Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Year. A Review.

I've done this for a few years running, so why stop now? Y'all know the drill - this is nothing more than a list of the things about the past year that I took notice of - good or bad.

Best Movie That No One Saw:

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. I think five of us saw it. Two of us loved it, the other three hated it. I fucking LOVED this movie. But I love anything PTA touches. And this time, he's touching Scientology's roots...and it's a bad touch, the kind you point out on a doll, in a courtroom scene on Law and Order. Delicious. Gutwrenching. And, yes, annoying. But Scientology IS annoying, so that's par for the course. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a revelation. Joaquin Phoenix makes up for his stupid behavior in real life, by putting in the performance of a lifetime. I didn't think he could be better than he was in Gladiator. I was wrong. He deserves an Oscar. He won't get it.

Most Unlikely Movie To Get No Promotion, At All:

Dredd 3D. What the fuck? Who makes a big, gorgeous, sprawling epic of a futuristic, comic-book-inspired movie that looks like it cost a hell of a lot to make, and then doesn't promote it in any way? This is the kind of movie that promoting films is all about. I promise you - I am not just saying this because Lena Headey plays the baddie (and she does a bang-up job as the sadistic Ma-Ma): this movie is actually REALLY FUCKING GOOD. Maybe the best film adaptation of a comic book I've seen. By all rights, this should have made a gazzillion dollars at the box office: Headey has a huge fan base, and she's especially hot, right now, due to Game of Thrones. Karl Urban has a decent following thanks to LOTR and the Star Trek Reboot. The movie incorporates some truly amazing visual effects, and makes the best use of 3D I've yet to see. Plus...COMIC BOOK GEEKS. This movie should have been pimped, and pimped hard. Instead, it opened and closed in record time.

Best Bit of Nonfiction I Read in 2012:

Eden's Outcasts. Ok, this was written in 2007, and won the Pulitzer in 2008, but I only got around to it a few months ago. This is my list, so live with it. If you know me, you know I'm a bit of an Alcott freak. Love, love, love this dual bio of Amos Bronson Alcott and his celebrated daughter, Louisa May, that pulls no punches. If you're a fan, this is a MUST.

Best Bit of Fiction I Read in 2012:

Ok, some back story is called for, in this case. I'd avoided reading The Hunger Games, or even finding out what it was about. Mostly because a lot of annoying people kept telling me that I HAD to read it. When the movie came out, I paid no attention, and never found out about the theme, the plot, the characters...any of it. I DID NOT CARE. And then I took up archery, and a friend - someone who isn't annoying, at all - brought up The Hunger Games, and mentioned that archery played a big role in it. She suggested I give it a try. So, yes, I was late to the game, and the annoying people were right. It's a great book. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this: it is the best contemporary book for girls and young women to read, period. It is the book the world has been waiting for since 1868, when Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. Once upon a time, every American girl (and every English and German and Japanese girl...) read Little Women. I don't think that's so anymore. Sadly, what was radical and liberating for and about girls and women in 1868 is too often viewed as prudish, by today's standards. Worse, some people plain don't get it, can't place it in its context, and think Alcott's works are anti-woman, which couldn't be further from the truth. But I digress. If every little girl used to read Little Women, every modern little girl should be reading The Hunger Games. It's brilliant, and kind of beautiful, and it has a female protagonist who is - dare I say it? - a 21st century Jo March. Katniss Everdeen kicks ass. She's physically powerful, intelligent, humane, and a survivor. She does not give up, she does not accept the status quo, and she doesn't stand around, waiting for a boy to save her. I'm so glad I finally got around to reading this. I loved it so much, I've got the next two books in the series, but haven't even started them, yet, because I want to savor them.

 Newest Fixation:

Archery. Why have I pined away for want of doing this since I was a kid, only venturing to try it out at 45? Saturday mornings, Golden Gate Park. I'm there. (No - that's not me in the photo.)

Most Addictive Clusterfuck of Terror that I Take Personally:

Season 1 of American Horror Story was really good. Season 2 - American Horror Story: Asylum - is fantastic. It's also the most scary, fucked up shit to hit the small screen, maybe EVER. You name the scary, and it's there: serial killers, sadists, Satan inhabiting the body of a young nun, the Angel of Death, alien abduction, ritualistic torture...oh, and I haven't even gotten to the truly scary part. None of that gives me nightmares, but the story of Lana Winters, a lesbian living in 1960s Boston, who is shoved away in an asylum  because of her deviant sexual nature, and subjected to all manner or emotional and physical torture? Now THAT sends me into a corner, where I roll up into a fetal position and rock myself to sleep every Wednesday night. Because the monsters Lana Winters faces every week are all too real, and her horror could conceivably befall any of us. I rarely cry. The scene where Lana is subjected to aversion therapy brought me close to tears. This show is so bad for my mental health, I'm sure of it. Yet, it's so well done, and so compelling...I can't NOT watch it. And Sarah Paulson is a heart-breaker, in more ways than one. Watch at your own risk. But watch.

Best On-screen Chemistry:

Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage as siblings Cersei and Tyrion. They're a joy to watch together. Any scene with Cersei and The Imp is worth watching over and over. I love them. I haven't read the Game of Thrones books but, so I have no idea what's to come. If Tyrion dies, I'm going to scream. I mean it. He's so awesome.

Most Pleasant TV Surprise:

The Dallas reboot is good. Really good. I'd assumed it would suck. I'd assumed they'd only use the old actors as background. I assumed it would be a mess that paid no mind to the Dallas cannon. I was wrong. The reboot is a gorgeous continuation of the original series, obviously written by folks who have great love for original, and who were determined that the classic characters be front and center, all the way. Josh Henderson, who got off to a shaky start as John Ross, ended the season looking and sounding every inch the heir apparent of J.R. Ewing. Honestly? The season one finale could not have been better. Viewers witnessed the birth of a monster in Henderson's John Ross, and he was 100% up to the job. I have big love for this series, and hope it can survive the sad passing of Larry Hagman.

Best Lesbian Thing All Year:

I'll readily admit that I don't actually know much about "lesbian things," because I don't like most of the books, movies, sports, music or celebrities people associate with lesbians. But I know good stuff made by lesbians, about lesbians, when I see it. The Throwaways, by Tellofilms  is really well-done, and worth seeking out.

Favorite New Not-For-Profit:

A is for... is  a very cool new organization whose mission is all about preserving and guaranteeing the rights of women through education and advocacy, and support of other woman-centric groups. I like these folks. They're cool, and they want the average woman to get involved in her own future. What's not to like about this?

Most Satisfying Personal Achievement - Major:

Complete dietary and lifestyle changes that have resulted in complete control of a chronic condition and changed my outlook on just about everything. Enough said about this.

Most Satisfying Personal Achievement - Minor: 

You're probably going to ask, "Is she kidding? THAT'S a satisfying achievement???" I just SAID it would be a minor achievement. It was more tricky than I'd thought it would be, so I was proud of myself for actually seeing this through to the end and sending it on its merry way to a young friend in L.A. I MADE THIS, YO.

Best New Blog:

The Gay Agenda: Free Dream Interpretation By A Lesbian With A Definite Bias. Yeah, I'm plugging my own shit. Deal with it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Just Be Thankful, Asshole

Someone I know only in passing - a Facebook "friend," I've never met, and have barely every interacted with (such is how fast and loose we've become with the concept of friendship) just set his status as, "I have almost nothing in my life to be thankful for this year."

Excuse me, but SHUT THE FUCK UP.

This is not some guy living in the Middle East who doesn't know if his children's school will be bombed on any given day.  This isn't someone who lost his home to hurricane Sandy. This isn't someone dying of cancer.  And, let's be honest - most of those folks are probably thankful for every day their kids get home from school safely, that they got out of Sandy alive, and that cancer hasn't beaten them, yet. No, this is just a guy who seems somewhat disenchanted with life and can't see how fucking ridiculously blessed he is.

