Saturday, December 31, 2011

Deciding What to Learn

It’s so odd to be taking classes where the curriculum is not at all fixed.  As much as getting used to my instructor, I’m getting used to coming up with a game plan for each class.
The first class was very encouraging.  She basically told me my Spanish was adequate and all I needed to do was to practice speaking.  But speaking about what?  Practicing the dialogues I learned so long ago?  Or pretending to order off a menu?
For the next class I bit off a little more than I could chew.  I chose to read an article about the equivalent of the “Arab Spring” in Chile.  Although I could understand the article in its entirety, when it came time to discuss it, I realized there is a lot of vocabulary that I just don’t have.  It was frustrating to try to answer her questions, when I knew what I wanted to say in English but just couldn’t come up with the Spanish words.
For my class last Thursday, I decided to be more pragmatic, realizing that I probably would not be sitting around with a bunch of intellectual Chileans talking about politics.  And anyone capable of that sort of conversation would probably be fluent in English.  So I decided that I should practice verb conjugations by learning how to describe the accident where I broke my hip and the aftermath.  After all, I am probably going to be asked more than once why I walk with a limp.
When I was in Chile over 30 years ago, one of my fondest memories was going trout fishing on a beautiful river in the lake country.  Each person went with a botero who rowed the boat and did all the disgusting things you have to do to catch a fish, leaving the pure sport of it up to the person with the fishing rod.
Since I would like to recreate that scene and share it with my husband this time, I have decided that my next class should include some of the words I might need to talk to my botero, most of whom do not speak English.  Words like lure and hook and rod and “to catch a fish”, hoping those words would actually describe what happened.  
As for my husband who was starting with no Spanish background, his three lessons have given him the ability to introduce himself, say where he is from, and exchange pleasantries with someone.  He will definitely be equipped with survival Spanish by the time we leave.
I am happy that our instructor is supportive of this idea of creating classes to meet our needs and desires.  That’s a far better use of our time together than going over things we will probably never need to say.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Note of Optimism

Another Mary Oliver poem (read by our rabbi Esther) from her book Evidence, which I just purchased.
Halleluiah by Mary Oliver
Everyone should be born into this world happy
   and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Halleluiah, anyway I’m not where I started!
And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
   almost forgetting how wonderful the world is
      and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that nothing important
   is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years.
Halleluiah, I’m sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sweet News from Chile

Years ago (37 to be exact) I traveled to Chile for the first time, where I would provide technical assistance to the statistics office there.  Unfortunately my luggage didn’t arrive until 3 days later.  That’s how I got to know Veronica.
She was by title the secretary of the AID office I reported to there.  But in truth she was a lot more than that.  She quickly took me under her wing and took me shopping in the trendy stores of Providencia.  I’m sure I also bought the other essentials to survive, but for many years I remembered Veronica when I wore my clothes from Chile.
We kept up for many years.  When I traveled to Chile, she would invite me over for dinner or take me down to her parents’ farm in the country.  At one point her husband had a contract that brought him to DC for a couple of months, so the family came along.  Her sister lived here for a year when he husband served as a diplomat from Chile.  But eventually we lost touch.  
When we decided to go to Chile in February, I determined to try to find Veronica.  I started searching online for anyone with her rather distinctive last name.  I came to learn through distant cousins that she and her first husband had divorced.  She was remarried and living in Houston.
Just today I managed to locate an email address for her new husband, who owns a small company that exports dried plums from Chile, or prunes as we know them.  I shot off an email figuring it might be days if he ever answered it.  
But instead within 10 minutes I had a response from my wonderful friend, who said they will be in Chile during January and February, when the plums are harvested.  I haven’t had a chance to ask all the many questions I have for her that will let me know what she has been doing for the last few decades.
I am so excited at the prospect of seeing her again, meeting her new husband, and maybe even visiting the plum farm, which I suspect is the same farm I visited so long ago. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On Duty

