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Jul. 12th, 2019

Wedding Pic

Love That I Hold Inside

Here is my song for the asking
Ask me and I will play
So sweetly, I’ll make you smile

This is my tune for the asking
Take it, don’t turn away
I’ve been waiting all my life

Thinking it over, I’ve been sad
Thinking it over, I’d be more than glad
To change my ways for the asking

Ask me and I will play
All the love that I hold inside
(Song for the Asking: Simon and Garfunkel – 1970)

Last month, my daughter Teresa (Prisa) gave me a surprising Father’s Day gift in the form of an email. The note read, “Dad/Poppy: I’ve gifted you a subscription to StoryWorth so you can record your stories for the family. After a year, we’ll print a beautiful book with your stories! – Prisa, Sarah, and Grace.” The idea being that StoryWorth would send me weekly prompts to record my life, and at the end of a year I’d receive a beautifully bound book of my stories. I’d FINALLY be in print! How could I pass up such a tantalizing opportunity? So, after responding to its first question, I received a second one from StoryWorth that was astonishingly timely:

“At what times in your life were you the happiest?”

This question was opportune because it came at a time that I was organizing old photographs and photo albums of the family that went back years. I was viewing and photo copying pictures of Kathy when we were dating, our wedding album, and all the childhood photos of Toñito and Prisa from birth to marriage. So, a question about the happiest times in my life came at the very moment I was reliving them in those photos.

Although happiness may seem an elusive and transitory state, it’s one I’ve often recognized in the moment, and taken the time to dwell on, relish, and enjoy. My life was dotted with many such moments during my childhood. I remember feigning sleep and happily being carried to bed in the strong arms of my father after seeing a drive-in movie or having spent a daylong visit at my grandparent’s home in Lincoln Heights. Experiencing the exciting anticipation for Christmas and the month-long preparations that built up to that special holiday morning – buying and decorating our Christmas tree, practicing Christmas carols, and spending evenings going window shopping at downtown L.A. department stores. I recall looking forward to, and then spending long afternoons with my Uncle Charlie, playing war games with his plastic toy soldiers in the backyard of my grandfather’s house. However, as an adult, three of the happiest periods that come most readily to mind are: Living with Kathleen during our first two years of married life in Santa Monica. Learning to overcome the scary uncertainties of infant care and parenting two children – Toñito and Prisa. And finally, recapturing the joys of infants and children while caring for my two granddaughters – Sarah and Gracie.

What is odd about each of these three periods of sustained happiness is that they all began with self-doubt and uncertainty. I KNEW I was in love with Kathy by our second date. I couldn’t define it as “love” at the time, but the desire and need to be with her impelled me forward in the relationship. I was certain of the inevitability of our marriage long before she was, and I pursued her relentlessly. Once she agreed, our plan was to marry and live together in an apartment on the Westside of Los Angeles and get to know each other. I don’t think we really thought much more beyond that point, putting our doubts and uncertainties aside and trusting only that we would “figure it out”. I loved the first two years we lived together in Santa Monica. It turned out to be a magical time that began with our serendipitous discovery of an available apartment on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, across the street from Palisades Park, and continued until we decided to move.

How does one become a real husband and a wife? It’s a scary question, yet our first two years together gave us the time to figure it out. It became a period of exploration, discovery, and laughter. We shared family peccadillos and secrets and learned to communicate honestly and to trust in each other. We walked and talked a great deal in those years – along Ocean Avenue to the Bellevue Restaurant, up Montana Blvd to the local liquor store and pharmacy, and through Palisades Park, stopping often to gaze out upon the vast Pacific Ocean. We walked hand-in-hand, or with interlocking arms around our waists (with my hand accidently slipping under Kathy’s jeans). We shared housekeeping responsibilities, with Kathy learning to cook while I cleaned the apartment and made the bed. We talked, disagreed occasionally, and shared our daily teaching experiences – Kathy as an ESL teacher at Los Angeles High School, and I as a History teacher at St. Bernard High School, and later West Hollywood Opportunity Center. We were in love, happy, and growing more and more confident in our partnership. We had each other and we stayed in close contact with family and friends. In some ways I wished that that period in our lives could have gone on forever – just the two of us, in an apartment in Santa Monica – but happiness and love are dynamic and evolving phenomena, and they need to be shared. By the end of the second year together, we began making plans to buy a house and start a family of our own.

Buying a house in Reseda and getting pregnant were the easy parts of the plan – since Kathy did all the heavy lifting from then on. Being supportive during her pregnancy was all I could do – and telling her that she still looked sexy didn’t help. It only really hit me on the day Toñito was born. I felt scared and helpless holding Kathy’s hand as she went through endless painful contractions, finally culminating in an unnerving C-section. Yet, Toñito was a beautiful baby with bushy, unruly black hair, and I stared at him for hours in his mother’s arms and in the maternity nursery. It was that first night alone, after leaving Kathy asleep in the hospital that I felt overwhelmed and unnerved at the prospect of caring for an infant and raising a child. It was a scary moment, and I could not have anticipated that I was about to enter the second phase of my happiest times.

After having discussed it with Kathy on many occasions since, we can honestly say that the first 10 years of Toñito and Prisa’s lives were the happiest of times for us – from infancy through adolescence. Seeing the tight bond that existed between mother and child (and feeling a little jealous and left out at first) only impelled me to make every effort to overcome my parental insecurities and to participate in the care and nurturing of our two children. I wanted to be an active partner, and I urged Kathy to allow for a late-night bottle feeding of Toñito and Prisa so I could hold them while she slept, listening to the jazz guitar of Earl Klugh. With Kathy at home full time, I would rush home from school to take over the feeding and playing with the infants. I insisted on changing them as often as I could (although I never mastered swaddling). They were both delightful infants, and I loved laying on the carpet and playing with them. As they grew older, I took them on walks throughout the neighborhood, first in strollers and then hand-in-hand. These walks became ritualized over time, with three different routes on rotating days. In between I would drive them to the park, or to the local Savon Drugstore, where we would walk around inspecting the seasonal displays and knickknacks (always with the understanding that if they did not touch anything in the store, I would let them pick out a candy of their choice on the way out). Once they could talk, I loved reading to them and teaching them their night prayers as we knelt by our bedside. I would religiously kiss them goodnight before they slept and kissed them goodbye when I left for work the next day. On weekends, Saturday was my day with the kids. Giving Kathy a break from her daily childcare activities, I would put the children in the car and drive to my mother’s house for a day long visit with my sister and brothers. On the car trip there and back, I’d teach them songs that we’d sing along together. Car trips with the kids would always be a special time for me – even when they were in high school. I finally realized that they were my captive audience in the car, and I could ask them any question I wanted about school, friends, and their activities and interest outside of home. They were always patient with me and humored my probing questions and suggestions – Toñito even playing along with me in holding conversations in Spanish so I could gauge his progress in class. In overcoming my original worries of being a good father I learned a very important lesson – children don’t judge, so by loving them, caring for them, and teaching them, they make us better parents. “We as parents have the illusion,” Sam Lamott, the son of writer Anne Lamott wrote, “that we make our kids stronger, but they make us stronger.” I experienced that strength with Toñito and Prisa. I couldn’t help but grow into their expectations and needs of me as a father. They made me stronger, more confident, and more compassionate. As I was teaching them, they were making me into a father. They looked up to me, and trusted me, and they made me rise to the level of their expectations. I knew I could never let them down, even when I made some egregious mistakes – like getting separated at the Northridge Mall and losing them for about 20 minutes until an announcement over the P.A. alerted me to their presence at the security station. Once they were in high school and college their reliance on me waned and they became more and more independent and self-directed. My happiest times then were while watching them perform – both in academic achievements, and Toñito in plays and musicals, and Prisa in sports. We always found time to be together, but their reliance on me had ended. Once they left home and married, I could only reflect nostalgically on those happy years of their childhood, believing that they were gone forever.

The birth of our first granddaughter, Sarah Kathleen, in 2010, coupled with my retirement, changed our world and awakened the dormant nurturer within me. I never felt more giving and loving towards a child as I did for my granddaughter during the three years I cared for her. My feelings and attentions towards Toñito and Prisa as infants were different. Those tumultuous emotions were brand new but compartmentalized by my career, and perhaps a bit secondary to Kathy’s, the primary and full-time nurturer and caregiver. Until Sarah’s birth, I had never given an infant so much undivided time and attention – and I loved doing it! That’s the strange part, I loved performing the ordinary, but necessary tasks infants required: attention, diaper changes, feedings, outdoor strolls, and practice. Sarah so preoccupied my mind that the only parallel experience I can think of is when I first fell in love with Kathy. I couldn’t get Kathy out of my thoughts, and I longed for the next opportunity to see her. You see, I was in love again! From the first electric moment after Sarah’s birth, when I felt that tiny body moving in my arms, and saw her sleeping, baby face, I was completely and totally in love again. I cannot ever express how happy and grateful I was at being able to see and care for her twice a week, and then repeat the process after the birth of Gracie. I was in a lover’s paradise, but not without pitfalls. Infants grow up so quickly, that the baby you love one month will suddenly change in the next - they never stay the same. Thankfully, I was able to caution myself with the lessons I learned many years before with Toñito and Prisa, during long drives home after wonderful visits with my mom and siblings, or returning from long walks through the neighborhood: to be present in those happy moments together as they happened; relishing those times as transitory gifts; visualizing them as permanent scenes; and letting them pass. We can’t freeze our children or grandchildren in time – they never stop growing, learning, and changing – but we can remember the happiness of those special occasions and treasure them always.

May. 31st, 2019


Halfway to the Stars

The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gray
The glory that was Rome is of another day
I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan
I’m going home to my city by the Bay

Left my heart in San Francisco
High on a hill, it calls to me
To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars
The morning fog may chill the air, but I don’t care.
(I Left My Heart in San Francisco: Cross & Cory – 1953)

It’s hard to admit that my notions of how people will respond to places and experiences I loved is predicated more about me than the people having the experience. This tendency really borders on hubris – the excessive pride and arrogance that everyone else will share the things and places I value and cherish equally. This fact was again brought home to me a few weeks ago when Kathy and I took our granddaughter Sarah on her first airplane trip to visit San Francisco. By the time it was over, I felt like an ancient Greek traveler surveying the smoldering relics of old illusions and false expectations that had crumbled before the innocent behaviors of an eight year-old child.

The idea of taking Sarah on an airplane trip began with a conversation I had with Kathy about five or six years ago. She was telling me how the parent-in-laws of her boss, Kevin Baxter, the Superintendent of Catholic Schools in Los Angeles, took each of their grandchildren on a trip at age 10 to a city or place of their choice. It sounded like a wonderful idea to imitate, and we talked about it over the years, trying to decide on the proper age of the child, and the location to choose. As time passed, and we got older, Sarah’s age, and the distance and scope of the trip became less and less. Airplane trips to New York or Washington D.C. seemed a little too long, so we kept reducing the length of the trip and the stay to minimize our physical exertions and activities. At the same time, we were anxious to do it as soon as possible, while we were still able and fit. It seemed too long a wait until Sarah’s 10th birthday, so I suggested that we tie the trip to a fast approaching milestone in her life – her First Communion. Kathy thought it an inspired idea and suggested locations that offered short flying times and a variety of activities. We eventually settled on San Francisco, a city that we both loved to visit. I thought the plan was brilliant because it combined so many momentous components: First Communion, first time on an airplane, and first time visiting a beautiful and historic city. “How could Sarah not love everything about this trip?” I asked myself at the time, not realizing it was the wrong query to make. The question Kathy used instead to plan the trip was, “Will Sarah enjoy the trip and will it be memorable for her?” and, as it turned out, she did and it was. My error was in expecting Sarah to appreciate it the way I nostalgically remembered flying and traveling.

My experiences with airplane flying began as early as 1948, when I was a year old. My mother and father were returning to Mexico City from Los Angeles in the hope of establishing permanent residency while my Dad attended college under the G.I. Bill. My brother and sister (Arthur and Stela) were born there, but we had to return to Los Angeles when residency was denied. On the average, my Mom traveled back to Mexico to visit her family every 3 to 4 years, always taking the children along, and Dad when possible. Except for one trip by car, we always flew by airplane. I loved everything about air travel. Still considered a luxurious means of travel in the 1950’s, we dressed up for the journey, and departures and arrivals were always accompanied by loads of friends and family to see us off and welcome our return. Goodbyes included apprehensive excitement, tears, hugs, and blessings, which were transformed on arrival by cheerful hugs and shouts of welcome. I loved the sensations of lift off and touch downs, when the swift moving airplane miraculously elevated into the air, and then thudded onto the cement runway on landing. I also loved those occasions when the airplane experienced turbulent weather and buffeted up and down while flying. Those were the only times I actually felt I was in the air flying – otherwise the cabin was relatively motionless during most of the flights. Also, as the oldest child in the family, I usually contrived to occupy the window seat on the flights, gluing my nose to the porthole window so I could watch as we glided through billowy cumulus clouds, and look down upon the rough desert terrain we flew over, and the tiny structures and cars I spotted on ribbons of roads and highways. So I couldn’t wait to witness how Sarah would react to the same experiences, at roughly the same age. I was also excited about showing her the city of San Francisco, with all its historic sights, buildings, and bridges. Needless to say I had built up a massive tower of expectations that Sarah would have the same reactions I did. The reality came as quite an awakening.

