Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Still Awed by Email

Modern technology is amazing and getting more incredible by the day. The web, email, digital photography, streaming video—they're all astonishing examples of the strides we've made in communications technology. I feel fortunate to have been born at a time when television was in its infancy and long-distance phone calls weren't yet possible. Having experienced the immense changes in the short course of my lifetime, I don't take technology for granted. Rather, I'm in awe of it.

When I was young, I used to imagine that the big technological transformation during my life would involve transportation. I felt sure that by the time I was fifty, I'd be able to fly to Europe in a couple of hours, go from Boston to New York on a monorail in a similar amount of time, and drive a car resembling the flying vehicles featured on The Jetsons. Obviously, none of that has occurred. Arguably, train and airplane travel has deteriorated. Instead, the revolution has taken place in cyberspace.

Today, I experienced the way email and related technologies have transformed the world. Not that my day was particularly special. In fact, that's what makes my experience all the more astounding.

This morning, I needed some information from my brother-in-law. It so happens that he recently arrived in Rome. No problem. He has access to email, his regular cell phone works in Italy, and he's even opened a Twitter account so he can update friends and relatives about his trip. I started to write him an email, then realized it might be helpful to see if he'd tweeted recently, so I'd know if anything was new. I responded to his Twitter description of some people he'd met with a tweet of my own, then sent him my email, which concerned hotel reservations for later this spring. Not long after, I received an email reply, complete with all the information I needed about the reservations. This type of communication has become so commonplace it hardly seems worth mentioning. Yes, it is normal, but on another level, it's absolutely breathtaking.

In the course of a couple of hours today, I conversed via email with my brother-in-law in Italy and with various other people in France, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida. If I'd had to use the phone for all those conversations, no doubt I would have had to leave messages with some people. Then I would be waiting for their return calls. I hate waiting for return calls. I feel I have to have all the necessary information at my fingertips and be ready with all my questions, never knowing when I'll get the call. With email, I can say exactly what I want to say, I can proofread and edit everything I've written, and I can send it out and forget it until I receive an email reply. For me, this is communication heaven.

Don't get me wrong. I love to talk on the phone with friends and family. There's no substitute for actually hearing their voices. But I've always been a reluctant phone talker when it comes to business transactions. Even with friends, I find that email allows me to have an ongoing dialog that's simply not possible on the phone. If I see an article in a newspaper or magazine (the online versions, of course), I can send a link immediately to one or more people. And I can send quick emails with news or information that I'd never bother to phone about, but which keeps me connected to the recipients.

I could go on and on, but I'm sure you get message. If not, let me know, and I'll continue the conversation with you via email.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Boundless Curiosity

Three boys, a beach, and boundless curiosity. I got to savor that joyous combination earlier today when I was out for a walk. There's a small beach on the grounds of my apartment complex. I saw three boys who looked to be about eleven or twelve on the beach with a big plastic container filled with water and bits of sea weed. I asked them whether they'd found anything interesting.

I half-expected a sullen or bored reply, or maybe total disdain for this grownup interrupting their play. Instead, one of the boys, a wiry redhead, enthusiastically answered that, yes, they'd found lots of interesting creatures. He lifted a smaller water-filled plastic container and showed me something that looked like a cross between a prawn and a cockroach. It was brown and had lots of little leg-like appendages. I said it looked kind of like a shrimp. He agreed, but wondered if it might be a sea cockroach. I've lived here for over five years and had never seen anything like it. Pretty impressive.

Not to be outdone, one of the redhead's friends reached into the larger container and pulled out a green wormy-looking thing, about two inches long. "There's another one just like it, only it's pregnant," he announced and began searching through the sloshing water for the other worm. In short order, he brought out the same variety of worm, but this one had a dark patch along one side, under which I could make out what appeared to be two heads, presumably offspring about to be born. Who knows? Certainly not me, but it was great to see these kids speculating with so much excitement.

I was about to resume my walk when the third boy, who had been busy in the water with his net, came leaping exuberantly toward us, shouting "I found a seahorse." Sure enough, there in the palm of his hand was a tiny brown seahorse with a perfect little curved tail. As the boy rushed to deposit the seahorse safely in the large container, I asked him and his two friends what they planned to do with their finds. Their answer—put them all back in the bay. These kids were out to explore the watery world, not conquer it. Their curiosity made my day.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Miami Grey-Out

This was the view from my window this morning—

Normally, I see the bay, buildings, foliage, boats. Today, all was awash in a downpour so intense that the view was completely obliterated. During the five previous winters and springs I've spent in Miami, I've never seen anything like it. Last year, it rained barely half an inch in five months.

This year, nothing has been normal about Florida weather. Like much of the country, conditions have been bizarre. The cold "snap" that began here in early January wound up sticking around until mid-March. Warm tropical air started to seem like a figment of my imagination. I'm not complaining, exactly. Most of the winter felt like fall in New England—crisp, cool, and sunny. But the unusual temperatures have taken a toll on the local flora.

Most of the tropical plants that thrive in South Florida can withstand one or two nights in the thirties, but night after night proved simply too much for many. Palm fronds turned brown, then fell off. Sea grape trees shed their big round leaves. Bougainvillea lost all their riotous color. Hopefully, most of the damaged vegetation has merely suffered stress and will make a comeback. But at the moment, the sad-looking foliage serves as a reminder, if we need one, of the fragility of our environment.

