in a coma with massive head injuries and almost every bone in her body broken, while the driver paid off the police and slipped away.

She lasted two days suspended between life and death in the hospital before crossing the threshold yesterday. So today we went to the funeral Mass, and Baby Olivia's cheerful cooing echoed across the church like a promise of new life.

***

Later, we had to make an appointment, so off we went, navigating the city's twisty streets with the thousand stoplights and slow-moving buses farting out thick clouds of exhaust.

"We're going a different way this time, aren't we?" I asked.

"I just felt like going this way today," said JC.

Then we got to a major intersection where five roads come together in a kind of circular roundabout and my husband groaned.

"This," he said, gesturing at the crowd of 400 almost-naked men clustered on both sides of the road ahead, "is why I wanted to go another way. I knew they'd be somewhere around here, but I thought I was going to avoid them going this way."

It was a protest against a Mexico City politician named Marcelo Ebrard. We are not exactly sure why they were protesting a Mexico City politician in Xalapa, which is five hours away. But protesting they were. In their underwear.

Not boxer shorts, mind you. Speedo-type undies. And each protester had stapled a picture of Marcelo Ebrard's face just over his loins.

Doing the two-step without a smile.
Nothing says contempt like putting someone's picture over your loins and then dancing the meringue semi-nude in the street. The music was playing and the sea of skin was moving in waves. Young and old, fit and barrel-bellied, they were dancing along the sides of the street.

You'd think men would have to be drunk to try a stunt like that, but they were stone cold sober. Even their faces spoke of sobriety. Not a smile to be seen.

Except for on my face, of course...I didn't mean to be disrespectful of their protest of Marcelo Ebrard as "The Oppressor of the People." But... who thought of it?

"Hey guys, I have a great idea!  Let's all go out in our underwear!"

"Yeah, yeah!  Let's staple the SOB's face to our underwear! That'll show 'em!"

They had to be drunk when they came up with that one.

Grumbling all the while, my husband parted the Skin Sea with his Mitsubishi, bringing his wife and infant child safely to shore.

***

After the doctor's office, we made another stop (going by a different route) at JC's grandmother's house. She is actually Olivia's great-grandmother, and has reached the ripe old age of 95 with few encumbrances save the occasional fall, from which she recovers quickly. She's a trooper.

Lolita is a rarity in Xalapa, with blue eyes and what used to be blonde hair. She was considered a beauty in her time, as was her sister. Her brother was a Supreme Court justice in the nation, and was widely respected for his integrity and honesty. Time strips away all honors, and now she lives in a very simple house crowded with pictures, shuffling about in what looks like a nightgown. With her stoop, she is about four feet tall. Her hearing is nearly gone, but her eyes are alert and interested, and they homed in on The Baby as we walked through the door.

Once a mother, always a mother. Once a grandmother, twice a mother. And once a great-grandmother... ni se diga.

With the sense of ownership that comes from being a grand matriarch, Lolita leaned over and planted a delicate kiss on Olivia's cheek.

And my baby... let out a wail of fear and began sobbing into my chest. I felt so sorry for Lolita, but her indulgent smile said that she understood everything.

So we gave Olivia time to adjust, and in about five minutes she was proudly showing her great-grandmother her prowess at shaking her rattle. In ten minutes, she was smiling and gurgling. Lolita never took her eyes off her.
95 years and (currently) 9 months.

Old people-- very old people-- seem to have a kind of otherworldly simplicity. Maybe living for so long and witnessing so much life and death simplifies your perspective. Or maybe as you grow very old, you acquire the right to be at peace.  Let the young people do the heavy lifting of worrying and protesting half-naked in the street. Now is the time to live in the hand of God, like a passenger ready to board a ship for the western seas, enjoying the scenery until the whistle blows. Or maybe the mind begins to lose its grasp of all the minor details, and only the important things remain.

In any case, by the time we left, Olivia and Lolita were good friends, having bonded over the essential: play.

***

A strange day, with the tragic and the comic side by side, populating the same streets.


And later that night, our dinner was-- entirely by coincidence-- tamales. 


Rest in peace, Emma.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tortilla Wisdom

One of the benefits of living out of one's comfort zone (not that I'm in Papua New Guinea drinking water off of palm fronds) is that the different texture of daily life gives you more occasions to polish your rough edges and realize your blind spots.
Tortillas... handmade with love.