As I’ve mentioned before in the blog, Kathy is the master travel agent and social activities director in the family, I just go along for the ride and the enjoyment – being supportive along the way. Her two-day itinerary and agenda of activities were perfectly designed for our eight year-old granddaughter. Sarah is a child in constant motion whose emotions and actions tend to flow in undulating waves – rising in verbal anticipation, peaking in kinetic energy and active enjoyment, and cresting in a momentary lull as she pauses to search for new activities to perform. This was visible from the moment she arrived at our home on the night before the flight. Walking into the house, rolling her carry-on suitcase behind her, she excitedly unpacked to show Kathy what she had brought to wear for the trip. Then, eyes bright with excitement, she listened as Kathy described the itinerary: overnight sleepover; early breakfast, then calling a Lyft for a ride to Hollywood Burbank Airport; an hour-long flight to San Francisco, then checking into our room at the Hilton Union Square Hotel; a restaurant lunch, followed by shopping at Macy’s on Union Square, and then swimming in the hotel pool; finally, a cable car ride to Fisherman’s Wharf, and then dinner. The following day I would take her to Union Square and Chinatown, and then we would meet our niece, Brigid Williams, for a Saturday at the Exploratorium at the Embarcadero. After listening and commenting on this very full and active agenda (Sarah is always eager to expand on topics and subjects she has heard about, or seen on television), she asked permission to go outside and shoot baskets before dinner.

Looking back on this trip with Sarah, I’ve come to some new insights about the things children enjoy about flying that are no longer based on my “remembered” experiences. Some of the things that excited Sarah were predictable, but many were not. She loved rolling our large suitcases for us whenever she had the chance, and the TSA checkpoint was a special highlight for her. All the TSA workers were incredibly solicitous and kind, giving her big, warm smiles, and patiently explaining the ticket and scanning procedure. She passed through the sensors quickly, and then turned around to give me advice when I set it off the alarms twice because of my belt and cell phone: “Take off your belt, Poppy!” she admonished me. The Hollywood/Burbank airport was also a big hit because of its wide corridors and huge picture windows showing the parked jet airplanes on the tarmac as they fueled and loaded the luggage onboard. Another benefit of the airport is its small size, which allows passengers to walk on board from the tarmac ramp or stairway, and Sarah’s excitement was visible as she bounded up the ramp leading to the entry hatch of the airplane. She had a little trouble buckling her seat belt, explaining that it was different from the car belts she was used to, but she was incredibly attentive as the stewardess explained the emergency procedures from the front of the plane. Later, Sarah had me point out exactly where the lifejackets were located under the seats and from where the oxygen masks would drop if they were needed. The takeoff, as expected, was the most invigorating part of the ride. With her nose pressed to the window, Sarah seemed to hold her breath as the plane sped faster and faster down the runway and then suddenly felt weightless as it lifted off the ground. The upward climb was steep, doubling the sensation of flight, and then banking slowly to the right, Sarah could see the quickly shrinking buildings, homes, streets, and cars below us. “Wow!” she said, “they’re so small”. Once in the air, surrounded by wide, puffy cumulus clouds, she said they reminded her of cotton candy, and then turned away to set up the iPad Kathy had provided so she could watch episodes of the children cooking show “Nailed It!” on the small screen. The only disappointment she evidenced was when the captain explained on the PA that because of possible turbulence, there would be no cabin service (Sarah had been looking forward to the stewardess providing soft drinks and peanuts). Landing at the San Francisco International airport provided a momentary distraction to her video watching, and she became alert to her surrounding again when we deplaned. Confidently leading the way down the wide corridor and reading the directional signs as she walked, she directed us to the baggage claim area, where she studiously kept her eyes peeled on the luggage carousel to spot our suitcases. She saw them first, and only asked for our help when they proved to heavy to lift.

After leaving our luggage at the hotel, I learned quickly that, unlike adult travelers, San Francisco dining was not a big deal for children. Sarah would have been happier selecting her meals from a children’s menu at Red Robin rather than a pub called Johnny Foley’s Irish House on O’Farrell Street. While eager to choose a meal from a menu, Sarah simply picked at her food during the meal, leaving it spread out on the plate, mostly uneaten. The trip became exciting again when Kathy took her shopping at Macy’s Department Store on Union Square. There she could use the Macy’s gift card and cash she had received as gifts for her First Communion, and purchase the shoes and shirts she was eager to inspect and try on. Another big hit for Sarah was the pool and our room at the Hilton Hotel near Union Square. The room was a spacious corner room with a separate rollout couch, two TV’s, and two large picture windows overlooking downtown San Francisco. Once we had unpacked and stored our clothes, Kathy volunteered to take Sarah down to the pool to let her swim, play, and burn off more energy. This is a tag-team strategy we often employ when babysitting our granddaughters, one of us would take them swimming, walking, or to a park to play, while the other person took a break. A pool is always the best for us because the girls are competent swimmers, and all we have to do is watch them while lounging on a deck chair.

When we were ready for dinner, Kathy and I tried describing the cable car ride we would take to Fisherman’s Wharf, and the many stores, restaurants, and sights along San Francisco Bay. These had always been my favorite part of San Francisco, and I suppose I expected Sarah to feel the same way. I wasn’t disappointed, even when discovering that the cable car terminal at Powell and Market Street was closed for repair, and a bus would transport us to the pickup point, about halfway along the cable car route. I would have preferred a longer cable car ride, but Sarah loves public transportation of any kind – bus, metro, or train – and the cable car was a brand new experience. Sitting on the outside bench of the car, she was able to see the people and city of San Francisco as we rolled along toward the Bay, slowly climbing, and then descending down the steep hills on Hyde Street. Reaching Fisherman’s Wharf, she feigned interest as we pointed out the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Prison, but I think we were past the highpoint of the evening for her. We walked along Jefferson Street, looking at the stores and searching for a bayside restaurant for dinner, and all the while, Sarah, who was radically underdressed for the San Francisco cold, kept repeating, “I’m turning into an icicle!  I’m turning into an icicle!” The evening was salvaged after dinner, when we allowed Sarah to wander through a vast It’s Sugar! candy store nearby, where she could pick as much and as many candies as she could bag.

Sarah awoke bright and early the next morning, long before we did, and while we continued sleeping, managed to view a variety of Disney Channel programs on what she called “my TV”. After a buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant, it was now my turn to entertain Sarah by taking her on long walk through Union Square, and then up the hill to Chinatown. She proved a patient traveling companion, allowing me to pose her for pictures, and listening to my stories of the city and its sights. Of far greater interest to Sarah, however, were the storefront displays of Asian toys, fans, parasols, and knickknacks that cluttered the sidewalks of Chinatown. I kept shooing her along until she again paused in front of a clothing store to inspect a rack of traditional Chinese formfitting dresses called “quipaos”. There I finally relented and asked the rhetorical question, “Would you like to buy one?” By the time we returned to the hotel from our 90-minute walk through San Francisco, Sarah was eager to get on to our next adventure while I was exhausted. Thankfully Kathy had arranged to meet our niece Brigid at the San Francisco Exploratorium at the Embarcadero that morning. What I had originally considered a thoughtful idea to visit a relative living in Oakland proved a Godsend. Bridgy took Sarah completely off our hands, and the two of them spent the sunny morning and afternoon exploring, playing, and manipulating the hundreds of interactive displays and exhibits that populated this massive museum. Kathy and I just tagged along, watching them learn, laugh, and play, until it was time to find a place to eat at the Embarcadero. When we finally got back to the hotel, there was still sufficient light for me to take Sarah back to the pool area where she spent an hour or so swimming, playing with some children who joined her, and lounging in the sauna. Foregoing a restaurant that evening, we picked up dinner at the hotel delicatessen that evening and ate in our room. Sarah went quickly to bed after finishing.

I didn’t realize how exhausted she truly was until the next morning, when for the first time ever, Kathy and I awoke before she did. The 6am alarm we had set did not stir her, and I had to gently shake her awake before she moaned, rolled over, and reluctantly opened her eyes. The return airplane trip home was a repeat of her first flight, only this time she easily manipulated her seatbelt and ignored the preflight safety announcement. After takeoff she quickly gave full attention to the iPad on the flight tray and continued watching the cooking show she had begun on the previous trip. The only novelty for her on this flight was being served when the attendant asked what refreshment she would like to accompany the complimentary bag of pretzels. I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed by her reactions, thinking that Sarah had not fully appreciated the extent of all the novel circumstances we had experienced. When, during the flight, I casually mentioned this to Kathy, she simply gave me a puzzled look and said, “What did you expect from an 8 year-old girl?” That accusatory question sat with me for the remainder of the flight, prompting me to recall my own first trip to San Francisco when I was 5 or 6 years old. My grandmother, aunt, and two uncles were visiting us from Mexico, and my parents had decided to take them on a road trip to Yosemite and San Francisco. There are actual photographs of this trip, but I only recall vague memories of waking up one morning to the sounds of a waterfall near a lodge we occupied in Yosemite, and a stop we made on our way home in Bakersfield. It was in Bakersfield that our car broke down, and we had to stay overnight before it was repaired. This breakdown was the highlight of the trip for me, because it provided drama, excitement, and an overnight stay at a roadside motel with a pool. When we weren’t exploring the grounds of the motel near the service station, my three siblings and I spent the entire afternoon and evening playing in that pool with other children. Those flashing scenes are the full extent of the memories of my first trip to San Francisco. By the time we landed at the Hollywood Burbank Airport, I had left my disillusions behind, and just felt happy at having completed the long planned dream of being able to watch Sarah react to many first time experiences. I don’t know how many of them she will actually recall in the years to come, but I took plenty of photographs to help her remember.

May. 9th, 2019


That Face

That face, that face, that wonderful face!
It shines, it glows all over the place.
And how I love to watch it change expressions.
Each look becomes the pride of my possessions.

I love that face, that face, it just isn’t fair.
You must forgive the way that I stare.
But never will these eyes behold a sight that could replace
That face, that face, that face.
(That Face: Bergman & Spence – 2006)

It still amazes me how the faces of young children can be so expressive. How they glow and shine from the feelings and emotions of joy, amazement, and wonder they are experiencing. Children’s faces are still windows to their souls, not yet furrowed or darkened by signs of worry, dread, or sorrow. I’ve watched, studied, and photographed Sarah’s face for eight years now, from crib to classroom, and it continues to fill me with joy and fascination – seeing her gaze at birds and butterflies in flight at age two, staring in bright-eyed amazement at Queen Elsa’s rendition of “Let it Go”, in the movie Frozen, as a three-year old, and observing her gliding down the aisle of St. Catherine of Laboure Church at her First Holy Eucharist Mass.

What we called First Communion is a momentous occasion for a seven or eight-year old child. For them it is more than a rite of passage, it is a gateway to a mystery of Faith they have observed for years in the actions of their parents, relatives, and friends. Receiving communion at mass was what adults and older children did – so it was a sacrament that required maturity, education, and training. First Communion was – and is – a spiritual benchmark in the life of a Catholic youth. It was “the biggest deal” for me and my younger brothers and sisters, but it was also religiously affirming turning point for our parents. Catholic parents of their generation commemorated the event with grand ceremony, formal clothing, religious gifts, and specially posed photographs. First Communion was the formal entry into the Mystical Body of Christ. I know that I participated in this event in the second grade, but I cannot now recall how I felt. My memories are hazy to absent of my Saturday Catechism classes in our parish Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) program, the religious training I received, and the event itself. The only thing I remember is posing in my suit and tie after mass, and smiling as I held a brand new missal and rosary in each hand, because I’ve seen the photograph. I could not however recall what I felt during this experience. When I asked Kathy what she remembered of her First Communion, she admitted that she also had no clear memory of that occasion, or what she felt. We could not even recall many details of Toñito and Prisa’s First Communion ceremonies besides the photographs. So I held onto a wish that I might recapture some of those lost memories while attending Sarah’s First Communion Mass at St. Catherine Laboure on May 4, 2019. My foremost goal was to observe and chronicle the visible feelings and sensations of my eight-year old granddaughter receiving the Holy Eucharist for the first time.

The Mass and Communion were a part of my life from earliest memory. My parents were devout Catholics, and my mother attended mass on a daily basis as often as she could. My siblings and I were taught that attendance at Sunday mass was an obligation, and the reception of the Holy Eucharist at Communion a sanctifying practice that adults modeled for children. Children came along to observe these two Catholic rituals and sacraments and learn. The old Latin Mass, especially when accompanied by long, droning sermons, was boring and tiring for children, but there was something mystical about Communion. As my mother explained it to us as children, the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist allowed a “communion” (or co-union) with Jesus Christ through the sanctified host they received on their tongues and consumed. It was a powerful spectacle and tale, and we longed for the day that we would participate in that first, most important event, Holy Communion.

