Saturday, July 11, 2009

Fun for One.

What is your particular joy in written words?

No, not the ones that march across your brain single-file, colorless and droll, with no back-beat. Those would be work emails, newspaper headlines, instructions, lists, reminders, actionable anythings. Not those.

The written words that only appear in your conscience with a voice -- a secret, new voice that would change the world if someone could just hear it too. The voice that has its own pace, coercing your rushed practical self into another way of being in order to participate in the experience.

We have the magazine voice. Ooooooooh, she says playfully in full frivolous mode. She darts about the page with glee, reading the snippets beneath colorful pictures with delight. Fashion for some, food for others, crafts, home decor, gardens. This voice weaves through the texts, brushing through some like passing through long grass in a breeze, smoothly, and with her eyes on the horizon, on more exciting things just over the flip of a crinkling page. If she's heard it before, which is so often the case with magazines, she flies by as regretful as a life lived with joy. She playfully collects ideas in an inspirational moment of passion, undeterred that her spark of genius or pleasure may evaporate into the ether when she turns the last page, or an external voice of husband, child, or knock-at-the-door blows her back to where she came from.

The classic novel voice. A beautiful, resonant sound that patiently cajoles my mind into a calm unhurried pace and leads me to a place of peace and beauty. This voice systematically points out the subtle nuances of a sentence, unfolds the ideas quietly and makes me wonder. She tells me to read the lengthy descriptions as they are of intrinsic value. She sets her lips firmly and refuses to speak when my mind loses patience and begins to devour the sentences quickly, skittering along the long paragraphs, seeking a quick thrill. Sometimes I can have read an entire page before I realize that she is silent, that I have heard nothing, and may as well read the page again. This is when she waits for me to pause and consider granting her my patience. When I do succumb, she rewards me with a quiet pleasure, a beautiful rhythm that calms me as the gentle picture unfolds. In retrospect, I am always enriched by her timeless turn and pleasantly satisfied that a beautiful classic lives in my mental library, deciphered and loved.

Children's books. She can be big, small, loud, gabbled nonsensical, musical rhyming galloping joy. She can be a he, or a tree. She can be disguised as a loving teacher of lessons, manners, and conqueror of mole-hills. She makes unbelievable sounds, puffing up into incredible flying balloons or courageous tiny hedgehogs, twinkling stars and rainbows of imagination. She is never the same twice, and nor is her audience.

Books of faith. She is whispered aloud by elderly people fingering the tissue pages of their battered bibles; she seems magestic on the faces of those focused on a line of their religious teachings, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist. I sense her tone of authority as she speaks to the mothers reading out loud in their faith: Mothers, teach your children well.

And then, trashy or sentimental romance novels, grizzly detective stories, tales of fictitious war and adventure -- all theater for the mind. Many voices, images, self-absorbing drama and pure escapism at its best. Ultimate fun for one. Indulge yourself any way you like, and laugh, cry, be thrilled, outraged, depressed, uplifted or just plain feel happy to be with this crowd of characters in your mind.

And no one around you watching, can see a thing.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ode to Glamour.

Today I considered the glamour of those I chose.

Family -- the unchosen -- sometimes spark anger, disappointment, frustrations, feelings of being taken for granted. So in counteraction -- here, my friends --you all are at your finest, in no particular order:

Chloe, in shorts and full make-up, talking about her dance-hall days in the 1940s; Sara's soft grey bob, Southern Belle accent and gold lame sneakers; Nandini's wrists encircled in fine gold Indian jewelery when her hands are still; Courtney in a high ponytail mood; Nicky in siren red and smiling; Reena's hair falling over her face; Mike in shorts and an apron, cooking for a crowd, olive oil in hand. Janine H. smelling of Chapstick and sunshine the full promise of summer made tangible on her golden legs. Nolan's peachy country girl skin misted in a cloud of Camel smoke inhaled like Marlene Dietrich. My two tiny Jewish friends -- Lynda, spiritual and serene yet drinks Jack Daniels like a cowboy; Sharyn spunky and rock-and roll, devastating in a prim, white blouse. Kim, Miami beach babe, self-depracating laugh at herself. Erna, always December 31,1999 at any restaurant.

