Friday, June 21, 2013

The Power of Perception

Mom and me, laughing our butts off at Knotsberry Farm, circa 1988

The strangest revelation I’ve had since Mom passed away is that I am able to control my mood much of the time. I’m suddenly acutely aware that my state-of-being is contingent upon the choices I make. For instance, if I choose to stay at home, sitting on the couch, watching TV under the guise that I need to “relax,” my thoughts will inevitably turn dark, sad, and I will end up crying. However, if I put on upbeat music, get some caffeine flowing through my system via iced coffee, take a nice shower and get out of the house, I actually feel good. Yes, even in the midst of coping with death, it is possible to feel good. Kind of mind blowing, right? The truth is that I know this is what Mom would prefer. If she saw me wearing pajamas at 2:00pm on a Tuesday, holding a framed picture of her in my hands, and listening to old voicemails she left me in January 2011, she’d probably smack me upside the head. There are times when the sadness comes anyway, when it feels like I am standing on ground that has suddenly given way to a landslide. And I know that it is important to just give in and let these emotions overtake me from time-to-time, because avoiding them or denying them won’t get me anywhere. But still, I am happy to know that I can still be happy, and that I do have some control over how I feel in any given moment.

One factor in choosing to feel good is drastically limiting what I allow to infiltrate my sphere of perception. Sad music, tear-jerker movies, and disturbing web sites have all been nixed from my life for the time being. Why exacerbate the situation by wallowing in other people’s misery? No, I have been careful to instead watch, listen to, and look at those things that inspire and delight me. From upbeat music (Talking Heads!), to animated movies (Lilo & Stitch! Why didn’t anyone ever tell me how damn cute this movie is?), to inspiring web sites, I am finding blissful moments any way I can.

This is why I am so excited to see that the Google Doodle for today, the first day of summer, was designed by one of the most innovative web presences around, Christoph Niemann! Do you know about Christoph Niemann? He’s an illustrator who has a New York Times blog called Abstract Sunday. He also has his own wonderful web site, and has published a number of books including I LEGO N.Y. I have been in awe of his work since I first stumbled upon it about a year ago.

Niemann is clever, quick-witted, and profound in his observations of everyday life. He hails from Germany, but lived in New York for many years, and his outsider’s perspective on America and Americans can be hilarious. But he is also unfailingly kind, a quality that is sorely lacking in much of what is seen on-line. Take, for example, his ambitious project from November 2011, in which he ran the New York City Marathon and live-illustrated the experience. That’s right – Niemann strapped a shelf-like apparatus to his chest that allowed him to work in his sketchbook while running a course that would undoubtedly kill me, even if my sole focus on running. Oh, and he also live-tweeted his illustrations so people could follow along in real-time. He had some humorous run-ins with Security, which initially wouldn’t let him in to the race with his drawing equipment, but allowed another runner in with a huge Italian flag and flag pole. He drew portraits of the more colorful characters he encountered, including Luana Liverpool who ran the race in curlers. And when he became emotional due to the spirit being shown by spectators and fellow runners, he used a John-Boehner-Alert-Level system to describe how teary he was. Classic.

"Security won’t let me in w/ utensils. Will I have to live-expressive dance the race?"

Among my other favorites of Niemann’s: a meditation on Debussy, sheep, and Mitt Romney’s hair that he doodled while waiting “On Hold”an illustrated essay about the difficulties of getting a good night’s sleep; and taking cloud-spotting to a whole new level via autumnal leaves, in “Bio-Diversity.” See? Clever and kind.

Another site I can always count on to perk me up is Color Me Katie by photographer Katie Sokoler. Though Katie does not post too often, I find myself looking back over her photo essays time and again when I feel the need to look at something beautiful. She has a very childlike, carefree spirit that infuses everything she does. When I first came upon her blog, I was a bit skeptical of her seemingly bottomless well of happiness. So many bloggers show only the good times and paint an unfair portrait of their lives which can sometimes leave readers feeling inadequate. But Katie explains, “Many people in my family suffer from depression. It's one of the main reasons I decided to become a photographer. I wanted to create colorful, positive, feel good images.” I think that is admirable and brave!

This looks like fun. 

Katie does not hoard her joy in her Neverland-like Brooklyn apartment. She takes her positive vibes to the streets in order to brighten the days of strangers. She once filled plastic eggs with tiny toys and hung them, with cute notes, around the city for children to find. She planted a tiny garden in the square of soil in front of her apartment building. She painted rocks with hearts and put them back outside where people could discover them. Katie also photographs weddings and other NYC events, is involved with the group Improv Everywhere, and she has the best interior decorating advice of anyone. It’s a pretty wonderful life she’s made for herself, don’t you think?

Life is never going to be a cake-walk, but I take solace in the fact that I will have countless more beautiful moments before I go. I feel hope in the realization that even when the unthinkable occurs, laughter will still come. Feeling joyful will forever be my daily tribute to Mom. That is how she would have wanted it to be.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Fine Line

When I wrote that blog entry about my mom a month ago, I had no way of knowing that 23 days later, she would be gone forever. None of us, including her, had any warning that there was a civil war quietly taking place inside her body. She complained of a cold, initially, and was diagnosed with pneumonia the day after Mother’s Day. Eleven days later, she was checked into the hospital. By the next weekend, the doctors were saying she might not make it. I booked a flight to Tucson and arrived to find that she had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit. She was intubated and sedated, a Sleeping Beauty in a hospital bed. A biopsy of her liver revealed the shocking truth: she had cancer; it had spread extensively; it was rapidly shutting down her major organs. The next day, my family said our one-sided goodbyes to her, and removed her from life support. She took a handful of breaths on her own, and then died.

Right now, the cold, hard facts are about all I can express. Words fail. For someone who works through her feelings via words, this is a tough pill to swallow in itself. I have no doubt that losing Mom will color my writing for the rest of my life. I know I will examine this experience in microscopic detail. I will pound out my shifting emotions and contorting thoughts on a keyboard. I will look to a blinking cursor on a white screen and search for answers, because that is what I do. But for right now, it is simply too painful.  