First Holy Communion can be simply defined as a spiritual Rite of Passage that is divided into 3 parts: Separation and Training; Penance and Purification (Confession); and Incorporation with Communion. The first stage of separation began when I was enrolled into the Saturday morning classes of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program in 1953, when I was in the 2nd Grade. The adults referred to them as CCD classes, but the children simply called it “Catechism”, because our main task was to memorize the prayers and recite the question and answer format of the Baltimore Catechism. This was our training – to memorize the prayers and tenants of the Catholic faith and be able to recite them in preparation for the next two levels – Confession and First Holy Communion. The vigorousness of the training in these Saturday classes was slack and I found the lessons easy – and the expectations of the catechists low. Regular attendance was the main criteria for evaluation, and our mother never let us miss a lesson. However, this laissez faire attitude toward Catechism memorization changed when our parents enrolled us into St. Teresa of Avila School in Silver Lake. Our teachers, the good nuns, were more aggressive in their daily catechism drills. They were the black-habited reincarnations of John Wayne’s Sergeant Riker, the tough, hard-driving Marine Drill Instructor who was preparing his platoon for the rigors of combat. Only in their case, the nuns were preparing us to combat sin.
When the nuns judged us to be doctrinally qualified, we entered the second stage of purification through the sacrament of Penance, or as we called it, Confession.

Confession was the gateway sacrament to Holy Communion, and as a child I felt it was steeped in shadows, mystery, and in whispers. I only saw adults walk into sealed, or cloaked confessionals, where they whispered their sins to a priest behind a screen-meshed window, and were forgiven. For many years I wasn’t sure what really happened inside those confessionals. So I entered this phase of our training with trepidation and anticipation. We learned the ritual and prayers of Confession and practiced them at school and home. The ritual began with a private Examination of Conscience before entering the confessional, and when inside saying, “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been (fill in) days, weeks, or months since my last Confession.” A recitation of the sins you identified followed, whereupon the priest would lecture or advise you, then giving you a penance to perform (usually a certain number of prayers to recite). At that point he would ask you to recite the Act of Contrition while he blessed you, reciting the Latin prayer of Absolution. The hardest part of this ritual for me was the Examination of Conscience. The types of sins that a seven or eight-year old child might commit are pretty limited, and I expect most priests considered them boring. Murder, adultery, and lust were off the table, so possible childhood infractions might involve disobeying your mother and father, lying, stealing, or envy – easy enough to list now, but for a young child waiting to confront a religious authority in a darkened booth, it was intimidating. Once past the hurdle of Confession, the third stage of the rite was easy, since it was basically the culminating ceremony of receiving First Communion at a Mass.

Arriving on the day of Sarah’s First Eucharist, I could sense the nervous energy crackling through the air as I watched the cars unloading smiling, white-gowned girls with veils or garlands in their hair, and grim-eyed young boys wearing tight neckties and brand new suits. The parents seemed doubly apprehensive, wanting to find good viewing seats in the church and getting their children to their respective staging classrooms on time. Not knowing Sarah’s classroom location, I too was anxious about finding it in time to photograph her before the ceremony. I needn’t have worried. Sarah’s shining blonde hair and sunrise face are like twin beacons in the darkness. I quickly spotted her, I made my way to her room. It was half full, with boys and girls moving about, greeting and chattering with friends, and putting up with fussy parents, who were fixing their hair and garlands, or straightening ties. I started taking pictures right away, trying to catch her building excitement and nervous anticipation. When she saw me with my camera, she beamed a glorious smile at me, but it was her sidelong smiles to friends that seemed to proclaim: “Can you believe it? Today is finally here!” It was only during a break, when their teacher excused the children to the bathrooms and final photos that we managed to calm Sarah down, allowing us to take her picture with her parents and sister, and posing with Kathy and me, before heading to the church to find our seats.

The formalities began before the Mass, with each Communion class marching in and carefully posing at the altar with the Pastor, school principal, and their teacher. Suddenly the students assumed serious expressions as they arranged themselves in two-tiered rows, with the adults at the top. With hands pressed together in a praying position they gazed out grimly, watching the growing numbers of guests taking their seats, and listening to their teacher for further instructions. They smiled for the photo shots, and then quickly resumed their work-like expressions as they filed out to the front of the church to await the processional entrance. It’s important to remember that First Communion is a special ceremony with proscribed parts and script, as well as being a part of the Mass. The liturgy is unique, with special readings, Intercessory prayers, and songs. All the children have roles to play and parts to perform – holding their hands just so, marching in pairs, singing, reading, presenting gifts, and finally receiving First Communion. The looks on their faces clearly communicate how importantly they took these roles and duties. When I snuck to the front of the church to take some candid photos of Sarah, she would smile dutifully at me, assuming a prayerful pose, but when I lowered the camera she seemed to muse silently to herself, casting her eyes downward or off to the sides. “What was she thinking, with that faraway gaze?” I wondered to myself. It wasn’t worry or doubt, for there were no rigid lines or creases on her face, but rather a blank look of marking time before the action was to begin. The spontaneous beaming smiles returned when the ceremony finally started, and Sarah caught sight of her aunts, cousins, and family members in the pews watching her processing down the aisle as she and the children sang, “Let the Children Come”.

There were three aspects of this First Communion that made it quite extraordinary for me. First, we had incredible seats which Sarah’s parents, Prisa and Joe, won in a silent auction at the Parish Fiesta. We were therefore able to sit in the first family pew behind the rows of First Communicants, giving us an unobstructed view of Sarah throughout the mass. At all of the many First Communion masses I’ve attended, I’d never sat so close. Second was the fact that Sarah’s Uncle Dick, a deacon, was on the altar, concelebrating the mass with the pastor. Dick Williams, and Kathy’s sister Patty, had known, babysat, and interacted with Prisa and her daughter Sarah all their lives – they were family. I can only imagine how happy and proud Sarah felt at hearing Dick introduced by the Pastor as her uncle, hearing him read the Gospel from the pulpit, and seeing him right there with her at the foot of the altar, the moment she received the Holy Eucharist. I should also confess that these two factors proved to be a major distraction from the mass and the liturgy. With camera in hand, I was so busy keeping my eyes on Sarah and watching Dick on the altar, that I blanked out on the mass, sermon, and songs.  Thinking more about photo opportunities, trying to catch Sarah’s sidelong looks, and backward glances and smiles, I had little idea what was happening on the altar. It wasn’t until the end of mass, before the final blessing, that the third special factor occurred. After having received the Holy Eucharist for the first time, the students of the two classes reassembled themselves on the altar facing the congregated guests. The principal thanked the parents of the communicants for supporting and helping their children throughout the year, culminating in this sacramental ceremony. The children then thanked and serenaded their parents and families by singing “You Raise Me Up”. Looking at Sarah as she sang, I suddenly noticed that she had become flushed and red-faced, and was wiping her eyes with both hands.
“I think she’s crying”, I whispered to Kathy.
“She is”, Kathy replied.

It was only later, when we were at the reception her parents had organized after the ceremony, that Kathy was able to take Sarah aside and asked her why she was crying on the altar. Sarah embarrassingly replied that at that moment, while looking out at our pews filled with parents, grandparents, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins, she was overwhelmed by feelings of love at the significance of the words she was singing, and couldn’t hold back the tears:

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be.

 This was a First Communion Kathy and I will never forget, and hopefully one that Sarah and her parents will recall for years to come when reading this essay and looking at the photos I took. Photos of that wonderful face and the feelings it revealed on that momentous day.

Apr. 28th, 2019

Abuelo & Nena

Somebody to Lean On

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow.

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on.
(Lean on Me: Bill Withers – 1972)

How and when does a married couple decide to have a child? It’s an awkward question to ask a wife and husband because it is so personal. It’s like asking them what type of sex life they have, or if they practice birth control? The reason I mention it now is because Kathy resurrected the query to me after a conversation with our son Tony (Toñito).

Kathy was talking on the phone with our son a few months ago when he mentioned an eye-popping bit of news. About a year ago, Tony and his wife Nikki casually mentioned that they were interested in adopting a child. This was startling news at the time because Kathy and I had witnessed no overt foreshadowing of this parental interest in their conversations or actions. They had been very busy last year – adopting a dog, reflooring their home, and adjusting to Nikki’s establishment of a private counseling practice. So we were caught unprepared for this seemingly sudden interest in parenting, and didn’t know how to respond besides voicing our support. Kathy made some calls to friends who might be able to help in the adoption process, but generally we decided to leave the topic alone and watched how it played out. We hadn’t brought the subject up again until Tony mentioned it anew, saying that they were now deeply enmeshed in the long adoption process of clearance, certification, and approval. Once this revelatory conversation with Toñito was concluded, and we sat quietly, reflecting over the ramifications of the news, Kathy turned to me and asked:
“Do you remember when you were working at West Hollywood Opportunity Center and how you announced that you were ready to have children?”

I suppose Kathy and I always knew that we would have children eventually, once we decided to marry. We had talked about having children, but were in no hurry. I was 27 years old and Kathy was 25 when we married and moved into our apartment on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. During the first two years together we concentrated on getting to know each other as husband and wife. In every sense of the word it was a two-year honeymoon with the added dimension of learning – learning how to cooperate, how to communicate honestly, how to plan and budget, and how to maintain a household. We discovered our shared strengths, our individual foibles, and the realization that we worked best as a team. We were good at learning, and everything seemed to come easily that first year – at home and at work. What changed in the second year was my new job.

I had received my M.A. from UCLA in Latin American Studies just before we married and I planned to resume teaching History at St. Bernard High School in the Fall of ‘75. Kathy had already been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at Los Angeles High School for two years. It was a pleasing relief returning to the progressive religious community that existed at this Catholic high school, and I made life-long friends of a group of sisters in the Community of St. Joseph of Carondolet. The only drawback was comparing my monthly salary with Kathy’s and being rudely awakened to the vast disparity between public and private school salaries. As a State credentialed teacher, Kathy made twice as much as I did, so I immediately enrolled in the Teacher Credentialing program at Loyola Marymount University (LMU). It proved to be a wonderful program with excellent teachers and counselors, and by accepting many of my post-graduate courses at UCLA, it helped qualify me for a provisional credential in one year so I could immediately apply for teaching positions in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I was fortunate to land a job at a brand new “alternative” school called West Hollywood Opportunity Center (WHOC), on Fairfax, near Santa Monica Blvd. However, my first year there proved to be a traumatic exposure to undisciplined and unruly junior high school students in a radically non-traditional setting.

 I thought my first semester teaching high school students at St. Bernard was tough, but it was nothing compared with the cultural and educational shock of working with the unmotivated, angry, and under performing juvenile delinquents who were referred to our center. For the first 4 months at WHOC I felt like Glenn Ford in the movie Blackboard Jungle. These were 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students (mostly boys), who had been kicked out and transferred to two or more schools for disciplinary reasons. Many could barely read and write, and they disguised their educational deficiencies by acts of defiance and sullen indifference. The only mitigating factors were the small class sizes (no more than 10 students), the understanding and supporting staff of a full time principal, psychologist, and Pupil Services and Attendance counselor (PSA), and a faculty of seven teachers who held daily “post-mortem” therapy sessions to discuss our students, analyze our teaching and motivational strategies, and comfort each other. Those first months were a weary slog addressing the emotional issues, the behavioral outbursts, and the educational deficiencies of these students. The best part of my day was arriving home after work, and walking across the street to the palisade cliffs overlooking over PCH, to let the air, wind, and sight of the endless Pacific Ocean sweep over me and calm me. It was during that first semester that I announced to Kathy one night at dinner, that after dealing with these kids on a daily basis, and listening to their stories of terrible home environments and poor parental modeling and supervision, I wanted to wait before having children of our own. Parenting, I felt, must be harder than I thought, and I didn’t feel ready to take on that onerous responsibility. It was hard enough dealing with these children as a teacher, and I didn’t feel capable of being totally responsible for their upbringing and development. I just wanted to finish the year in one piece and forget about teaching and children over the summer.

 It’s hard to remember now, after so many years, what changed in the Spring Semester at WHOC. Perhaps its because we bonded as a school community, and I befriended Vernon Fulcher and Marty Cohen, the PSA Couselor and School Psychologist, who acted as my personal therapists and confessors. As a school staff we finally realized that we were in an absurdly difficult educational situation that resisted our unstructured Carl Rogers approach of “unconditional positive regard” toward student behavior – so the best we could do was try to adapt and change, keeping a sense of humor about our failures. We adopted a “montessori” approach to student progress (letting students work at their own pace, with input as to the types of activities they preferred), within a more structured, clearly defined, classroom environment. This gave the students fewer opportunities to become frustrated and bored, and prevented them from acting out, or taking advantage of the teacher. More importantly Vernon, Marty and I talked and listened to the stories of their homes, parents, and former schools, without judging them. It’s surprising how candid children can be when they trust you. Many of these stories were hair-raising tales of gangs, violence, and abuse at home, the availability and use of drugs at school and home, and the shifting partners of divorced or absent mothers and fathers. The race, ethnicity, and socio-economic levels of these children could vary, but the stories tended to be eerily similar. To my surprise, I began relaxing more and more around these kids, and befriending a couple of them. Two eighth grade students in particular stood out, a boy and a girl, whom we’ll call Todd and Bristol. Despite their young ages, they seemed more mature than the other students and better prepared academically. Both attended the afternoon sessions of school, arriving at noon and leaving on buses at 3:00 pm. Vernon, Marty, and I would often join them for lunch in the cafeteria, talking and joking with them, and other students, in this non-academic environment. Despite this informality, and my relative inexperience teaching, we still managed to maintain a professional distance from these students, never getting too personal, or too friendly. However, looking back at my actions now, I still shudder at some of the naïve chances we took, and, no matter how well meaning, the risky situations we sometimes created for ourselves. One of my actions in particular set off a series of events that had a lasting effect on my attitude toward parenting and having children of my own.