Tracy's bubbly laugh that sucks you into her joy, Paula's pretty feet, her toenails painted. Maggie W, genuinely shocked and enjoying it. Sune, with her emails full of country values and observations in a big City. Zoyon, the person most comfortable with silence I have ever known. Betsy peering over those wicked reading glasses, Karen's tone and expression when relaying tiny details we all miss in children.

Liz and everything about the ocean; David in Ramon mode; Fusun telling a story at the dinner table, lilting and gentle. Wilhelm, one of the few whose every aspect of life screams foreign movie-like glamour. Maggie M. more beautiful in real life than in those fashion magazines. Ben explaining performance art; Celia's droll take on reality, and Sam, an effervescent fizz and an expert at friendship.

I know I missed some of you. Inspiring all, I say.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Catching my breath.

The tightness is loosening. Slowly. But it has begun. My throat is unclenching and the squeezing around my heart is relaxing. I lost my balance, my tuned chakras, my feet lifted off the ground unexpectedly.
I just got really tired, and pushed on instead of stopping. The momentum of life shoved me forward and on.
My girls wrote tests, aimed for the end of the academic year and bore down with purpose. I made a lot of it happen as it should. And they were wildly successful. Plays, recitals, sports, parties, graduations, goodbyes, thoughtful gifts, notes, sincere thanks. Late, late nights and early mornings waking up before the beep, anticipation of a crowded day springing my mind into early overdrive. Fleeting affectionate glances at a spouse frowning in constant concentration and industry. Overscheduled, overworked, overplanned.

I was too busy to notice much. And yet... my girls stopped wanting to practice their music every day as they have done for way more than a year. I pick up my guitar and strum a few chords, but I can't sing. It is as if I have no voice. I focus on my lesson coming up and not what I am doing in the moment. I apologize profusely to my tutor. I can't sing, I can't play. She looks at me kindly and says music is your soul, it needs a rest. Art is your true self and it is tired into silence. Let it catch its breath.

I drink peppermint tea. I actually feel better.

I read with focus and start creeping into the alternate universe. It is a start.
I think about summer and food.
We are in Sonora for the weekend, the beginning of the school summer vacation. We go to the farmer's market early on Saturday morning and I buy plump peaches and apricots surrounded by a warm cloud of their own sweet scent. I smell each one pressed to my nose. Pure. Like ice water from a mountain stream and not from a plastic bottle in the fridge. I buy garlic, dusty and bunched in limp ponytails, their leaves still attached. I look at the farmer's hands and imagine him yanking the garlic out of the damp soil. How satisfying that must be. Shiny, elegant eggplant looks lacquered deep purple, just as it should. I mentally pair it with the chubby tomatoes, thickly sliced and honest. Green beans, stiff with freshness and snap, colored summer squash frilly and whimsical. Almonds and walnuts, growing in acres all around Sonora, shelled and proudly labeled with gold stickers bearing family names. I buy a large bag of salad leaves from a gentle man whose eyes seem grateful when I point at a cushiony bag of greens. Spring mix, he says with a shy smile. I look at the tiny crowns carefully selected and plucked with care. Bitter, sweet, peppery.

We sit on the curb and drink coffee from the coffee lady.
Peruvian blend in a styrofoam cup. No milk, just half-and half, she says unapologetically.
I decide to share my huge double almond croissant with Henk. They had just brought a tray down from the French Patisserie downtown, and I watched the young man weave through the people holding it high above his head, the terry cloth dish towels flapping to reveal larvae-like lumps languishing in butter and sliced almonds. Jenna and Sarah eat butter croissants and snow cones. The wind picks up and globules of warm rain plop down on the square. No-one seems to notice. I duck my head under an awning, my face dangerously close to some cherries and smile at my husband. Time to go.