This morning I made breakfast for myself. The espresso pot I used was a gift from one dear friend. The coffee, itself, was a gift from another. The recipe for the dish I cooked came from an old love. The pan I cooked it in was a housewarming gift from my mother. The knife I used was given to me by my sister. My coffee mug? I've had it for over 20 yrs, having picked it up at a garage sale some 20+ years ago, on a sunny Saturday morning spent with one of my favorite people. My breakfast plate - turquoise Fiestaware from the 30s - was my grandmother's favorite plate. Even the simple act of cooking a basic meal is full of reminders of how much my cup really does runneth over. I'm not talking about the stuff. The coffee pot and the pan and the knife - those are all swell. It's the connections to people that really count as blessings, though. And, if a spot of breakfast is overflowing with reminders of how fucking sweet life is, and how many good people are part of my life? The rest of the day is a freaking cavalcade of things to be thankful for.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone is as lucky as I am. What I am saying is that most of us - especially those of us in the western world, where we have it pretty damned cushy - have a hell of a lot to be thankful for. I'm not crazy about the city in which I live. I'm not crazy about being single. I'm not crazy about not being able to see my family often, or that most of my friends live on the other side of the country. This doesn't mean I have nothing to be thankful for. It's almost obscene how much there is in my life to be thankful for: friends, family, good health, a sense of humor, a decent place to live, food in my belly. Coffee. My favorite sweater. A sharp mind. Freedom.

All in all, I live a life of incredible ease and comfort, and which affords me as much safety and security as anyone has a right to hope for. And this guy who supposedly has nothing to be thankful for? Even the small bit I know about him tells me he enjoys the same. Maybe he should stop being such a self-pitying dick, put away his woeful violin, and take a good look around him.

Life is a great, fucking thing. Be thankful, asshole.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Fucking Love New York

This has been a tough week for my city. It may not be the city I live in at this moment, but New York will always be my city.

Like I said, this has been a tough week for my city and, if I've always loved my city, I love it more during times of adversity. I FUCKING LOVE NEW YORK CITY. Because, when Mother Nature takes a swipe at my city, my city falls flat on its ass, gets up, brushes off, rolls up its sleeves, and gets back into the ring.

 Because NYC firefighters are real-life superheroes.

Because, even when a neighborhood is gone,  the outer boroughs are still about neighbors.

 Because there is generosity and decency to be found in unlikely places.

Because hell, yes, we're open for business.

 Because my gorgeous fellow bridge-and-tunnel people look out their windows at a rising flood, and think, "I have a motherfucking canoe and a paddle around here somewhere."

Because, battered and bruised, Nathan's still stands.

Because the NYC subway system was opened in 1904. NINETEEN FUCKING OH FOUR. That's 108 years ago. Flood the shit out of those tunnels. Go ahead. Do your best. My city is getting a bunch of them back online within the week, bitch.
Because even in the dark, and under water, there is no city more beautiful.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Whatever: On National Coming Out Day

So, it's National Coming Out Day. I'm of divided minds about this. 

On the one hand, I think it's a little lame and that the whole idea of having a coming out day even further oversimplifies the whole thing. People who aren’t gay have this idea that coming out is something a person does and gets over with, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no getting it over with. Coming out is something most gay people have to do over and over again, during our lives. We come out to parents. To friends. To neighbors. To nosy people who get it into their heads to fix us up with nice guys they know. To nice guys (and not so nice guys) who have other ideas. And, really the bad parts about coming out do not ever get any better. I mean, the words, themselves, are easier to say, but the feeling that the bottom might fall out from under my feet once I’ve spilled the beans to a particular person? That feeling has never gone away, and probably never will. Because there will always be assholes and bigots in the world. Because there are still lots of places where being gay can mean losing a job, losing an apartment, losing custody of one's children...even losing friends and family.

I'm annoyed by National Coming Out Day because I want coming out to be over and done with, once and for all. Because coming out over and over, again can be like pulling off a scab before a cut has fully healed. Who fucking needs it?

On the other hand...

Anyone who knows me or has read this blog for any length of time knows that my appreciation of Maureen Garrett runs deep and true. A fine, fine actress who really should have made the jump from soaps to the big screen, the way Julianne Moore (and so many others) did. Her long-term relationship with another woman was never a secret - lots of us knew about it. I've never met Garrett, and even I knew about it. But she, herself, never discussed it publicly - which was her prerogative. I have to say, though, as much of a cynic about this whole coming out business as I may be, it does my heart good to find out that Garrett has decided to officially come out and talk about her partner and their children.

Way back when, I had this idea that the writers at Guiding Light passed on what could have been a great opportunity when they had Garrett on hand for a short time. But, hey - who cares what they did or didn't do on a tv show? A television show may be the reason I know this woman exists, and how I came to appreciate her talent, but the real-life milestone she's just marked is so much more significant than anything Holly Norris could have imagined.

In spite of myself, I find myself appreciating stupid, old National Coming Out Day.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


There are two books that I hold sacred. Not because they're the greatest books ever written, but because the impact they've had on me, personally, has been so great. These are books I'll always own, and always return to. Anyone who knows me well knows the first one is Louisa May Alcott's Little Women - the book that made me take notice of the fact that writing is, in fact, a thing worth doing, and that women can certainly do it. Also, that simple, true stories from life are worthy subjects in literature. The beauty of Little Women, in so many ways, is that nothing happens. Not really. It's not a book about an accident or a tragedy or a life-changing event. It's a book about everyday family life. Girls grow up, hearts are broken, babies are born, loved ones die.  Ordinary people interact with, argue with, make friends with, and fall in love with other ordinary people. None of it is earth-shattering.  It's not drama - it's life as we know it. And what a surprise that it makes for great reading.

But I'm writing, today, about the second book that I can't do without: Truman Capote's The Grass Harp.  Not as many people are familiar with Capote's novel as are with Alcott's. The two books couldn't be more different. If Alcott wrote about the small things that make up a life, Capote wrote (in this novel) about the big events that change a life and shift a person's trajectory, forever. I love this book in almost the way I love a good friend. It is not overstating it to say that reading this book for the first time changed my own trajectory as a writer. For one thing, it's humbling. It's simple and understated and, yet, as big as life. The prose is beautiful. The characters come to life. This is the book that made me take note that, oftentimes, the most important character in a story is the setting...that great things can happen when a writer embraces the natural world...that literature of the American South is as full of paradoxes as the American South, itself. The first time I finished reading this book, I immediately turned back to the beginning to read it, again - it moved me that much.  I return to this beautiful, little book often. I've lost count of how many times I've read it. I've read it during times of great sadness. I've read it when my life was in flux. I've read it while traveling to far-away places. I've read it when I've found myself unable to write. I've read it when something about the natural world has truly moved me. I've read it out loud to a beautiful woman, who begged me not to stop until it was done. I will always return to this book. It feels like home.

Happy birthday, Truman Capote.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Give It A Rest - NSFW

Lately, I've found the whole business of being gay really fucking exhausting. This isn't to say I hate being a lesbian...or that I wish I could switch teams (although, let's be honest - just about anyone who claims they've never wished for an easier path is full of shit.) I'm saying it's a freaking exhausting business, because there's so much to be said about it. And everyone has an opinion, good or bad. Chick-fil-A, Westboro Church, the LDS, those crazy housewives who hate JC Penney.....they're so sickening, so tiresome. And exhausting. Don't they ever stop? Don't they ever just get tired of talking about how much they hate me, and how I'm going to hell? Really, it's ok that you hate me. I don't mind it. Go ahead and hate me. Just shut the fuck up about it, will you? I GET IT, YOU HATE ME. I JUST DON'T CARE IF YOU LIKE ME OR APPROVE OF ME. I JUST WANT YOU TO SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT IT, ALREADY.