None of our students lived close to the Center, so they had to commute long distances by bus to arrive and depart. If they missed their ride after school, they had to wait a half hour for the next bus, or walk a long way home. One Spring afternoon, Todd bounded into my classroom after school announcing that he had missed his bus, and needed a special favor to get home for some crucial event. When I hesitated at driving him myself, he turned on all of his charm and humor, emphasizing its importance and assuring me that it was okay. I finally agreed to drive him home, stopping by the main office to inform the principal or Vernon of what I was doing. The drive was enjoyable, with Todd happily chatting away, telling me of his family and the friends he had made at school. At some point, when he sensed I was comfortable enough, he exclaimed that he knew my home phone number, which he had looked up in the telephone directory. This surprising bit of information shocked and unnerved me, and my face must have shown it, because he laughingly told me not to worry. He realized that this was personal information, and that I could trust him to keep it private, but he still recommended that I get an unlisted number in the future. The remainder of the ride was uneventful, but before dropping him off at home, I repeated that I trusted him to keep his promise about my phone number. Two weeks later I received a surprise evening phone call from Bristol, tearfully telling me that she needed my help.

Bristol was a tall, mature, and intelligent 13 year-old, with short brown hair and a constantly serious expression on her face that challenged me to make her smile. She and Todd became close friends, sharing their worries, troubles, and secrets. Todd, who was everyone friend, had that special ability to listen to her troubles and still make her laugh at them. It was hard to imagine that this quiet and attractive girl, who looked more like a high school student, had been transferred out of two schools for defiance and truancy. She volunteered little personal information when we chatted at lunch, and what little I knew about her home and family life came from Todd. So, although momentarily stunned at hearing her crying on the telephone, and mildly irritated with Todd for having violated my trust, I asked her why she was calling.

She started by saying that she had called Todd first, telling him of the intolerable situation that occurred at home with her mother’s boyfriend. After listening, Todd counseled her to seek adult help and talk to a teacher they trusted. He said he knew my home phone number and recommended that she call me first. With that explanation out of the way, Bristol told me that she had been having trouble with her mother’s live-in boyfriend for a long time now. She had become increasingly uncomfortable by the ways he looked at her, the questions he asked about boyfriends and sex, and the sexual jokes and innuendos he made around her. While pretending sullen indifference to him, she had managed to ignore these actions, shrugging them off, until tonight. While her mother was at work, the boyfriend had come home, smelling of booze and tobacco, and started touching and fondling her, trying to hug and kiss her while maneuvering her into the bedroom. She managed to struggle free and ran out of the house, getting to a nearby telephone booth to call Todd for help. I was momentarily stunned and silent by this tale, until it finally occurred to me to ask: “How can I help?”
Thankfully, while kaleidoscope images of the impossible things she might ask me to do, such as confronting the mom’s boyfriend, or bringing her to my home, flashed through my mind, she replied: “I need someone to drive me to my aunt’s house where I can spend the night”.
All this time, while listening to Bristol’s story, I had been casting panicky, wide-eyed glances at Kathy, whom I had waved over to stand by me after realizing that I was talking to a student in trouble.
“Okay, listen Bristol”, I said, hoping to buy some time so I could talk to Kathy about this situation and the advisability of getting involved, “I want you to relax and not worry. I’m going to help, but first I need to talk to some people about the best thing to do. So give me the phone number there, and I’ll call you back right away”.
Sounding less frantic and more in control, she agreed and gave me the number. Hanging up, I turned to Kathy and repeated the tale I had heard from Bristol.

It occurs to me know that my response in this first handling of an emergency situation that affected us personally and professionally, would be played out many, many times in the future. Before taking action, or making a decision that affected us, or our children, I wanted to discuss it with Kathy first. I felt calmer just repeating the tale I had heard, as if reframing it in my head, but I especially wanted to hear her reaction to it, and her recommended course of action.
“Well of course you’re going to help the girl”, she said immediately at the conclusion of the story, “but I’d like you to check with someone to find out if we should do anything more”. I remember calling our PSA Counselor, Vernon, and telling him of Bristol’s phone call and her request for a ride to her aunt’s home. With his okay, and Kathy’s support, I returned Bristol’s phone call and arranged to meet her at a not-too-distant strip mall, where, red-eyed but relieved, she got into my car, thanked me for my help, and directed me to her aunt’s home. There I met her aunt, who assured me that Bristol was safe with her, and that she would be talking to her sister later that evening about her boyfriend and what had happened. Bristol was absent from school for a week, and Vernon made a home visit to check on the family situation. However, I got more personal information from Todd, who was in daily communication with Bristol. Bristol’s mother had thrown out the boyfriend, and brought Bristol back home. He assured me that her family life had greatly improved, and she would return to school soon.

On the day that Bristol returned to school, and after sharing this information with Kathy that evening, I again brought up the subject of parenting and having children. I reflected that this incident with Todd and Bristol had given me a different perspective on the kids I taught, and the quality of their parenting. They were not all juvenile delinquents, as I had first assumed, but inherently “good kids”, brought up in difficult home and family situations, with parents who made poor decisions and bad choice. I couldn’t help knowing and trusting that Kathy and I could be good at it. We were professional teachers, good, intelligent, and caring adults, who could figure out the puzzles of parenthood as long as we had each other to lean on. I was confident in us, and in our ability to bring up fine children. Kathy smiled, as if she knew this all along, and asked:
“So what do you think we should do?”
“I think”, I replied, looking into the eyes of the woman I loved, “we should have children of our own.”
Soon after we started looking at homes to buy, and Toñito was born about 11 months later.

Perhaps one day I’ll ask him, but right now I have no idea what finally prompted Tony and Nikki to adopt. I was equally surprised when our daughter Teresa (Prisa) announced that she was pregnant with her first daughter Sarah, six or seven months after her wedding to Joe. What I know for sure is that married couples have to arrive at that decision together, and in their own time. Their relationship has to be open, honest, and loving – trusting each other and feeling confident that they can tackle any difficulties, hardships, or catastrophes together.

Mar. 26th, 2019

Tres Amigos

500 Miles Together Wherever We Go

And if I grow old (when I grow old)
Well I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who’s growing old with you
But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walks 1000 miles
To fall down at your door.
(I’m Gonna Be 500 Miles: The Proclaimers – 1988)

Wherever we go, whatever we do
We’re gonna go through it together
We may not go far, but sure as a star
Wherever we are, it’s together.

Wherever I go I know he goes
Wherever I go I know he goes
No fits, no fights, no feuds
And no egos, amigos, together.

Through thick and through thin
All out or all in
And whether it’s win, place, or show
We’ll muddle through whatever we do
Together wherever we go.
(Together Wherever We Go: Stephen Sondheim – 1958)

I think it was about a year ago that John Riley first mentioned “El Camino”. Our friend Greg Ryan was driving up from San Diego to play a round of golf with us, and we all planned to meet at a club in Camarillo. As we were sitting together in the clubhouse after the game, John suddenly asked:
“Have you guys heard of ‘The Camino’ in Spain?”
The topic came out of the blue, but I managed to reply that yes, I’d read a little about the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, and I’d seen a movie with Martin Sheen called The Way. Greg had also seen the movie, and he asked:
“What about it, John?”
“Well”, John began, “I think we should do it”.
Of course, Greg, not thinking it through, as usual, was all for the idea. I, however, was more hesitant and doubtful with all this sudden enthusiasm.
“Do you realize how long it takes to walk the Camino?” I asked. “It’s like a 500 mile hike over rugged terrain, with stops at little towns with primitive hostels. I don’t think I’m up for a backpacking trip that long, and I’m certainly too old to be staying in hostels with communal bathrooms down a long hallway”.
Greg, as usual, tried convincing me that I was selling myself short, and assured me that I was up for the walk and the hardships of such a trip. John simply addressed my issues.
“Okay”, he said, “what if I can find a tour that books us at hotels along the Camino, and shuttles our luggage to each stop along the Way? Would you come along then?”
“Well,” I replied, disbelievingly, “that’s a good start, but I don’t think we can do 500 miles. Come on John, we’re 70 years old!”
“Let me look into it,” he parried. “I don’t think we have to walk the whole way to receive official pilgrim certificates.”
I left it at that, figuring that this crazy travel idea would eventually evaporate as so many other journeys we had talked about, but never acted on. Greg, however, was more supportive, and he asked John to lend him the travel book that had inspired this idea. Three months later, using a game of golf as our excuse for getting together, John brought up the subject again.

A “Call to Adventure” is a funny thing because it comes in so many unforeseen aspects. It can be a shared inspiration, like the time Greg, John, and I saw a route along “la valle de Guadalupe” on a travel map of Baja California, and immediately decided to go on a wine tasting tour of the vineyards along the way (See Tres Mujeres ). Or it could be Greg’s casual mentioning of his upcoming trip to Puerto Rico to judge a barbecue contest there, which prompted our wives to suggest that John and I join him on the trip (See Memories of the Soul). What makes a call to adventure special is that it is driven by a sudden impulse or conversion. Greg was on board from the moment John mentioned “el Camino”. I, however, needed a change of heart. When we got together for another game of golf, John came prepared with brochures and information. He claimed that there in fact were tours that could book us for a seven-day trip along the last 100 kilometers of the Camino, ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and qualifying us for a stamped Pilgrim’s Certificate. The trip would be broken up into daylong hikes of 8-10 miles, ending each day at small towns where we would have hotel reservations. Our luggage would be shuttled from hotel to hotel, permitting us to carry daypacks as we walked. At the end of his presentation, I put away my doubts and said that I was in.

Now in the Roman Catholic tradition, a pilgrimage to Rome, Jerusalem, Lourdes, or to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was a spiritual exercise done as a penance for sins, or as a debt payment for an answered prayer or miracle. It was a spiritual quid pro quo to Christ, the Virgin Mary, or to a particular saint (e.g. Saint James, or Santiago, of Compostela) – “if you grant me this petition or miracle, I promise to make a pilgrimage to your church or cathedral”. So it would have been a convenient narrative for this essay if I had said that last year, when I made my yearly Lenten confession at the Sierra Madre Retreat Center, the priest laid on me the ultimate penance for my pronounced sins – making a pilgrimage to Compostela. This scenario would have been dramatic, but fictional. I have no compelling spiritual reason for making this journey. There was only the imperative to join my oldest friends in one more exciting adventure to an exotic locale. Call it one of the last check offs on my Bucket List of lifetime experiences. At the same time, I don’t want to minimize the significance of a pilgrimage, especially one as old and inspiring as the Camino de Santiago. I’ve done too much reading and writing about Joseph Campbell’s ideas of “the hero’s journey”, or quests, to characterize the Camino as simply a walking trip of Spain. A pilgrimage is an expedition to a far off location, or a local site of veneration, where there may be an unrevealed lesson, reward, or Truth to be discovered – a metaphor for the Holy Grail. Pilgrim never knows what they are really seeking, until it finds them.

All of Campbell’s journeys begin with a ubiquitous “Call to Adventure”, after which a series of difficulties and hardships arise to imperil the journey. Through the hidden talents and strengths of the traveling companions, or the unexpected arrival of outside assistants, these trials are overcome, and the journey continues. So it has been for our own Fellowship of the Camino. John won us over to the Call of Adventure. The assistance and support of our wives was instrumental in getting us to visit the Travel Expo in Los Angeles in February to seek out the help and guidance of the Camino Ways Tours, and Greg’s relentless airline investigations led to our finding and booking our flights to and from Spain in September and October. We wait now to finalize our tour dates and nail down our hiking schedule along the Camino. It is too soon to fully explain why we are going on this trip, or state what we expect to find. All I know is that we are going together, and we are open to everything and everyone we will encounter – as long as we do it together. So according to Campbell’s outline of a hero’s journey, we have crossed the First Threshold and await the further trials and adventures of this journey.