However, this blog has become important to me, and I do not want it to stay dormant for too long. My drive to follow my passion has been renewed by this experience, not snuffed out. So, until I can bring myself to create new material that is appropriate for sharing, I’d like to put forth a piece I completed a few months ago. Like After Innocence, that other very intimate piece I wrote, this one concerns events that unfolded while I was in high school. Those four years are such a treasure trove of… unusual memories and experiences; it’s hard not to return to that time again and again in my writing.

Thanks for your patience and for the well-wishes I’ve already received from so many of you. I promise to get back into the swing of things as soon as I am able.

Photo by John Thornton

Each time Ms. Walsh raised her arms to emphasize a point or write on the dry-erase board, the sweat marks came into view. It was always a bit of a surprise. She was a well-put-together woman with short silver hair, impeccable make-up, and a modest, mature wardrobe. I always thought the mole above her lip gave her an air of gentility. My classmates and I would be rapt in concentration, trying to decipher the mystifying combination of letters and numbers known as Algebra, when gasp! there they’d be, two damp circles on her silk blouse. It wasn’t unreasonable that a grown woman living in a desert climate would have pit stains, but as a high school teacher, Ms. Walsh was not allowed to have outward displays of bodily function and get away with it. Most students giggled into their hands as soon as her back was turned.  

As a fellow sweater, you might think that I’d feel some sort of kinship with Ms. Walsh, but in actuality she made me uncomfortable. She displayed her damp pits so cavalierly, whereas I exhausted a lot of energy hiding my little issue beneath baggy layers of clothes and the straps of my backpack. I kept my arms straight down by my sides like a penguin, afraid to even raise my hand to answer a question in class. Each time my classmates laughed at her overly active sweat glands, they were also laughing at me.

One day as I sat there, taking notes and willing Ms. Walsh to put her arms down with my mind, I felt something tiny and sharp puncture the fabric of my shirt. It pushed into my back and was quickly removed. Figuring the person behind me had accidentally brushed the jagged edge of their spiral notebook against me, I ignored it. Then it happened again. Puzzled, I turned around and looked at the person sitting behind me. He made eye contact and held my gaze. I saw a mechanical pencil in his hand, perched in the position it must have been in when he poked me. Still convinced it was an accident, I returned my attention to the front of the room. Then I felt him tracing circles slowly around my back and pushing the pencil lead into me again. I glanced back and he grinned. When I got home from school that day, I took off my t-shirt and looked at the back of it – there were faint pencil marks. I examined my back in the mirror and was shocked to see red, swollen dots on my skin.

The next day I gingerly took my seat in front of him. After about ten minutes, I felt the pencil lead prick my back. I tried scooting up in my chair to passively signal that he should stop, but he just reached further, poking me slowly, but repeatedly. Past the fabric and into my skin, past the fabric and into my skin. It hurt a little, but it also felt... kind of good? Like when someone is braiding your hair and accidentally pulls a bit too hard. I never told him to stop. I never said a word.

As the semester wore on, there were many days when I sat in front of him and absolutely nothing unusual happened, but there were many days that he… penciled me. It became an odd and silent ritual of ours. As soon as I felt the lead against me, my pulse quickened and I waited for that little, familiar stab. He would sometimes build up tension with long, gentle strokes before finally sinking the sharp tip into my flesh. There was always a satisfying pop as the lead penetrated the fabric of my shirt. We sometimes spent entire class periods this way, and I’d stumble into the hall at the ring of the bell, exhausted from the physical and mental restraint this activity demanded. When he decided to hurt me, I was filled with a mixture of dread and excitement. When he ignored me, I was relieved and sad to not have his attention.

Our desks were not discreetly positioned. In fact, we were right in the middle of the classroom and anyone who cared to notice could see what was happening. A few times, I saw girls looking at us with questioning eyes, but we just ignored them and continued our routine. On some level, I’m sure he knew that his actions could be read as bullying, but he seemed compelled to do these things, unable to control himself. I naively imagined he could sense the strange satisfaction I was beginning to get out of what was transpiring between us. These interactions were unexpectedly awakening something masochistic in me. Because of my inexperience with the opposite sex, I was excited by this perceived connection to him, by the fact that I had any connection to a guy. It made me the perfect “victim.” He could have done more to me and I wouldn’t have stopped him. I lay in bed at night and searched for meaning in the action of his hand creeping over the invisible barrier between our desks. I wondered if he was interested in me in a romantic way, but when we saw each other in the halls he wouldn’t even make eye contact.

I never told anyone what was happening, maybe for fear that they would put a stop to it or for fear of retribution. Perhaps someone finally did say something to Ms. Walsh or maybe she noticed these strange interactions herself, but mid-way through the semester, she announced that our seating assignments would be changing. Everyone was shuffled around and I was placed in the back row while he was placed near the front, another boy seated in front of him. As I made my way to my new desk, I looked to him, panicking. He didn’t look back at me. He took his seat and greeted his new neighbors with a smile. I sat in stunned silence. I knew that it was the end, that he would never touch me or speak to me again.

As the lesson began and Ms. Walsh began writing equations on the board, I opened my notebook and began taking notes. I felt a bead of sweat roll down my side and was finally comforted by the fact that Ms. Walsh was sweating a little, too.

Monday, May 20, 2013

European Vacation Installment One - Phoenix>Charlotte>London>Amsterdam!

In the summer of 2005, my sister, Bree, and I took a one-month trip to Europe. We visited eight cities in 30 days and had an incredible time bonding and taking in all the experiences that come with traveling. In order to preserve those memories and share the hilarious stories from the trip, I asked Bree to collaborate with me on this series and have a written conversation about our month abroad.
On a cruise down the Seine. We were so exhausted we forgot the camera was on zoom.
Hally: So first off, I think we should explain how we managed to afford this incredible dream trip. When Dad’s father passed away, he left him some shares of land that he owned down near Florida, I think. It was swampland or something, so around 2005 Dad decided to sell that property and graciously gave each of us (as well as our brother, Logan) some money to do with as we wished. I want to make clear that this little windfall was the only way we afforded a trip like this; we aren’t the type of people who could normally take a month off and jet around Europe. However, traveling has always been important to us and it was a pretty immediate thought for me that we should plan a trip to Europe. Why did you want to do this trip?