Here's the thing: since the beginning of time there have people who found homosexuality repugnant and evil. People who have written and passed laws to punish homosexuals. People who have restricted the rights of homosexuals. People who have dedicated their lives to smear campaigns against homosexuals. Hating gays is old as shit, but here's the thing about it: hate me all you want, disapprove of who I am all you want, tell me I can't marry a woman, or hold a certain job, or have certain that all you want. You can open clinics  where you try and "cure" gays, and start churches that force gay people to behave as straight people can do whatever the hell you want, but it doesn't change one very crucial piece of this whole puzzle: I WILL ALWAYS LOVE WOMEN. And not just women as an idea. I mean I LOVE WOMEN AND I LOVE THEIR VAGINAS. Pussies. Cunts. Quims. Bearded Oysters. Punani. Poontang. Fannies. Beavers.  Nappy Dugouts. Chochas. Box Lunches at the Y. Honey Pots. Hush Puppies. Cooters.  And, just so you don't think I'm all one-note and crude about this: I'm also attracted to the way women walk, talk, reason, laugh, tell stories, get shit done, argue, cook, have babies, and generally frustrate me and drive me insane. But, yeah, I like vag. I always will. No amount of back-assward-activism is going to change that about me - or about ANY lesbian - so what the fuck is the point?

Give it a fucking rest.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sister, Sister

Thirty-nine years ago, today, my older sister and I were sitting on the stoop on a warm, summer, Brooklyn evening, with our grandparents. That's what people did in Brooklyn back then. On summer nights, when darkness didn't come until well after 8pm, we'd all go out and sit on our stoops, or lean out of the window and watch what was going on outside. My sister and I would play jacks. My grandfather would read The Daily News evening edition. My grandmother would talk over the fence to our next door neighbor, who she'd been best friends with for years. It was a neighborhood.

On this night, July 26th, 1973, we heard the upstairs door open, and out came my mother and father. My mother was very pregnant. She was a small woman, and this baby had added a good 50 lbs to her. Getting around had become uncomfortable for her, especially in the summer heat.

"Do we have to come inside, now?" I asked.
"Just a little while longer, please?" my sister asked.
My mother took a deep breath. "No," she said, "you don't have to come in, yet. I need to stretch my legs. Daddy and I are going to take a little walk."
Ma and Daddy came down the steps, hand-in-hand. When they reached the bottom, Ma kissed first Lisa, and then me on the forehead. "Be good, babies" she said, "Abuela's in charge."
She looked up at my grandmother, then, who was seated on the step above me, trying to braid my thin hair, and said, "Mami -nos vamos."
My grandmother did that thing with her chin that Puerto Rican people do. (I do it, myself, these days.) Even back then I knew it meant "Ok."
My grandfather didn't say anything, Neither did my father. This wasn't man's business.

Dad opened the front gate and he and Ma started walking slowly up the block, holding hands. They always looked so funny together. Ma was short and chubby. Dad tall and lanky. More than a foot apart. That year, dad had let his hair - what little there was of it - grow, and it reached almost to his shoulders. His beard was really long, too. He always wore really worn jeans with a garrison belt, a white t-shirt, and a pair of Clark's Wallabees. He was in no way a hippie, but he looked a little bit like one. Like a really clean hippie. Ma didn't look like a hippie, at all. She just looked like, well, like my mother.
As they walked up the street, one of our neighbors called down from her window, "Hey, where are you two headed?"
"Taking a walk on the ave," Ma answered.
"A little hot for that, doncha think?," another neighbor chimed in from his stoop.
"I just feel like stretching my legs," Ma replied.
A second later the first neighbor, a feisty, older Italian-American woman who lived two doors away and was good friends with my parents, yelled out, "BULLSHIT! You're going to have that baby!"
My sister and I looked at each other, and then looked up at my grandmother. She smiled and said (in Spanish), "The new baby is coming." Abuela had had nine babies of her own, all at home, with only the aid of a midwife. This business was nothing to get worked up over.
My sister and I were allowed to sleep with Abuela and Abuelo. It was the first time in my life my mother would be away from me as I slept. The four of us piled into the big bed that night, and watched Channel 47 for a while before turning out the lights and falling asleep. Early the next morning, Abuela shook me awake, "Despiertate, mi gordita de oro," she said, "Your father's going to take you to see  your new baby sister."
Lisa and I got up, brushed our teeth, and put on the clothing Ma had gotten ready for us before she'd left the night before. We sat at the table in Abuela's kitchen, where we drank big mugs of hot cafe con leche and ate bread with butter. Abuelo peeled an orange and divided the wedges between us. Just as we were finishing up our breakfast, we heard a tap at the window. It was Dad. "Come on, let's go," he called out, "your baby sister is waiting."
We ran outside, and walked up the street, each of us holding one of Dad's hands. The early morning sun was bright. It would be another hot day. When we got to the corner, as we were waiting for the light to turn green, Dad looked down at me, "You know," he said, "this means you're not the baby, anymore."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Of Sisterhood, Awards, and Other Blogs

The incredibly bright and talented Heidi Moore, who I've come to think of as "the biggest missed opportunity at a best friend, ever" has nominated The Superhero Lunchbox for The Sisterhood of The World Bloggers and the Tell Me About Yourself awards.

Better late than never - and I'm glad Heidi and I have found friendship and camaraderie, after so many years of being more acquaintances, than anything else. One of the sharpest, wittiest women I know, I'm constantly amazed by the grace and humor with which Heidi writes about some pretty heavy-duty topics that would have brought a lesser woman down, long ago. Check out her blog. Go back and start from the beginning. You will think about your own mortality. You will laugh. You will want to paint and write and eat vegan baked goods. You will wish you knew Heidi, too. Trust me on this.

So, the terms of this nomination require nominees to link back to nominator (seriously, don't skip the part where you check out HeidiWriting) and to write a list of : "Seven Things You Should Know About Me," and then to nominate seven other bloggers who are worthy of this award. This seems like a pretty neat way to spread the word about some of the great stuff that's out there for the reading. Here goes.

Seven Things You Should Know About Me

1. I identify as "culturally Catholic." I don't go to mass. I don't believe in 99.99% of what the church has to say. I eat meat on Good Friday. I'm a lesbian. BUT....I was raised Catholic and a lot of the stuff that comes with that has bugger all to do with religion, and everything to do with how a person moves about in the world. Also, my grandmother, who I loved A LOT, was Catholic, and I associate Catholicism with her. I respect your right to throw darts at the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but you won't be doing it in my house. It seems incredibly disrespectful to my grandmother and, truth be told, there's 1% of me that thinks you're going to burn in hell.

2. I have a freakish memory when it comes to words. At 45, it's not what it once was but, still and all - if we had a conversation 30 years ago about the merits of RC Cola versus Coke, I remember it. I may well remember it verbatim.

3. Conversely, my visual memory has always been crap. If I saw you this morning, I can guarantee I have no recall of what you were wearing. People say a lot of my writing is very visual. This is true. In cases where it's non-fiction, my memory is sharp and clear only because I internally processed what I was looking at, verbally, at the time I was looking at it. Possibly with the idea that I wanted to write about it, some day. Translating visual details into prose inside my own head makes it possible for me to turn details I'd easily forget into memories that I will never lose. I think a lot of people do variations of this sort of processing.

4. I'm from NYC, but I'm very proud of my mixed race, Caribbean heritage. My parents and grandparents were all born in Puerto Rico. My great grandfather was from St. Thomas, the son of former slaves. I've never been to Puerto Rico, but I always identify as Puerto Rican first, American second.

5. I'm also a citizen of New Zealand. Having a second passport comes in handy.

6. I'm the funniest person I know. This sounds so shitty, but it's true, and there's no point pretending it isn't. I may not be the funniest person that you know, but I crack myself up. And that's a pretty good thing to be able to do for one's self.

7. I have a deep love for soap operas. I don't mean an ironic, hipster, "OMG...this is so cheesy" love. I mean I grew up watching them and loving them, think serial drama is a literary genre and that it and the people who create it should get some real respect, and I think it's a damned shame there aren't any good ones left on daytime television. If you're rolling your eyes, ask yourself what the hell you're watching when you fawn over Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire or Downton Abbey.