Today's weather wasn't especially cold, just stormy, with a tornado warning thrown in to make things interesting. Not quite what the Florida tourist industry wants you to hear. But as I write this, the sky has cleared and the sun has come out. I think I'll take Cosmo for a walk and soak up a little vitamin D.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Calle Ocho Education

On Friday, E. and I decided to check out the Tower Cinema, an arts cinema located in the heart of Little Havana. We'd heard they show good foreign films. This weekend's listings included The North Face, a German movie about a 1936 attempt to scale the north face of the Eiger mountain. We wound up choosing An Education, the 2009 British film starring Carey Mulligan in a performance that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

The Tower Cinema, one of Miami's oldest cultural landmarks, was built in 1926 on SW 8th Street. During the 1960s, as Cubans fled the Cuban Revolution, they settled in and around SW 8th Street and the thoroughfare became known as Calle Ocho. Soon, the theater began showing American films with Spanish subtitles and also Spanish language films. The City of Miami purchased the Tower Cinema in 1991 and renovated it in 1997. In 2002, the city turned over management and operations to Miami Dade College. An Education was shown with Spanish subtitles, though I noted that The North Face, in German, was screened with English subtitles.

The ticket prices were reasonable and I was pleasantly surprised that the modern, spacious theater had stadium-style seating. We settled in to watch the film, which I found thoughtful and absorbing. I enjoyed the nuanced performances—Carey Mulligan as Jenny is wonderful playing an intelligent, romantic schoolgirl. Alfred Molina brings surprising credibility to his role as a proper middle-class British father. Then there was the music—not the chamber orchestra performing Ravel in Jenny's first night out with the older man who ultimately seduces her. No, the salsa music.

The Latin rhythms entered my consciousness by stages. At first, I became aware of background noise during an outdoor scene. I thought it might be intended by the filmmaker. Then, as the noise became more insistent, I assumed it was coming from an adjoining theater, perhaps an accompaniment to those climbers in The North Face making their assault on the Eiger. About halfway through the film, though, I couldn't deny that I was hearing salsa music, probably coming from outside the theater. It seemed to intensify as the film progressed. In some of the poignant later scenes, where silence added meaning, my silence was punctuated by Cuban dance rhythms.

As we excited the theater, we discovered the source—an outdoor performance venue directly next to the theater, with a band playing onstage. We found ourselves in the midst of a festival-like atmosphere, almost a small-scale Mardi Gras. Only later did I learn that we had inadvertently chosen to go to the movies on the evening of Viernes Culturales, an arts and music gathering that takes place the fourth Friday of every month on Calle Ocho. The Tower Cinema is right in the center of the action.

With a salsa band performing at fever pitch, aided by speakers all up and down the street, plus performance artists aplenty, and almost everyone speaking Spanish, I felt I could have been on a street in the real Havana. Certainly, the atmosphere was a stark contrast to the London of 1961 depicted in the film I'd just been watching. From now on, I'll plan to catch a movie at the Tower Cinema on any night other than Viernes Culturales. But if I'm in the mood for salsa music and Cuban cigars, I know when and where to go.

For a little taste of Viernes Culturales, check out the YouTube videos below.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Dinner Hour

Miami is a night-life city. It also has a huge Latin influence. The two converge to make late-night dining the norm. For me, this has been a plus. I can almost always get a last-minute reservation for 7:00 p.m. at popular restaurants. Most don't even begin to fill up until 7:30. Boston diners, while sophisticated about food, tend to eat somewhat earlier. In Boston, a 6:00 p.m. reservation would be regarded as early, but by 7:00 good restaurants are usually in full swing.

The other night, E. and I decided to try Wish, a South Beach eatery known for its excellent food, lovely outdoor dining area, and martinis with colored ice cubes. On Open Table, there were no reservations available for 6:00 or 6:30. Wow, I thought, this place must really be hot to fill up so early. I felt pleased to find 7:00 p.m. still available and booked it. That's normally when I like to eat at home, so it's usually when I feel hungry and ready for a meal. It's also just late enough so E. and I can generally avoid the rush hour traffic.

On the evening of our reservation, we made excellent time across the MacArthur Causeway and arrived at Wish at exactly 7:00 p.m. As the smiling hostess led us to our table, I realized that we were the first people to arrive. Far from being fully booked at 6:00 and 6:30, it turned out the restaurant hadn't even opened until a moment before we walked in. That's why Open Table had listed the earlier times as unavailable. Our early arrival did have some advantages, though—we were seated at the primo outdoor spot, right next to the fountain; and the service couldn't have been more attentive. After all, the wait staff had no one but us to look after.

As I ordered a Mojitini, a kind of frozen mojito served in a martini glass with a glowing green LED ice cube, I wondered whether any other diners would appear. At around 7:15, another couple showed up. By then, E. and I were engrossed in our amuse bouche, a delightfully light cream of artichoke soup. After another while, I noticed several more people being seated. I glanced at my watch—just 7:30. Suddenly, a flood of people flowed into the dining area. As couples and foursomes were seated all around us, I realized that 7:30 is the Miami witching hour, the time at which it becomes socially correct to start dinner. By the time we left, after a delicious meal, the place was literally hopping, without a single empty table.

I like to make dinner reservations anywhere from 7:00 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. Any later and I have to eat a mini-meal during the afternoon. I also find 6:30 acceptable if I'm able to linger over a drink, so I don't really have to begin eating until at least 7:00. Some of our friends, though, prefer to dine earlier. They tend to be early-morning types, whom I admire but have never been able to emulate. They like to be home and in bed before the Miami crowds even get going. Friendship trumps our disparate body clocks, so I'm willing to be flexible. And at least if we go out to eat with friends, we're never the only twosome in a restaurant—instead, we've got our own private dinner party.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gwong Dong Waa

Today, I started Cantonese lessons. I'd like to learn how to carry on a simple conversation with my future daughter-in-law's Chinese parents. But, after Lesson 1 of my Pimsleur Language Program, I've modified my goals—I'll be happy if I can manage a phrase or two.

I've always thought of myself as good with languages. I learned Spanish in secondary school and also took a year of French, then studied Portuguese in college. I had one great early advantage in learning Spanish. At the age of fourteen, I spent a month in El Salvador, living with a Salvadoran family my father knew through his work in the coffee business. Although most of the family members spoke English, the opportunity to hear Spanish spoken day in and day out had a dramatic effect on me. By the time I returned to school in the fall, I possessed a feel for the language that I'd lacked before.