Bree: Yes, as you mentioned, we are definitely not the type of people to be able to afford a trip like this normally. I was able to make it back to Europe on a work-study program a few years after this trip, but I honestly thought I might never get to travel overseas at all in the first place. It just wasn’t something that was talked about or considered as a possibility in our family because no one else had done it, so when Dad bequeathed us this nugget of financial freedom, I honestly hadn’t even thought about using it for travel. Then you invited me out to Delectable’s (H – One of our favorite restaurants in Tucson) for lunch and told me that you wanted to plan a trip to Europe and wondered if I would like to join. The thought of leaving everything I had come to know for a strange land full of new people, experiences, cultures and languages completely washed over me like a Tsunami of frightening happy, and I found myself instantly leaping at the chance to abandon dried up, predictable old Tucson for the vibrant, mysterious unknown that beckoned from across the Atlantic ocean.

Hally: In the planning of the trip, we had to decide which countries to visit and figure out all the logistics. I remember coming over to your house about once a week for awhile so we could have dinner and then do Europe research. I’m the type who likes the planning of a trip almost as much as the thing itself, and I think you are too, so this stage was a blast. You definitely did the lion’s share of the research, spending hours on the computer looking for accommodations, plane tickets, things to do, etc. You found a lot of great web sites for this kind of stuff, but I think this was before the days of Yelp or anything like that, so we also used some guidebooks. Do you remember anything specific about the planning?

Bree: Being a diehard list maker and planner, I clearly remember this process.  It was back when I lived in Caliche Gardens on 19th and 3rd. Bear (my husband) would usually make us dinner when you came over and we would lose hours surfing the web and dreaming about our travel plans.  We would work ourselves up into such a palpable fervor, browsing images of the quaint B&B's in London or figuring out the best way to get to the beach in Lido.  This was before the days of Yelp and Trip Advisor, and many of the usable travel planning sites that I have come to know and love.  The only modest tools I had at my disposal were PBS, DVD's from the library and a copy of Rick Steve's "Europe Through the Back Door"(H - Still my favorite title of all-time).  I think the hardest part was figuring out how to get from point A to point B.  There were certain destinations, such as our commute to from Paris to Venice, that required not only an airplane flight, but a cab ride, 2 bus trips, a water taxi, a long walk– pretty much every mode of transport one can fathom. Not to mention we were using modes of transportation which we'd never been introduced to before, such as the Tube and the Metro. This took a ton of research and planning in order to make sure we two seemingly clueless American girls got to where they were going in one piece.  If I had it to do over again, I would probably leave a bit more unplanned and let the wind blow me wherever I felt like going at that moment, but being that this was our first trip overseas and a part of me was scared to death, I understand why I needed to make sure that everything was taking care of beforehand.

Bree, on our day of departure

Hally: I think we embarked on this journey in late May or early June (memory is a bit foggy). It was so strange to send in a month’s rent in advance on my apartment knowing I wouldn’t even be staying there. Oh, I guess we should talk about how we got time off work for this. I was working at a law firm and I think I was even managing a department at the time. I had a great relationship with the head attorney, but I was pretty scared to request four weeks off. It was kind of unprecedented. We were having a conversation one day and I finally just went for it and asked. Luckily he was extremely accommodating and was even excited for me to go have this experience, and he allowed me to take leave, which I’m still so grateful for. I got a fair amount of flack from my co-workers for leaving them with extra work, but it was all good-natured and they were happy for me (at least to my face). Did you have any complications in getting time off work at that point?

Bree: I remember the day I was going to tell Susana, the owner of the restaurant where I was then employed, that I would be taking over a month off in the middle of the summer – a time when the restaurant is usually under-staffed anyway.  To give you a little background on my work environment, though my boss was one of my biggest role models in many ways, she was notorious for being nearly impossible to deal with.  She painted herself as someone who was completely unwilling to bend and ruled with an iron fist.  Rarely did a night go by that didn't include a screaming episode, some plates being smashed, and an employee or two nearly being canned.  Previously, I had a hard time even getting one night off work even when I was sick or injured, so you can imagine my trepidation at requesting six weeks off to toddle off to Europe.  But I mustered the courage and approached her one day.  To my complete disbelief, not only did she not mind that I was taking time off from work, she was elated and excited for me to embark on this new adventure.  It seemed that the resistance I had felt from her with regard to taking time off of work for school was no longer present when the subject switched to travel.  Apparently she valued the latter more than the former, which was fine with me at that point.

Hally: Packing was a tad complicated. How do you pack for a month-long trip? We knew we’d be moving around a lot and considered buying big camping backpacks at one point. I decided to buy a large, wheeling suitcase instead. By the second day of the trip I regretted that choice, because it was such a pain in the ass to lug that thing around, up and down staircases, load it on buses, etc. I remember seriously considering just shoving a few clothes in a garbage bag and leaving everything else behind somewhere around Rome. I brought a lot of weird clothes (this was almost a decade ago and I was in my early twenties, still trying to “figure it out”). I had a lot of cheap stuff from Old Navy. I bought a pair of Sauconys for walking and I think I took a pair of black heels in case we went out anywhere nice, but maybe that was it for shoes? It was also hard to plan out a wardrobe because it was quite cold in London, where we started and ended the trip, but it was sweaty and hot in Italy, so we had to pack for several climates. I remember you saying that one of your friends looked at our pictures from Europe and said, “Wow, you definitely look like Americans in your bright colors!” Embarrassing.

Bree: Layers. It was all about layers for me. Not only was it about tight precise layers of rolled up clothing in my one medium sized travel bag that accompanied me, it was the secret to being able to maintain some sense of comfort in nearly every climate you can think of. I remember the rolling suitcase that you brought. That thing was a monster! I could've sworn you eventually ditched it and bought some tremendously overpriced smaller piece of luggage in an airport somewhere. (H - Nope, that was just a daydream. I still have that suitcase to this day and still use it!) In a way, it was a blessing to only have a certain number of choices with regards to what clothing to wear on any given day. It certainly made getting dressed in the morning a quick and easy task. I will say that by the time we got to Venice I was growing a bit weary of rotating through the same pieces of clothing over and over again. Laundromats were a scarce commodity during our travels, so our clothes started to pick up a somewhat "European" smell along the way. More times than not we were relegated to hosing them off in the sink. Sometimes, I would just wash them while they were still on my body. I remember the comment you are referring to that my friend made about us looking like Americans. I think the actual term he used to describe what we were wearing was "Old Navy colors."  Where was he when we were shopping?