Yesterday, for example, JC and I were eating lunch in our usual spot, a hole-in-the-wall "cocina economica" (literally, economic kitchen). It's a concrete cavity off a side street, with exactly three small plastic tables (each covered with a plastic tablecloth), three chairs per table, and a long makeshift counter stacked with pots and bowls and good things a-simmering. The mistress of said establishment is Doña Clemens, a grandmotherly woman with a kind face and wrinkled hands accustomed to work. Her 30-something daughter Rosy is often there as well to make the "agua de frutas" and to lend her mother a hand. 

Both Doña Clemens and Rosy are evangelical Christians, and they live off of the occasional and regular customers who come for their daily ration of soup, chicken, rice, and dessert (jello or bananas topped with cream and sugar). JC and I are her faithful regulars, along with an accountant who eats quickly while watching the news on the antique TV set. Some of her occasional customers include a few other couples, some teenagers, and the odd transvestite (there are several in the area) who settle into their plastic chairs with a kind of sad languor. 

Anyway, yesterday it was just me, JC, and Olivia, chatting away with Doña Clemens while she slapped corn tortillas into shape and dished out our chicken with mole sauce (mole is a mixture of chocolate and chili - very delicious). The conversation turned to Olivia, who was sitting in her stroller, grabbing at the plastic tablecloth and examining it with interest. 

"Have you been eating avocados?" asked Doña Clemens from the other side of the long counter. 

"Well... yeah, I guess so. Why?" I answered, puzzled.

"And has your baby had colic?" she asked. 

"No," I answered. 

"Well, when you're breastfeeding and you eat avocados, you give your baby colic," she said. Slap-slap-slap went the tortillas.

Comments like these always trigger a reaction in me.

"Actually," I said with authoritative confidence, "that's just a myth. It's not true at all. I've eaten plenty of avocados and Olivia hasn't had a single problem."

Silence fell in the cocina economica, broken only by the slapping sound of tortillas. JC was suddenly intently focused on his soup.

Oh crap, I thought. I've done it again.

***

Later that night, as JC and I lay forehead to forehead in bed, we talked about that moment (among others). 

"Did you notice the sepulchral silence that fell when you shot Doña Clemens down?" he asked.

"Yes," I admitted, feeling a twinge of shame. I had been thinking about that vacuum of silence all day long. It had been nagging me like a lesson waiting to be learned. So I started to justify myself.

"Well, it's just that... people tell me all kinds of stuff with absolutely no foundation." And I listed some of the other weird advice I'd been given, all of which was just old wives' tales. "If your belly is round during your pregnancy, you're going to have a boy. If you put a red thread on your baby's forehead, it will stop the hiccups. If you eat even a little bit of chili, your baby will get heartburn. If you... it's just nonsense! I wish people would stop giving me superstitious advice," I said, realizing as the words were coming out of my mouth that my reaction was narrow and unkind.

To which JC responded, "A mi me da una especia de ternura (loosely translated: It touches my heart) when Doña Clemens and the others give us advice. I know it's not scientific, but it comes from a place of kindness, from a genuine desire to help you. And the advice they give is what they received from their mothers, all the way back through the generations. So there is also that generational bond behind it, a continuity from one mother to another. That's something beautiful, that family tie," he said, adding, "Try to see the love they are expressing, because it's real."

At this, my heart felt stabbed with remorse. Such small daily events, and this is the wealth that my husband sees behind them. This is how he perceives other people-- in the goodness of their hearts, in their desire to be helpful, in their willingness to give. I, by contrast, just saw superstitious nonsense and went after it with a baseball bat of Scientific Righteousness. Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  I'll flatten that myth like a tortilla!  Smack! No old wives' wisdom for me! I'm a Modern Woman!

And supposedly, as a Catholic woman I'm a "Humanizer of Humanity," right? Not even close. My husband is the perceptive one who gets the wider picture of hearts and good intentions, and chooses the right time to say the right thing... in just the right way.

Seeing me become pensive and sad, he immediately began smirking and imitating me: "Actually, that's a MYTH!  Actually, I read on Baby Center... Actually..." which made me laugh and feel so much lighter. "Ayy, güerita, güerita," he said. "What am I going to do with my gringa güerita? Te voy a dar tus nalgadas." 

