Archive for April, 2011

USA, Where Are You Headed? Wherever….Stop Being So Cruel to the Innocent and the Weak !

| April 25, 2011 | Comments (2)

Five hundred paedophiles to be tracked by GPS tags by RinkRatz

That this country – the United States of America – is in a state of confusion, would be an understatement. Without going into  sordid detail about how the American body politic is tearing itself apart at the expense of a gasping,  struggling middle-class, I will say it is a frightening time  to be following events. The news gets more unreal and menacing with each sound byte. And I don’t just mean the unending stream of disasters that shout out at us from foreign shores and nuclear reactor plants.

The way Americans treat foreign affairs is surreal. It used to be that politics stopped at the water’s edge. When questions of foreign policy surfaced, the two political parties closed ranks and dealt with international issues  – and threats – with one voice. But today – and I will have to don my partisan cap at this point –  strident Republican voices snipe at everything our noble President attempts to do. The level to which nasty partisan politics will stoop seems to know no depth.

In this Tower of Babel, immigration policy stands out as the most divisive example of politicians and pressure groups being stupid and down right cruel.

Because of my domestic situation – I am in a 30-year partnership with someone from the “Third World” – I often come in contact with people, both family members and friends we have made, who are recent immigrants, many of the illegal variety.

The capricious, inconsistent  actions of the American government with regard to immigrants is particularly harmful and hurtful to the powerless. Women and children bear the brunt of this stupidity to a hear-rending degree.

Before being arrested in a  dawn raid on a factory in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania and detained  in a night-marish  series of events that eventually led to his deportation, my brother-in-law was part of a group of Indonesians who worked on a high-tech assembly line doing  jobs that Americans would not perform for the same remuneration and benefits package. I should correct that last statement – remove “benefits package” because there was none.

Two of his colleagues were young Indonesian women. Lovely, intelligent, modest girls in their twenties who had come to this country as tourists and had over-stayed their visas, taking jobs to support needy families back in the faraway  home country. Each week they would queue at the Western Union office in town sending what seemed like modest sums to their families in Java. One hundred dollars a week sounds like a drop in the bucket but to  struggling farmers in Indonesia that trickle  was a godsend.

One of the young women, Mary, met a Mexican man, Pedro, and they fell in love and got married. Her Muslim co-workers and his Catholic companeros  stood with them in the local church when they exchanged vows. A year later a child was born. After a second year, Mary found herself pregnant again.

In the 8th month of her pregnancy Pedro was arrested, also being an illegal. My partner and I visited Mary one day , finding our way to a run-down part of town populated by  modest houses built in the 1950s for what were then America-born blue collar workers.  Mary and Pedro shared their home with six other immigrant families. Each family had its own bedroom with kitchen, living room and bath being shared by all the inhabitants. The place was neat and tidy;  even with many people about, an air of calm friendliness pervaded the dwelling.

As she walked laboriously about the kitchen fixing tea for us, her tiny daughter clinging to her skirt, Mary seemed strangely calm and stoic. She said she had no idea what the future held for them. Now that Pedro was in jail and she was too advanced in her pregnancy to work at the factory any longer, what little money they had saved  had dried up. She was now living on the  kindness of friends and the local Catholic charity.

Throughout our visit I was struck with the immense strength of this young person whose world was falling apart.  Even in these most trying of circumstances, her natural elegance, poise and sense of humor were still with her. As she recounted her plight to my partner and me, there was no self-pity or hysteria in her voice. Most of the more fortunate people I knew, had they been in a similar dilemma, would have been reduced to sobs at that point.

 As she multi-tasked – serving us tea, tending to her demanding little daughter who repeatedly asked “Where is Papi?” and cooking a meal for herself – Mary laughed, saying she would have to improve her spanish. If and when Pedro was released from jail, she hoped to follow him to Mexico to  make a new life in the forlorn, dry  village he had abandoned. That is, if Mexico would admit her through its border.

While we were chatting, another young woman entered the kitchen. She was introduced to us as Titi. She chatted pleasantly  for a minute, then excused herself, saying she had to feed her newborn daughter. As she was leaving the room, I noticed a rather heavy band  attached to her ankle. Fitted to the band seemed to be a small beeper or something electronic that I could not exactly figure out.

After she  left the room, Mary explained that Titi had been arrested a week earlier in another raid on the factory. She had been jailed, but then there was the matter of Titi’s three month-old daughter who needed to be fed. It was decided by the court that Titi could be released from her prison cell twice a day to visit her daughter and feed her. What she wore on her ankle was not a bangle. It was an electronic monitoring device.