Every time we go to Temple Micah, we pass this police car parked in a nice little indentation of Massachusetts Avenue.  About half the time there is someone inside, but often it’s empty.  
We’ve speculated about what it’s doing there.  Perhaps guarding against terrorist threats to the VP at the National Observatory just down the street?  Perhaps as a deterrent of some other kind?  
I determined to find out on our way home today.  So my husband pulled over and I went over to have a chat with the very large policeman sitting in his car and doing something on his laptop.
He was a little surprised to see me, but quickly told me he was there to catch speeders with a radar camera on the front left of the car.  For once it was nothing about terrorism!
And here I thought I knew all the speed traps.  I’m actually surprised I haven’t learned the hard way by getting a ticket.  I think I have discovered most of the others in the city.
I’m guessing the camera works whether the cop is in the car or not.  But wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to just mount a permanent unmanned camera at that location, thereby freeing up a police cruiser and the cop inside?  The DC Government never ceases to amaze me with how it chooses to allocate taxpayer money.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Lipstick in Transit

I don’t go through a lot of cosmetics, but when I find something I really like I want to be able to keep buying it.  As these things often happen, my favorite lipstick, Trish McEvoy Sheer Palm Beach, is no longer being produced.
I recently talked to a very helpful sales rep at Nordstrom’s who suggested I might like Dior Addict Tokyo 422, supposedly similar to the one I was attached to.  I found a place online that was selling it $10 cheaper than at Nordstrom’s, both of whom offered me free shipping.
So on December 11 I placed my order to this place in Southern California.  It was shipped on December 13 with an estimated arrival date of December 20, which came and went with no USPS package containing my Addict lipstick.
I went into the tracking history provided with my order confirmation and found something most bizarre.  Take a look at this:
Information about shipment  
Ship carrier: USPS
Tracking Number:  9101900007540986103595
Status:  In transit
Estimated Arrival:  December 20, 2011
Track your package  
December 14, 2011 US  Shipment has left seller facility and is in transit
December 22, 2011 10:06 PM  Hallandale, FL  Arrival scan
December 22, 2011 11:21 PM  Opa Locka, FL  Departure scan
Why in the world would something traveling from the West Coast to Virginia end up in Hallandale, FL?   I know it’s a crazy busy time for packages, but this seems like someone screwed up.
I will be most curious to see if my new lipstick ever arrives.  It’s a good thing it wasn’t intended as a holiday gift for anyone other than myself!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rediscovering Spanish

I have just reached the crazy conclusion that I have so much more energy when I am insanely busy.  I won’t even begin to list all the things I am attempting to do right now, but I will say I just added a new one.
Almost 40 years ago I took a job that allowed me to study Spanish and then French at the Foreign Service Institute (part of the State Department).  I went every workday morning for two years for each language.  The classes were small, never exceeding 5 students.  All the instructors were native speakers.  We rotated instructors every few weeks so as to experience a variety of accents.  The emphasis was always on spoken (not written) communication.  I had always loved learning languages, but never before had I realized how much the quality and style of instruction mattered.  
All those hours of language training prepared me to speak to my third-world counterparts as I attempted to provide technical assistance on the data processing of surveys and censuses.  I got to go to exciting places like Bogota, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, Lima, Buenos Aires, and Chile.
At one point I really knew how to use the subjunctive and the various verb tenses.  I knew the difference between “por” and “para”, “ser” and “estar”.  I had a tremendous vocabulary in some things, like food items since I did a lot of work on agriculture surveys.  But that was all in the 70’s and 80’s.
One of my first thoughts when we decided to go to Chile on vacation was that I would like to recapture my Spanish ability.  So on a whim I called up FSI and spoke to the head of the Spanish Department.  (She probably wasn’t even born when I was taking language training.)  She seemed flattered that I had been so impressed with my training and sympathetic of my desire for a quick refresher course.
She put out the word to the various instructors and within a few hours I had a dozen or so offers of highly qualified people to teach me and my husband (who knows no Spanish whatsoever).
From all those offers, I chose a woman who is from Colombia and who has been at FSI for almost 20 years.  I remembered the Colombian accent as being the clearest and easiest to understand.  She seemed quite enthusiastic and suggested a very reasonable fee.
We had our first meeting with Lia on Tuesday and our next class is tomorrow.  I had homework to review all the various forms of the present tense and to read something newsworthy.  So I found a Latin American news service online and chose an article entitled “Chile: Ya es tiempo de cambiar”.  It would seem we are not the only country whose citizens are fed up with what is going on.
We will continue to meet with Lia twice a week until our trip in late February.  By then I may not be dreaming in Spanish, but I will be much better prepared to speak to Chileans in Spanish.  And my husband will be able to communicate as long as they don’t stray too far from those initial dialogues!