***

Little lessons out of my comfort zone. I suppose in the States, I'd be just another Obsessive New Mom who wants to get everything right. But in Mexico, I'm something of a freak. I'm like the Obsessive New Mom raised to the fifth power.

Okay. Something to work on, I guess.

In spite of the occasional discomfort of "metiendo la pata" (putting my foot in it), I do feel grateful for these mistakes and lessons because I see the fingerprints of God's modus operandi all over them. Little invitations to deepen my perspective, widen my horizon, see the goodness in others... and when I fail, the correction comes seasoned with humor so that I can laugh at myself and move on. 

So... next time Doña Clemens or any other Mexican grandmother gives me Unscientific Advice, I will just say, "Thank you!" and mean it. Thank you for caring enough to want to help. Thank you for wanting to love my baby. Thank you for giving the difficult gringa another chance.

And pass me the guacamole.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Some Veggies, Milady?

One of the cultural differences between Mexico and, say, the northeastern United States is the degree of “in your face-ness” of… well, everything.
Dime la verdura...

People stand closer to you, talk more loudly, interrupt each other, cut you off in cars or on foot, ring your doorbell asking for money or donations, and offer unsolicited advice. The streets are alive with the sound of music, from the throbbing rhythms of reggaeton to the Lady Gaga techno vibe. From time to time, there is a two-man marching band that comes parading up the street playing the drums and some kind of trumpet… a kind of ambulatory concert. The two musicians are gaunt and old, holding out a hat for donations.

It’s all there, especially in our neighborhood, which is tucked behind a busy street full of shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants with white plastic tables and chairs.

I have no complaints about the music. In fact, I love it. Turn it up!  Louder!  My foot is tapping to the beat while I work. We jammin’!

The other stuff… oh gosh. Not so much. Being a cold northerner, I require more than a 10-inch radius of personal space to be comfortable. I like real conversations and I hate it when people interrupt each other and talk over each other without listening. I feel invaded when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door five times in one month, especially when they try to get me involved in their apostolate. Seriously, people. No means no. Also, it seems to be a kind of Murphy’s Law that as soon as Baby Olivia is sleeping, the doorbell rings.  

Aside from my gripes about the things that drive me crazy, there are little delights that charm me to pieces.

For example, the vegetables truck. And to a lesser degree, the gas truck. And also the guy who does laps around the block, selling “Galletas de Xiiiiiiiiiicoooooooo!”

I was familiar with the expression “vendors hawking their wares” but if you grow up in suburban America, you don’t really have many chances to hear the hawking firsthand. In a middle-class neighborhood in the middle of a Mexican city, you do. Oh baby, you do!

So. First, the vegetables truck. JC and I love it, and we pause reverently when it comes by. It’s a reddish-orange pick-up truck loaded with vegetables and fruits, covered with a kind of tarp canopy. The truck does a few laps in our neighborhood, while the driver intones the Litany of the Vegetables on his bullhorn.

It’s not a recording, mind you. It’s the real deal. Mr. Veggies is reciting a list of about 30 vegetables from memory, in a wonderfully nasal, sing-song voice. He sounds delightfully bored.

“Jitomaaaaate, ceboooollllllla, aguacaaaaaaate, jitomaaaaaaate, calabaciiiiiita, platano maaaacho, platano ratannnn!” he intones.


It’s magical. I don’t know why, but we love it and sometimes, in the middle of lunch or at a quiet moment in bed, one of us will start the litany and the other will continue it with gusto, relishing the rhythm and the nasally intonations.

“Verdura frescaaaaaa, verdura barataaaaaa!”  he adds. Fresh vegetables, cheap vegetables! 

But then, the best part is the little encouragement Mr. Veggies offers over his bullhorn to entice the housewives out of their kitchens. His voice drops a bit and becomes positively sultry (this didn’t come out so well in the video because he was self-conscious with me standing there taping him).

“Algo de verduuura… jefaaaaaaa.”  Some veggies… my laaadyyyy. The “jefaaa” resonates over the whole neighborhood, like the Pied Piper calling all the wives to himself. It sends a little shiver up my spine. I almost want to buy some tomatoes! 