Hally: The flight to Europe was a bit of a beast since we departed from the west coast. We flew to Charlotte and had a layover there before continuing on to London. I remember we ate our last, awful American meal at the airport Chili’s (ewwww) and then we quickly made a restroom stop before heading to the gate. While we were in the bathroom, we heard our airline make an announcement that said, “Last call for passengers Bree and Hally Richmond, please come to the gate immediately.” We freaked out! Since we had never been on an international flight before, we didn’t realize they board much earlier than domestic flights. Whoops.

Bree: Almost missing our flight was a horrible experience!  I remember hearing that announcement, and full-on sprinting from the bathroom to our gate. When we got there, the stewardesses were glaring at us with this evil look in their eyes, as if we had held up the entire plane.  We scurried aboard, catching shade from the other passengers on our trek to our seats as if we'd also held them up, and crammed our bags into the only minuscule space left in the overhead bins. We stuffed ourselves into the cubic foot that we would call home for the next nine or so hours and tried to catch our breath.  I had just eaten a full meal and then basically run a 5K, so I was sure I would vomit all over myself in the seat.  Once we settled in, we kept trying to catch some sleep, but found it impossible with such adrenaline coursing through our veins.  Eventually, the sun rose, we were offered some orange juice and a snack, and we arrived at our first destination—London, England.

Hally: Oh yeah! This was the first overnight flight I’d ever been on, and I remember how surreal it was when the sun rose! Watching these beams of light streak through the plane cabin and contemplating the idea that we had traveled across time zones and an entire ocean left me with such a strange feeling. We landed at Heathrow early in the morning and hit the ground running. We went to the ATM and got some GBPs, then went to find a cab.

Bree: I remember when we landed at Heathrow, the entire airport was under construction. Trying to find the baggage claim was like mastering an obstacle course.  Once we managed to get through all of the security and proudly receive the first stamp on our passports, we headed out front to catch a cab.  It was one of the coolest cab rides I'd ever experienced, driving through the streets of London, seeing a way of life completely foreign to mine for the first time.  Everything seemed so much more saturated, as if we had just stepped into a movie.

Bree in front of our B&B in London's Notting Hill
Hally: Totally! Great description. I think the fact that we come from a long line of Anglophiles played into that feeling of being in a movie. You had booked us at this amazing B&B in Notting Hill owned by a youngish woman who is an artist (can’t remember her name or find this place on-line). That was definitely my favorite place we stayed. It was a split-level home, like most in London, and our bedroom was on the main floor, then the kitchen was downstairs, and our host lived upstairs. Our bedroom had a nice bed and was decorated with some of her beautiful paintings. And the bathroom… wow! I know it’s weird to be impressed with a bathroom, but it was at least as big as the bedroom, maybe bigger, and had a claw-foot bathtub, a stained glass window and was just so pretty. It could be awkward at some places we stayed to eat breakfast with the host, but she was really cool and made me feel comfortable. We usually had toast, cereal, some fruit – all “normal food” by our standards. She had a French press for making coffee, the first I’d ever seen, and I bought one as soon as we got back home.

Bree: That first day, we got to our B&B (the name escapes me as well), unpacked our things, and you took a nap that lasted almost 6 hours.  I had been fighting the urge to go to sleep in an attempt to switch my schedule around to accommodate the time change.  Eventually, I got a couple of hours in.  When we awoke and freshened up, we decided to meander down to the local Tube station.  Having never ridden a subway and only having been on a bus once or twice, figuring out the intricate system was more than difficult at first.  I was sure we would end up stranded in the British countryside somewhere with no way to get back.  But eventually we managed to figure it out and "Tubed" it to Piccadilly Square.  It was a bustling seen full of tourists as well as locals, street vendors, performers. It was a little overwhelming in our sleep deprived state.  There we found a bar and sat down for our first pint and an order of fish and chips.  Unfortunately, the fish and chips were horrible, but the pint was pretty great.  We finally made our way back to our room and passed out watching some crazy show on BBC.

Hally: Oh yes, the terrible fish and chips! What a letdown. But they did serve them with a side of mushy peas! (As if that’s a selling point. I noticed mushy peas were also big in Ireland when I visited there this past March, too. Mushy peas!) I remember the pub was full of younger kids who seemed like they had just gotten out of school. The legal drinking age is 18 there, but pubs close super early, so the drinking culture was very different than what we are accustomed to. And British TV… to this day I have nothing but love for it. I remember “Celebrity Love Island” was the big show at the time, and I think they played it every night.

Bree: The next few days of our stay in London were glorious.  We hung out at Hyde Park for one whole day, which was the biggest, most beautiful park I had ever seen.  Please keep in mind that we are from Tucson, Arizona, a place where the grass is brown and there is an abundance of dirt. Regardless, it was absolutely the prettiest park I had ever seen.  There were lakes and birds and squirrels and people painting, and it seemed to stretch on into infinity. 

Hally: Absolutely, Hyde Park was a big one for me. I had also never been in a metropolitan park and was simply blown away. It was so huge and beautiful and it was fun to walk around and enjoy nature. You took a picture of me hugging a tree, and that perfectly encapsulates how it felt to be there. I am a bit fuzzy about the timeline after this, so maybe we can just hit on some highlights? I know we went to the National Gallery and were bummed because we missed a Caravaggio show, but the gallery was very good regardless. We saw the painting “The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait” by Jan van Eyck, which I had studied extensively in Art History classes, and I was shocked by how tiny it is!

Bree: Yes, one of my favorite parts about our trip was the museums.  I think the first one we visited was the British Museum.  I had no clue what I was in store for.  To be able to see things like the Rosetta Stone, their amazing collection of Egyptian artifacts, and the Elgin Marbles left me breathless.  They were also having an interesting mummy exhibit at that time, and they actually had some on display.  After the British Museum, which took us hours and hours to get through, we decided to tackle the National Gallery.  I think by that time, we were so exhausted that we barely made it through. I remember squinting and bracing myself on a wall just trying to get through the many floors and all the exhibits, by the end, not knowing or caring what priceless work of art I was in the presence of. 