When I was sixteen, I went to Mexico with the Experiment in International Living. My group traveled to Morelia, Michoacan, where I lived with a Mexican family. No one in my family spoke a word of English, so I was forced to use Spanish at all times. After a week of intense headaches, I began to feel comfortable conversing. By the time I returned home, I was almost fluent in the language.

Because Spanish is a romance language, it was easy to tackle other romance languages, like French, Portuguese, and Italian. A few years ago, before a trip to the Amalfi Coast, I worked my way through Pimsleur's Italian tapes and managed to speak serviceable Italian during my trip. Though Cantonese has no relation whatsoever to romance languages, when I decided to give it a try, I confidently anticipated I would learn quickly. However, I hadn't counted on the little matter of tone.

In Cantonese, aside from learning pronunciation and meaning, a student must master tone. Improper intonation can result in giving a completely different meaning to a word. Mistakes caused by incorrect tone can be innocuous, embarrassing, or capable of precipitating an international incident.

Very quickly, I noticed that the proper tones didn't come easily to me. I could usually hear the speaker's voice rising or falling, but when I repeated the word, my tone often came out wrong. Equally frustrating, the same words sounded tonally different to me when pronounced by one or the other of the two different speakers featured during the lesson. I've heard the phrase tone deaf. Could that be my problem?

I've only completed one lesson out of 30. Perhaps I'll get in the groove. Probably, though, only a long stay in China would help me climb the impossibly steep learning curve required to master Cantonese.

Note: Gwong Dong Waa is the phonetic spelling of the Cantonese words for "Cantonese."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Sound of Silence

 I whiled away a couple of agreeable hours this afternoon in the company of friends. We talked about many things, from the weather in North Carolina to the numerous uses for a three-car garage. During the entire time, we spent not a moment in silence.

I wasn't the only talkative one in the group, so I didn't feel unduly responsible for keeping the conversation lively. But if I'd been with a quieter crowd, I would have made sure to fill every pause with a comment or question, or even mindless chatter, if it came to that. It's quite a burden, keeping a room from falling silent. But I shoulder it gladly. Anything to avoid the sound of silence.

I don't know how to be any other way. From an early age, I felt it was my job to fill up silences. When my father took me somewhere in the car, he often didn't speak as he drove. I agonized about what I should say, imagining that he wanted me to regale him with stories, gossip, or jokes. I realize now that he was probably quite content to have me by his side and didn't expect me to entertain him at all. What I regarded as painful silence may for him have been an opportunity to think about a problem at work or to rehash the previous night's baseball game in his mind.

Later, in college, I used to drive from my home on Long Island to Massachusetts with my boyfriend, Peter. Like my dad, Peter was often silent as we drove along. As with my dad, I struggled to think of things to talk about. After many such trips, Peter told a friend that he loved the way he could be with me without either of us saying a word. Little did he know the torments I suffered during those silences he apparently treasured.

I do sometimes enjoy quietude—I spend hours at my computer in silence; I find the quiet contemplation of nature very rewarding; and I rarely feel the urge to talk back to whatever novel I may be reading. But when I'm in the company of other people, my mind flits energetically about, hoping to alight upon on a subject of interest, so I can keep the conversation going.

When I'm with people I like, conversation usually flows effortlessly. In fact, I tend to gravitate toward people with whom talking is a pleasure, not a strain. That's the way it felt today, as if there wasn't time enough to cover all the subjects we wanted to discuss. Today, there was no silence, only the sound of laughter and good conversation.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More from the Vet Trenches

I thought I'd found a good new veterinary clinic right in my neighborhood. It's a walk-in establishment, which is a bit unusual, but on my first visit the wait wasn't too long, the vet was pleasant and efficient, and the price was very reasonable.

I had brought Cosmo in because his eye looked red and he had some discharge. The vet diagnosed an infection and gave him a shot of antibiotics, plus eye drops for me to administer at home. While she was at it, I asked her to check Cosmo's ear on the same side and, sure enough, she found a mild inflammation. She prescribed drops for that, too, then suggested I come back after three or four days so she could check him. I returned today.

There are two vets in the office. Since the clinic is a walk-in, whichever vet is free when it's your turn is the one you see. This time, I got the other doctor. While I held Cosmo, he stuck his otoscope in Cosmo's ear to check it. Cosmo cried out and tried to get away. This vet wasn't gentle. His technician attempted to hold Cosmo's head while the vet inserted a Q-tip to clean out the ear. Cosmo wailed in pain and distress.

I realize the vet didn't physically harm Cosmo by his rough ministrations, but he could have accomplished the same result with less trauma. I've been instilling medicine into Cosmo's ear with a pointy-tipped dropper for the past four days with no problem. Perhaps the vet has burned out due to the seemingly endless line of dogs and cats awaiting treatment. He lacked compassion. And worse, when I asked him a question related to Cosmo's seizure medication, he didn't even seem to understand what I was asking. That is, I knew more than the vet about movement disorders like paroxysmal dyskinesia. Not very confidence-inspiring.

As to why so many people seem to bring their animals to this particular clinic, the extremely low prices might explain that. To his credit, the vet didn't charge me anything for today's follow-up check. But perhaps the old adage is true—you get what you pay for.

I did learn one thing today, though. The next time a vet is about to examine Cosmo's ear, I'll make sure someone else is holding him. The last thing I want is for Cosmo to think I'm the bad guy responsible for his pain.

Monday, March 22, 2010

If You're Looking for a Time Waster

I've given up Spider Solitaire, for the moment at least. I'm down to one crossword puzzle a day. And I no longer watch reruns of Sex and the City (I know them by heart). But lest you think I've abolished all the ways of wasting time from my life, don't despair. If there's one talent I possess, it's the art of procrastination.