The gas truck is also a delight. In Mexico, you don’t get your gas piped into your house via underground tubes. You have a tank behind your house, and you have to call the gas company to come and bring a refill when your tank gets empty. To make things easier for you, they drive around all day so that you can just run outside and flag them down like a taxi. And, to make sure you know they are there, they have their particular jingle playing nonstop over the loudspeaker.

There are four different gas companies, and each one has trucks with particular jingles. My favorite is Gas Express. The song is so cheerful, like a party on wheels. When I’m on international calls over Skype and the gas truck goes by, the other person inevitably asks, “Are you at the circus?” or “What’s that music?” One woman (a Latin American living in the States) even told me that she finds it very relaxing.

Then there is the garbage pickup bell. The garbage truck comes by almost every day during the week to pick up the neighborhood trash. About 30 minutes before the truck arrives, a very dirty man walks down our street vigorously ringing a cow bell. Dong-a-long-a-long-a-long! 

Five minutes later, the neighbors emerge from their homes, hauling bags of trash which they unceremoniously dump on the corner, much to the interest of the homeless dogs on our street. After a small mountain has accumulated, the trash truck arrives and three men jump down from on top of the truck, where they are riding on top of the garbage. The truck smells terrible, especially in hot weather, and those men have no machine to compress the trash for them. Instead, they open the bags, searching for cardboard boxes or soft drink cans, which they neatly stack or compile in a special area of the truck. Then they toss the rest in the back.

I feel so sorry for those men (and their wives)—there must be a special reward in heaven for them after such a hellish job, especially in the heat when everything becomes rank and putrid. And yet, the times when we have passed by while they are working, I see them smiling and cheerful, shouting at each other, tossing up the bags with energy, working as a team. JC greets them and they give him a cheerful salute.

And of course, they have a great stereo set up in the cab of the truck, so the bass is thumping and the dance groove is on to liven up the job. And it’s not discreet background music. It’s the soundtrack to their job. It’s a soundtrack that the neighborhood shares.

So… life brings these noisy little treats that proclaim a carefree joie de vivre to the four winds. At least, that’s how I experience them. The music, the Litany of the Vegetables, the Gas Jingle, the two-man bands… The neighborhood is messy, but alive.

And if you look a little closer, you notice something else. Behind the colorful banners of sound and song, these are mostly poor people trying to make a living, marching or driving in circles on a hot, sweaty day. I can only imagine how the typical Entitled American (including myself) would react. Most likely, we would project another kind of music, loud and long, to the four winds.

There are some things in Mexico that I will miss when we leave… and this is one of them: music, joie de vivre, and the down-and-dirty humility of people who do the worst kind of work with a smile. Or at least… with a one-of-a-kind twist.

Algo de verdura… jefaaaaaa…

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Resurrection Song

We all want to rise...
A few weeks ago, I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink," which is about snap judgments, fast intuitions, and how they are more accurate than we realize. The book is fascinating because he weaves in examples from so many different fields.

In an interview on Gladwell.com, he says, "In just the first four chapters, I discuss, among other things: marriage, World War Two code-breaking, ancient Greek sculpture, New Jersey's best car dealer, Tom Hanks, speed-dating, medical malpractice, how to hit a topspin forehand, and what you can learn from someone by looking around their bedroom." Then he adds, "So what does that make 'Blink?' Fun, I hope."

Definitely! I couldn't put it down.

One of the examples that stood out for me had to do with Kenna, an Ethiopian born (American) musician. Kenna's demo tapes were an immediate hit with record company executives and other music "experts," who knew from the first few seconds that this artist was exceptional. But he never hit it big with the mainstream. In fact, most people polled in pre-release surveys scored him at about a 4 out of 10. Anticipating low sales, the record companies dropped him like a hot potato. It took him a while to get his first CD out, and the second is still in the works.

I am not a music maven (my sister is the expert, with tastes ranging from Bach to 80s punk rock) but the story piqued my interest. So I did some digging on iTunes and bought a few songs I liked. One of them was "Daylight."



In general, it seems like songs have two faces: there are the lyrics, and then there is the feeling of the music itself, the gestalt of the song as sound. Sometimes one belies the other. In some of Van Morrison's later music, for example, the lyrics are full of the weight and disillusionment of old age, but the music itself is cheerful and smooth. On the opposite extreme, there is the oxymoronic Christian heavy metal: the lyrics are supposedly Christian, but the music itself has all the jagged edges and dissonance of heavy metal. It reminds me of a musical Nicotine patch for people who are trying to kick the Twisted Sisters habit... or whatever.