Monday, December 19, 2011

'Tis the Season

Not far from our house is a house where every holiday is immortalized with blow-up figures.  We can't figure out why they do it -- whether it's a business trying to attract customers or someone just has a thing for armies of inflated animals and people.

I was most surprised to drive by and see that even Hanukkah had been blown up!  This enormous Hanukkah bear is pretty cute.  He sits apart from his red-and-green compatriots as he guards his dreidel.  He was definitely in place before the start of Hanukkah tomorrow night.  It will be interesting to see if he stays for the entire season or comes down after the eighth day of Hanukkah.

I have bought a few little things for people who are important to me, but for the most part I have totally escaped the hustle and bustle of the shopping malls, with their angry parking lots.

I'm enjoying seeing old friends at a couple holiday get-togethers.  I'm also experiencing my yearly guilt when I receive holiday greetings from people I have know for decades but always seem to fail to send out my own.

My hope is that you are enjoying whatever ways you choose to celebrate the season!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Breakfast Then and Now

One of the things that initially attracted my husband and me was our love of cooking and eating.  The contrast of the breakfast we cooked today to that we cooked almost 40 years ago was amusing!
He introduced me to Jewish foods and cooking I had never encountered in the South.  I learned about the marvels of schmaltz and we found ways to use it liberally.  In 1973 our breakfast menu might have been something like:
-- Eggs Benedict made with either smoked lox or breaded veal scallopini cooked in schmaltz and topped with Hollandaise sauce
-- Broiled tomatoes
-- Hash browns probably with some schmaltz as well
-- Strong coffee
Today’s breakfast was just a little healthier:
-- Sectioned grapefruit and orange
-- Poached eggs with a sprinkle of sea salt
-- Hash browns cooked in a little olive oil
-- Multi-grain toast with nothing on it
-- Green tea
We still share the cooking responsibilities, but we both have modified our diets.  There is no more schmaltz in our refrigerator.  Instead olive oil seems to be our choice for all things sauteed.  We greatly limit our coffee intake.
As we sat reading the Post and the NY Times after breakfast, I noted it was the same bad news of 40 years ago, just another administration. We had traded in Nixon for Obama.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thrown Out

My house was supposed to be cleaned today.  But instead I got a tearful call from the El Salvadoran woman who comes every 2 weeks.  She said she was too sad to work today because her boyfriend had gone back to her country.
I had thought the man she lived with who was presumably the father of her two children was her husband.  I had seen him only once when he came with a big truck to take away some furniture we were getting rid of.  I had the feeling he was gainfully employed and they were living comfortably in Woodbridge.
I know nothing of the details, but I am presuming this man was suddenly deported.  Hardly anyone who is here legally from El Salvador chooses to go back.
I’m now wondering whether her tears were perhaps tears of fear that she would be the next to go.  I’ve never asked if she was here legally.  I suppose I’ve never wanted to know.  She and her mother have been here for at least 25 years, but that does not give them legal status.
The children were born here, but who can say what would happen to them if their parents both had to go back to El Salvador.
This is a dilemma facing more and more immigrants as the conservative element in this country pushes for a crackdown.  Have they really thought about who would do the millions of jobs now being done by immigrants?  Have they realized that those of us who are not Native American by descent all came from someone who immigrated to this country sometime?
I knew this was happening all over the country, but not until that phone call today did I get a glimpse of what it really means.  I hope this family will survive and will some day be together again, but the odds are probably against that.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Going South