My latest useless activity is looking for new themes for my iGoogle homepage. I've used iGoogle as my homepage for quite a while, but at first I was content to use the classic theme—simple, neat, clear. Then I noticed a link in the right-hand corner, inviting me to "Change theme . . ." I began to imagine palm trees on my homepage, something to remind me of Florida even when I was in Boston. Then again, the Boston skyline might look attractive. Or maybe some cool arty theme. You get the picture.

After an inordinately long search, I settled on the theme "Summer, Sun and Holidays." It appealed to me with its cheerful rendering of palm fronds and blue sky. I've had this theme on my homepage since last spring and I've enjoyed looking at it numerous times a day. Nevertheless, I still occasionally waste time searching for new and even better themes.

For a short while, I switched to a theme by the artist Hiroshige—very zen. But the palm fronds were calling me and I returned to my summery theme. Now that spring is here, though, I've been wasting time searching for an appropriately spring-like theme. A little while ago, I realized I had found the perfect choice, the Boston Red Sox. So now, less than two weeks before the official start of the season, I've changed my iGoogle homepage theme to "Fenway Panorama." Go Sox!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Deering Estate

In 1916 Charles Deering, the CEO of International Harvester, purchased a 444-acre estate in Palmetto Bay, south of Miami. The property featured an existing wooden house, which had served as a hotel when the area was known as Cutler. In 1922, Deering built the Stone House, adjacent to the wooden house. What brings people to the estate, though, is not so much the houses but the amazing grounds.

The house overlooks a beautiful palm-lined boat basin. When I was there, no fewer than four manatees were basking in the warm waters of the protected marina. If you click on the picture above to enlarge it, you may spot the head of one manatee, photographed just as it came up for air.

The property also boasts the largest virgin coastal tropical hardwood hammock in the United States, a mangrove forest accessible by a boardwalk trail.

Before the white man arrived, Indians flourished here for millennia. A Tequesta Indian burial mound on the estate grounds has provided important archeological finds. While most traces of Indian habitation have disappeared, the mangroves have endured and still take root in the salt water of Biscayne Bay.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Favorite View

Although I'm not the world's greatest traveler, I've been to quite a few places and have seen many spectacular views. For natural beauty, few sights can surpass the Grand Tetons rising above Jackson Lake. Mt. Rushmore, with the faces of Presidents hewn into rock, inspires awe. Other views are memorable for their quiet beauty, like the exquisite sunken garden at Butchart Gardens in Victoria, Canada. The splendor of the Mediterranean, seen from the isle of Capri in Italy (photo above), can only be described as breathtaking. The world is full of amazing views. But my favorites tend to be those that are both beautiful and familiar.

I never tire of looking at Biscayne Bay from my Miami apartment. When I'm in Boston, I thrill to the sight of the Charles River as I drive alongside it on Storrow Drive. As the road winds its way toward Cambridge, I catch a glimpse of Harvard's cupolas, which always pleases me.

Another view enhanced by familiarity is New York City's skyline, which I've known since childhood. Nowadays, I'm usually driving on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx, en route from Boston, when the city first looms into view. As I make my way along that gritty highway, the Empire State Building emerges as the pinnacle of a vast and gleaming metropolis. The vista invariably fills me with wonder.

Perhaps my favorite view of all is the Holyoke Range in western Massachusetts, seen from Memorial Hill at Amherst College. During the year I spent at Amherst as a student, I frequently visited the War Memorial, which is located at one end of the campus quadrangle. There, I would linger for a long time, gazing across the playing fields at the gentle undulations of  the ancient mountain range. I invariably experienced both exhilaration and a sense of peace. On subsequent visits, I've still felt inspired by the view. Its beauty and familiarity combine with my nostalgia to make me want to see it again and again.

I recently discovered that the college has a live webcam focused on the Holyoke Range from the Science Center, quite near the War Memorial. By clicking the link, you can visit virtually.

Click on photos to enlarge.  

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Awkward Political Conversations

Talking politics with friends feels like a minefield to me. Many of my friends have strong views, which fall all along the spectrum of political thought. My own positions are idiosyncratic—I don't adhere to one party line. Perhaps because of that, I'm almost always nervous about discussing politics.

I'm basically a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. Sometimes that puts me in sync with moderate Republicans, other times with centrist Democrats. I like to think I'm a tolerant, moderate person, but also one who believes in free markets and fears too much government. Sometimes my views lead me to support Democratic candidates, other times Republicans. Being from Massachusetts, that independent inclination has usually put me in the minority, until recently at least.

Over the years, I've felt compelled to explain that even though I don't believe in some government entitlement programs, this doesn't mean I don't care about the poor and disadvantaged. Actually, most of my explanations have taken place in my mind. I'm almost always too uncomfortable to reveal my views openly, lest I be judged uncaring.

President Obama has said that his health care bill should be enacted because it's the "right thing to do." I also really want government to do the right thing for the country on this issue. Virtually everyone I know feels strongly about health care, but in some cases that means they support the bill and in other cases they're opposed.

One friend who knows we may disagree has nevertheless urged me to discuss health care reform with her. I appreciate her receptiveness and I've even shared some of my thoughts with her. In general though, I like to avoid conflict, so find political conversations awkward—there's almost always a mine lurking somewhere in the discussion, ready to explode in my face.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Terms of Endearment

When I used to write poetry, I mostly preferred free verse, a style which refrains from rhyme or meter patterns. Yet in my daily life, I love rhyme and lyrical language. I indulge myself, as many of us do, by incorporating rhyming and singsong endings into terms of endearment. Sometimes those terms are directed at E. or my children, but my toy poodle, Cosmo, is the beneficiary of my most flowery endearments.