Seven Bloggers You Really Should Check Out

1. Elegy and Irony - Notes from an Aging Hipster - Patrick Erwin writes about a lot of things - music, work, writing, family, sex, name it. He's just interesting, and one hell of a good writer.

2. Musings of a Manatee - I really enjoy free-form blogs, where the blogger isn't stuck with one subject, just because he or she said they'd keep a daily blog on the NFL or comic books, or whatever. Like Patrick Erwin, Shirley Suzuki writes about a variety of topics. One day she might be posting photos of the knitting project she's working on, a day or two later, she'll review a book she's just read or talk about her experiences homeschooling her two boys. I like lots of topic-specific blogs, but I really love this slice-of-life stuff the best. It's sort of the best thing about the internet, IMO - getting to know people when they invite you to be a fly on the wall of their lives.

3. Jenn Hayes' Poked With A Stick Studios blog is a feast for the eyes. Jenn is a really fine illustrator who does so much more than draw. She builds these amazing shadow boxes and creates elaborate paper dolls. This is a new blog for Jenn, so it's not heavy on content, but what there is is really something. I really love her work. When I was at my lowest, I bought one of her shadow boxes, just because it made me happy.

4. Art, wonderful, beautiful art and words about art, by artist and art history teacher, Kenney Mencher. I love this blog, because it basically gives me a chance to sit in on some amazing art history lectures, without having to pay tuition. And don't let the word "lecture" fool you - there's nothing dry about this.

5. Lost City is a virtual love letter to my home town. It's Gotham, when it was at its best. Catch it before it's all gone. It breaks my heart a little, every time I look, because there's so little of it left.

6. The Map of When - Hugh Eliot is quite something. You never know what you'll find. He'll post dance music videos for five days running, and then an original short story that makes your heart soar. You will never be bored. You may, however, ask yourself where this man has been all your life.

7. This is just silly, but I love it. Putting Weird Things in Coffee. I found this blog a few years ago when I started to wonder if I was the only person who put cheese in coffee. (I'm not.) I sort of fell in love. This guy...well...he puts all sorts of things in coffee, films it, and writes about the results. This will not change your life. You will not be a better person because you've bookmarked this blog. It may even be the biggest time-waster, ever. I find it irresistible, though. As topic-specific blogs go, there is none that brings me more ridiculous joy.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


"You coming?' she called out.
"I'm right here," I replied from a dozen feet behind.
The sun had gone down and the tall grass made it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, even by the light of a flashlight. She stopped and waited for me to catch up as I moved in the darkness. When I reached her, she took my hand and said, "We're almost there," and we walked on. As we walked, we heard the faint sound of a band practicing in an abandoned barn a quarter mile away. Vermont was like that at night - an amphitheater for whatever dared cut through the darkness. On this night it was a Grateful Dead cover band, crickets, and the sound of our Sorels cracking through dry mud.

After a minute or two the tall grass gave way to a clearing where cattle had recently grazed.
"There," she said, training the flashlight beam on a lone maple about 15 feet away. It was a big, full tree. I imagined the cattle must meet in clusters under it on sunny days, as it would have provided the only shade to be had. We walked on and, when we reached it, she gave the trunk a pat with her hand.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"You were right. It's perfect," I said, taking off my backpack and digging around in the front pocket, "How did you ever find this spot?"
"Just taking a long walk, one day." she answered,  shining the flashlight into my bag to help me  in my search, "No one knows I come here. Except you. We share a secret, now."

I found what I'd been looking for, and pulled it out of my backpack. The day before, we'd gone to the general store and chosen the one that felt right. An old-fashioned canoe knife, with two blades. Having never done this before, we'd agreed that having two blades to choose from would be an advantage. The knife had just felt right when we'd taken turns holding it in our hands. There'd been that, too.
I handed the knife to her.
"You go first. I'll hold the flashlight," I said.
"You sure?" she asked, "This was your idea - you should go first.."
"Yeah, but it's your secret spot. You go first."
She handed me the flashlight and opened the pocket knife, looking at both blades.
"Which do you think?" she asked.
"The shorter one," I answered, "better leverage."
"That's what I was thinking, too."
She tucked the longer of the two blades back into the handle, and chose a spot on the maple's trunk.
She leaned in and pressed her cheek against the tree, closing her eyes.
"Sorry if this hurts," she whispered. Then, opening her eyes, she looked at me and we smiled at each other.
Even though the bark is thin, maple is a hard wood. It took a few tries before she figured out how to hold the knife and get the blade to cut, and cut deeply enough. Mere scratches, after all, heal. For our purposes, what she needed to do was carve deeply, not just scratch the surface.
The first letter took a while but, in the end, it was a clean carving, and a deep one. It wouldn't disappear over time. She stepped back and looked at her progress, brushing away bits of bark. She moved back in and got to work on the second letter, which went more quickly. She'd worked out a rhythm, figured out how much pressure to use. In another minute she was done. We silently swapped knife for flashlight, and she lit the way as I went to work on my portion of our masterpiece. My process was much the same as hers had been - scratching away the thin, easy bark, and then carving into and scooping away the hard wood underneath. It took elbow grease.

When I was done, we both stepped back and admired our handiwork. I reached out and traced the deep grooves of my initials and hers.
"How old do you reckon this tree is?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said, "Pretty old, though," she answered.
"And how long does a maple tree live?"
"A long, long time," she said, "Longer than people. We'll probably be long gone and our initials will still be here for someone to find."
"That's sort of a comfort," I said.
"Could you find this place, again, if you had to?" she asked.
I shrugged, "I guess. I don't know. Yeah, sure."
"Let's make a promise, then," she whispered, putting her arm through mine, "Whichever one of us dies first, the other will come to this spot. This is where we'll visit one another."
I thought about that for a moment. "What if we die together? You know you're a speed demon on the road." I asked.
She laughed and, after pulling me in close and kissing me on the cheek, said, "In that case, we won't have to visit, because we'll really be together once and for all, won't we? Did you remember to bring the hot chocolate?"

We sat down on the ground. She propped the flashlight up against the tree trunk so that the beam of light shot straight up, illuminating the branches and spring leaves above us. I pulled the thermos out of my backpack and poured a cup of cocoa for her.  As she drank,  I took her free hand, playing with it,   examining it. I wanted to commit to memory how it looked, how it felt. I was fascinated by how different we were. Her hands were bony, with long, slender fingers and neatly cut nails. My own hands, small and fleshy, my nails bitten down low. After a few sips, she put down her cup of cocoa and leaned back against the tree. I lay my head down on her lap, and she gently stroked her fingers through my hair.

"I don't think I've ever told you about the house my parents used to have in Bermuda," she said, "We spent summers there. I had a best friend who was from the island. Gina and I would spend just about every day together. Every August, when it was time for my family to leave, Gina and I would cry and hug each other. My father would roll his eyes and say we were being tragic, but I hated to leave her and she hated to see me go. When we were 10, we decided to become blood sisters. We cut each others hands with a razor, rubbed palms together, mingling our blood, and took an oath to always be best friends."
I looked up. Her eyes were closed. She was in Bermuda.
"Did you keep that oath?" I asked.
"When I was 14, my parents had money troubles, and decided to sell the house in Bermuda. It was our last summer there. Gina and I were inconsolable. Before, even though it had been hard to leave, we'd always known I'd be back. This was different. I would be leaving and not coming back. My father didn't have much time for the whole thing, and said we were just creating drama, but Mum felt bad for me. She arranged for Gina to stay at our house for the whole last week we were there. We were together all the time. At night, we'd lie on mats in the screened-in porch, listening to tree frogs until we fell sleep. And then my parents took me back to London, and I haven't been back to Bermuda, since."
"And Gina?"
"I never saw her, again." she said. Then she opened her eyes, leaned down, and kissed my forehead, "But that's really ok."