I get home, eat some of the fruit and roast some garlic and eggplant. The heady smell loosens my chest a little.
The kid up the street saunters over with his weedwacker. The afternoon air fills with the smell of cut weeds and grass. He is fourteen, flushed and jaunty, his mind filled with the possibilities made real with a little extra cash of his very own. I watch him from the deck. He stops and shyly tells me he has saved the wild sweet peas growing all around the house. I thank and praise him in my mom voice, while marveling that this country kid knows a sweet pea and its value.
Jenna and Sarah fill a plastic tumbler with blooms and put it on the table. Someone knocks it over and there is water dripping down onto the floor. I clean it up, refill the cup and put it back. No irritation. I am feeling better.

I put on some country music this morning. There is a sad little song I would love to play. Maybe today, after lunch.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Beach of Dreams.

I am sitting under a gently swaying palm tree, ten feet from the ocean, contemplating the necessary ingredients for a lip smacking Mai-tai. It is peaceful, with a smattering of groggy people about and the ululating ocean the only notable sound in the salty afternoon air. All around me blood pressures are dropping, tensions are melting and grateful sighs are softly escaping into the balmy island air of Maui.

I wiggle my toes in the sand, and focus on the delicate patterns the frothy surf etches into the wet caramel colored sand. I flash back to younger feet wiggling in identical looking sand on a beach somewhere near Durban, South Africa. The beaches of my childhood. The same tepid sea water, clouds as defined as those in a child's crayon drawing. The same hypnotic patterns of nature, always changing, never ending. I was an eternal daydreamer, conjuring up intricate worlds of the future, sometimes realistic and possible, sometimes pure Dr Seuss and the Places You'll Go. My daydreaming took flight on the windswept, lonely beaches near Durban. My companions lost in their own reveries, books, conversations or games and the spaces large enough to wander off alone without being missed, a sandy figure on the horizon, head down and toes poking at a rock pool. I would sing, practice twirls and eyelash batting and manipulative secret smiles, and be intrigued and strangely placated by the new yet recognizable details of life and motion performing a grand opera in no need of an audience on the edge of the breaking waves and jutting rocks.

I dreamed of the places I'd go and the people I'd meet. I dreamed of the witty conversations and dramatic landscapes of my paperback novels. I dreamed in exquisite minute detail -- the laconic arching of an eyebrow by a chiseled lad in cricket whites somewhere in England --and sweeping generalities, the fabulous coastlines and towns of Europe and dancing and swimming and the magical music penned from the souls of interesting people. I dreamed in scenarios, never a chronological plan. No soul mate, fairy-princess wedding dress, faceless children and picket fence, (although I always imagined there would always be a dog smiling with loose lips and silky ears, panting happiness.) Memories seem to come to us in a similar manner. Ask anyone for a synopsis of their past or plans for the future, and they tend to falter, struggle along in stops and starts, and end up veering off into a scenario that captures their interest or ignites a long forgotten love or pain. As children we live in the moment, unconsciously and gratifyingly. As we mature, our expectations of the world and of ourselves change and we spend more time trying to control our environments, futures, time and life paths. But we also learn quickly that much in life is beyond our control. Sometimes it is luck or plain misfortune, the unpredictable actions of others both good and bad, and sometimes we just make mistakes. But we adapt and dream another dream, some more easily than others.

The shushing ocean coaxes my thoughts back to that misty place of dreams and plans, and I realize with certainty that these days all I wish to do is plan one day at a time. That life will definitely surprise me with the big stuff, but that if I live one day at a time with grace, love and genuine caring for others, the little scenarios of life will be drenched in true connections, heart-felt humor and beautiful images for the soul. So I am thankful for the warm, lovely people I have around me this vacation. The time to notice how much my girls have grown this year, to notice Henk's sweetness again in these unhurried days and to appreciate the life and interest in the eyes of my friends. To be reminded how much fun it can be to share -- thoughts, ideas, songs, jokes, meals, walks, fruity drinks and towels. A delightful reprieve from our over scheduled daily lives, and enough time to breathe deeply.

I peer up from underneath my straw hat and see my ten-year-old in the distance --twirling and singing on the rocks, her pureness taking flight across the Pacific Ocean.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Playing with water.