Cosmo answers to many names—Cosmo-mosmo, Cosmonello, and Cosi-wosi, to name a few. Another of my oft-used monikers is Cosmonator, as in "See you later, Cosmonator." There's something so pleasing about hearing these made-up words roll off my tongue. Cosmo also knows I'm speaking to him when he hears the phrases honey-bunny, sweetie-weetie, or even sweetie-badeedie.

I apparently owe this tendency toward nonsense words to my father, who loved characters with rhyming names. When my sisters and I were little, he told us stories of Mr. Plubenduben, a fox, and he loved to recite children's rhymes in his native German. Later, when I was an easily-embarrassed teenager, I worried that my friends would overhear my father verbalizing nonsense words to himself, apparently unaware that he was talking out loud.

I've been spared the embarrassment of talking to myself because I'm able to direct my verbalizations at Cosmo, who bears them with great stoicism. In fact, animals of all kinds show tremendous tolerance for bad rhymes. The ducks who live outside our apartment building come waddling over at a brisk pace when I call to them, "Hey there, duckie-wuckies." And I swear that years ago I made friends with the crow who frequented our front yard by always greeting the bird with a friendly, "Hello, crow." In return, he would turn a beady eye in my direction and hop slightly closer to me.

I suspect that poetry might be more popular today if poets incorporated meter and rhyme into their work. Nowadays, we get those pleasures from song lyrics, the most catchy of which seem to become part of our hard-wiring. Many years ago, when our Siamese fighting fish died, my children wanted to give it a proper burial. I wrapped the fish in a white shroud (a Kleenex tissue, that is) and we dug a shallow grave in the flower bed. As we laid our fish to rest, the children requested a song. Unbidden, an old Al Jolson song popped into my head. "Toot, toot, tootsie good-bye," I sang, "Toot, toot, tootsie don't cry." That song possessed all that a fish funeral required—a sweet endearment and a catchy rhyme.

For now, fortunately, Cosmo is very much alive and I can't resist making up new terms of endearment for him. After all, he's such a cosmically cute Cosmolian.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Girdle by Any Other Name Would Feel as Tight

Now that I've managed to find an evening dress and shoes for my son's upcoming wedding, I went in search of the all-important body shaper, which I hoped would transform my torso into the smooth, slender shape the dress calls for. While I was dress shopping, the word on every saleswoman's lips was Spanx, as in "With a pair of Spanx to pull in your abdomen, that dress will look perfect." In the end, I chose a dress that fits pretty well without extra control, but I still wanted the most svelte look I could manage, so I set out in search of the perfect shaping garment.

Here's what I discovered—first, the only way to achieve a flatter stomach is by displacement, usually upward. Even the high-waisted body shapers don't manage to fully disguise what's rightfully mine. The only way to do that would be to get rid of it, either by doing a thousand sit-ups a day or losing a few pounds. Neither is likely to happen, at least not before the wedding.

My second and even more profound realization—Spanx and all the other shape-wear products are just girdles by another name. Those babies are tight. It was a struggle to get them on and, within moments of finally succeeding, I began experiencing a mild stomach ache. I started with the size suggested for me, then went a size larger. Not much better. I tried several brands, including one described as "light control." In all of them, I felt compressed and, worse, I didn't really look slimmer. Smoother? Yes. Armored? Yes. Ready for battle? Probably. But slimmer? Not really.

In the end, I found a satiny high-waisted garment by TC Fine Shapewear that doesn't feel too bad. My dress glides nicely over the satiny material, a plus. Still, I bought it mostly as insurance, just in case I eat too much at the rehearsal dinner and really need help. Otherwise, I plan to suck in my abs, hold my breath, and count on the fact that people will be looking at the bride, not me.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Coral Gables Moment

Today I experienced a quintessentially Coral Gables moment. E. and I stopped for lunch at California Pizza Kitchen, about as American a restaurant as can be found. I ordered the BBQ chicken chopped salad and was happily munching away, when five women sitting nearby began singing "Happy Birthday" to the only man at their table.

The man looked both pleased and self-conscious as the women sang the familiar song. But one thing sounded distinctive about it—though the words were in English, the accent was Spanish. All the women clearly spoke English and sang the song with ease, but their first language was apparently Spanish. This was confirmed after the man blew out the birthday candle on his dessert, when all six resumed their conversation entirely in Spanish.

For me, this moment captured the gestalt of Coral Gables, a sophisticated community where many residents and business people speak Spanish as a first language. Most, however, also speak perfect English, though perhaps with a slight accent. This "accent" characterizes the culture here—American with a Latin flair. Well-dressed Coral Gables women favor a particularly feminine style of dress, at least compared to more straight-laced Bostonians. And people seem very comfortable showing affection in public. I often see daughters, even in their twenties, holding hands with their mothers as they walk down the street together. Not something I'm used to seeing in other American cities, but a behavior I remember well from summers spent in El Salvador and Mexico.

When I walk on the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, overhearing snippets of Spanish conversation and enjoying the summery weather and palm trees, I sometimes imagine I'm taking a paseo in Mexico City or another Latin American capital. But in reality Coral Gables more closely resembles an American city like Palo Alto, only with a Spanish accent.

Click on photo to enlarge.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Sometimes I just like to stay home. This morning, a noted local historian led a tour of old Coconut Grove. Joining the group would have been convenient, since I live only a few minutes away. I know I would have found the information interesting. I love learning about the history of places, and the fact that the Grove is my own neighborhood made the prospect even more appealing. Yet I chose to stay home.

The tour was scheduled to start at 10 a.m., certainly a reasonable hour, even for someone like me, who's not a morning person. However, since this is the first day of Daylight Savings Time, 10 a.m. felt like 9 a.m., making arriving on time more of an effort. Still, I could have managed it if I'd been really motivated. But, honestly, I preferred to have a leisurely breakfast and read Louis Menand's New Yorker article about the current state of psychiatry. After I finished the article, I enjoyed taking a brisk walk around the island where I live, rather than traipsing along with a tour group, no matter how interesting the subject.