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wish You Were Here

It is the end of spring in New England. Mud season is coming to a close and the vast puddles of the stuff are drying up. I am 20. I am walking along a country road. Not a back road, but a paved rural route used by travelers and truckers. Having spent the night before drinking shots of rum, and the better part of the morning drinking beer, I am very drunk. In my mind, I am walking a straight line along the wide, gravel-covered shoulder, safe from traffic. In fact, I am a swaggering drunk, teetering towards the middle of a windy road. Any car coming up from behind one of the many bends  will find it almost impossible to avoid hitting me. Luckily, there seems to be no traffic on this overcast day. 

I stagger like this, aimlessly, for more than a mile before I hear a sound. Two sounds combined: a diesel engine, and a horn. I turn around in time to see the truck coming up behind me from around the bend. Self preservation is a powerful instinct. It kicks in and pushes me out of harm's way, to the outer edge of the shoulder, as the truck cruises by. The driver yells out, "idiot!" And rightfully so. I'm in no shape to be taking a walk.

It's true that self preservation is a powerful force, but so is a night of heavy drinking. I make it safely out of harm's way, but I do not land on my feet. Instead, I lose my balance as I jump from the paved road to the gravel shoulder,  and end up rolling into one of the last vestiges of mud season. It isn't a deep puddle, and it's almost dried up, but it's muddy, just the same. Now I'm muddy, too. I stand up, but the slippery mud sends me back onto my ass. Common sense takes over and I decide that crawling out of the mud and back onto the dry, gravel shoulder on hands and knees is my best bet. In a reenactment of the birth of man, I begin my crawl out of the primordial ooze just as I hear a car pulling up on the road, about 15 feet away. I do not look up. 

"Do you need help?" the driver calls out. I recognize the voice. My heart soars, and then sinks, again. It's her. She's the reason I'm drunk, in the first place. And now she sees me at my worst. Rock bottom. (Hardee har har. You have a hell of a sense of humor, God). Still, I don't look up. I hear the car door opening and then slamming shut. I hear her footsteps on the gravel, getting closer. "Are you ok?"   She asks and then, close enough to see through the mud, "Oh - it's you!"  I look up, and take the hand she offers me, and pull myself upright.

"I was taking a walk." I say, smiling, as if this happens every day, "I fell. Mud season isn't quite over, I guess."
She smiles, and I lose my breath for a moment.
"Are you still drunk?" she asks.
I just give her a puzzled look.
"You don't remember, do you? You called me last night. You were drunk. When I couldn't find you this morning, I got worried." She takes my hand and pulls me towards her car, "Come on, turkey - I'm buying you brunch." 
(Who says 'turkey"? She does.)
We get to her Toyota, she opens the back door, reaches in and sorts through a bunch of clothing that's piled on the back seat. She grabs a towel and spreads it over the the front passenger seat. Then she hands me a wadded up blue sweatshirt and says, "There's no one around - change into this. It's not exactly clean, but at least it's dry."
She is tall and slender. A dancer.  
"Your stuff will never fit me." I say, handing it back.
She sucks her teeth, and says, putting the shirt back in my hands "It's my gym shirt. It's really  baggy. It's a little stinky, but it'll fit. Hurry, while there's no one around." 
I change into the shirt. She's right - it fits. She's right about it being stinky, too, but I don't mind. It smells like her. 
A moment later I am sitting next to her and we are driving down the road, in search of waffles and coffee, as I wonder what it is I said the night before when I drunk dialed her. 

We have been to this place many times together. It's a funny, homey, New England diner tucked away in an unlikely strip mall. It's got a name. The Village Cafe. Or Country Cooking. Something like that. We never remember what it's really called, because the sign just says, "RESTAURANT."  That's become our private joke: "I'm hungry - let's go to RESTAURANT." 

At RESTAURANT, we sit opposite one another at a table in the corner, away from most of the other diners. The waitress is busy, and forgets to take our order, or even pour us coffee. Neither of us says anything about it. I'm not even sure we're actually hungry. We just sit there, looking at each other, talking about nothing in particular, humming along to the  music coming from the jukebox. The Eagles: Lyin Eyes.

"Are you warming up?' she asks me.
"I'm fine," I answer, "This shirt is cozy. I might steal it from you. My hands are cold, though. I should remind the waitress we're here and get her to pour me some coffee so I can warm them up."
She reaches across the table and takes my cold hands in her warm ones, brings them up to her mouth, and blows on them.
"Poor baby." she says, and I think my heart will break through my chest. Surely, everyone else in the room can hear it pounding. 
Lyin Eyes finishes and we hear the jukebox shuffling through the 45s as it gets ready to play the next song. She is still holding my hands, transferring the heat from her body to mine, when we hear the record drop and the stylus make contact with the vinyl. The gentle guitar intro is unmistakable. 
"This song -" I say, before she cuts me off.
"I know," she whispers, squeezing my hands tighter, "Me, too." 

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves 

Monday, July 9, 2012


20+ years ago, I found myself traipsing around southern Spain with my uncle (who's more like a big brother) and we stopped for a few days in a sleepy, little fishing village. It was off-season, and we were the only tourists in town. In fact, we were the only guests at the town's one hotel. The only place to eat was a pub where the local fishermen would hang out at the end of a long day of work. We went there every day and every night, and made friends with the owner, a lovely man named Lazarus or, as he liked to be called, Lalo. On the wall of the pub was a gorgeous poster commemorating Carnaval. I really wanted it, and offered the pub owner $25 for it. He told me it wasn't for sale. I really, really wanted it, but didn't want to be a pushy American. I told him that, if he changed his mind, the offer was still good.

Every evening at 6 or 7 the boats would come in and the fishermen would bring something fresh to the pub: cod fish, sole, oysters. One night, they came in with a load of strange-looking little shellfish on ice. They looked like a weird kind of clam. So fresh. They dumped them into a giant, glass bowl on the bar. The clams were very much alive and very active. My uncle, a city kid who's most comfortable getting his food from a supermarket, looked at the bowl of clams oozing in and out of their shells, and become a little woozy. One of the fishermen made a joke, "Tapas!" he said.

I should note here that I was the only woman who ever entered the pub. I don't know about today, but in 1990, Spain was still very, very traditional about gender roles. This pub was for fishermen. Their wives and girlfriends did not come in. I was given the courtesy of being allowed in because I was a tourist. Because I had a Spanish name and spoke the language, I was also shown warmth, friendship and respect by the men of the pub. It was always clear, though, that this was a man's place, and I was just visiting.

I looked into the big bowl and asked Lalo (in Spanish,) "How do you prepare these?"

Lalo exchanged wicked grins with a few of the burly fishermen who'd sat down around the bar and were drinking beer, "Prepare? They're as prepared as they're ever going to be. Help yourself," he said.

The fishermen all laughed. "Or," continued Lalo, "Doesn't the little lady dare?"

My uncle jumped in.

"Don't do it," he said, "you have no idea what those are or what you might catch. Food poisoning. Hepatitis. God-knows-what. And they're ALIVE, for Christ's sake."

Lalo smiled, "It's ok," he said, "I'm just joking. I'd never really expect an American to dig in with something like this. And certainly not a lady."

"Do you think I won't do it, Lalo?" I asked. This was beginning to sound like a dare.

"I know you won't do it, Little Girl." he answered.

"What do I get if I do?" I asked.

The fishermen moved in closer. This was starting to get interesting.

"Go ahead, Lalo," one of them called out, "Make an offer. Let's see what the Yankee girl is made of."

Another laughed a hearty laugh. "Leave the girl alone. She'll never do it."

"Lana," said my uncle, "Forget this bullshit. Let's just order some ham and beer and get going. Just looking at those clams and their wiggling is making me sick."

"What will you give me?" I asked Lalo, again, "If I do eat them - what's in it for me?"

He looked at his fishermen friends, and then he looked at me, hardly believing a woman was taking him up on his challenge.