In "Daylight," word and gestalt fit together. It seems to capture the moment of emergence from a painful, heavy darkness into light, into life. The music has an aching feeling of yearning and struggling, as if the wounds of old addictions are still burning under the surface, but he is reaching for a new beginning.

Daylight, leave the shadows falling behind
Put your depressed sedations to rest
There's nothing, nothing to medicate
Let the rush of the spirit find me.

I'll go, I'll go for daylight.

Daylight, leave the black life and dark-filled rage
And let all obsessions fade
The constant, the constant is love
With you, with you.

Hey love, hey love
Hey love, hey love

We all wanna rise
Seconds, seconds they fly by, yeah
We all wanna rise
We all wanna see light
We wanna see light

In a way, it's a Resurrection Song. I doubt it was intended to be Christian-- it doesn't seem so, judging from some of Kenna's other songs-- but it has that movement upward and outward, from an inner hell to something higher he calls love. It has that yearning for redemption, that fever for meaning and transcendence, that surge of inchoate desire for something more, something beautiful and light-filled, something high and pure and liberating, like a white bird in flight. As he says, "We all wanna rise, we all wanna see light." We do!

So... I hear this and wonder: Is there a way to speak to this desire more effectively?  How can the Church (how can we) guide people like this to God when there are so many land mines along the way, so many issues and even words that trigger rejection? People are looking for meaning, but when the "answer" comes clothed in all the human imperfections of an actual organization, all the charm of mystery evaporates from the proposition. Redemption, yes. The Catholic Church, not so much.

Pope Benedict said that the Catholic Church of the future will be a smaller Church, but its members will be believers of the heart. It will be less institutionally powerful; the presence of faith within it will be more concentrated and condensed, more alive and personal. I wonder if it will also be a Church of listeners. It seems to me that clever apologetics will be less and less effective. Clarity about doctrine is always necessary, of course, but something more is needed now. The greatest ally to evangelization might just be that in an age of instant and proliferating communication, what people hunger for most is not just to talk and be heard, but to be listened to deeply, to be received and accepted without judgment. Maybe this will be the act of love that will mean most in the days to come. Maybe those days are already here.

But then there is always that reality of snap judgments about people. Gladwell himself warns that we can be grossly mistaken because of our own subjectiveness and limitations. People have so many depths, and they change over time; they mature and grow out of old mindsets and ways of being. They are shaped by their choices, especially. I think the challenge will be to let people reveal themselves little by little, withholding a final judgment, and certainly not making a definitive judgment about things that only God can know.

This will take so much mental discipline, but I think it is so necessary. Catholics need to get out of the ghetto and be in touch with a wider range of people. I write this mainly for myself, as something I would like to grow into, as the way I would like to be. It's an aspiration, that's all... to become quiet and to learn to listen to the song inside of other people, in the lyrics of what they say and in the gestalt of how they are and what they do.

Everyone has a personal Redemption Song inside. Maybe listening can help bring it out to the light.





Sunday, March 20, 2011

Of Travels and Travails

Bombs away!
When you travel with a small baby, you kind of hope that your trips will be smooth and uneventful. But since I went public saying that I enjoy the element of surprise in life, it seems that Someone decided to have a little fun with me.

Here is a litany of the Things That Went Wrong:

- Forgotten visa remembered at the last minute.
- First flight delayed by an hour and a half, which sent us into Running Mode. We missed our first connection and flew on standby for our second flight. We had to jump a line of 70 people in Mexico City (with permission from the guy at the head of the line) to even make it to standby status, thus risking the wrath of other travelers. Then we had to run to make our international flight after waiting in line at the Migrations Office for me to get permission to leave the country.
- Copious poopies in baby's diaper on two flights.
- My suitcase went MIA on our return flight.
- A bird pooped on my hand while we were eating dinner on a terrace.
- Our bus back to Xalapa was delayed for a day because protesters were camped out on all of the major roads out of Veracruz. Supposedly they were protesting violence by army soldiers against ordinary civilians, but later we found out that they were manoeuvering for lower gas prices.