Hally: It was all-too-easy to become overwhelmed by the museums, but I’m glad we saw so many on this trip. You went to the Tate Modern and The Globe Theater one day when I felt lazy and stayed in our room, sleeping. Want to talk about that?

Bree: I did visit a couple of museums on my own on the day that you weren't feeling well.  I was sad that you didn't make it to the Globe or the Tate museum because they were amazing places to visit.  Of course, the Globe was a reconstruction of the original one, but I could still sense the spirit of Shakespeare around me.  And the Tate was an Art major's dream come true!  One of my favorite experiences was the Dali Universe museum at the base of the London Eye.  (H – I had totally forgotten about the Dali museum! It was very cool, though it seemed to be a popular destination for American frat boys. I was going to link to it, but the museum is apparently now closed!) Remember, they had that trippy video that Dali directed playing on a loop, and they had his lip-shaped couch and many of his other paintings and sculptures on display.  Being that Surrealism is my favorite art movement, and Dali one of my favorite artists of all times, I was like a kid in a candy store.

Bree at the British Museum, Walkin' Like An Egyptian
Hally: We went out for some interesting meals. The most memorable for me would have to be Belgo Centraal in Covent Garden, which you found on-line I think. The waiters dress like monks and they specialize in Belgian food, so lots of French fries and roasted chicken to be had. They also have a brewery on-site and had some awesome beers, like a cherry lambic that was to die for! But I happen to be a lover of beer. You on the other hand…

Bree: Belgo was great. It was meant to resemble a medieval monastery, and everyone had to eat at communal tables sans silverware. The worst thing about London for me was trying to get a drink.  I am not a beer drinker.  I tend to prefer a nice glass of white wine or a martini.  No one in the whole of London knew how to make in martini the way I had grown accustomed to drinking them.  They would simply serve me vermouth on the rocks, which made me gag when I smelled it.  And if I ordered a glass of wine, it usually tasted like vinegar, so I quickly learned to like beer.

Hally: At one point, we met up with one of my friends from Tucson. He happened to be passing through London on his own trip and it was his birthday, so we all went to Yo! Sushi and ate sushi off conveyor belts.

Bree: I remember meeting up with your friend and going to that sushi place, too. I thought it was Go! Sushi which is what I chanted as the sushi raced by. Eating sushi off a conveyor belt was much more fun than it may sound. I was tempted to hedge bets on which sushi would make it to the finish line first, but that may just be the gambler in me talking.

Hally: We visited the Tower of London, which I LOVED. Coming from America and seeing history - real, actual history - for the first time is amazing. Thinking about how many people had been imprisoned, tortured, and executed there over time gave me chills as we walked around. Anne Boleyn was imprisoned and beheaded there. Elizabeth I was imprisoned there by her sister, Queen Mary I, before Mary was killed and Elizabeth ascended the throne. 12-year-old Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, were imprisoned and never seen again. (Rumor has it that they were murdered on orders of their uncle, then buried somewhere on the grounds of the Tower. The room where their bodies are supposedly buried is the absolute creepiest.) Guy Fawkes was imprisoned there before his execution. The stories are all brutal and gory, but completely fascinating. The structures there have a very haunted, eerie feel to them for sure. The tour guides, called Yeoman Warders, definitely play up this aspect. But, to mix things up a bit, the Crown Jewels are also housed at the Tower. They are pretty and sparkly and stuff and it seemed like lots of older lady tourists were super excited to see them.

In front of a fountain in London
Hally: From London, we flew to our next destination of Amsterdam. We used Ryan Air for all our flights within Europe, and it had pros and cons. The tickets were always insanely cheap, because you’re really not traveling far, but at the time they only operated out of very small airports far from city-centers. Getting to the airport required bus rides, usually, and it was a little stressful to do that much traveling every few days.

Bree: I remember our flight out of London on Ryan Air.  Though the tickets were very cheap, there was a limit to how heavy your bag could be, and this was before the airlines had started charging for baggage.  If you're suitcase weighed more than the allotted amount, which was not very much, they charged you an exorbitant fee on a per-pound basis.  I remember your bag was way over the limit, and I can't remember if you opted to ditch some things or if we just sucked up and paid the extra money.  (H – I am a terrible packer! I think I just paid the extra money. Dumb.) I do remember that the airport we flew out of was some makeshift temporary thing constructed out of plastic bags and duct tape. And security was pretty much non-existent. We had to actually walk out onto the tarmac and board the plane by stairs.  The whole thing left us with a very uneasy feeling, but we arrived safe and sound in Amsterdam. 

Hally: We flew into Schipol Airport and culture shock set in a bit. The majority of the signs were in Dutch and it was a little scary and confusing as we know not a word of Dutch. We both have some background in Spanish, and while it’s easier to pick up on other Romance languages, Dutch is completely alien. Luckily, the majority of people there also speak English, so we gratefully were able to converse just fine. We took a trolley from the airport to our next B&B and I remember thinking that Amsterdam was the most beautiful city I’d ever seen. Even just on that short ride, I was blown away. It’s so clean, everyone rides bicycles and is super fit and blonde, the canal is so gorgeous… it’s amazing. Our B&B hosts told us to exit the trolley at the Heineken Brewery, if that tells you anything about the kind of city Amsterdam is. We then walked to the B&B, Between Art and Kitsch, which is an adorable canal house owned by an older, married couple. When we arrived we had to carry our bags upstairs and the stairs there are no joke. I was quite sure I’d die when I reached the top. The owners were very welcoming and had a cute little dog that scurried around our feet.

Bree: I remember the trolley ride to our B&B, and I could tell that Amsterdam was also amazingly beautiful, but quite different from London.  I love the name of our B&B, "Between Art and Kitsch." It was so cute! The only thing I didn't like about it was those 10,000 steep-ass stairs. I remember actually pushing you and your monstrous suitcase up them in order to get to our room.

Hally: Our room there was nice and spacious with two beds and high ceilings and a cool view of the Rijksmuseum. The bathroom was enclosed, but basically in the middle of the room, so that was a little awkward. Being with your sister is one thing, but if I was traveling with a friend, that could have been an issue. The home was situated on several floors, so I remember there being sort of a lounge area one flight up with a computer with internet. Do you remember that? I used it to check my MySpace account! Because that was the thing to do back then! I think in the mornings, we’d eat breakfast in that area. Breakfast in Amsterdam was a bit strange. There was always some mystery meat and cheese, crackers I think, maybe yogurt?