As Titi’s daughter let out a spirited dinnertime squawl from the adjoining room, I thought to myself:  these nursing mothers need to be carefully watched.

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“April Is The Cruellest Month….”

| April 17, 2011 | Comments (1)

Spring Thaw by LynnF1024

“….Mixing memory with desire…..stirring dull roots with Spring rain…”

It was minutes to 1 PM and, walking briskly along East 52d Street, I was running slightly late for my appointment. I was rushing to one of New York City’s tiny perfomance spaces to join friends in a Japan Tsunami  Cabaret benefit. A group of Japanese acquaintances were singing Brazilian-inspired jazz for us and I wanted to show my support.

Without rhyme or reason I stopped  yards  short of my destination and did what I learned to do years ago in Italy – engage in a “dolce farniente” moment. I screeched to a halt, stood motionless and  basked in the intense Spring sunlight, soaking up warm rays,  letting my mind go blank. Doing sweet nothing, as the Italians would say. I found myself thankful I was alive and grateful for the Spring that had emerged from the menacing, stormy night that had just passed. The wind had been so wild  that I actually injured myself with my umbrella; it hit my face with a painful slap as I fought to keep it open and over my head.

It was good to stand motionless in the hot sun, forgetting who I was or where I was going. Without realizing it, a broad smile had spread across my face. Pulling me out of my reverie, I heard a voice, close by, saying to me, “You look happy! You seem to be having a good day!” I opened my eyes and realized I was standing next to a young man who also seemed to be having a dolce farniente moment. We chatted as strangers sometime do if the mood and the moment are right and he told me he was a businessman who had dropped his worldly concerns and had just opened an orphanage in the mountains of rural Vietnam. He said he was leaving in a few days to start construction on the buildings which included a school.

We spoke about our mutual love of Southeast Asia. I told him it was good to hear about such selfless efforts after the tragic American war that had caused millions of Indochinese  deaths.  Then I realized I was  late for my cabaret and rushed off, wishing him good luck.  The things that can happen in April, I thought.

Japanese give jazz a unique twist. After they perform, each singer bows to the audience. I  love the way Japanese introduce bowing into just about everything they do. Last winter when our jet landed at Tokyo airport, the ground crew bowed to the plane as it taxied up to the passenger pod.

Back from the cabaret,  I reached my door just as the phone was ringing. The call was from a  Burmese friend in South Africa. We had not seen each other or spoken in more than 30 years. He had found my contact information through an article I had written.  As we chatted, I forgot my New York Spring fever and found myself back in his dusty Upper Burma  village. I had visited Hlaing there when I was working in Rangoon back in the early 80s. Getting out into the countryside was a welcome break from boisterous Rangoon. On sleepy, oven-hot  afternoons, the only sound was the squeak of oxcart wheels and nobody in the village had ever tasted chocolate.

Over the next half-hour we caught up with each other’s lives. He had managed with my encouragement to leave Burma via a United Nations volunteer job and ended up in Ghana where he had married a local woman and had fathered  two children. Later he moved to a town near Pretoria, South Africa where he was still working. He was calling me from that place and seemed happy there. I could hear the sound of laughter as we spoke and he said it was his wife and children playing in the garden.

In Burma we had a great mutual friend, a medical doctor, who had opened a clinic in the same village. It was through Dr. Tony that I met many of the  villagers and heard stories from farmers and their families about a way of life that was fast disappearing in old rural Burma. I remember being invited to a Buddhist ordination of young novice  monks; we rode to the simple village temple in an ox cart and when we returned to Dr. Tony’s house, the villagers presented  me with an elegant  bamboo and mahogany lounge chair they had made.  Today it sits in my study and is perfect for reading and dozing off.

As our conversation meandered to a close, I wondered why Hlaing had not mentioned Dr. Tony. Surely his news should have been on the top of our catch-up list. I knew that Burmese had their own way of providing information, but as  I waited for news of our mutual friend I also realized that  Southeast Asians  are reluctant to reveal bad news. Finally, I couldn’t contain my curiosity which was growing into worry. I asked Hlaing what had happened to Dr. Tony. There was a long silence, then in a shakey voice Hlaing told me that Dr. Tony had been murdered by robbers who had broken into his house in Pretoria. Dr. Tony had also managed to leave Burma and after advanced medical study in the UK, had  found a good job in South Africa. He was healing people and  building a good life for himself.