But here are the Things That Went Right:

- We made all of our flights, albeit with elevated heartbeats.
- Baby enjoyed the wind in her hair as Mom and Dad went running through various airports.
- Supermom was equal to the task of changing a very liquidy poopie diaper in the airplane bathroom... twice!
- Speaking of poopie, the divebombing bird narrowly missed Olivia's head. Thank God it only landed on my hand.
- We were not stuck on the highway during the protest, sitting in traffic for seven hours, which could have been a nightmare, especially since riding on buses makes me nauseous.
- My suitcase and I will have our tearful reunion tonight, God willing.
- We ended up spending our extra day in Veracruz at a beach hotel... not a bad place to be stranded.

So, on the whole it was not the most restful of journeys. But I can't complain too much, seeing as how we made it home alive!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I Love New Yawk

The epicenter of New Yawk glory: Saks Fifth Avenue.
There is something to be said for knowing who you are and where you fit.

Now, it would be fantastic to be like the Queen of the Chessboard who glides imperiously into any setting and, by the resplendence of her power, simply belongs. But the reality is... well... not quite so glorious.

Last year (pre-Olivia), JC and I took a weekend trip to Manhattan to explore and enjoy the city. I love New York because it hums with life like a beehive, and there is such a wild variety of things to be seen, starting with the people. The Hasidic Jews are my particular favorites. So, off we went to eat some good Jewish bagels with cream cheese for breakfast, along with an Italian cappuccino-- all bought, of course, from the Arab guy behind the counter.

After a morning at St. Patrick's and some symbolic shopping on 5th Avenue (I think maybe we bought a t-shirt), we decided to head downtown into SoHo. That was when I felt the sting of "I don't fit."

While strolling along in the late afternoon, we wandered into a DKNY (that's Donna Karan New York for any fashion neophytes-- yes, allow me to instruct you from the depths of my fashion erudition) to take a look around.

"Can I help you?" said the sales guy, looking very dapper all in black.

"Um... just looking," I said. JC had disappeared into the dressing room to try on a potential Symbolic Purchase. Meanwhile, I was ogling the dresses. I love dresses and I am magnetically attracted to them. I have no real gift for fashion myself-- things just sort of look okay, not spectacular, on me. But I fervently admire those women who have a gift for throwing on a dress, a necklace, a pair of vertiginously high heels, a status handbag, and the obligatory Star Power sunglasses, looking like they belong on the Champs Élysées. So I just stood around, gazing around in wonderment like a kid in a candy shop (but trying not to be too obvious about it).

"You're not from here, are you?" said the guy, crossing his arms and leaning back conversationally.

"No..." I said, sensing an unfortunate turn in the conversation. And then-- I didn't want to ask, but I was curious: "Why do you say that?"

"Oh, I can just tell," he said chattily. "You both look like you're from out of town."

I looked down at my outfit self-consciously. From out of town?  As in country bumpkin? What did he mean?  Was it my powder pink rain jacket?  My non-status purse? I felt my face flush with embarrassment.

Because I am a glutton for punishment, I asked carefully, "What do you mean by 'from out of town'?"

"Oh, you know," he said. "It's just that New Yawkas, they have a certain kind of energy, a kind of drive. They come in here, they know what they want. You guys are just, you know, lookin' around..."

Seeing my face, he added hastily, "It's cool, it's okay. So, where're you guys from?"

"Atlanta," I said icily, looking away and praying that JC would hurry up. It was sort of true. It seemed better than saying, "Oh, I'm from the hinterlands of the Uncultured... upstate New York, the place where New Yawkas never go." Atlanta was a safer choice. Plus it was temporarily true. I had been living there for 3 or 4 months already.

"And he's from Mexico," I said.

"OK, that's cool, that's cool," he said, still in Mollifying Mode. But the damage was done. My pride was pricked. This guy picked us out, I thought to myself. We are obviously Gawking Tourists, coming to the Hub of Civilization to see how the Beautiful People live. Well, golly, thanks a lot.

Then JC came out. There would be no Symbolic Purchase here, he decided. Time to move on to the next shop. So off we went... and I made sure to stride purposefully out, sure of what I wanted... to get the hell outa there.

***

The next time we were in New York, it was for Olivia's Mexican citizenship papers. We stayed at a hotel in Manhattan to make it on time to our early morning appointment with the consul, and went purposefully, directly (with a hurried, driven look) to the consulate. Later, we returned with purposeful New Yawka haste to eat lunch and feed and change the baby. And after a short stroll to the Rockefeller Center, we headed back to the consulate again for a second appointment and then went back to the hotel.