Mar. 15th, 2019


We’re On Our Own

We’re on our own, cousin
All alone, cousin
Let’s think of a game to play
Now the grown-ups have all gone away
You won’t be much fun
Being blind, deaf and dumb
But I’ve no one to play with today.
(Cousin Kevin, from Rock Opera Tommy: The Who – 1968 )

Kathy and I travelled to Chicago last week. The primary reason for the trip was to see our nephew, and Kathy’s godson, Jeff Parker in the Drury Lane Theatre production of MAMA MIA! We had seen Jeff in other productions in and around the Chicago area before, and Kathy had also gone with our daughter Prisa to see him in The Secret Garden. Needless to say, Kathy is an avid fan of Jeff’s work, and is willing to travel far and wide to see him performing, plus it took no effort to convince me to come along. I’ve loved all of Jeff’s performances, and I enjoy the songs by ABBA. What was different about this trip was my interference in its itinerary. Usually Kathy is the sole travel agent in these ventures, scheduling flights, booking hotels, buying tickets, and arranging our visits and activities. She was in this role again when I suddenly interrupted. I pointed out that previous visits usually centered around her family or close mutual friends, but on this trip I wanted to include some family time of my own. I reminded her that I had a cousin of my mother’s Villalpando family living in Chicago. Rafael (Avillo) Villalpando, the second son of my Uncle Beto (Adalberto), whom we often called “El Doc”, had immigrated to Chicago with his wife Estela decades before and raised 3 daughters there. I think the intensity of my request caught Kathy off guard, because she wasn’t aware of my interest in visiting a cousin I hadn’t seen in 50 years. After asking some questions about Avillo and Uncle Beto, she agreed to add another day to our trip to accommodate a reunion.

I have to confess that this insistence on meeting a distant relative was a little out of character for me. My connections to Mexico and my cousins had always been through my aunts and uncles, and they had diminished over time and distance. Although I stay in touch with a few of them through Facebook and occasional phone calls, the family ties have frayed. The Chicago connection was actually sparked when I came across Victoria Villalpando, Avillo’s second daughter, on Facebook, shortly after her college graduation a few years ago. Her postings and photographs of family, jobs, travels, and achievements seemed to minimize the distance that separated us, and I felt we had a lot in common. She and her 2 sisters, Estrella and Nazaret, were Mexican-Americans, as my siblings and I were, and we were all educated in American colleges with established careers. Victoria was also the first to reach out to me a few years ago when she flew to Los Angeles on a college recruitment assignment for her university. Conflicting schedules prevented our meeting, but her thoughtful attempt at communicating with me left a lasting impression and I resolved to arrange a future meeting if an opportunity arose. Once Kathy adjusted our timeline in Chicago, I “messaged” Victoria, asking if it would be possible to set up a meeting or dinner with her father and family. She quickly responded that her father loved the idea and she would take care of the arrangements.

 To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about meeting Avillo, who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in over 50 years. During my last extended visit to Mexico in 1973, Avillo had graduated from college and was a practicing orthodontist in Guadalajara. All I knew about him was second-hand information from my mom, who told me that he had immigrated to the United States sometime in 1990 with his family to establish a dental practice here. Had he changed? Would I recognize him? Would he speak English or Spanish, and was my Spanish good enough to sustain long conversations? All of these questions buzzed through my head before and after our arrival in Chicago. Yet, what came foremost to mind was a flood of memories of his father, Uncle Beto, “El Doc”. Of the four Villalpando brothers, Carlos, Beto, Pepe, and Lalo, El Doc stood out for his height, aristocratic good looks, and his quiet and soothing demeanor. Walking ramrod straight and erect, I remember him coming by on a regular basis to visit my grandmother Mima, to check on the medical condition of my great-grandmother, Mima Rosi, when they lived on Chopo 25, in the San Cosme neighborhood of Mexico City. Beto was a good listener who spoke in a soft, reassuring professional tone when diagnosing an ailment or prescribing medical treatment. He also had a warm, endearing laugh that always made me smile and put me at ease. He radiated such a sense of safety and wellbeing that I always want to hang around him, tagging along when he left Mima’s house, walking by his side, hoping that he would speak to me further. Since he lived nearby with his wife Licha (Alicia) and two sons, I would even offer to accompany him home. Rather than disappoint me with a no, he would give me a long, understanding gaze and laughingly offer instead to stop by a nearby drugstore and buy me a candy or “paleta”. It was the subtlest of bribes to have me return home.

I loved going to his home when my mother would take us to visit him and his family. He lived in a classic colonial-style residence surrounded by an intimidatingly high, ancient stucco and cement wall. Entering through a two-sided, wooden door, you were immediately greeted by a lush interior garden patio, surrounded by rooms and quarters on all sides. It reminded me of the luxurious interior gardens described in the Moorish Tales of the Arabian Nights. His sons Betito and Avillo would take me on tours of the rooms, always ending by sneaking into Beto’s “consultorio”, or consulting office where he would see private patients. I would stare in wonder at the glassed in cases and cupboards containing surgical instruments, medical equipment, vials, and bottles. It looked like a laboratory, and I imagined Beto working late into the evenings in this lab, discovering a miracle cure or a new, breakthrough surgical procedure. The longest time we spent with Beto and his family was the summer of 1955, when we drove our car to Mexico City. Once there we arranged to take Beto’s family with us to Vera Cruz, the port city in the Gulf of Mexico. I remember visiting the crumbling island fortress of San Juan de Ulúa that guarded the harbor entrance, and walking through the dank dungeons and antique armament. We also spent a lot of time on the beach with Betito and Avillo playing in the surf and looking for sand dollars on the shore.

The last time I saw Beto was in December of 1979, when Kathy and I travelled to Mexico City to introduce her and our son Tony to my Mexican relatives. There were a series of family parties, dinners, and posadas during our stay, but the event I remember best is when Beto invited Kathy and I to be his guests at La Plaza de Toros to see a bullfight on a Sunday afternoon. We were visiting during “la temporarada”, the bullfighting season, when the best matadores in the world were in Mexico touring its various cities and plazas de toros. Beto’s father, my grandfather, was an avid aficionado of the bullfight, and in his youth toured with the matadores as they traveled through Mexico. Beto had retained this interest, remaining the family expert of this ancient spectacle. After picking us up in his car, Beto detoured for a stop at his home, where he carried out two large medical bags. When I asked what they contained, he replied, “litros de sangre” (liters of blood), and I recalled that not only was Beto a fan, but, as a doctor with a hematology specialty, he was the official medical consultant if a matador was gored and needed a transfusion. We drove straight into the bullring, past the gates, guards, and spectators, and into the inner recesses of the stadium to deposit the blood in the clinic there, and then escorted to our premium seats near the ground level of the bullring.

Now a bullfight, or corrida de toros, is not for the faint of heart and stomach, and I suddenly panicked that Kathy, who was 3 months pregnant and had never witnessed one, might find it hard to watch. I tried preparing her for this bloody spectacle, warning her of the picadores, who speared the bull with lances from horseback, and for the sometimes clumsy, sword thrusts to dispatch the bull. I advised her finally, to just close her eyes or look away if the events proved too gruesome. I don’t recall the name of the matador, but the first bull was a marvel who charged straight and true. It is rare to see a monstrous beast and a lithe and daintily clad matador, in his “suit of lights”, so in sync and in rhythm with each other. It was a ballet of flowing capes and brutal force, with the matador effortlessly guiding the movements of the bull. Not wanting to weaken his partner in motion, the matador quickly waved off the picadores, and impaled his own “banderillas”, or decorated darts, in the back of the bull. Finally, when it came time for the kill, waving white handkerchiefs appeared throughout the stadium, and the crowd began chanting, “indulto, indulto”, demanding the pardoning of the bull from death. It would be the equivalent of watching a perfect game in baseball, only here the bull is rewarded for a perfect corrida by being spared, and retired to stud and sire other toros bravos, or brave bulls. As the matador acceded to the wishes of the crowd, and the bull was guided back into the pens below the coliseum, Kathy turned to me and said, “I think I can really enjoy bullfighting.”

When Kathy and I entered the Greek Islands Restaurant, in the Greek town section of Chicago, I almost walked past a seated Avillo and his family before noticing them. Luckily, his wife Estela, recognizing Kathy from her Facebook photos, nudged him alert and said, “Son ellos!” They all arose, and with a laugh we all greeted each other, hugging, and introducing ourselves to one another. We’ve grown old, Avillo and I. We are a little stouter, and a little greyer, but our Villalpando characteristics still united us. The two of us fell into immediate conversation – mostly in Spanish. Though seated around a circular table, it was difficult hearing what everyone was saying to each other, so I concentrated on Avillo, asking about his mother, his siblings, and his journey from Mexico. Time and distance seemed to fade away, and our conversation was even better than in our youth, when we sometimes felt awkward with each other, and too embarrassed to ask personal questions. Over a fine meal of lamb and wine, I laughingly pointed out that I spotted many of my mother’s Villalpando family characteristics and attitudes in the proud way Avillo described his daughters education, their achievements, and their current careers. It was the same way that my mom, and all of my aunts and uncles, spoke of their high expectations for their children and grandchildren. Villalpandos were well educated, always punctual, polite, and discrete – and they were expected to achieve at a higher level than their peers. This became especially important for my mom, who quickly became aware of the ethnic prejudices and negative stereotypes of Mexicans by many Americans. Avillo and Estela had communicated the same values of self-esteem and the drive to achieve into their 3 daughters, Estrella, Victoria, and Nazaret. We talked and laughed and questioned together, barely finding the time to eat. Finally I had to mention a sartorial issue that had perplexed me. I had debated with myself over how to dress for this special evening dinner. Had I been in Mexico City, a coat and tie would have been my mother’s choice, but in Chicago, the restaurant only required “evening casual”. So I came in dress shirt, sweater, and slacks – only to find my cousin in proper Villalpando attire. I laughed at myself for not knowing better, and kidded Avillo for not having “Americanized” very much. It was only at the end of dinner, when we were posing for photos, that Avillo sadly noted that the entire generation of Villalpandos, which included our parents and all our aunts and uncles were gone and many of their children dispersed to different countries and cities. It was a thought I had never pondered from the perspective of cousins so far from their ancestral home. Avillo and I are truly on our own, so far from our parent’s Mexico and their influences, now that they are gone. It’s a litany of sorrow to say their names: Helen, Carlos, Beto, Chita, Totis, Güera (my mom), Pepe, and Lalo. Lalo was the youngest, and the last to pass away last year. I don’t know, or can’t recall exactly how they died, or when, but that is an unimportant detail. All I can do is call forth some memories, and tell stories of incidents that come to mind. Talking with Avillo, and speaking the Spanish that always feels comfortable when meeting Mexican cousins, brought up some of those long ago moments with Beto. It’s my small way of saying thank you to him for the care and kind attention he gave us, and the love for his family that never wavered.

Vaya con Dios, tio Beto.

Mar. 10th, 2019

The Fool - Tarot2

Into the Mystic

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won
As we sailed into the mystic

Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the mystic

And when the fog horn blows
I will be coming home, mmm mmm
And when the fog horn blows
I want to hear it
I don’t have to fear it.
(Into the Mystic: Van Morrison – 1970)

Last week I received an email from our nephew Brian Kirst, the son of Kathy’s oldest sister, filling me in on an ancestral journey he was taking in April to Ireland and Germany. Kathy had already told me of Brian’s interest in the family genealogy, and she had talked to him many times to verify ancestral locations of the Greaney and Cavanaugh families in Ireland. I’ve always been curious of the individuals in families who are bitten by the ancestral fever. It seems as if one person in every family takes on this intriguing but onerous task to trace their ancestors back through time. My friend John O’Riley is one of them. He has tracked down long lost family members in Illinois and Canada, and located birth records of ancestors in Ireland and Norway. It’s a field of study that has never really interested me personally, despite my BA and Masters in History. I’ve been more than happy accepting the apocryphal stories told by my mother and father, and aunts and uncles, about where our ancestors came from and where they lived.  The most interesting tales were of a Sephardic Jewish connection, and tales that we were descendants of El Cid in Spain. Brian, it seemed, was not satisfied accepting fanciful stories or beliefs about his family’s antecedents without proof. So I became somewhat intrigued about his mission and his stated intentions for embarking on this “Ancestral Pilgrimage”, especially since his goals did not seem to match up with my earlier impressions of him.

 Brian is the youngest in the globetrotting Kirst family of six siblings – three boys and three girls – all of whom are adults now. He was the mischievous one, with a boyish charm, an impish smile, and a ready wit. He’s outgoing and engaging, able to spin amusing tales all day and night, and never taking life too seriously. I would talk to him on family occasions and at celebrations, such as visits, holiday parties, graduations, and weddings. These interactions always tended to be too brief, though consistently enjoyable. The only time I spent an extended period in conversation with him was in 2009, when my daughter Prisa and I traveled to Washington DC to attend the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. We had arranged to stay at the DC condominium of Kathy’s sister, Mary Ellen, where her son Brian was then living. It turned out to be a marvelous, historical experience for us, but more importantly, it gave me a new awareness of, and a perspective on Brian that I never had before.