I would be worried about this tendency, except that I've been this way since I was a teenager, so I'm probably not likely to change. Not that I always stay home. I do love to explore new places. But for me, the greatest reward of traveling, be it to a concert downtown or to a country a continent away, is returning to the warmth and comfort of my own home. And sometimes, like today, I choose not to leave in the first place.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City

Last night, I attended the East Coast premiere of Please Give, a delightful independent film, directed by Nicole Holofcener, with wonderful performances by the entire cast, including Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt. The screening, part of the Miami Film Festival, took place at the Olympia Theater in downtown Miami. The theater is a work of art in itself, having been recently restored to its original 1926 glory, complete with ornate Moorish architecture, simulated night sky, and live pre-show performances on the Olympia's original Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

After the film, I left the theater feeling I'd been treated to a charming, sad, funny cinematic experience. But the real show was yet to come. As I walked around the corner and into the outdoor lot where my car was parked, I happened to glance up. There, in all its glory, stood the Bank of America Tower, aglow in white light, with clouds swirling around its upper stories. The building is an iconic presence on the city's skyline, lit in a varied array of colors during holidays. Last night, though, the tower loomed so close and the sight of it was so unexpected that it took my breath away. I recovered in time to snap the photo below.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Full Circle for Nomah

In a sweetly-contrived scenario, Nomar Garciaparra re-joined the Red Sox for one day and immediately announced his retirement, enabling him to retire a Red Sock. Nomar had approached Sox owners and General Manager Theo Epstein with the idea and during his press conference, he appeared genuinely thrilled and sentimental about having been granted his wish.

Most of the fans and even the media seemed to appreciate the gesture, given the coverage of the event. Leave it to Dan Shaughnessy to put a fly in the ointment, reminding us how truly unpleasant relations between "Nomie" and the organization became during the 2004 season, leading to Nomar's departure as part of a trade with the Chicago Cubs.

By returning to the Red Sox as the sun sets on his career, Nomar rekindles memories of his greatness during his early years with the Sox. As even Shaughnessy concedes, "A case can be made that he was Boston’s best home-grown player since Carl Yastrzemski." While the quality of both Nomar's play and his disposition suffered during that final season with the Sox, it may be that his subsequent experience with three other teams (the Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Oakland Athletics) caused him to appreciate how truly special his years with Boston had been. He never regained the on-the-field greatness he achieved during the first five of his eight seasons with the Sox and he surely never encountered fans who adored him the way Red Sox Nation did.

Like most sports fans, I'm not terribly rational when it comes to players who leave my team. I never forgave Roger Clemens for bailing, or Pedro Martinez, or Johnny Damon, or even Manny Ramirez. I took it personally—a rejection of me and my beloved city and team. Nomar's departure technically occurred because of a trade rather than a voluntary decision to leave, but his own behavior clearly led to that happening. I was disappointed and angry when Nomar left, even though I agreed that he hadn't been performing well, on the field or off. When the Red Sox went on to win the World Series that season, I admit to thinking So there, Nomar. You didn't like us and now we showed you. Not my finest moment, but that's what a passion for the game can do to a person.

Now, Nomar has affirmed his love for my city and my team. If he can be humble enough to ask for the privilege to retire as a member of the Red Sox, I can be magnanimous. Welcome home, Nomar!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Powerful TV Moment

E. and I have been watching a terrific television series, The Shield, on Netflix. The gritty, violent drama, which originally aired on FX Network, features a fabulous cast, great writing, and compelling story lines. It ran for seven seasons, from 2002 through 2008. We're in the middle of Season 3 right now. Last night, we watched an episode that featured a particularly heart-rending scene. I'm still thinking about it.

In the scene, the show's main character, Vic Mackey, who runs an L.A.P.D. Strike Team, visits a foster home where a friend's child has been placed. He finds the house in chaos and five children playing without supervision. He locates the toddler he's come to check on alone in a room, sitting on the floor and playing with a toy action figure. The foster parents are present but unconcerned. Mackey states the obvious—the couple is in it for the money. The stipends they receive for five children add up to a tidy sum. It's also clear that very little of the money is being spent on the children.

It's a horrifying scene, particularly because it has the ring of authenticity. We've all heard stories of similar situations found in actual foster homes. But it's one thing to hear stories, another to see such a situation convincingly dramatized. The couple in the television show isn't exactly abusing the children, just blatantly neglecting them. My dog gets far better care than these fictional children.

I don't regret taking good care of Cosmo. He's a living, sentient creature and part of my family. He deserves it. But surely foster children deserve to be lavished with at least as much love and attention as I give my dog. Few would disagree with that statement, but the reason I admire The Shield is that it presents painful material in a new way, one that makes me actually think about the terrible disparities that exist in our society.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wake-up Call

I've been reading Tracy Kidder's book about Dr. Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, with great interest. But one passage toward the end of the book really took me by surprise. Farmer, then forty years old and married, was in Paris, spending a couple of days with his wife and daughter. He planned to catch an early-morning flight to Moscow the following day. Rather than set an alarm clock, Farmer called his mother, who was back in the states, and asked her to give him a wake-up call at 7:00 a.m. Never mind the weirdness of this request coming from a married forty-year-old man; it also meant that his mother had to stay up until 1:00 a.m. her time to make the call. Talk about a mother's devotion.

When Kidder later asked Farmer's mother about her reaction to her son's request, she said, "I just think it's so cool that at forty he still does that. I'd miss it if he didn't." Fortunately for Farmer, his wife seemed more amused than annoyed by this particular mother-son interaction. If I were Farmer's mother, though, I might have been a little concerned that he still required such long-distance care-taking. On the other hand, a mother loves to feel needed by her children, so in that regard I can totally identify with her enthusiasm about his habit of requesting wake-up calls.