This time, the hotel security officer decided to chat with us. He was wonderfully human. After sharing some of his own experience from a failed marriage,  he told us that we looked very united, and of course, that the baby was beautiful. He was not speaking down at us from the heights of New Yawk Sophistication; he was just himself, and we were just ourselves. It was refreshing and real.

So there are these two sides--among many, many others-- to the New York experience. There is the high gloss of Big Money and Big Ambitions with the smooth, silent elevators that open with a muted 'ding!', the shop windows filled with the avatars of a lifestyle unattainable for most mere mortals, and the sneering shop clerks, masters of the consulates of DKNY and Louis Vuitton and Prada and Ralph Lauren, who later go home to apartments the size of a postage stamp. There is that sense of glorious ownership of "We got all this and we're all that!" that can fill hearts with a kind of proprietary pride. This is my world. This is where I belong, among the towers of steel and mirrors. What about your world? 

I get it. I'd probably feel the same way if I lived there.

But then there is also the human side of New York, the rich texture of races and people, many from humble backgrounds-- immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Kenya, Iran, Egypt, China, Taiwan, Israel-- who responded to the beacon call from Long Island's shore: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." (Welcome to the pollution.) These are people who simply are what they are, hustling to make a living in a land of opportunity. They don't have a big image to uphold or carry before them as an Identity Enhancer. They aren't wealthy, but they can afford to be human.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

I like that contrast in New York. It's the energy and the contrast of those two worlds that can be breached with talent and hard work. In Mexico, those two worlds circulate in separate orbits: there are the rich, and the not rich, two mutually exclusive categories with no mobility from one to the other. But in America, anybody can become someone.

So yes, I do love New Yawk... and that's why I keep going back. But now, as I grow out of my fear of what the sophisticated shop clerks might think of me, I'll go with a sense of pride and freedom. As Popeye once said, "I yam what I yam."

And maybe that's the real power of the Queen of the Chessboard... she is just herself.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Full Circle

Fulfillment!
Sometimes events have a certain symmetry in the way they unfold.

Right around this time last year, JC and I were in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, asking Mary for the grace to have a child. We had been married for three months and we both wanted to put all of our hopes in Mary's hands. So we passed under her image holding hands, asking for the gift of a baby.

At that time, I didn't know that I was already about five days pregnant with Olivia. It was a kind of Visitation between two pregnant women, except one was unaware of the gift growing inside her.

Now we will be going again, and it will be a kind of Presentation of our baby to Mary. I just want to stand under her image and tell her-- and the Baby Jesus whose heart beats in her womb-- here is the fruit of my own womb. Here is the promise fulfilled. Here is the prayer come to life, a cheerful little girl we named Olivia Juliette. You listened! You did it! Thanks!

A few years ago, JC and I had made another trip to the Basilica to thank Our Lady for our relationship, which had just begun in October. Two days after that trip, on February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, he proposed marriage to me.  I had come home from the consecrated life just a year and a half before, so it was the second half of a transition from consecrated virginity to marriage and motherhood. An Annunciation of sorts!

And that little pilgrimage of thanksgiving was preceded by another pilgrimage (in September) to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I went to the basilica in a taxi by myself on the last day and prayed under her image for a husband. I really prayed. I think I went along that conveyor belt about twenty times just to make sure she heard me loud and clear. A month later, I met my future husband.

So these little coincidences catch my attention. I interpret them as an invitation to develop that relationship, to turn to her more often, to trust that when I ask her for something, she really answers. She's a mother, and I'm starting to understand from my own experience how strong her love for us must be. When my baby cries, I can't not answer. If she needs something, it would go against my nature to ignore her. If I refused to feed or soothe her, I would be doing violence to myself. It's like part of me now lives through my baby's experience; there is a kind of empathy or compenetration that bonds us together. And I never realized this before, but Mary must feel the same way about all of us. When we cry out, when we really need something, and when it's good for us, she doesn't just stand by filing her nails. She comes running. She is generous in her love. She wants to answer. We are always her babies.