"What do you want?' he asked.

"The poster." I said.

"Ok, You eat a bowl of these, just as they are, and I'll sell you the poster."

"Bullshit," I answered, "I eat a bowl of these - as they are - and you give me the poster. For free."

Lalo hesitated. He was clearly beginning to think making this dare had not been his best idea.

"Just do it," called out one of the fishermen, "No girl is going to get past the first one, you know. Look at her uncle - he's nearly passed out from just sitting near them."

"Forget this," someone else laughed, "She's American."

I looked directly at the fisherman who'd made that last crack.

"Boricua." I said, not laughing. Looking back at Lalo, I proposed, "If I eat a bowl full of these, you give me the poster. If I don't finish the entire bowl," I said, "I'll give you $25 American. Either way, it won't cost you a penny."

My uncle groaned.

Lalo pulled a wooden bowl out from under the bar, scooped up a bunch of the shellfish, and pushed them towards me.

"You're on," he said.

When I'd sucked the last of the wiggly, little shellfish out of its shell and swallowed the last bit of meat, the fishermen cheered. They each came up and hugged me and patted me on the back, the way they would their own sons. Most of them bought me drinks. They laughed, too, at my uncle, who'd gone outside to throw up on the beach. Lalo quietly took the poster down from his wall, rolled it up gently and handed it to me.

"I should have sold it to you when you first made the offer," he said.

I felt a little bad for him. Lalo was a good guy. He'd have to see these fishermen every day for the rest of his life, and they weren't going to let him forget this.

I dug into my pocket and pulled out some money.

"I really do want to pay you for this," I said.

He gently pushed my hand away and gave me a brotherly kiss on the cheek. "Boricua." he said.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Being my mother's daughter, I don't give my dad nearly enough credit, or enough attention, when it comes to telling stories. This isn't fair, because my father is anything but an absentee dad. It was his fortune/misfortune to marry a woman who was bigger than life and whose charisma, humor and life force inadvertently made him pale in comparison. He was always well aware of this, and I think he handled it well. But today is Father's Day, so I'll tell the best story I can think of about my father. It's 100% true, and it's my favorite story about him because it illustrates not only how impractical  he's always been, but how generous and good-natured he is.

When I was 5, my mother instructed my father to take me out shopping for shoes. Shopping for us had always been my mother's thing but, on this day, she had her hands full with my older sister, and she was very pregnant with my soon-to-be younger sister. It was a Saturday, and Ma wanted me to have a new pair of shoes for school on Monday. School shoes. Nice, solid Mary Janes that I could wear to school, during an era when little girls wore dresses and tights and shoes - never sneakers - to school.  They should also be shoes that I would be able to wear to birthday parties.  Ma and Daddy weren't poor, but they just managed to keep their heads above water. Money was not in unlimited supply, and a new baby was on the way.

I should mention here that I was born pigeon-toed, and had been forced, for several years,  to wear a heavy, metal splint attached to my shoes during the night. The problems with my legs and feet also meant that all of my shoes, until I was 4 or so, had to be custom-made by an orthopedic shoe-maker. Now that I was past the worst of my leg and foot problems, my parents were free to buy me off-the-rack shoes, but continued problems in this area meant that I could only wear very well-made shoes. Cheap shoes were very painful and didn't offer the support I needed. (I never completely got over these problems, and still have to be very careful about what I wear on my feet.) Sending my dad out to buy me shoes was a real leap of faith on my mother's part, but she knew she could trust him to get me the best shoes money would buy. One thing my dad has never been guilty of is being frugal, especially not when it came to shopping for his children. 

So, Dad and I walked to the subway station and caught the F train into the City. First, we had to go to 34th street, so he could get money from the bank. This was 1972 - long before ATM machines and direct deposit. We had to rush into the city, so he could cash his pay check before the only Bowery Bank branch that had Saturday hours closed at 1pm. We got to the bank, waited on a long line, and finally deposited his check and got some cash. My mother, I think, expected that we'd walk over to Macy's, which was just down the street, and where there was a very good shoe department. My father had other ideas.  We got back on the F train and headed downtown.

"I know a really good shoe store," he told me, "We'll find just the thing for you."

We got off the train at West 4th street. Greenwich Village. The Village in 1972 was nothing like it is, today. Back then, it was still a bit of an untamed, Bohemian place. Emerging from the subway station, it felt like we'd arrived in another country, where there were falafel carts, hippies in full feather, and amiable drug dealers who thought nothing of approaching a man with his little girl and asking if he'd like to buy some hash.  Also music. The Village was all about music. Guys playing conga drums and acoustic guitars in Washington Square Park, the sounds of The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkle and Three Dog Night coming from the many records stores and head shops along 8th Street. The smell of incense. The entire neighborhood was a feast for the senses. 

"It's not far," Dad said, "Let's see if I can remember where this place is." 

We spent what felt like hours - but was probably really 20 minutes - walking around, looking for the shoe store he was so determined we find. After several false starts - nope, it wasn't on 8th street or 4th, MacDougal was all wrong - we ended up right back on 6th avenue. The store, it turned out, was just a few blocks up from where we'd gotten off the train, not a few blocks down.  I feel pretty confident, 40 years later, saying it was on 12th street. 

When we got there, I tried to read the sign. I was only 5 years old, and not really reading yet, but I knew my alphabet. The letters on the sign didn't mean anything to me -the words they spelled didn't look familiar. I looked up at my dad.

"What does it say?" I asked.
"You don't know Swedish, do you?" he asked.
"Well, those words are Swedish for 'shoe store,'" he explained, looking as if he knew this for a fact. I believed him. 

We got up close to the window and looked at the display. There were lots of clogs. Clogs were big in 1972. Most of the shoes were for grown women but, on the left side of the display, was a small selection of kids' shoes. I saw just the type of shoes my mother was expecting: t-strap Mary Janes made of leather, with tear drop eyelets by the toe. They came in black, dark blue, and oxblood. I was just about to ask if I could get the oxblood (I'm sure I didn't know from "oxblood" at 5 -  I would have asked for the red) when I spied something in the back corner of the window. A pair of leather hiking boots. Children's hiking boots. The leather was the color of caramel. The soles were made of thick rubber. The long laces were red-and-white candy-striped. They were beautiful. I looked up at my father and found that he was looking at me, smiling. 

"Those are nice, huh?" he asked.
"Yeah." I answered.
"Wanna try them on?" he asked.
"Can I?" I asked.
"Yeah, sure." he answered, and we went into the shoe store. 

A minute later, a thin, blonde woman was lacing up the boots she'd just put on my little feet. The leather felt even better than it looked. It was soft to the touch. The padding around the ankles was thick and rich. The red-and-white laces looked so much more beautiful from up close. 

"How do they feel?" my dad asked.
"Really good," I answered.
"Get up and walk around in them," he said, "you know how sensitive your feet are."

I got up and walked up and down the carpet, stopping to look at my feet in the mirror, and admire the boots. They were the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.

"They comfy?" dad asked me.
"I don't even feel them!" I answered.
"You're walking pretty straight in them," he said, "Do you want them?"
"Can I?" I asked, taken by surprise. Being able to take these home and keep them, forever, had never even entered my mind.
Dad turned to the blonde woman, who stood next to him.
"How much are they?" he asked.
"Fifty dollars," she answered, adding, "They're imported."
I didn't know a lot about money, but I knew that $50 was a lot. 
My dad didn't miss a beat.
"Can you put her old shoes in a bag?" he asked the blonde woman and then, looking at me, "You can wear them home." 

The whole subway ride home, I stared at my new boots. I stuck my short legs straight out in front of me and just stared. Everything about them made me happy. And they were mine.  I don't think my dad and I did much talking during that subway ride, but I remember looking away from the boots and finding him smiling down at me.  When we got home, it was a different story. We walked in the front door and climbed the steps up to the third floor, where my very pregnant mother was in the kitchen, cooking. She didn't look up from the stove when we walked in, but called out, "How'd it go? Did you find anything?"