A dream I have had for a long time now is finally going to come true.  From the time I worked in Chile in the late 70’s, I have wanted to go back as a tourist.  We have just decided to take a 3-week trip in late February to this southern place which will be celebrating summer while we shovel snow back here.
Of all the many countries to which I traveled giving technical assistance, Chile is still my favorite.  It reminded me of Norway and of Europe in general.  The Spanish was more understandable than the clipped fast Spanish of the Caribbean.  The people were warm and hospitable.  From Santiago I traveled to beautiful places on the weekends.
We will start in Santiago, getting acclimated to the warmth and the good wine and the language.  From there we will fly 500 kilometers south to the lake country, where we will stay at a small hosteria in Villarica on the lake at the foot of a volcano.
We will continue south by (rented) car to Puerto Montt, where we will take a 6-day boat trip that features islands and glaciers.  This will be the farthest south either of us has ever traveled.
From Puerto Montt we will fly to the far north to Calama to visit the Atacama Desert, the driest place on the face of the earth.  It is not unusual for the temperature to reach 100 degrees F. during the day and dip down to 30 degrees F. at night.  My first real desert adventure.
We will fly back to Santiago to spend our last night in Valparaiso, a quaint little town right on the Pacific coast, known for its seafood and charm.
We have most of the reservations made at this point, including using a bunch of frequent flyer miles.  We must still deal with Jake-care and I would like to reclaim my knowledge of Spanish before we leave.
It is exciting to have a trip on the horizon, not even a very distant horizon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Eye Check

I go to a very thorough ophthalmologist once a year mainly because I want to be sure I don’t have any melanomas on the back of my eyeballs.  Every year I get a clean bill of health after about a two-hour wait.  Although I have gotten used to the routine, there were several things about today’s visit that annoyed me.
First of all there is Purell everywhere and my doctor uses it liberally in between patients.   Today I asked him if he really believed it was effective and he said he was thoroughly convinced it was because his daughter who is a pediatrician had told him so.  I wanted to ask why he preferred it over soap and water, but he was already squirting drops in the next patient’s eyes.
The second annoying thing is their cell phone policy, which is plastered liberally on the office walls.  It doesn’t just say to silence your phone, but rather it prohibits the use of cell phones.  People all around me were talking to each other, so I decided to test the phone policy, figuring my talking quietly on my phone was far less disruptive than the general dull roar.
Soon thereafter an office worker I dubbed the cell phone police came over and verbally informed me of their policy.  I pointed at what was going on around me and asked why.  She was most afraid that my cell phone might ring.  My assurance that it was on vibrate wouldn’t do.  So I quickly concluded my conversation and sat reading a book on my phone, fully expecting she would return and tell me I couldn’t do that either.
I can never figure out why it inevitably takes 2 hours to get out of that office.  The total time seeing the technician who does the eye check and then the doctor amounts to no more than 15 minutes.  But true to form, my appointment was at 9:45 and I walked out at 11:45 with blurry vision and the good news that my eyes are a year older but just fine.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Holiday Cheer