Brian was the perfect host from the moment he met us at Dulles Airport on an early Sunday morning in January, to the return trip 3 days later to see us off. He never stopped talking. He filled us in on his job, his siblings, his parents, and his plans for the future. The only times he wasn’t entertaining us was when Prisa and I went exploring the city on our own, or when he was working. On the day before the inauguration, during one of our excursions around the Capitol, I brought up a question that had always nagged me.
“So”, I asked, “is Brian gay?”
Prisa just looked at me with an amused, 28-year old smile and replied, “What do you think?’
“I don’t know”, I replied. “I get the idea that everyone in the family thinks he is, but no one really discusses it”.
“Maybe that’s because there is nothing to discuss”, she said wisely, looking at me the way an adult peers at a child who has said something silly.
“Did you ever ask him?” I replied.
“I don’t have to”, she said. “Why don’t YOU ask him, if you are so curious?” She said this in a tone implying that there was nothing more to say on the topic. I left it at that, assuming it would never come up again.

 Tuesday, January 20th was a glorious day for us. Despite our early morning departure to find a good spot on the National Mall to see the inauguration, and the long wait in the bitter cold, we were euphoric at having witnessed such a historic event. We shared our blissful mood with Brian when he returned from work that evening, and he brought out a bottle of wine and a cheese plate to celebrate the event. It was in the jubilant haze of this alcohol-fed comfort that I began asking him personal questions about his life, his friends, and his relationships. Finally, feeling sufficiently confident in his trust of my sincerity, I asked him the question Prisa had challenged me to mention.
“So, uuhh, Brian”, I stumbled, “can I ask you a personal question? Are you gay?”
Brian answered with a large beaming smile, and laughingly said, “Oh, Tony, you are too much, and very sweet for asking. Yes, I am gay”.
The admission opened a whole new level of conversation – one that was more open and trusting. I listened and learned more about Brian than ever before – his ups and downs through adolescents and adulthood, and his frustrations at seeking more creative outlets. As we prepared to go out to dinner for our final meal together, Prisa patted me on the arm and said, “You did good tonight, Dad”.
That conversation, and the evening I spent together with Prisa and Brian, took place 10 years ago, and Brian’s life has taken many twists and turns since then. So I was very interested in learning what this ancestral journey was really about, and why he was embarking on it. This is what he allowed me to share:

Ancestral Soul Pilgrimage

My intention in embarking on this pilgrimage to Ireland and Germany.

To reconnect with those ancestors who have gone before us.
I will be introducing my soul back to the land we come from, through ritual.
I will be honoring the burial sights of our ancestors. Praying and acknowledging their legacy.
I will be holding space for the witnessing of trauma that came before us and still holds us.
I will be tracing their steps that brought them through life. Making that visible.

Honor the ancestors that made it possible for life to get through.
I will be carrying photographs of loved ones who have passed and bringing them back home.
I will be writing to our ancestors with intent of activating vibrational energy of healing.
I will be holding space for the soul of our family to be apart of the experience.

To help free me from being cut off from my body and activate my full creative potential.
I will be photographing my experiences, following my intuition, led by our ancestors.
I will film my experiences, following my intuition, led by our ancestors.
I will be continuing my intuitive art work to allow creative connection through our ancestors.

I have chosen to embark on this journey after eleven years of witnessing how disconnected I have become to myself.
The eleven years of genealogy I have been researching has brought me to the following questions.

Who am I?
Where do I come from?
Where am I going?

These very important questions have plagued my mind for eleven years.
In many of those years I was living a life in a numbing, mindless and cut off state.
I had to get honest about patterns, habits and behaviors I was living daily.
I am not living fully.
I am not living connected to my body.
I am not living a creative life.
Through three years of deep soul work.
The answers live in connecting to our ancestral past.
The ancestors I had been researching, acknowledging and reconnecting with.
They were my new path back to myself.
Through their stories
Through their energy
Through their honor
I will be set free.

Lastly, my final intention. That the soul of our family gains healing, gains inspiration and makes space for living more fully.
Knowing that our ancestors are who we are, who we come from and who are guiding us toward the evolution of consciousness that is taking shape.

I carefully read over Brian’s hopes and intentions for this journey, and I discussed them with Kathy. I truly admired what he was planning to do in Ireland and Germany. I believe that journeys of self-discovery are crucial for personal and creative growth and maturity. The journey can be as simple as a walk through a park or forest, or as arduous as a trip through a distant country. The key is leaving ourselves behind, and being open to what we learn out about others and ourselves. As Joseph Campbell would say, we all must travel our own hero’s journey – our own quest for relevance and meaning in life. It reminded me that other members of the Greaney clan had also embarked on their own kind of journeys to places outside their comfort zones: Grace Parker’s (Jeff’s daughter) solitary travels through France and Europe last summer, comes first to mind. She kept a short, on-going blog of her adventures and her discoveries about herself. I hoped Brian would do likewise – keeping a written journal, or a photo-log of his travels, expressing his thoughts and reactions. His intentions resonated with me on many levels. In them he mentioned intuition, art, creativity, pilgrimage, questioning, and soul work. I believe that our lives are composed of many such journeys, most of which we are unaware. But the ones that relentlessly call us forth are the most significant, because we feel forced to follow them blindly – having faith in that inner call to venture forth. I trust that Brian will discover more than he ever intends to find, as he flies into the mystic.

Feb. 25th, 2019

My publications in Instagram for last week

Transfered from instagram

Feb. 24th, 2019

Kid Dedalus

Pictures of the Smiles We Left Behind

Memories light the corners of my mind.
Misty water-colored memories, of the way we were.
Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind,
Smiles we gave to one another for the way we were.

Memories may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget.
So it’s the laughter we will remember
Whenever we remember
The way we were
The way we were
(The Way We Were: Bergman, Bergman, & Hamlisch – 1973)

I haven’t started a long-term project in a long time. I think the last one was in 2013, when I digitized 426 vinyl record albums belonging to my brother-in-law, Greg Greaney. My approach to the three-year project was casual, often interrupted by trips, other commitments, lethargy, and fatigue. Many of the records weren’t necessarily “classics”, and my digitizing equipment required that I sit and listen to each album I was recording. This was sometimes tedious – but on the whole, I enjoyed what I was listening to, and once it was done, I was euphoric over having finished a difficult task. Since then I haven’t taken on anything new, until I received an email from my youngest brother, Alex, reminding me of a promise I made to my mother and siblings before she died in November of 2017.

My mother was always very proud of the 8-volume photo album collection she had assembled over the years. The albums began with family photos of my mom and dad in 1943, ending with pictures of Mom’s trips to Scotland and Europe with Stela and Gracie, in 1998. Decade by decade the number of albums would multiply, with each photograph carefully placed, and (almost) in chronological order. As children, my siblings and I loved looking at them with our mother – asking her the names of the relatives and people in the pictures, and questioning her about their backgrounds and current situations. It was a visual way of learning and remembering stories of our families, and long ago events associated with them. As adults we would, on occasion, borrow these albums to show our friends and future wives and husbands, and give them a glimpse into our past. However, she soon became very fastidious about lending them out after Arthur dared to alter a few of the photos, by cutting himself out of the picture. After that, my mother laid out a strict prohibition before letting them out of her house:
“!No toquen los fotos!” (Don’t touch the photos!).
For years no one dared take the albums from her house, until a few years before her death. In 2014 I asked to borrow the first 3 volumes so I could photocopy family pictures spanning from 1924 to 1980. She hesitantly agreed, but only after making me swear not to alter them in any way. Unfortunately, I took my time copying them, and one year later I received a frantic phone call from my mom, declaring that her photo albums and been stolen! She said she had a dream of our long deceased father and wanted to see his photographs in her albums, only to discover that the first three volumes were missing. She panicked at the thought that they had been stolen, and called me for help. I calmly reassured her that the albums were neither missing nor stolen, but in my care, and promised to return them the next morning. She sheepishly accepted them back the following day, apologizing for panicking, but relieved to have the photo albums back. It was only later that I realized this irrational phone call was an early sign of incipient dementia. From that day forward, I vowed never to remove the albums from her immediate reach, agreeing only to their custodianship after her death. In the months preceding her final illness, as she reviewed her will and funeral arrangements with us, she reminded me of this promise, trusting that I would care for the albums and make their photos accessible to my brothers and sisters.

At first, I took this promise very seriously when I brought six of the albums home in December of 2017, immediately adding the task of having them photocopied to my “To Do List”. But month after month, throughout the New Year, it kept slipping downward on the scale, until it lay at the lowest rung of the list. Alex’s email last month finally got me off the dime to begin investigating the feasibility of having the photo albums professionally digitized. I soon learned, however, that the cost of photocopying 6 volumes, each containing approximately 300 chronologically ordered photographs, was financially prohibitive. I procrastinated further, complaining not only of the expense, but the time-consuming hardship of taking on the task myself, using our traditional flatbed printer/copier at home. Kathy listened to these complaints patiently for a few days, and then said, “You know, there are scanning apps for Ipads and Iphones to do this quickly and easily”. I dismissed the suggestion offhandedly at first (as I usually do when Kathy volunteers technical advice), until she demonstrated how easily it actually worked on her cell phone. Using an app called Photomyne, she quickly scanned a group of photos that were then automatically divided into single prints and enhanced on her phone. They were identical reproductions of the original. Kathy had matured into a veritable technical wizard with this miraculous solution to my problem!

Since starting this new project 3 weeks ago, I’ve reproduced the contents of 2 albums, and started a third. The photos are in the same sequence and order my mother had placed them in these albums. Album #2 covered the years 1958 to 1968, and Album #3 went from 1968 to 1980. I started with these two albums because they covered the magic years of our childhoods and youth – plus, Alex had specifically requested photos of his infancy. I have to admit that as I pursued this project, I was surprised at the feelings the albums evoked in me of my parents and siblings. Foremost was a deep admiration for my mom’s devotion to Family, in the time, effort, and persistence she showed in chronicling the visual history of our family, beginning with our grandparents and ending with her great-grandchildren. Of course all parents take pictures of their children as they grow up, but I doubt those photographs are maintained in sequenced albums once those children enter college or leave home. Kathy and I stopped the practice when our two kids were in grade school. Although we continued taking tons of photos, they tended to remain in their envelopes after being developed and shared, or, in later years, stored in commercial photo-sharing clouds like Shutterfly or Amazon Photos. The critical legacy that my mother always wanted to pass on to her children and grandchildren was our family history – its antecedents in Mexico, and the life she and Dad created for us in Los Angeles and Venice. The photo albums were part of our inheritance, and they represent an awesome achievement that I’m only now beginning to appreciate.

The photos also brought back forgotten memories of my father. Albums 2 & 3 are especially important because they documented the extent of his active interactions with all of us – right up to Alex’s childhood – before he died in 1971. Album #2 started at a pivotal year for my Dad, because it marked the beginning of his professional career as a studio photographer, with a steady 9 to 5 job, and his devotion to being an actively involved participant in our childhood activities – weekend outings, organized sports, family reunions, and travel adventures. Dad was always present for us during those childhood years, and we took his kind and patient demeanor for granted. The tragedy of his early death was not so much our loss, but the fact that he wasn’t around to see the growth and development of his two youngest sons, Eddie and Alex, into happy youngsters, smart students, independent men, and mature husbands and professionals. I see aspects of our father in all my brothers. In Arthur’s artistic eye, in Eddie’s kind and compassionate sense of humor, and in Alex’s analytical approach to problem-solving.

The last emotional by-product of this project was its reawakening of my affection for my brothers and sisters. Going page by page, photograph by photograph, through these albums, old memories, associations, and feelings were evoked: the births of Eddie and Alex, birthday parties in the park with cousins and friends, moving into our first home in Venice, weekend trips to the parks and beach, First Communions, Easter Sunday portraits, and graduations. We spent a lot of time together, my siblings and I, and they were my first best friends. We played make-believe games, sports in the street, and walked to and from school together every day. Our daily interactions consisted of arguments, laughter, fights, and triumphs we have long forgotten – but the photos still retained a residue of those old feelings. Since our mother’s death, we’ve tried to carve out some time when we can meet together – just the six of us – to share and clarify old memories, or just talk about how we are, and what we’re doing. I had forgotten, but siblings have their own way of communicating and relating to each other, when not influenced by the presence of strangers, friends, or even spouses. It’s our own private language. We’ve modeled our approach on the practice used by my wife’s siblings of meeting for lunch to celebrate an individual or group birthdays. I suppose it’s a way of ritualizing my Mom’s wish that we would always remain a family, united and interdependent. The photo albums are a means of reaffirming those connections, and a testament to our mother’s love for us.

Feb. 3rd, 2019

Kathy & I

How Do You Measure a Year In a Life?

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
(Seasons of Love: Jonathan D. Larson – 1996)

There are certain moments in life that are timeless because they involved a special combination of sights, sounds, people, emotions, and related memories. These events are fixed in our minds, and are triggered by one or more aspects of the long ago occurrence. The song Seasons of Love from the musical RENT is one of those triggers for me. Whenever I hear that song, my mind automatically flashes back to a day in 2000 when Kathy and I attended the high school graduation party of her nephew Danny Williams. Although we were unable to attend the commencement ceremony at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, we made a point of going to the celebration at the Manhattan Beach home of Kathy’s sister Patti, and her husband Dick.