I ran into the kitchen. I'm sure my smile was a mile wide. My mother looked down at my feet. She then looked up at my father, who stood behind me. She wasn't smiling.

"What are those?" she asked.
"Her new shoes," my dad answered, "They're Swedish."
"Those aren't shoes, Hector. They're boots. Hiking boots." 
"They cost fifty dollars, Ma!" I blurted out.
My mother's eyes opened wide.
"They what?"
I didn't understand her reaction. How could anyone not love these boots?
"You don't like them?" I asked.

My mother somehow managed to smile. I now know how difficult that must have been.

"I do like them," she said,  sweetly,  brushing my bangs away from my eyes, "They're beautiful boots, baby, but you can't wear them to school."

Looking up at my dad, she asked, no longer smiling, and not sounding very sweet, at all, "Did you seriously pay fifty dollars for those? She can't wear those to school, Hector. What can you have been thinking?"

I looked up at my dad. The look on his face was one that I've since come to know well. I call it the "shit, now I've done it" look.

"These are the ones she wanted." he said.
"She's five years old, Hector. Of course she wanted them. That doesn't mean you had to buy them. Especially not for fifty dollars. I've never owned a fifty dollar pair of shoes in my life. That's more than her prescription shoes used to cost. I can't believe I can't even count on you to do something as simple as buy a good pair of Buster Brown shoes."

"Well, what am I supposed to do, now?" my dad asked.

I looked up at Ma. I could feel my heart sinking.

"Do I have to give them back?"

My mother sighed.

"No, baby," she said, "you can keep them." Then, looking up at my dad she said, "There's no way you can return them, since you let her wear them home."

"So..." my dad said, "that's that, right?"

"No," Ma answered, "That's not that. The baby still needs shoes. Not boots. Shoes. So don't get too comfortable. Take her out to Buster Brown and get her a pair of good, solid Mary Janes that she can wear to school on Monday."

"Right now?" my dad asked.

"Right now." Ma answered. 

My dad and I headed down to the Buster Brown store on 5th avenue in Brooklyn, where he let me choose a pair of red Mary Janes.

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Aunt Weedy

Louisa May Alcott is one of my heroes. Smart, funny, talented, brave. Also a staunch feminist who was mad as hell, and not afraid to say so. I think there's a lunchbox waiting to be made.

This Alcott quote, from a letter she wrote to a friend in 1873, is as powerful and relevant today, as it was when she wrote it.

"I believe in the same pay for the same good work. Don't you? In future, let woman do whatever she can do: let men place no more impediments in the way; above all things let's have fair play, - let simple justice be done, say I. Let us hear no more of 'woman's sphere' either from our wise (?) legislators beneath the gilded dome, or from clergymen in their pulpits. I am tired, year after year, of hearing such twaddle about sturdy oaks and clinging vines and man's chivalric protection of woman. Let woman find out her own limitations, and if, as is so confidently asserted, nature has defined her sphere, she will be guided accordingly - but in heaven's name give her a chance! Let professions be open to her; let fifty years of college education be hers, and then we shall see what we shall see. Then, and not until then, shall we be able to say what woman can and what she cannot do, and coming generations will know and be able to define more clearly what is a 'woman's sphere' than these benighted men who try now to do it."

If the idea of women having control over their own lives - and their own futures - makes sense to you, check out A Is For.... If you can swing it, donate a few bucks. The women who run this project need public support to keep it going.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Last Outing

At a certain point, my mom ran out of things that she needed or wanted. Choosing gifts became difficult, until I remembered how much she loved music, and started getting concert tickets - something she'd never really treated herself to. I sent my parents to see lots of different shows - I even got them tickets to see Chris Rock in 2009. My dad thought he was a little vulgar. My mother absolutely loved him. My mother's favorite performer, though, and the person I sent her to see most often, was Johnny Mathis. She loved Johnny Mathis. His songs figure prominently in the soundtrack of my childhood. Because she loved him, I was raised to love him. I love him, still. I was happy to send Ma tickets to see Johnny any time he was in town because, as I've said, she'd never treat herself to something like that.

One day in early 2010...probably around March, Ma called me at work. This wasn't unusual. We spoke every day. On this day, though, I could tell there was something she wanted to talk about. After a few moments of beating around the bush she said, "Oh, look at that - you know who's coming to Tampa soon? Johnny Mathis. He's got shows here in April." So, that was it.

"Ma," I said, "I wish you'd said something sooner. I'm really broke, right now. You know I'd love to send you, but I can't swing it."

"Oh," she answered, "Don't be silly. I wasn't asking for tickets, I was just noticing that he's in town soon, is all. I've seen him so many times, already."

"No, seriously, Ma. I really am sorry. If you'd let me know a few weeks ago, I could have figured something out, but I'm flat busted, right now."

"Don't worry about it, and don't apologize. I don't want you running up debt. It's nothing. I'll catch him next time he's in town." she said.

When the conversation ended a few minutes later, I sat there, thinking about my mother, and all she meant to me. One of the reasons that she'd never treated herself to things like concerts when I was growing up was that she always put us children first. She never went to concerts or plays, but we always had books, clothing, food. She always managed to scrape together what we needed for school trips and book fairs - even during the leanest years. I got to thinking about all the crap I spent my money on - eating out, pay-per-view movies, magazines. Crap I didn't need.

Fuck it, I thought. Brown bag it for a month and buy those damned tickets.

I got on the phone and called the venue. The woman I talked to didn't sound very hopeful about my prospects, "Johnny Mathis always sells out fast here, you know...and this is just a month away. I'm afraid there aren't any good seats left."

"At this point, I'll take what I can get. If at all possible, I need a wheelchair-accessible seat, because my mother has a disability."

The woman's voice brightened up, "Oh, well, in that case, you're actually in luck. I do have one accessible set-up available. It's up high, but it's got a sweeping view: front row of the upper balcony, right in the center. No obstructions. And it's kept on reserve for wheelchair users, so this really is your mom's lucky day."

I ordered the tickets, and called Ma.

"Oh, Lana," she said, trying to hide the obvious pleasure in her voice, "You shouldn't have done that! It's really not a big deal, and I know you're low on cash."

I laughed, "Ma, you and I both know you mentioned the concert because you were hoping to go. And I've been trying to figure out what to get you for Mother's Day, anyhow, so consider it an early Mother's day gift. You and dad go, and have a great time, ok?"

Ma was in bad shape, and had been for a long time. Degenerative bone disease had made a wheelchair necessary. She lived with severe and chronic pain. 90% blockages of her arteries slowed her down in every way. End-stage renal failure made dialysis treatments the center of her life, and left her exhausted all the time. Chronic asthma made it difficult for her to breathe. Diabetic retinopathy had rendered her legally blind. Going out - other than for a simple drive or shopping trip, or to medical appointments - was just something she hadn't done in months.

To be honest, I forgot all about the concert, until I got home to a ringing phone one evening in April. I recognized my dad's cellphone number on the caller ID. I picked it up, in a panic. That number always scared me, because there was always the very real possibility that it was my dad with bad news about my mother. In fact, several times in the last three years, calls from that number had pretty much ALWAYS been bad news about my mother...calls to say that she'd tried to walk, and taken a bad fall. Calls to say that her speech was getting slurred, and that the doctors were sure she'd suffered a series of mini-strokes. Calls to say that I'd better book a flight and come out, because things were looking grim. During those years, I'd taken last-minute flights down several times after such phone calls, every time expecting to say goodbye. Every time, though, my mother had rallied, and made a remarkable recovery. Like that one time, when I flew to Tampa, and took a shuttle directly to the hospital, and set up camp on a recliner next to her hospital bed, where she lay suffering from infectious pneumonia. She was going to die, that's what they told us. The nurses brought me slippers, a pillow and blanket, and even a toothbrush and toothpaste, and let me move into the hospital room, so I could be there for her when she passed. She was so weak, so pale, but she was still herself. Her speech was labored, but her mind was as sharp as ever. We talked late into the night. When she got tired of talking, I set her up with my Ipod, so she could listen to the Chris Rock comedy album I'd downloaded for her. If she was going to leave, I wanted her to leave laughing. She lay there, listening and laughing, until we both fell asleep. In the morning, I thought my eyes must be playing tricks on me. She looked rosy. Her eyes looked so clear. She was wide awake and full of energy. She ate her breakfast with relish, and chatted away without struggling for air. An hour or two later, one of her doctors came in, talked to her, listened to her heart and lungs, peered at her chart, and said, "Your mother seems to be clear of infection and there's no water in her lungs. I had to come see for myself after the nurse alerted me, because I saw her just yesterday morning and, to be honest, I wasn't very hopeful for a recovery of any kind, let alone one so dramatic. I don't want to jump the gun, but, if she's still like this in 24 hrs, she can go home." And home she went. That was only one of many times that she got the best of the grim reaper.