And this is the ultimate symmetry of life. It's not just the symmetry of dates and mysteries that bear a surface resemblance to our lives. It's that all of us, no matter our state in life, begin to understand the gifts we have been given only when we are called upon to give the same (or analogous) gifts to others. Being a mother helps me to understand how to be a child, how to live with greater confidence in the reality of a love that surrounds me-- and all of us-- every day like the protective wings of an eagle... or like the mantle of a loving mother.

"Is there anything else that you need?"


Monday, March 7, 2011

Bag 'O Worries

Jolly Ranchers: the king of all candies.
When I was little, we used to go out trick-or-treating on Halloween with pillowcases as bags.  They had enormous capacity, plus they never ripped. We came home with our loot slung over our shoulders like hobos, and then dumped it all out on the kitchen table for the Sorting Process.

Those bitter, chalky Necco Wafers went straight to the Undesirables pile. Same with Bit 'O Honey, which always welded one's jaw together and wasn't tasty enough to suck on for half an hour.  Skittles, Starburst, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and the king of all candies, Jolly Ranchers: to the Highly Desirable pile, and collect $200 on your way past Go.

Well, I'm still trick-or-treating... at night... with a pillowcase. It takes a good hour or two for my wheels to stop spinning at night, so as I lie awake sleeplessly tossing and turning, I am sorting through all the assortied goodies and baddies I collected during the day. It's my Bag O' Worries.

Today, for example: while having Sunday brunch in a restaurant with another couple, we were chatting about the state of education in Mexico today. The husband had commented humorously on the "flexible morals" of the Mexican people... and now he commented on the "flexible sense of responsibility" in most teachers today. Kids don't study and the teachers don't demand from them. It's all very loose and free, he said. Now, I had seen this in the months I spent working toward an MBA here at a university in Xalapa. Even at the postgrad level, the students were cheating, plagiarizing, copying, sharing answers out loud during a test when the teacher (O Thou Enabler!) left the room. I can only imagine how it is on the high school level.

So naturally, I started to worry. What will my daughter learn?  Will she learn anything?  Will there be high standards?  Will she learn to cheat and be lazy?

Necco Wafer!  Chalky and gross!

Then there is the question of money. My parents saved and were frugal so that each of their three kids could go to a private college or university. They believed in education, so they sacrificed to give us the best possible options. Now, both my husband and I have decent-paying jobs, plus a side business. But will we be able to pay $40,000 a year (times 4) for two or three children?  What about buying a house and saving for retirement? How will we do it?

Bit O'Honey!  Wish you were a bit o' money. Or a lot.

So these worries go spiralling around and around in my head. And they all converge on one object: our daughter, our future babies, and the great task of educating them-- in the broadest sense of the word, not just academically, but for life.

When I mentioned the how-will-we-find-a-good-school worries to my husband, who never has trouble sleeping, he said, "We have five years before we cross that bridge and we don't know what can happen in that time. Go to sleep." Sage advice.

After all, a nuclear bomb could strike Mexico and then we'll have an entirely different set of worries... let's see, now what would we do if we survived the radiation...?

The problem is, I can't just "Go to sleep." I'm not wired that way. So I bring my Bag O' Worries to someone who actually has the answers of eternal wisdom.

Help us. We need help. I need help. I can't do this by myself.

I toss and turn some more. And then other, sweeter nuggets from the day rise to the top of the pile. I remember what the priest said at Mass last week when he said that money alone will not save us, that we can't put our trust in money but only in God. Yes, I believe that.

And then I realize that all I'm really worried about is for my daughter to flourish like a tree that grows up straight and strong, full of healthy branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. I just want her to be everything she was created to be. I want to make sure we give her the best opportunities we can so that all of the potential inside of her is developed, so that she is strong and good and wise and happy and holy. Whatever her talents are, I hope we can help her develop them in the context of a balanced and happy life. At bottom, I realize, I want her to be what God wants her to be.

Then I remember St. Irenaeus' words, "The glory of God is man fully alive." God wants her to flourish even more than I do! I'm not alone. We're not facing an impossible task by ourselves.

So I have the image in my mind of me giving my hobo Bag O' Worries to someone stronger who can carry them for me, to the Good Shepherd, the Jolly Rancher who took a jaunt with me through another uselessly sleep-deprived night.

And he says, "Mind if I hold that for you tonight?  You don't need to carry all that right now. Tomorrow's another day and you're on the right track. Now go to sleep!"

Sage advice.