Graduation from high school is a momentous occasion, but what I remember most about my own is that it signified the end to, probably, the most enjoyable and memorable year in the four of high school. At the same time, it also pointed to the beginning of a scary new life in the unknown world of college. It’s a turning point, when the past and future come together in a single moment, and teeters back and forth, from sadness to excitement, from joy to dread. I really didn’t know what to expect at this party. I’d watched Danny grow up through the years, and knew that he had attended American Martyrs grade school in Manhattan Beach, and graduated from Loyola H.S. I suppose I expected to see many of his male friends from that historic, single-sex, Jesuit institution, so I was surprised at the large number of girls who were present. When I pointed this out to Kathy, she explained that Danny had been part of the Loyola music and drama program that was also open to high school girls from many schools in the greater Los Angeles area. They could have been graduating senior girls from Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Immaculate Heart H.S., or Marymount H.S. Many of these young people had taken part in musical productions over the years. Having personally observed the dynamics of high school drama students through our son’s involvement, I knew them to be a tight, talented, and close-knit group of friends, and Danny’s were no exception. Their laughter, stories, and gaiety filled the house, and I was almost envious of their blissful youth. But I had little in common with them, so I only observed them from afar, and did not interact with them. It was only at one point that they held my complete attention. A group of Danny’s friends were suddenly, and loudly urging him to sit down at the piano in the living room and to play. At first I assumed they wanted him to simply perform a piece, but suddenly a group of the eight or nine boys and girls were clustering tightly around him and the piano. That’s when I heard their rendition of Seasons of Love from the musical RENT.

 At that moment, there was something in that sang that was incredibly poignant and personal. Danny’s music, combined with the fresh, youthful voices of his friends brought a uniquely sweet and timeless relevance to the lyrics they were singing. They were fresh-faced, bright-eyed and youthful optimists setting out to explore and conquer the new worlds of college and universities. Yet the song was also a nostalgic reflection on the year that had passed – probably too quickly for them now. So the words in that song took on a special meaning for me, and the performance brought tears of joy and delight to my eyes (which I swiftly tried to wipe away):

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife

In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love.
Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life
Of a woman or a man?

In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died?

It’s time now to sing out
Though the story never ends
Let’s celebrate now
Remember a year in the life of friends.

Remember the love
Remember the love
Remember the love
Measure in love
Measure, measure your life in love

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

The singing of that song by Danny and his friends was my first introduction to RENT. Of course I had heard of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical that opened in 1996, but I did not relate to it the way I did to other musicals like Chorus Line, Cats, or Les Miz. I never saw the play, although Kathy and Prisa did during a Broadway trip to New York City in 2003. The song stood alone for me, separate from the musical. I didn’t hear it as a song about young bohemians struggling through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Lower Manhattan’s East Village. I saw it through the lens of high school enthusiasm and optimism. A song that described the dawning realization that childhood had ended, and the realities of life would soon descend and have to be dealt with. It took the January television production of RENT, and its reprise of the song, Seasons of Love, to trigger the long ago memory of Danny’s graduation party. Only this time the song did more than simply recall the nostalgic end of a senior year for those youngsters in 2000 – this time the song begged an answer to a puzzling question it posed: How do you measure a year in your life?

Last year was a difficult one for me. It opened soon after the death of my mother, and just moved on from there, as all lives do. As to “measuring it”, I suppose one might do it through the daily entries in a diary or a journal. If you were faithful in this practice of noting daily events, you could review an entire year – looking back at events, reading your immediate reactions to them, and then reflecting on that. Unfortunately, except for a few times in my life, I was never really consistent in maintaining a steady, ongoing journal of daily events, and anyway, I was more interested in simply surviving this last year than meditating on it. No, the closest I came to recording consistent events of last year was through my camera, and the photographs I took from December of 2017 to January of 2019, and through postings on my blog. In my Amazon Cloud photo library I have digitized photos from 2003 to 2019, divided into the months I took them. I also have a huge cache of undated pictures that were copied from printed originals. Along with this photographic evidence of the years, I also posted numerous personal essays on my blog, Dedalus Log, which I’ve kept since 2005. So I decided to use these two “primary sources” to go back and try to answer the question posed by Seasons of Love for myself, and attempt to “measure a year in the life”.

I counted approximately six thousand eight hundred forty-five photos (give or take a few hundred) from December of 2017 to January of 2019. At first they seemed a crazy and random mixture of unrelated events and people, but after a more thoughtful inspection I saw certain patterns and categories arise among these thousands of photos. They showed photos of road trips with Kathy, our families, and friends to Paso Robles, Avila Beach, Salinas, Big Sur, the Carmel Valley, Monterey, Lone Pine, Boulder City NEV, San Diego, and Downtown L.A. Plane trips with friends and family members to Portland, Ireland, and New York City. Holidays, family celebrations, wedding and funeral receptions, going to plays and musicals, and reunion lunches and dinners represented hundreds and hundreds of images. The countdown towards Kathy’s retirement from the Archdiocese Department of Schools popped up in pictures scattered throughout the year, culminating in her retirement party in June. Photos of granddaughters and cousins young and old dominated numerous collections; photos of Sarah and Gracie at play on the beach, playing sports, in the pool and Jacuzzi, and celebrating birthdays and holidays, along with a few of their parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. By far the majority of these photos showed the faces of people – people I love and people I struggle with: sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, and long-time and recent friends. Every picture told a different story of the people in them and the events that brought them together. Every photo was a memory enshrined for the ages, insuring that the event and the people present would never be forgotten. I constantly lost myself scrolling through the thousands and thousands of photos, remembering what I felt at that moment in time – happy (and some times sad) to relive it again. I also posted twenty-three personal essays on my blog from December 2017 to January 2019. The number came as quite a surprise to me, because it represented almost two essays a month during a year I felt more like forgetting. They began with a remembrance of a deceased professional friend, JoAnna Kunes, and ended with the realization that I was “getting older” and our children had passed us by. While four essays were about Los Angeles, the Sixties, Ireland, and grief, the rest, once again, were about people – people I loved, people I lost and remembered, and people I struggle with. When it came down to it, I wasted my time trying to answer this question, because Jonathon Larson, the writer of the song Seasons of Love, was right all along. We do measure a year in daylights, in sunsets, in inches, in miles, and in laughter and strife; in truths that we learned, or times that we cried, in bridges we burned, and in ways that they died. We remember a year in the lives of our family and friends, and we remember the love. We really do measure our life and our seasons in love. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that’s what Danny Williams and his friends were singing about all along.

Jan. 21st, 2019

Airman 1971

Schools Out Forever

Well we got no choice
All the girls and boys
Making all that noise
‘Cause they found new toys
Well we can’t salute you, can’t find a flag
If that don’t suit you, that’s a drag
School’s out for summer
Schools out forever
School’s been blown to pieces.
(School’s Out: Alice Cooper & Michael Bruce – 1986)

In a former life, I was a classroom teacher. I don’t think about it often, but periodically scenes or sensations intrude on my thoughts when I see a picture or an object from that past life – a student composition book, an American History text, or an old-fashioned student desk. Seeing those objects often awaken ancient images and memories of former students and long ago events. Bizarre dreams are the most persistent reminder of the hold that teaching still has on me. I sometimes awaken from disturbing kaleidoscopic dreams of undisciplined students and teenagers not following my simplest directions. It really makes no sense that these illogical nightmares still haunt me, given the fact that of my entire 35-year career in education, I spent only the first 7 in the classroom as a teacher. The rest of my career was spent as an out-of-class coordinator, teacher advisor, dean, assistant principal, and principal. Yet I rarely have disturbing or nightmarish “principal” dreams. I wistfully suspect that these nonsensical, classroom dreams are the result of a high school student’s secret curse, called down on me for some arbitrary and capricious action I took against him or her, or for a thoughtless and hurtful sarcastic remark I made. Strangely, I probably have the fondest and clearest memories of my first two years of teaching, when I started my career as a high school teacher at my alma mater, St. Bernard High School, in January of 1972.

I had just been discharged from the Air Force after the death of my father, and I was looking for a full time job before settling on a career. It was only by chance when I learned that an old high school and college friend, Kathy Sigafoos, was teaching at St. Bernard that I went to visit her there. While catching up on events since college I discovered that she was leaving her position as a history teacher to go on childcare leave, and she encouraged me to apply. Until that moment I hadn’t really considered the idea of teaching as a job. I was still toying with the possibility of applying to a law school or graduate school, but the prospect of teaching intrigued me. It sounded much more appealing than returning to the job I held as a college student of burglar alarm technician for ADT Alarm Systems. Teaching was a respected “coat and tie” profession that offered the patina of maturity and adulthood, and it sounded “easy”. What could be simpler than teaching a group of high school teenagers, I thought naively. Even though I had never taught before, I wasn’t intimidated at the prospect. I had experienced so many incredibly boring teachers in high school, that I was convinced I could do a better job. I still shiver at the arrogance of my youth.

Looking back now, I’m amazed that I was hired in the first place – especially since learning of the apprehensions of the History Department Chairperson, Sister Marilyn Therese Rudy, who interviewed me for the job. Her preference, as she told me many years later, was to hire a more qualified and experienced teacher, but was overruled by the Principal at that time, Father Larry Dunphy. I don’t know what he saw in the wet-nosed college graduate, who tried so hard to sound confident and able in his ability to teach during the interview, but he took a chance on me, and Sister Marilyn made the best of it, and me. She provided constant, nurturing mentorship and guidance throughout my two years apprenticeship, and paired me up with a more talented and experienced history teacher in the department, Jerry Lenhard (and she would ultimately introduce me to my future wife, Kathleen). Yet, when I think back on those first trying years of teaching, it strikes me that I learned just as much from a handful of bright, yet difficult, students as from the wise mentors who looked out for me. Four students stand out still in my memory, each one providing me with lessons that I never forgot during all my years of teaching and supervising other teachers and schools. I even remember their names – Mike Miller, Astor Marchesini, Pam Kennedy, and Tom Villenueve.

I suppose I was lucky that my first exposure to teaching began in the Spring Semester of 1972, because it gave me five short months in which to make my first-year mistakes in learning how to teach and manage students, and then a summer to recover and improve. The first shock I had was dealing with failure and still coming back the next day to fail again. Teaching strategies failed, lessons failed, and I failed at getting students to respond the way I wanted them to. I arrogantly thought teaching would be easy – simply a matter of staying ahead of the students, and lecturing about what they read. I also wanted students to trust and like me, but believed that all I had to do to win them over was to show up, because certainly my humor, charm, and intelligence would be enough.  Effective teaching doesn’t work that way, and all these false assumptions led to continuous failures that first semester.

Students are masters of passive aggression. If they don’t trust the teacher, or buy the reasons for doing or learning something, they will stubbornly and subtly resist – but rarely overtly or defiantly. They wanted a good grade, but they also wanted to make a point. What I did not realize for a long time was that many of the brightest students in my classes resented the fact that I had replaced a popular teacher they liked and respected. It was as if they held me personally responsible for her pregnancy and childcare leave, and weren’t readily going to give me a break until I measured up. Two students in one of my U.S. History classes particularly stood out. Mike Miller was an intelligent, talkative, fresh-faced junior whose smiling face hid a snarky sense of humor that seemed to constantly popup in my class. I couldn’t tell if he was telling a joke or making fun of me with many of his remarks, and I always had a sense that he was judging me as a teacher. Astor Marchesini, on the other hand, was a quiet student, whose unruly curly hair gave him an air of sullen genius. Astor rarely spoke or volunteered information in class, except for a caustic statement here and there that teetered between sarcasm and rudeness. Over the course of the semester, I stayed one or two chapters ahead of the students and never had a serious confrontation until covering the Stock Market Crash of 1929. While struggling one day with a student’s question about the stock market, Astor loudly proclaimed that my answer was wrong. There was instant silence in the classroom as all heads turned to watch my reaction. It was a pivotal moment because Astor was challenging my knowledge in front of everyone, and only I knew that he was correct. Instead of admitting my inability to answer the question, I had guessed. I don’t know what guided me at that moment, but instead of feeling threatened or insulted by this teenager, I asked him, “Can you explain it?”
“Yes” he replied smugly, sitting back in his desk.
“Then come up here and explain it for us”, I urged, offering him the chalk in my hand. He looked around for a moment, and then sheepishly came up to the front of the class. Astor took the proffered chalk and did a great job. He clarified stocks, margins, and brokers, and their interconnectedness better than I ever could. That moment was illuminating for me on three levels: First, by giving Astor a chance to speak, he found his voice and became an active and constructive participant in all future class discussions; Second, it was foolish to bluff when I didn’t know the answer to a student’s question; and Third, there were a lot of smart students in my classes, and it was better to have them working with me than against me.