I'm always inordinately delighted when one of my kids asks my advice or assistance and I'll drop everything to help. Fortunately, their requests are normally reasonable and doable and, so far, none has involved staying awake after my bedtime. It also makes me extremely happy to see my children, now in their twenties, living as independent adults. As an overprotective mother, I found it difficult to let go, but tried very hard to give them the space they needed. Now, I revel in their ability to make decisions on their own and not infrequently I ask their advice, since in many areas they're now more competent than I.

Farmer's quirky connection with his mother surprised me because he hardly seems the type to be tied to his mother's apron strings. Quite the opposite, in fact. Since his teen years, he's lived in Haiti and other third world countries, engaging in challenging work, often at great personal risk. Yet, at the age of forty he apparently still longed to be awoken in the morning by his mother. Or, at the very least, she was the only one he trusted to make sure he got to the airport on time. Peculiar, yes, but also rather sweet.

Monday, March 8, 2010

This Leads to That

Most of us, at some time in our lives, start out doing one thing and find ourselves unexpectedly led in a different direction. In my case, I could say that's been the story of my life, at least of my writing life.

Back in the 1980s, a part-time job writing law book supplements led me in a different direction than I expected. I'd been out of law school for a few years, had two young children, and thought I'd get back up to legal speed by writing about torts and no-fault auto insurance. However, after a couple of years of legal writing, I realized that I loved the writing part more than the legal subject matter. While I was pondering what to do about that, a friend mentioned a poetry workshop she'd heard about and wondered if I might be interested in joining it. I signed up immediately. Soon after, I quit my law job and began focusing seriously on writing poetry.

Among the people I met in that workshop was a woman from a neighboring town. In addition to writing poetry, she also wrote a personal essay column for her local newspaper. That sounded like a lot of fun to me. At the time, my own town had two community papers. I kept thinking that one day I'd look into the possibility of writing for one or the other. After a few years, though, one of them suddenly folded, and I realized my chances of writing a column like my friend's had just been cut in half. That mobilized me and I contacted the remaining paper. I landed a job and began writing a column entitled "Passing Thoughts." The column ran for almost three years, until the arrival of a new editor who wanted to dictate more about content than I was comfortable with.

The personal essay concept later morphed into my first blog, "Famosity," where I had total control over content, and finally I landed here, writing daily entries about all sorts of topics. Now, I wonder where this might lead. My daily entries may taper off. Or they may not. I may opt to devote more time to my breast cancer website and related projects. Or I may give up writing altogether and take up photography. The only thing I'm sure of is that this daily blog will lead me somewhere I hadn't expected to go.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Winning Comment

The Academy Awards have barely begun, but I've already heard my winning comment of the evening, from none other than Meryl Streep. During an interview on the red carpet, she was asked what she looked forward to most about the Oscars. Her reply—getting to her seat and slipping off her Jimmy Choo's. (For those few who aren't aware, Jimmy Choo makes gorgeous high heels.) Clearly, Meryl Streep is my kind of woman. And her white evening gown wasn't too bad, especially if you like the Greek goddess look.

Happy Oscars!

Friday, March 5, 2010

And the Winner Is

I love watching the Academy Awards. I particularly like seeing what the female celebrities wear, how they do their hair, what fabulous jewels they borrow for the event, and whether they've chosen bright red lipstick or pale purple eye shadow. Even though I'm old enough to be an AARP member, on Oscar night I fantasize about being young and glamorous and the object of adoration.

What's wrong with this picture? Anyone who knows me would consider my Oscar fixation anomalous. I'm the antithesis of glamor, unless you consider dressing mostly in black glamorous. In my case, I do it so I don't have to think too much about clothes. As revealed in my recent post, "If the Shoe Fits", I would limp across the red carpet if forced to walk in the stiletto heels favored by many actresses. I wear almost no makeup, adorn myself with very little jewelry, and still style my hair pretty much the way I did in high school. You'd think the last thing I'd want to do is watch a bunch of pampered stars strut their stuff.

But for me, that's entirely the point—that I'm nothing like these women is why I find them so enthralling. That's why I still watch reruns of "Sex and the City" and why I look at Vogue magazine in waiting rooms. I'm captivated by  fashionable women in the same way that an anthropologist might be fascinated by scarification practices among primitive tribes. I especially look forward to studying the Hollywood tribe during its annual preening ritual.

It will be interesting to see how Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin perform as joint hosts at this year's ceremony and I'll enjoy finding out who wins the golden statuettes, with all the attendant drama and frothy speeches. But those aspects of the awards fest pale in comparison to what I really care about—whether Meryl Streep will choose another frumpy dress and whether Anne Hathaway could possibly be any thinner.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lots to Worry About

I turned on a cable news channel a little while ago, just in time for "breaking news." The Pentagon was in lockdown after shots were fired at the Pentagon Metro Station, just outside the main entrance to the Pentagon. Beyond the fact that people may have been injured, the larger question hanging in the air concerned whether the shots signified some terrorist threat to the Pentagon. Probably not, I told myself. Yet I felt a small frisson of anxiety. This was one of those moments that could turn momentous or could mean nothing at all.

Like most Americans, I remember vividly the exact moment when I first learned a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. My local NPR station reported that a small plane had crashed into one of the buildings. My curiosity was peaked, but nothing more. It sounded like an unfortunate accident. I never remotely imagined the way events would unfold.

The latest reports say that three people have been shot at the Metro Station. They're being rushed to area hospitals. By the time you read this, authorities will probably know more about why the incident occurred. Right now, though, there's uncertainly. In reality, that is the human condition. Everything that seems sure one minute can become doubtful the next. Even solid ground can suddenly shift under our feet, as people in Haiti and Chile know all too well.