Bree: The bathroom was in a glass chamber in the center of the room.  After one day of shopping in the market, we had stopped for lunch and it ended up not agreeing with me.  We went to the room, and I remember looking at you, knowing that I needed to use the facilities in a way that was not going to be pleasant, and saying, "I'm sorry for what I'm about to do."  I don't know if you've ever managed to erase that memory or not.  I haven't.  I remember the breakfasts they would serve.  It usually consisted of the an extremely soft boiled egg, which made you throw up in your mouth a little just looking at it, a tube of uncooked meat which was supposedly fit for human consumption, and some yogurt.  We ate a lot of yogurt. 

Hally: So much yogurt. Europe seems to be obsessed with it. I think our first big stop in Amsterdam was the Van Gogh Museum and it was truly incredible and I highly recommend it. We walked a lot in Amsterdam because it was so beautiful there and fun to stroll around. I remember one day, we stumbled out of this narrow alleyway into a town square, and there was an antique book fair going on. I bought some antique paper and a few other things and I think I still have some of that. Did you buy anything memorable?

Bree: I got some of the coolest paper there which looks like glittery cats, but I'm still waiting for just the right chance to use it. The city of Amsterdam itself was extremely clean and charming.  The canals running through the center of the town, the bohemian spirit that permeated the streets, there were hardly any cars and everyone used bikes.  In fact there were public bikes that you could ride from one destination to the next for free.  It seemed like a very idealistic, beautiful place to be.  We didn't get to as many museums there as we had in London, but I did enjoy the Van Gogh museum as well.

Getting ready for a night on the town in Amsterdam
Hally: To answer the question everyone always asks, we did not smoke any pot in Amsterdam. I think we were just too nervous to lose our bearings being two girls traveling alone. We did find a Laundromat and got some clothes washed and we discovered toasties, these delicious little toasted cheese sandwiches that everyone seemed to sell. We also ate some of the best Italian food of our lives, strangely enough, at a restaurant called Monte Verde. (By the way, it is such a trip to look these places up and find them on the internet! These experiences seem like they happened a lifetime ago and it feels like every place we visited must have surely ceased existing by now.)

Bree: I can't remember if I indulged in "the mota" back then, but I'm kind of glad we did not smoke pot in Amsterdam.  I don't think it would've really enhanced our experience very much in any way, although maybe it would have made that meal at Monte Verde even better. It was great finally getting to wash our clothes too. I think that was the last time we got to.

Hally: I think our only real night out in Europe that involved “clubbing” in any way was in Amsterdam. We got dressed up and went to this place called The Bulldog. It is billed as a "cafe" but it was definitely a club - maybe even a discotheque! Even now their web site seems very interested in having an “international celebrity presence” and that basically sums up The Bulldog. It’s this cavernous club with very gaudy decorations and multi-colored lights everywhere. It was completely empty at first, but steadily got more crowded. The clientele was a mixed bag, a lot of older people, a few locals. You got hit on incessantly and I sat in a corner feeling like crap. But I soon felt better when the entertainment started. Two guys who were doing an unintentional imitation of Milli Vanilli hit the stage and I was in heaven.

Bree: I do remember when we decided to let our hair down and go out to the clubs.  I can't remember why we decided to go to The Bulldog, but I felt extremely uncomfortable as soon as we entered.  I don't remember being hit on incessantly. And that Milli Vanilli cover band? Priceless.  So should have taken video of that.

Hally: We ended up befriending a really nice guy who took us to a much cooler bar just down the street, the name of which is escaping me. I remember I really had to pee, so I ran to the bathroom and the attendant informed me that I needed to pay in order to use the facilities. So I sprinted back to the table and got some money and made it to the toilet just in time to avoid an accident. Our friend turned out to be a hot dog vendor, which I found hilarious. I think I hurt his feelings by laughing as much as I did, but c’mon! He was a young, relatively attractive guy; I guess I just did not expect him to say he sold hot dogs for a living. Apparently it was a family business. We finally called it a night and stumbled drunkenly back to our hotel, sans hot dog guy.

Bree: I do remember that really nice guy who came over and hung out with us. I wish I could remember his name. I want to say Tony for some reason. He was very sweet.  I don't remember him being a hot dog vendor, but I do remember him telling us how expensive gas was over there, and I couldn't believe it.  It was like $13.00 a gallon!  No wonder everyone rode bikes.  I don't remember hitting a second bar that night but, there's a lot I don't remember about that night. I'm sure I over-served myself though.

Hally: Ha! You said “remember” a lot in that paragraph! Yes, I think I over-served myself, too, but my memory persists, even when I’m drunk. (Note well, all who dare to drink in my presence!)

Old Navy colors! And blurry digital camera pictures.
This is a good place to wrap up the first installment. We will pick up with our journey to Paris and the Great Train Station Scam!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Poetry Corner - Monsoon

My first year back to school has officially come to an end! :::confetti::: I completed my last final exam last night, and now I am free for the summer. I haven’t had a moment to decompress and let it sink in yet, but I’m pretty happy to be done for a few months. The idea of getting out of work and being able to do whatever I desire is thrilling! I will have lots of extra time to devote to writing without all that pesky homework to be done. I also plan to spend a lot of time taking better care of myself – cooking more, exercising, reading, and relaxing. I kept telling myself over the past week, “Just get through this and then you can pay attention to yourself again.” Sometimes life requires us to run on all cylinders, but it is so important to regroup and recharge when you can. I’m looking very forward to it!

In lieu of a final in my writing class, we turned in portfolios that contained samples of our writing in three genres: non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. We studied poetry during the last few weeks of class and I was initially not very excited about it. I know it is cliché, but I always considered myself one of those people who just doesn’t “get” poetry. I feel very differently now! Aside from reading some amazing poetry by some incredible poets (Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and DH Lawrence were my faves), I found that I really enjoy writing it as well. It came as a complete shock to me. I decided to start a new series here called “Poetry Corner” and share some of what I wrote. I still don’t purport to be a poet, but I’m having fun giving it a try!