It was somewhat odd to walk into the holiday party of my old office (of 5 years ago).  I was immediately greeted by familiar faces, but there were so many new faces, people who had come on board after my departure.
One of the reasons I decided to attend was the fact that the venue was a sports bar only minutes from my house.  I would not have relished a trip to Suitland, but Arlington was too good to pass up.  
I showed up with my wrapped gift for the round robin gift exchange -- a jar of Wasabi Passion Fruit mustard from Kauai.  I decided not to go with a bottle of wine or beer although they had always been the most highly sought after gifts in past years.  (It turns out my mustard exchanged hands several times before ending up with someone who really wanted it.)
The big boss who had caused me so much angst apparently left a few years ago, rumored to have been forced out.  Part of me would say that served her right if it was true.  But regardless, I met her successor, someone I had worked with at least 10 years ago.  He is an easy-going competent guy who seems to have the support of his staff.
I talked at length to the guy who took my place.  He never mentioned the possibility of bringing me back as a consultant and I never asked.  There is a good chance I wouldn’t remember enough about my old job to even be effective any longer.
I made the rounds to visit with lots of people who worked with me and for me, giving each of them a hug, something I never did while working there.  I learned about children grown up and off to college, one coworker who was actually fired by my old boss, and any number of other interesting tidbits.
It was a good feeling to be so warmly received.  It was nice to realize that none of the bitterness that clouded my retirement remained any longer.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Today we went on a most interesting Temple Micah field trip to the Ripley Center, part of the Smithsonian Institution, to see an exhibit of 36 tapestries made by a most talented woman.
Esther Nisenthal Krinitz was a 12-year-old girl in Poland when the Nazis invaded the country in 1939.  After 3 years of occupation that was increasingly brutal, they started marching the Jews of her small village away to death camps.
She and her sister said a tearful goodbye to their family and managed to pass themselves off as Catholics during the rest of the war.  They worked for farmers and even enlisted in the Polish army at one point.  Esther had quite a reputation as both a seamstress and a cook.
After the war they ended up in a displaced persons camp, where they both married other survivors and eventually made their way to America.
Esther constantly told stories of those war years, never embellishing but always amazing her listeners with her exploits motivated by her sheer will to survive.  
It was not until she was 50 years old that Esther began to make elaborate handmade tapestries depicting her life in Poland before and during the war and her subsequent life in America.  They were painstakingly created, each one focusing on a different episode.
At first she knew nothing of perspective.  But by the third or fourth, she had learned about the third dimension.  Some scenes are a snapshot, where others show what happened over the course of time.
But each is a gem which always dwells on the beauty of the country despite the brutality of what was going on.
In the one below, while she and her sister were tending cows, they looked across to see young boys being brutalized and killed when they could work no longer.  It depicts the thin line between good and evil.
Although Esther is no longer living, we were fortunate to have her daughter as our tour guide today.  She told a fascinating story of her mother’s life and provided additional insight to each of the tapestries on view.  She is now heading up a non-profit organization aimed at spreading this most unusual story. 
This free exhibit is well worth a visit!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Sad News

Every time I encounter death, I feel the same helpless vulnerability.  And so it was when I learned just this morning of the death of the “patriarch” of our piano group.
He was a wonderful man, probably in his 80’s and still a practicing psychiatrist.  He had the most wonderful piano I have ever played -- a huge Steinway model L.  He always attempted extremely difficult music and fussed at himself when he made a mistake.  His house was like a museum.  His newest dog, a German shepherd he had raised from a puppy, was now well trained and totally devoted to him.
The last time I saw him a couple of months ago, he walked with a very smart cane but looked otherwise quite well.  We heard he had taken a fall, but fully expected him to rejoin us soon.
He is the second of our group to pass away, the first having lived with ovarian cancer for quite some years.  But this one took us all by surprise.  In a sense maybe that’s better than a long anticipation of death.
We will indeed miss his music and his presence when we get together for our monthly renditions of “Works in Progress.”
I suppose life is really just a work in progress.  And sometimes it’s finished.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

No Show

Here’s the question of the day:  What should I do about a no-show for a free piano lesson?
I have given 10-year-old Margalen lessons here and there over the past year when her mother thinks to call and schedule a time.  It seems like we have made little headway, mostly starting over each time and never graduating from the initial book in the Alfred series.  I don’t know if that’s because I really don’t know how to teach piano or whether she may have some real learning disabilities that make this more difficult.
In any event, I had come up with some additional things for today’s lesson in the hope there would be a breakthrough.  I bought her a similarly easy book of holiday music thinking she could show off to her family if she could sit down and play something like Jingle Bells. 
I also bought a set of music flashcards with the thought that they might provide another approach to learning how to read music.  I don’t personally remember needing anything like this when I was a kid.  Instead we learned things like “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and “FACE” and “Good Boys Do Fine Always” and “All Cows Eat Grass” to give us the necessary clues to decode the musical score.