Lots to worry about. Good for a worrier like me. Bad for a worrier like me.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

"Rahmbo" to the Rescue?

When President Obama named Rahm Emanuel White House Chief of Staff, I assumed Obama saw the importance of having a former Clinton advisor and Congressional insider to help shepherd his ambitious legislative agenda through Congress. And I've assumed that Emanuel has been lockstep in support of Obama's agenda as it's been rolled out. But it turns out that, in fact, Emanuel may have been the lone voice opposing many of the stands taken by the White House.

Emanuel apparently argued against closing Guantanamo within a year. He also argued against trying alleged terrorist Khalid Sheik Mohammed in civilian court, while David Axelrod supported Eric Holder's position, with which Obama ultimately sided. And Emanuel reportedly pushed for a smaller health care bill. According to a recent Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post, "Early on, Emanuel argued for a smaller bill with popular items, such as expanding health coverage for children and young adults, that could win some Republican support. He opposed the public option as a needless distraction."

As we now know, Emanuel failed to persuade the President on any of these issues. Instead, the President forged ahead with a more partisan and ideologically-driven approach, which has proved unpopular with the public. Milbank points to Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, and David Axelrod as White House insiders who are part of the "Cult of Obama." As Milbank describes it, "In love with the president, they believe he is a transformational figure who needn't dirty his hands in politics." Or, to coin a phrase, they've been drinking the Kool-Aid. That is, they are reluctant to speak truth to power and are inclined to reinforce Obama's most idealistic inclinations.

Emanuel, on the other hand, may represent just the pragmatic voice that Obama needs to encourage him to moderate his views and begin to work realistically with the Republicans to pass meaningful legislation. Although I believe Obama means it when he say he wants to hear a range of opinions, I worry that, like other leaders before him, he may find that it's just so much easier to listen to those who already agree with him. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


When I travel, I rarely bring back souvenirs, but I've noticed that, on the rare occasions when I do return with a memento of a trip, it becomes a special way of remembering the experience.

In the early summer of 1974, E. and I visited Portugal and Spain. It was a momentous time in Portugal. Shortly before our arrival, the government of Portugal's longtime dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, had been overthrown by a military coup. Although the coup was bloodless, there were concerns about instability in its wake. As a result, virtually all tourists cancelled their trips. Except us.

We arrived in a Lisbon blissfully free of visitors and awash in the euphoria of freedom. Bookstores displayed Marxist texts and other books that had been banned for decades. People couldn't stop smiling. We regarded ourselves as witnesses to history.

From there we traveled to Spain, where Francisco Franco still held power. The contrast was dramatic. Madrid felt subdued. People went unsmiling about their tasks. In comparison to the elation of Portugal, Spain seemed in a state of suspended animation, waiting for its moment of liberation.

During our stay in Madrid, I purchased one item, a small ceramic flask with a geometric design in black and orange against a pale coral background. Today, so many years later, that small piece of pottery reminds me of our fascinating sojourn in two countries on the cusp of enormous change.

More recently, E. and I took a boat trip through the Ten Thousand Islands, where the Florida Everglades meet the Gulf of Mexico. During our sun-splashed day, we stopped at a tiny island. On the sand, we found hundreds of beautiful shells. It was tempting to gather up as many as I could carry, but when E. discovered a perfect conch shell, that seemed enough. Today, that shell sits on my desk. I use it as a paperweight, but it also holds my memories of sun, sand, and surf.

Considering how much the few mementos I've gathered mean to me, you'd think I'd make a point of collecting souvenirs. Maybe next time. For now, I'll treasure those few I have.

Monday, March 1, 2010


On January 12th, news of an earthquake in Haiti captured the headlines. The earthquake was large, at magnitude 7.0, but the damage was massive. It's difficult to comprehend the loss of life and the toll of suffering. Over 200,000 people died, untold numbers were left homeless, and the country's infrastructure, primitive before the earthquake, was destroyed. It's understandable that news of the quake and subsequent aid efforts dominated the headlines for many days. Until the next earthquake, that is.

The monster quake that hit Chile on February 27th, magnitude 8.8, has now supplanted Haiti's quake in the headlines. This is also understandable. The immediate crisis has passed in Haiti and the country is now engaged in the long slog toward some semblance of normal life. In Haiti, that means subsistence living, but at least with a roof overhead. In Chile, the terrible wounds opened by the earth are still raw. People still alive are trapped in buildings and aftershocks continue to occur.

What's really shocking, though, is how quickly one disaster displaces another. This is one of the effects of living in a global village. We learn of events everywhere on the globe within minutes and can see vivid images of horrendous damage. Just within the last week, the world has witnessed destructive floods on the island of Madeira, hurricane force winds and floods in southwest France and other parts of Europe, and finally the catastrophic earthquake in Chile.

The images of the Madeira floods were astonishing and heartrending. You could literally see cars being swept away. Although I don't know anyone who lives in Madeira, I could imagine the terror residents must have felt. When I first heard news of the extreme weather in France, I worried about my French cousins, but was relieved to learn they live far away from the worst-hit areas. Now, watching tv coverage of the Chilean earthquake, I can only guess at the panic and confusion people there are experiencing.

The world is a dangerous place. Bad things happen everywhere, along with the myriad good things that receive less attention from the media. It's easy to become overwhelmed by the footage of so many natural disasters, not to mention the news reports of man-made conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

In the wake of the most recent cataclysms, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around what happened in Haiti. I've started reading Tracy Kidder's book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about the efforts of American doctor Paul Farmer to bring modern medicine to Haiti. I hope to learn more about Haiti, so I might better understand the challenges it faces in the wake of the earthquake. But reading about Farmer's work also reminds me that one antidote to feeling overwhelmed in the face of so much adversity may be to find a particular problem that interests you and focus on making a difference, one person at a time.