Those of you in Tucson will hopefully be able to relate to the sense memories that inspired this first poem. Let me know what you think! And this weekend, I will be posting the first installment of a series that I’ve been working on with my sister, Bree. I am so pleased with how it turned out; I think you will all really enjoy it! Happy Friday    

Photo by Johnny Thornton
The sky is one big sheet of dark grey dryer lint,
complex nervous systems of bright-white lightning
intermittently asserting their presence. A sound, just like the crack
of a baseball bat, catches me off guard, makes me spill a little
beer on my dress. It gently settles into a rumble that echoes
through the valley. The wind will become so intense
that it rips trees right out of the ground. The corpses and their
exposed roots will litter roadsides for weeks to come. For now,
it just makes swirling groups of garbage dance down the street.
I’m on my porch in a wooden chair, stubbing out a Camel Light in
my metal ashtray from Bisbee, breathing deeply so as to
absorb the sweet scent of the creosote bushes, trying desperately
to make the scent a part of me, inextricable from my memory.
Finally, the water begins to fall, in small droplets at first
and then in big, fat, all-encompassing blobs. The pavement
seems to hiss and steam with gratitude, some relief from the oppressive
heat of another desert summer. I watch the dark spots
on the concrete sidewalk multiply in numbers, reaching
out to one another, uniting as one. A creek, and then a river,
runs through the gutters and I giggle, giddy.
I want to wrap my arms around this in a suffocating embrace. 
I want to take this with me when I go.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Lovely, Lovely Linda

Is it just me, or does Mother's Day seem to be a huge deal this year? I've seen so many posts about it on Facebook, so many TV shows with Mother's Day themes. I think it's awesome. Who is more deserving of praise than parents? They do so much that goes unnoticed for most of the year. I always love the opportunity to tell people just what they mean to me in a way that maybe they haven't heard before. So, without further ado, I present some thoughts about the lovely, lovely Linda - my Mom.  

Flower Child Mama
Mom was born in Sierra Vista, AZ – a town that was frankly too small to contain her. She was a tomboy as a kid (just like me!) and often spent entire days playing outside, shirt off, skin burning, keeping up with the boys. She is also the middle child in her family, and while I don’t really buy into that birth order stuff, I do believe that we connect on a special level as the result of this. My grandparents eventually moved the family to the “big city” of Tucson. There, she studied acting at the U of A for a bit and dabbled in modeling. Mom has always been a gorgeous creature. At that age, she had long, black hair, big, beautiful dark eyes, and olive skin. I look back at pictures of her from then and marvel. She looks so mysterious and elegant and she totally had Zooey Deschanel bangs way before that was a thing. She was a bit of a hippie and always dreamed of moving to California. In fact, she did for awhile. She got a job parking big rigs (!!!), which explains why she is still the undisputed Car Parking Champ of the World. But, eventually, Tucson beckoned again and she moved home. Instead of giving up on her acting dreams, she lived them out in the best way she could. A lot of westerns and TV shows were produced in Tucson at the time, so she got in the game. She found an agent named George Kennedy, and he got her lots of work as an extra.

Around the same time, she met my Dad. I won’t go into the details of that first meeting, because my Dad does so below - beautifully, I might add.  They married and had three children (three natural, drug-free births, she’ll have you know) and they are still quite happily married today. Even after us kids were born and she had to take on boring jobs to pay the bills, Mom never gave up her dreams. She ended up working on movies like Posse and Poker Alice with some of the greats, including Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Skerritt, Bruce Dern, and George Hamilton. Not everyone can go through family photos and find pictures of their mom in a saloon-girl costume, standing next to a movie star. She even got us kids involved in some productions like Major League, which was filmed at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson. (Little known fact: I played a convict’s daughter in a very special Thanksgiving episode of Michael Landon’s Highway to Heaven. How you like me now?)

Man, the 80s were awesome!
Mom has always been an incredibly hard worker. She and Dad made the decision to put their kids through private schools, and that did not come cheap. But she felt it was important and she worked her butt off to do that for us.  To this day, I am so grateful for the education they gave us, and I like to think that I got my own work ethic from watching her. She is also just an incredibly kind-hearted, unjaded individual. She always looks for the best in people, never wanting to believe that anyone is beyond repair. I find that to be incredibly rare in this day and age. Being raised by someone so compassionate definitely colored how I view the world. I love that we are a "glass-half-full" family. 

Speaking of family, Mom is serious about it. She grew up when the Lebanese community in Tucson was going strong. Her aunties were her role models, her cousins were more like siblings. To her, nothing was better than being surrounded by family, and that remains true. I believe that community shaped her into the fiercely loyal and loving mother she is. She makes sure all of us kids know, without a doubt, that we are unconditionally supported. The older I get, the more I realize that very few people have the privilege of having someone like that in their lives (and it is a privilege, there are no guarantees). I am not only lucky, but eternally grateful for that. I know that no matter what is going on in my life, I can call Mom and lay myself bare. I can tell her anything and she will never judge me, only comfort me, and maybe remind me to take care of myself as her eyebrows knit together in that telling way. She still worries about me as though I were a kid, calling or texting me whenever she hears about stormy weather in New York to make sure I'm okay. 

Mom and me
Living so far away from home is incredibly difficult, especially on Mother’s Day. I miss the little things, like just going out to lunch together, or catching a movie. Mom has a way of making even mundane tasks really fun. She has a zest for life that is infectious. I wish more than anything that I could be with Mom today, showing her the gratitude that I feel so deeply, expressing the appreciation she so deserves. I figured the next best thing would be to write about this woman, to share her with the world. I also asked my family to write about their favorite Mom memories. Here is what they had to say.