It's been a while since I've blogged -- work, kids, family, illnesses and a touch of drama has made me distracted and choking down ideas I normally would have aired on this wide ether.
But this week I had some fun.
I got to plant my feet on the ground, grab a thick fire hose attached to a shiny red engine and squirt a powerful stream of water onto some random stuff in the training area in the back of a fire station. It almost lifted me off my feet. I had visions of being lifted up comically and dousing my colleagues in water - fortunately they had thought of that and someone added some heft to the back. For a moment, I felt light again, a distinct change from the way I had been feeling these past few weeks. My weeks of spending more time sitting at a desk, pushing papers around, typing stuff and sitting around meeting tables has slowed me down, filled out my bottom. My tailored pants are unforgiving and a stark reminder of the consequences of more calories in than out.
I am working at Mountain View Fire Department, admin section. The nuts and bolts of the job is not very exciting, but the environment is quite a change for a girl from Durban, South Africa.
The firemen, engineers, captains, investigators, inspectors, Chief and Marshall are all quite an experience for me. They have taken some getting used to and understanding, but I think I am finally getting the hang of this alternate universe. Mostly, they all take their work very seriously, and all seem to genuinely want to serve.
This week, the new staff got to tour around and poke our noses in where they don't really belong. The firehouses gleam, and the firemen's quarters are clean and neat. They do their own cleaning, cook their own food -- which yes, the buy with their own money -- and clean toilets and firetrucks. Their dorms are rudimentary, and they have a fairly large area where they push weights every day. These guys have to be strong to haul hefty victims out of burning buildings. It is a job requirement to be strong, fit and quick. Necessary for survival and success. And then I realized that this was precisely what was bothering me most about my spreading bottom. The need to be strong, fit and quick for survival.

I have spent my life being quick enough to dodge a "grabber" on the street, duck away from a flasher, slip past a drunken fumbler when I worked as a waitress, and more than once outrun a dangerous person. I have been quick, light on my feet and agile, as I was never strong enough to defend myself physically. When I needed to run like hell, I could and did. It made me stronger than the big guy, the sick guy, the crazy guy.
But now I live in a world slowed down, where no-one runs but kids, and ambling is the norm. Reflexes dull, sixth senses grow quiet, and the world seems more benign. I sometimes look at the world around me and wonder what will happen when disaster strikes -- when panic ensues, chaos, and the crazies, violent and opportunistic pop out of the cow-like bewildered crowd in our city.
Will I still be able to run like hell when I need to?

So I'm back on the treadmill -- just in case. I'm part of the city's disaster team now. And, was the playing with a firehose as much fun as it sounds? Hell, yeah!!

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Life never ceases to surprise us, does it?

Just when we automatically thought our government would always be run by aged, white men and occasionally enjoyed entertaining the notion of some day having a female commander-in-chief, our friends and neighbors surprise us completely and Bam!
Today there is a serious young black man whom we call "Mr President, Sir."

I feel so honored to have witnessed the swearing in of two monumental presidents, Nelson Mandela and now, Barack Obama. Almost fifteen years ago, many white South Africans looked into the face of Nelson Mandela and saw a reflection of their own greatness on a different colored skin. This week, it seems many white Americans saw their hopes and lives depicted on the strong face of their own black man. He hasn't promised them the world, but merely his very best effort with their help, and that seems to be more than enough for them.

What is it exactly that makes people look beyond race, age, and appearances and reach out to one another in trust when there doesn't seem to be any real common ground?

We were an oddly incongruous pair, Buddy and I.

I was an invigorated, energetic, mini-skirted fluffy blond twenty-four-year-old with a shiny new job and matching shoes. A rotund, kindly-faced, continuously fatigued black man sighed in the office next door to me. Buddy greeted me with polite good morning good humor for the first week or two, whilst I scurried about getting acquainted with a brand new set of politicians, staff and procedures.
Then one day, when I began to feel secure enough to drink my morning coffee without the accompanying frenzy, Buddy popped in and gently placed his crumpled morning paper on my desk.
A morning ritual had begun, along with an interesting friendship.

Forty-year-old Buddy had a traditional African marriage, and a small collection of knobbly-kneed children. We never worked together on any projects, or discussed any technical or work-related issues. Rather, our morning conversations were of our lives, of growing up and out. We chatted easily and openly, and the vast differences in our realities, perceptions and experiences never failed to delight and entertain us.