But I digress. On this evening in April, when I got home to that phone call, I was relieved to hear my mother's joyous voice on the other end. She sounded so happy, and so full of energy. There was a lot of noise in the background, so she had to shout for me to hear her.

"It's intermission," she yelled, "We're having the greatest time! The seats you got us are incredible - front row of the balcony, right in the center. Even with my bad eyes, I can see everything on the screen, and Johnny sounds great - the best he's ever sounded! We're having such a great time, I just had to call and tell you."

My dad, who is usually a glass-half-empty guy, and who hadn't wanted to go to the concert, at all, got on the phone. He, too, was beaming. "I'm so glad I didn't get your sister to take Mommy, tonight. We're just having such a great time. Johnny sounds the best he ever has and, Lana, I can't remember the last time your mother looked so happy. It's been ages since she's gone out just for fun, and this is such a great show. Did she tell you how perfect our seats are? Have to run - intermission is ending!"

When they got home, hours later, Ma phoned me, again. "The boys looked so shocked when we got home," she said, "I don't think they remember the last time I got home so late, or so full of energy. I feel like my old self, again. Even your father had fun, and you know he never likes to admit he's having fun."

That was in April. Ma died on June 30th. The call for me to make last-minute travel plans to say goodbye were not in vain, this time. And, in fact, I didn't make it in time to say goodbye. She left us while I was somewhere in the air, trying to get there for one last laugh with her.  That's the way she wanted it, though. Nothing was left unsaid between us and, in fact, I spoke to her several times on the phone before my flight. The last thing I told her was that I loved her. But she knew that, anyway.

The day after my mother's struggle finally ended, I sat in the passenger seat of my dad's van. I felt battered. We'd just left the funeral parlor, where dad had left it to me to make whatever arrangements I thought my mother would have wanted. I knew exactly what she'd wanted, actually. It was one of the things we'd discussed that night in the hospital, two years before. As we drove away from the funeral parlor, the silence was deafening. My dad and I have never been anywhere near as close as my mother and I were.  We love one another, but there's always some awkwardness there. The silence made that awkwardness even more pronounced. Just as I was trying to think of something to say, he said, "The last time your mother really went out was to that Johnny Mathis concert. Remember, you got her tickets for Mother's Day? That was a perfect night. She was so happy, and had such a great time. We both did. We had fun together for the first time in years, and she didn't even seem sick, at all. I'm so glad you got her those tickets. I'm so glad that was her last outing, because I can't remember the last time I'd seen her so happy. She was her old self, again, for one whole night. I'll never forget it."

Happy Mother's Day, Ma.

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The War On Women: Business as Usual

I keep reading about the war on women that's happening now in America. It's awful, what's happening - government trying to take control over women's health, sexuality, reproduction, and freedoms. I hate it. But it's nothing new.

I've written a lot about my maternal grandmother, Celina, but I've never written about Jovita, my father's mother. Jovita was as different from Celina as possible. While Celina was bright and witty and full of joy, Jovita was uneducated, somewhat shy, and she had very little humor. This isn't to say that she wasn't a good person: she was, and she treated me well. Her life, though, was full of pain and tragedy. One of her earliest memories was of her father being murdered on the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A terrible thing for a child to live with, and, in many ways,  it set the tone of her life.

Jovita moved from Puerto Rico to NYC with her little boy - my father - in 1946. She was a single mother, when that was not an acceptable thing to be.  She made her son the center of her universe, and worked at whatever she could find, to keep him fed and clothed and healthy. Usually piecework at factories, or cleaning homes and offices.

In 1963, my parents met and married, and my mother became friendly with her mother-in-law. One day, when my mother mentioned that she needed to see her gynecologist, Jovita revealed that she'd never been to such a doctor and had, in fact, never had a gynecological exam. My mother was shocked. She advised Jovita that it really would be a good idea to have an exam, and to start having them annually. Jovita agreed to go to my mother's doctor, Dr. Seissman. A few days later, my mother took her mother-in-law to the gynecologist for her first exam. My grandmother would have been in her 60s.

My mother waited in the waiting room while Dr. Seissman performed the exam. A few minutes later, my mother was called in to translate. Jovita, you see, only spoke a few words of English. My mother entered the examination room and found my grandmother sitting up, looking confused, and Dr. Seissman looking equally bewildered.

"Carmen," she said, "please ask your mother-in-law when she had a radical hysterectomy, and why it was performed."

This was news to my mother. She'd never heard about Jovita having had such major surgery. She asked Dr. Seissman if she was sure of this.

"Yes," the doctor answered, "I'm absolutely sure. She has no uterus. Nothing, at all. And it looks to have been done quite a while back. I'd like to know why this was done - does she have a history of cancer?"

My mother asked Jovita about it, only to have Jovita reply that she didn't know what a hysterectomy was, and that she'd never been sick in any way.  My mother asked her about menopause, and Jovita answered that, a year or two after my father been born - when she was just 30 - all the woman in her neighborhood in San Juan had been ordered to a government clinic. She'd been seen by a doctor, and told that she'd need to have surgery. The reason for the surgery was never explained to her. Her permission was never asked for. She hadn't been sick. She'd been ordered, by doctors sent by the U.S. government, to have surgery. They were doctors. They were with the government. Of course she trusted their judgement. The next thing she knew, she was recovering from this mystery surgery that had left a large scar. The doctors told her not to climb stairs or lift anything heavy, and that she would be just fine. They hadn't told her anything else. They hadn't mentioned that her periods would stop, or that she'd never be able to have another child. They hadn't mentioned that they'd ripped her uterus out in a government-sanctioned effort to keep the women of Puerto Rico from breeding.

After her recovery, my grandmother noticed that her monthly period never returned.   She assumed her "change" had come early, and never connected this to the mystery surgery she'd been forced to undergo.She was just about 30 years old.

My father's mother was a simple woman. She never had the chance to go to school. She was a functional illiterate who could read and write her own name, and little else. She'd been raised to respect and fear authority. When a doctor, let alone a government doctor, told her she needed surgery, there was never any question about what would happen next.

What happened to Jovita was not an isolated incident. She was only one of thousands - possibly a million - women n Puerto Rico that this happened to.  It was part of a large-scale government eugenics program that continued in Puerto Rico well into the 1970s. It was part of the very war on women that seemed to be on hiatus for a while, but now seems to be back in full force.

I'm not writing about this to point out that this is just business as usual, and that there's no point trying to change it. I'm writing about this because it breaks my heart that my grandmother was victimized in this way, that her most basic rights were violated like this. I'm writing about this because it's 2012, and we're dangerously close to seeing this sort of thing happen AGAIN. Forcing a woman to be sterilized is no different than forcing a woman to carry to term a pregnancy that she doesn't want. They're both assaults on more than a woman's body, but on her personhood.

The people who say that the "war on women" is just a dramatic contrivance of the left are denying their own history. My mother made sure to tell us Jovita's story because we must make sure that story never be our story, too.  Hell, no.