From my sister, Bree:

When Hally asked me to write about my favorite memories of my mom, I knew it would be difficult to find just one or two.  I'm so lucky to have countless memories of our time together.  There were the small moments growing up, like dressing up in her feather boa and sneaking a spray of her favorite perfume, Leteuce. Or taking trips in our van "Big Blue" to San Diego for Easter and finding the blowup Easter bunny that she and dad had planted in the door of our hotel room, beckoning us out of bed to find our Easter baskets which they had carefully hidden.  There was the way she coached my friends and I in our first talent show performance, a lip-synced aerobic choreographed dance to the song "Physical" by Olivia Newton John.  She even sewed my headband for that one. She's taught me so many important skills in my life, like learning how to shop.  She used to take me to the mall in my stroller, and I would hold up pieces of clothing that I thought were nice and say, "Oh, how coot!" And on more than one occasion, she would have to run around like crazy trying to find me as I hid in the center of a clothes-rack in the department store.  She always made every birthday, every Christmas, every holiday so magical, and my brother, sister and I felt like the most important things in the world.  She was always there to nurse my wounds (physical and emotional), to cheer me up, and to be a shoulder to lean on.  This wasn't just the case when I was little.  This is still the case today. 

Mom and Bree
If I have to pick just one great memory, I would have to pick our trip to Vegas.  It was a few months before I got married, and I was already going insane with the planning that is involved in such an event, so I was eager to escape town with my girls – my mom and my Aunt Debbie. Vegas is a rite of passage for the women in my family.  It used to be that when a girl turned a certain age, they accompanied all of her cousins and aunties to the magical city.  They would stay up for days on end, drink way too much, and generally not give a damn about anyone but themselves for a change.  I had gone to Vegas before, once with my mom and my sister, and once with all of the Lebanese women. Both of those trips were was also amazing, but this trip was a little more recent, so it's easier for me to recall the details.  When Mom gets into a casino, she is seriously like a kid in a candy store.  Her eyes light up and, a big smile comes across her face. You can sense the elation inside of her.  On this particular trip, we decided to cheap out and take Southwest Airlines to get there.  Of course, the three of us ended up in the back row right by the bathroom, smashed together so tightly that they didn't even make us wear our seat belts.  When we arrived and finally managed to pry ourselves out of our seats, we checked into the Palazzo, which is the sister hotel of the Venetian (where my mom, sister and stayed I on our first visit).  We could hardly shower and change fast enough to get to that casino floor.  And I remember feeling like I could have stayed there with my mom forever.  I felt like a version of heaven to me. 

Aunt Debbie, Bree and Mom
Although I can't quite remember the exact day-by-day agenda, there were many highlights.  We had gone there over the 4th of July, so we got to see the fireworks outside of the MGM grand.  We were exhausted at the time, but it was completely worth it.  It was such a spectacle!  I also remember indulging in a martini with my mom in the middle of the day in the middle of the casino and having a heart to heart about life and love.  One day, we wait to see a show called "Absinthe", which was a theater-in-the-round, circus-style affair.  We were standing in line to get in, and lo and behold, the sky opened up and it poured down on us.  We got absolutely drenched!  We were finally let inside, and we were just sitting there, soaking wet with big smiles on our faces, knowing that we would look back on this day with fond regard.  We had some of the best meals of our life there.  I remember brunch at the Bellagio and dinner at this fabulous seafood restaurant in the Venetian.  And our first night, we went to Binion's Steakhouse, which, I’m pretty sure, is run by the mob. All of these older Italian men in tuxedos made up the wait staff, and it was so dark you couldn't see to walk. My mom threw abandon to the wind and ordered one of the most expensive things on the menu stating, "I'm worth it," which she definitely is. The lead singer of Men at Work was giving a show down below on the street (random!) and we got to watch from our seats high atop the casino. We had such a great time that we ended up extending our trip an extra day.  I'm not really sure what the tally of prize money was at the end, but I can say that I'm sure my mom came out ahead, as she is one of luckiest people I know.  We eventually returned home, sad to have to leave a piece of heaven, but ecstatic at the time we got to share together.

Mom is retiring this year.  Actually, she has less than a month to go on her "sentence".  She has always worked so hard to support us.  I can't wait to make more memories with her and share more times at the casino and beyond.  Thanks for all you do, for all you are, for all you have taught me, and for spotting me money at the slots.  I love you more than you'll ever know.  Happy Mother's Day!

Mommy in a hot tub
From Dad:

It was a July night when I met Linda at the wedding of the sister of a friend of mine from art school who is Lebanese. I was sitting in the church in the early evening with another friend from art school relaxing and looking around, like I always do, when I saw Linda and her sister walking down the aisle to their seat. Linda was wearing a dark pink silky pantsuit covered with little white stars. Her hair was really long and dark and she had a great summer tan. I was immediately smitten. I had agreed to tend bar at the reception in the church hall after the wedding. I was glad I did because this beautiful woman was a frequent customer. It turned out she had an eye for me too and was coming to the bar regularly for refills for all of her family and relatives. I was very impressed with the size of the crowd at the reception and how friendly they were to me. After my shift tending bar was over Linda asked me to join them and introduced me around. Then they started playing traditional Lebanese music and doing a dance called the Dabke. Linda asked me to join in, so I gave it a shot and really enjoyed it. We sat and talked for a long time. She told me she just got back from Newport Beach, thus the great tan. As it happened I asked her if I could escort her home after the reception with a quick stop at party at my best friend Sam's just to say hi. It was raining on and off that night making for a beautiful evening. I carried her across the puddles in the church lot to my car. By the time we got to Sam's it was raining hard and steady so we opted to sit in my car and get to know each other better. I found she and I had a lot of the same interests, enjoyed the same kinds of music and that she had been a model and was getting work in movie and television shows being shot in Tucson. So we got closer and closer and finally shared our first kiss. Then another, followed by another. The rain kept up steadily so we decided to just go back to her house. Her parents weren't living there at that time so I slept on her couch in the living room. I behaved myself because I could feel this might be something special at a time when I was ready for it and she was too. Two years later we where married and have been together since. I still get a beautiful feeling every time I remember our first night.

Mom and Dad
Now you can start counting off the days ‘til you can sleep in late, like every day is a weekend day. Take your time waking up and enjoying the life you so deserve. You’ve worked hard and sacrificed much in your life for our kids and me. I so look forward to the extra time we can do whatever strikes us that day…take classes, travel more, enjoy fixing up our home, etc.

I wish you much enjoyment and little hassle in the future. Happy Mother’s Day! 


Mom - I hope you know how much I miss you and how much you are loved. I hope this day is relaxing and special for you. I, too, hope your retirement days treat you well, and that you get to enjoy life on a whole new level once time belongs only to you. Happy Mother's Day, and thanks so much for ALL you do!