So here I sat armed with all this new ammunition while 4:00 came and went without even the typical phone call to say she would be late.
Should I regard this as the gift of an hour I would not have otherwise had today?  Or should I lay down an ultimatum that I won’t tolerate missed lessons, even if there is no monetary exchange?  Or should I call and ask if they would like to reschedule, knowing that it was definitely not Margalen’s fault that she didn’t show up for her lesson?
I am convinced that people are much less likely to miss an appointment if they know they will have to pay for the time one way or the other.  But when there is no penalty for not showing up, it’s a whole different story.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Do you even remember the first time you heard and saw a symphony orchestra?  I’ll bet you weren’t sitting in the front row as I was today with a group of shelter kids who were experiencing symphonic music for the first time.
It was not without considerable angst that I was able to get 15 comp tickets to the annual carol singalong with the Capital City Symphony.  I had called and called to reserve tickets the minute they were put on “sale” at a processing cost of $2 per ticket.  But by the time I reached a live person in the box office, I was told there were no more tickets to be had.  Some string pulling by people in high places finally persuaded them to put aside tickets for our little band of kids.
By the time we managed to get everyone to the Atlas Theater today, the best seats were in the front row, so that’s where we sat.  I was somewhat nervous that someone wouldn’t behave well, but that’s where we were to sit.  As it turns out, screaming babies were far more disruptive than anyone in our group. 
They were somewhat incredulous to be 10 feet away from the violin section and at the feet of the conductor.  There were nonstop questions as I pointed out the various instruments while the orchestra warmed up and we got ready for the lights to dim.  Questions like
-- Why do the violinists put their instruments under their chin?
-- Is a cello just a bigger violin?
-- And what about those even bigger ones where some people are standing up holding them (the double basses)?
-- Will the conductor be a boy or a girl?
I was surprised the kids didn’t know more of the traditional Christmas carols and songs that I grew up with.  Even though they had programs with the words in them, it wasn’t until we got to songs like Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman that they joined in singing.  They especially liked The Twelve Days of Christmas where the audience was divided into odds and evens and we stood up and sat down as our numbers came around.
We stuck around briefly after the concert to ask the first violinist about why he played his instrument the way he did.  He was a friendly African-American man who seemed to take a special interest in my 10-year-old boys.  
After the concert we were treated to a smorgasbord of holiday cookies donated by local bakeries.  That was even better than the ice cream cones we had originally promised them.
I was so glad my friend had suggested this concert as a way to introduce these kids to a little culture and to give them a place to go on a Sunday afternoon.  I think even the most sullen teenager had a good time.

Friday, December 02, 2011

A New Old Trumpet

One night as I was getting ready to leave the shelter after reading to the younger kids, I saw David (age 10) in the office trying to resurrect an old abandoned trumpet.  It seemed rather hopeless.
I learned that he plays the trumpet at school.  I also learned how much he would really like an instrument he could call his own.  Possessions are especially important when you are homeless.
So I recently put out the word to all the people I know who either play the trumpet themselves or are in an orchestra of some sort.  I was willing to pay for an instrument, but not too much.
The only real offer I got came from Blogger Cyndy’s husband, who is a professional trombonist:
I have a "Regent" trumpet/cornet (Ohio Band Instrument Co.) from about 1940.  It's a quality built horn, not junk, and it's in excellent condition.  It's a special short instrument for smaller kids, sort of a cross between a trumpet and a cornet, but it takes a cornet mouthpiece, which is slightly different from a trumpet mouthpiece.   It has a case but no mouthpiece.  I'm working on finding a mouthpiece for it.
He did indeed find a mouthpiece for it and proposed a price I couldn’t refuse.  So tonight he dropped it off before going to a gig.  He had also included a brush and cleaning fluid.  The case is a little worn, but the horn is a beauty.  I only wish I could play it.
Now I am in search of someone who could give young David a few lessons, both in the care of his new trumpet and how to play it.  It seems like the perfect community service project for a teenager.  But it might also be fun for an older musician who would like to pass along his knowledge to a younger generation.
I’ve decided not to give David the trumpet until I find this person to get him started down the right path.  I’m sure just the right person will come along, just as the trumpet itself appeared.

At intermission at tonight's NSO concert, a young Temple Micah member who goes to Duke Ellington High School and will be off to play the trumpet at a conservatory next year, came up to me to say he would love to work with David.  He is absolutely perfect to be a trumpet mentor.  I just know this is going to work out well!