We said goodbye and  I went to the backyard and began some  Sunday gardening. Last week we cleared the  brittle winter brush and noticed that perrenials were sprouting.  Spring was here and with it April, the cruellest month of the year.

(Verse excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s  “The Wasteland”)

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Stop The World ! I Wanna Get Off !

| April 10, 2011 | Comments (4)

My recent visit to San Francisco was a sad journey. I made the trip to say goodbye to dear  friends who are sick and old.  I felt their time was near and I did the needful by seeing them one last time. Our moments together were  bitter sweet.  But there were happier or at least more diverting aspects to the trip.

One  evening around dinner time in North Beach, which is the old Italian section of San Francisco, we came across a restaurant that spilled out onto the sidewalk over-looking Washington Park and the Cathedral.  It had inviting tables set with big white napkins and heavy old flatware. We inquired about  table availability and were told that a party of four had booked ahead of us but had not shown up; if they didn’t appear in five minutes, the capo said, the table was ours. ” You snooze, you lose!”, he announced. When I said that must be an old Italian proverb, he laughed and iterated, “Dormi, perdi !”

No sooner were we  seated than the party of four – actually six – arrived. They alighted from two black limos well-attended by drivers and flunkies, opening doors, bowing and scraping. All middle-aged men , well-tailored, florid and well-fed, they were straight off the set of  Sopranos or the Godfather.

The restaurant capo somehow found them a table and squeezed it in next to us. I found myself literally brushing elbows with a Don who conversed with his cohorts  in a mixture of guttural Sicilian and New Jersey American. Over the next hour, a collection of supplicants visited their table while the Dons held court amid much clinking of glasses, seemingly making “decisions”  on each “case” before them, then dismissing the pleader with a wave of a much ringed, manicured hand.  I was mesmerized by the shine of  clear polish on the nails of their hirsute, waving pinkies, highlighted by the  glint of street lamps and veiled in a blue haze of cheap cigar smoke.

At one point a toothsome, mini-skirted bimbo walked by with her  golden retriever. By chance both my neighbor, the Don, and I were savoring pieces of foccaccio dipped in olive oil. When I offered  the doggie a treat, the Don’s inner-retriever surfaced and he began feeding the dog one piece of  bread after the other.  A rapport crackled between the three of us – dog, Don and myself- and between barks, underworld patois and my all purpose response of  “Yes, yes!” which I use when I don’t understand what is being said, we became fast friends. As we departed the Don looked up at me and offering his beefy hand, came out with one of the best one-liners I’ve heard:  “I’m in construction.”  What else, I thought!

Back in New York, I headed to the gym for an “executive work-out”,  steam room and skip the exercise. While taking the vapors I listened in on a conversation between two latte liberal lawyers who were discussing same-sex marriage and gay parenting. They allowed that gays had the right to marry just like anybody else and that perhaps homosexuals could be good parents. The only problem was, they said,  there was a risk that the kids might end up gay! I walked out of the steam bath and turned the temperature thermostat up to 200 degrees F wishing that I were back in San Francisco with my Don friends. The Dons surely were queer-haters, but at least you knew where you stood with them. Never trust a New York City latte liberal.

My second jolt of the day occurred when I met an old friend whom I had not seen since childhood. We had a nice reunion and, unlike many unsuccessful get-togethers after decades of hiatus, we actually had lots to talk about and relate to. Then he turned to the topic of his life mate whom he described as a fantastic woman. He said she was an adherent of the Bahai faith.

When I got home I did a google and was glad to see that the Bahais emphasized the spiritual unity of all mankind; it was also good to know that they believed that there was a God who was all-loving and all-powerful.

Then the Wikipedia text got a bit bumpy. It seems the Bahais believe that homosexuality is an abnormaltiy, a “great problem” for people  “so afflicted.” However… we are told that the condition of homosexuality is not hopeless because, according to the Bahais, it can be cured by medical treatment.

Folks….I’m planning a holiday, but I think I’m gonna change my ticket and re-route to Bali Hai, that nice place they sung about in “South Pacific.” At least if I need medical treatment, it can be on the beach under the shade of a palm tree ! And maybe the natives will be  friendly…and restless !

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Once Upon A Time At Stonehedge – You Could See Forever

| April 8, 2011 | Comments (1)

 Stone Wall by MPOBrien

This past week was spent in the City by the Bay otherwise known as San Francisco.  Our trip was made to say goodbye to two old friends, old both in age and duration of friendship.