He relished my horror in his childhood descriptions of trapping and skinning squirrels for food -the very same type of squirrels which tourists fed overpriced peanuts in the parliamentary gardens. He was intrigued by my independence and education as a young white woman, and listened to my reasoning and ideas on social issues and legalities with an open heart. I in turn learned to better understand his passion for the poor, his support for affirmative action, and how his paternalistic culture dominated his reasoning on many levels. We seemed to learn that we did not have to agree with one another to understand one another. Life experiences had made us completely different people and yet we loved the same jokes, loved walking, and a fine whiskey on the rocks.

Mostly, I remember we laughed a lot.
What a fine memory to have of someone so different from me.
Finding a jewel of common ground and purpose with another seemingly so different can change your life.

And as my five-year-old calls it, "Rock Obama is President. Rock Obama."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Plastic Houses and Pretend Money.

This Christmas break, we spent some time up in our house in the Sierras, and we played Monopoly every night.

I think the last time I played I was about twelve, perhaps thirteen. One needs a crowd to play a decent game, and usually our little family of four falls horribly short, with Sarah having the Monopoly attention span of a fruit fly. But not this particular week. We had two grandparents, a boisterous uncle, an even tempered girlfriend, two parents and two kids in the mix.
Throw in some fairyland snow, a tiny house, a wood stove, a generically carpeted living room floor, a sagging Christmas tree and a frazzled cat, and one has all the elements needed for a challenging game o' Monopoly.

Everyone dives for their favorite piece - a shoe, horse, "lucky" wheelbarrow, or ship. Paper money gets laid out in careful rows or wadded up in a sticky hand, hot and clammy from carpet wrestling.

At first everyone feels flush. Many streets are purchased. Then, money gets tighter, rentals received on owned streets seem trivial, and the sighing and discontent begins. Players start compulsively counting their dwindling funds. Baleful glances are exchanged.
Initial complicated negotiations and exchanges begin to be discussed in short bursts. Money gets less, deals get complicated and arguing commences. Within a short period of time, someone is protesting loudly about being bankrupted, or cheated. Soon, discontent reigns, and one person,-- in our case, my brother Francois -- is winning hands down with hotels, houses and everyone else's money. Every time.

No-one can quite understand it. He crows with delight, strokes a non-existent scrooge-like beard, and relishes his successes. Everyone else is just fed-up. Some losers go for broke, take huge risks and lose everything. They end up depressed and homeless and wander off to seek solace in chips and dip. Others try negotiation, pay-back schemes and clever, conservative methods of getting back on their feet and into the game. Sometimes it works, and they hang on a little longer. But eventually they too end up hunched over the browning guacamole. Sometimes the winner falls for the charms of the pleader, especially if beloved eyelashes are being batted at him. His charity keeps her going longer, but eventually she too succumbs and ends up with nothing, having squandered not only her money, but personal charms too.

Winner takes all. The shrewdest, most focussed, most ruthless seems to prevail in Monopoly. The young and stupid are quickly thrown out. The soft-hearted negotiator loses out, and the distracted with half a brain in the game is almost always gone first. The winner owns all their assets in a bewildering flash, and no-one really seems to know how it happened. Yet the all powerful winner seems to know exactly what he did and chortles with satisfaction, refusing to share his secret to success, albeit seemingly complicated. Just keep your head in the game, he tells me knowingly. Think rationally, and don't scare easily.

I guess I'll try that this year. Think rationally, and don't scare easily. Perhaps even season my days with a dash of optimism. There sure is enough to get depressed about. We read and hear about it every day. The dark, papered-over store fronts increase in number every time I drive to the store, and the browning christmas trees toppled into gutters and awaiting the wood-chippers give me that distinct morning-after feeling. Visual reminders of endings prevail. But now I am seeking out some inspiration to fuel motivation. Yesterday out my window, I saw a misguided tree had burst out into its feathery pink blossoms. What an uplifting spectacle of new beginnings in the middle of winter, and compliments of nature, not the media or the economy.

Perhaps I shall try to shift my focus from plastic houses and pretend money to real flowers and sturdy trees. At least, for now.