We first met Pete and Stan nearly 40 years ago when I was working in what used to be called Burma.  Friendly acquaintances, our rapport ripened into close friendship and we became  regular visitors to their ranch in the sky in Sonoma County, California. They called their property “Stonehedge” after the remnants of stone walls that snaked through their acres, constructed they were told, by Chinese coolie laborers  at the beginning of  the 20th century.

In the valley behind them – truly a hidden valley – lived farmer Clive Duwerson – then in his 80s. He had been tilling the soil and ranching there all of his life and Pete told me the inside of Clive’s hacienda was like it had been when he was a child – old wood stove, ancient wooden sink, no mod cons. I longed to pay Clive a visit and take a peek at the past, sitting in his kitchen,  but it never happened because Pete was not as pushy as I am and didn’t want to breach the old man’s privacy. I had to content myself with peering down the ridge into Clive’s valley and watch  from a distance as  smoke curled up from his chimney, his sheep dog barking at us.

On clear days from Stonehedge’s heights, when the fog cleared over the Pacific, we could see the ocean a hundred miles away. We would stand on the promontory, a field of long California grass behind us with the wind in our faces inhaling the perfume of  laurel trees  and wild  rosemary bushes that surrounded us in twisted van Gogh-esque profusion.  It was as close to heaven as I ever  got.

Sometimes we would drive  down to Bodega Bay and buy a fish fresh off the boat after sipping a coffee  in the diner that figured in Hitchcock’s  film, “The Birds.” Bodega Bay was a delightfully menacing place. I could still see Tippie Hedren stylishly screaming her way out of the diner as disgruntled blackbirds circled overhead.

As we climbed back up the winding hill to Stonehedge to cook our lunch, we  stopped the car and walked a few steps into the field to pull off a  stalk of  fragrant  fennel to bake with our fish. To me California  will always be God’s country.

When they approached their four-score years, Pete and Stan decided to sell Stonehedge and move to the city.  Adventurers, they were imminently practical  people  when it came to  needed life style changes and they realized it was time to down-size. I wondered if they would have any luck unloading the property because, delightful as it was, it was idiosyncratic, to say the least. How do you advertise a house that has three kitchens, three bathrooms and one bedroom ? I guess the only appropriate  modifier for Stonehedge would  be “room to expand.”

But contrary to my fears, the place and its 20-some acres sold quickly and for a good price. A couple of years ago  after they had sold Stonehedge, I nagged Pete into driving up from San Francisco to Sonoma for a nostalgia visit. As we climbed the hills from Penngrove, I was amazed at how similar everything was:   cows were still munching in pastures and sleek horses pranced over clover fields. It was just like it had been in the early 80s when we first visited, when the top floor of Stonehedge was still being built and we called the unfinished space that would be the great room the Citizen Kane Room after Orson Well’s fantasy house in the film. But when we approached the split rail gate that opened onto Stonehedge’s meadow, I caught my breath. Where there had been one house and undisturbed fields of waving savannah grass, now the acres were dotted with numerous dwellings. My beloved Stonehedge had become a surburban sprawl.

The new owner of the property happened to be there and seemed friendly enough. He  invited us to have a look around, not knowing  Pete had built the house forty years before. He told us the property was for sale. In fact, he confided, he had never planned to live there, but had bought the place and ware-housed it, waiting for the right time to sell it  and make a killing. Although the house and grounds were well-maintained, it was not the same place.  And there were strange touches we didn’t notice at first – several large Buddha statues placed on the ground as garden decorations. To people who had lived most of their lives in Buddhist Asia, we found this  landscaping an inappropriate coup de l’oeil, to say the least.  Moral to story: You can never go home again.

One evening after dinner a few weeks ago, we talked on the phone to Pete and Stan. After we rang off my partner looked at me and said, “We have to go to San Francisco.” Although they were cheerful and happy-sounding when we chatted, we knew the time had come for a final visit.

Our trip to the Coast went well. On the advice of their home attendant, we only stayed half an hour with Stan and Pete because  they tired easily. We reminisced about a thousand things and had a few laughs and then after hugs, left them, saying, “See ya soon.” I looked back at our friends  before exiting their front door. Pete was standing next to Stan who was seated in his wheelchair.  Actually Pete was holding onto the wheel chair for support as he stood; nearly two centuries worth of  life clinging to each other in loving support. They were already engaged in deep conversation, Pete admonishing Stan about something. They were still taking care of each other.

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