My second year at St. Bernard was a whole new experience. My concept of teaching had expanded from lecturing to learning. I wanted students to know and be able demonstrate their understanding of history by posing and discussing questions, forming answers, and defending their conclusions (especially in writing). I wanted students involved and participating in what was being learned. I was more confident in my lesson planning, learning strategies, and classroom management skills, and I believed I now had the trust and confidence of my students. However, the big surprise of my second year of teaching was having Mike Miller, accompanied by his constant companion Andy Gavel, stroll into my class on the first day of school to ask if he could be my teaching assistant (TA). I was dumbfounded. Granted, Mike was bright and clever enough for the job, but this was the annoying, smart-alecky kid who had been a pain in the ass the year before. I can’t explain why, but for some odd reason I was flattered by the request and I said yes. Mike proved to be a funny and capable TA, and we spent a lot of enjoyable time talking, laughing, and discussing all kinds of things during that semester. I couldn’t name what had changed in our relationship from the year before, until his grade counselor, Sister Carol Krommer, mentioned a remark he made. Mike confided to her that he was very impressed by how much I had improved as a teacher from the year before. I remember smiling at this bit of information, and replying that Mike was an amazingly observant student.

 My second year of teaching wasn’t all “dew drops on roses, and whiskers on kittens”. Some lessons didn’t work out, and some students didn’t respond the way I wanted them to. On particularly frustrating days, I would spend an hour after school rearranging the desks and lining them up in precise order. After doing this on many occasions, I came to realize that it was therapy because it gave me a temporary sense of order and control. One boy’s behavior in particular would precipitate many of these sessions. His name was Tom Villeneuve. He was a capable student in a class of incredibly brilliant sophomores, but I couldn’t get him to buy in and perform. In fact, I believed his sullen and unresponsive attitude, and his side remarks to the students around him were undermining the whole class. Finally on one singularly exasperating day, I asked him to stay after class. When the other students had departed I sat down on the desk next to him and sighed. I really didn’t know what to say, so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“Tom, why do you hate me so much?” I asked.
He stared at me in a stunned bewilderment for a minute, and then replied, “I thought you hated me?”
That declaration solved the puzzle and gave me a clue to the immense power and influence that teachers and their words have on children. Something I said or did in class had given Tom the impression and belief that I hated him. Neither of us could pinpoint when or what I had said or done, but it was enough to undermine the learning process and color his attitude toward the subject matter and me. We talked for a long time, and I finally managed to get him to laugh about our misconceptions of each other. He left the classroom smiling, and our relationship changed after that. It was as if we now shared a secret understanding of each other and were now friends. Tom’s behavior and attitude changed after that talk. He participated in class discussions, and I felt confident in calling on him more and more to elicit his ideas and opinions. I savored the success of our conference for a long time, but I hadn’t really digested the full impact of the power of a teacher’s actions and words on students. That came in another class, with another student.

I was teaching one elective history class to a large group of boisterous seniors. They were a likeable, raucous bunch that had figured out very quickly how to get on my good side, and get me off the instructional topic. At the beginning of many classes they would start asking questions about my day, my weekend activities, and my friends. I had gone to the same high school with many of their older siblings, so they felt free to ask personal questions and provide updates on their elder brothers and sisters. One student in particular excelled at these skills. Pam Kennedy was a tall, animated, dark haired student, with a sly, mischievous smile. I could never really tell what was behind her questions, but she was an excellent student, and despite her annoying curiosity, I gave her a lot of leeway in that class. One afternoon, when the class was especially boisterous and off task, Pam became upset with a boy sitting behind her. She bolted out of her desk, and while commanding the attention of the entire class, angrily unleashed a loud and animated scolding at the cowering boy. Warranted or not, I lost my temper at this violent interruption, and yelled at her.
“Miss Kennedy,” I shouted. “Sit down!”
“But he,” she began, turning towards me to explain herself.
“I don’t care!” I said, impatiently. “Sit down. You’re acting like a blubbering cow that’s been branded”.
The class burst into laughter at my sarcastic remark, and Pam sat down, her face blushing a deep crimson. She didn’t say a word for the rest of the hour. Later, when I thought about my anger, my remark, and the embarrassed look on Pam’s face, the worse I felt. I recalled my conversation with Tom and the devastating effects that a teacher’s words can have, and I was ashamed. It was the first time I knew that I had acted in an uncalled and unprofessional manner, and I needed to correct it. The next day, at the beginning of class, I asked for all the students’ complete attention and told them that what I had said to Miss Kennedy was rude, unprofessional, and unacceptable. I turned to her, and said, “Miss Kennedy, I’m deeply sorry for what I said and called you yesterday. I hope you can accept my apology?”
“I do, Mr. Delgado,” she replied. “Thank you.”
Gratefully, any hurt feelings from my remarks were soon forgotten, and Miss Kennedy retained her curiosity and resumed her questioning for the rest of the year.

It’s been over 35 years since those first semesters of teaching, but I remember them fondly, and I’ve never forgotten the lessons I learned, and the actions I regretted. In many ways, those first students made me a better person and teacher, when I took the time to listen and consider what they said. I’ve bumped into them on occasion, now much older of course, and keep in contact with a few through Facebook. However, I dismiss the fanciful notion that teachers’ have a lasting, Mr. Chips-like impact on the lives of their students. I suppose students remember some teachers fondly, but choose to forget many, many more. Curiously, some of the worst teachers I had, I remember best. I hope I was not in that number to the students I taught.

Jan. 14th, 2019

Family Portrait 2006

I Don’t Remember Getting Older

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember getting older,
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday when they were small?

Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,
Swiftly flow the days.
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blooming even as we gaze.
Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,
Swiftly fly the years.
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears.
(Sunrise Sunset: Bock & Harnick – 1964)

When do a father and mother realize that they have reached the tipping point of parenthood – that pivotal moment when their children are actually more knowledgeable and capable than they? Is there a certain age one reaches, or is it about diminishing mental capacities? Brain farts must certainly be one indicator, or perhaps the number of times you walk into a room and forget what brought you there. Maybe it is about getting older. I suppose I’ve always KNOWN that my two children, Tony and Teresa, had grown up and caught up to us. I’d watched them leave home for college, graduate, begin careers, marry, begin families, and buy their own homes. But it wasn’t until Kathy and I traveled with “Prisa” to New York City that it really hit me. It was there that I felt our roles had switched – the child was guiding the parent! You see, in the space of five months I have experienced that moment with both of our children in very different locales, Dublin and New York. Strange that it would take two cities, so far away from our homes in Los Angeles, to illicit a sense of a paradigm shift in our relations with our children.

The idea of traveling to New York with our daughter grew from a phone call she made to us on the night of last year's Golden Globe Awards. At the conclusion of the show on television, Prisa called us with news that the actor Jeff Daniels was starring in the new Aaron Sorkin Broadway production of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. After the phone call, Kathy tossed up the idea of taking Prisa to New York as a Christmas present. The more we talked and laughed about the idea, the more we realized that traveling to New York with our baby girl to see a new Broadway play was absurdly brilliant. That same evening we called her back with our proposition.

You need to understand that there is a special relationship between To Kill a Mockingbird and our daughter. It was the first novel I was ever able to convince Prisa to read. I did it by telling her that the central female character of the story, Scout, reminded me of her. I coaxed her into first seeing the movie version with Gregory Peck, and then tempted her into read the novel by saying that the book offered further tales and more information about the precocious tomboy, Scout. To date, I believe To Kill a Mockingbird is the only novel that Prisa read at my recommendation – and she loved it. I’m secretly convinced that she felt that Harper Lee was describing her and her relationship with her brother Tony in the story, and the book planted the seed of Prisa’s budding love of literature and the skill of writing. So the prospect of taking her to see a new production of the novel was an opportunity Kathy and I did not want to miss.

There was an assumption being made in that last sentence – that Kathy and I were taking our daughter to New York. It implies that we were in control and Prisa was coming as our guest. Now Kathy and I had been in New York City nine years earlier celebrating her 60th birthday. We had explored the city together, walking Uptown and Downtown, strolling through Central Park, and masterfully utilizing the subway to travel to the Bronx, the Battery, Wall Street, Columbia University, and Grand Central Station. We were confident in our sense of direction and remembered the street names and numbers we traveled. All of those abilities deserted us on the first day, the minute we stepped outside the Hilton Midtown Hotel on 6th Avenue. Even following the directions to Rockefeller Center, given by the hotel clerk, proved difficult. It wasn’t until Prisa stepped in, reading the Google map directions on her cell phone, which we found confusing, that we reached our destination. Over the two days Prisa stayed with us, I can only imagine her shaking her head in amusement over our directionless antics, and our wishy-washy decision-making. The second day in Manhattan, after visiting the 9-11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center and walking over to the Brookfield Place shopping mall on West Street to look for a place to eat lunch, I was overwhelmed by the size and seeming confusion of the food court. Once again Prisa took over, guiding us to an empty table overlooking the Hudson River and the New Jersey shore, and telling us to sit there until she had scouted the various offerings and came back with recommendations. Later, after taking a carriage ride through Central Park together, I imagined that she felt a great sense of relief at safely depositing her two parents back at the hotel, and went off to explore Manhattan on her own.

Traveling to New York to see a new Broadway play was a dream come true for me, and having Prisa there to share the experience made the whole evening magical. Yet, even while walking to Broadway, through Times Square, on our last evening together, we were totally dependant on Prisa’s guidance and directions to find The Blue Fin Restaurant for dinner and the Shubert Theatre for the play. Despite the fine meal, the great play, and the fabulous conversation before and after the play, I could not dispel a nagging sense of uselessness, and the feeling that an oceanic tidal shift in our relationship with our children had occurred.

I had felt a hint of this shifting landscape in Ireland, four months earlier, when Kathy and I met up with Toñito and his wife Nikki in Dublin for dinner. Kathy had been planning our return trip to Ireland for a year, and we were surprised to learn that Tony and Nikki had decided to visit Scotland and Ireland at about the same time in September. I believe it was Kathy who first floated the prospect of trying to meet up in Dublin, if our timelines and itineraries matched up. At first, I dismissed the idea as a fanciful wish and assumed Tony and Nikki would concentrate on their plans and around their own schedule and interests. So I was surprised when Toñito called Kathy sometime in August asking for the specific dates we would be in Ireland to see if he could coordinate a reunion. After much discussion with his mother, it was decided that he would try to meet us for dinner on our last night in Dublin, October 1. Even through Kathy never got a clear picture of Tony and Nikki’s specific travel plans in Scotland, she fixed on the idea of our reunion and believed it would take place. I, on the other hand, must confess of being a pessimist about nebulous plans actually working out, and throughout our travels in Ireland, whenever I asked Kathy for specific information about Tony’s itinerary and received a shrug with an “I’m not sure” response, my dubiousness multiplied. I tried dismissing the nagging suspicion that this reunion would never actually take place, and concentrated on enjoying my trip through Ireland with Kathleen.

You have to realize that Toñito was a sweet boy growing up. He was always thoughtful and considerate to his sister and us throughout his childhood, youth, and young adulthood. He shared his toys and sporting equipment with Teresa, included her in all his games and computer activities, and spent countless hours reading to her, and listening to her early attempts. He remembers birthdays and holidays, and always makes a point of attending family functions, celebrations, and weddings. But as often happens in the lives of maturing men and adults, new relationships, responsibilities, and personal interests and habits begin to dominate and take precedence. Tony follows his own schedule and pursues his own way of doing things. I suspected that Toñito would do what I would have done in his place while traveling with Nikki in Scotland – while always having the intention of making the reunion on October 1st, the dictates of time, travel, and hardship would determine if he ever actually made it. I had experienced first hand the trials of train and automobile driving in Ireland, so I could imagine that the difficulties of crossing the Irish Sea and traveling into Dublin on a specific afternoon and evening would cause him to give up. It is what I would do.

On our last day in Dublin, Kathy and I did some last minute separate sightseeing, packing, and waited for Toñito and Nikki to notify us of their arrival in Ireland. We waited and waited, with Kathy never doubting, and stoutly putting up with my pessimistic vibes and comments, as I got hungry and then sleepy after two cocktails. At about 8 o’clock Tony finally called to tell Kathleen that they had arrived at a seaside bed and breakfast to the north of Dublin and planned on driving into the city. Kathy advised them to forgo the driving and instead taking the DART electric train to a station close to our hotel. Although it seemed to me that her suggestions were only complicating things further, Tony agreed and said he would meet us there. At about 9 o’clock we walked to Pearse Station, keeping a look out for Tony and Nikki on the multiple elevated tracks. As one, and then two trains arrived, Kathy said in an excited voice, “There he is!” and I too spotted the tall standing figure through the window of the train. Tony and Nikki had made it after all.

There is something special about meeting up and dining with loved ones, and close family members and friends in a distant or foreign city, far from home. The unlikelihood of such a reunion gives it a magical air and a timeless feeling. Watching Toñito descending on the station elevator changed the ambiance and tone of the evening for me. By overcoming time, distance, and hardships, Tony had achieved what I considered impossible for myself. At the nearby Kennedy’s Restaurant and Bar we laughed and talked together all evening. Tony and Nikki recounted their travels in Scotland and sought our suggestions about possible sites in Dublin. I smiled happily throughout the evening, listening to the talk and descriptions, but was a bit surprised at Tony’s response when I voiced my doubts about this reunion actually taking place. He laughed kindly as he put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Of course we were going to make it tonight, Dad! I wouldn’t miss celebrating your birthday in Ireland.”

So on two happy and magical evenings, in two faraway cities, spending private time with our son and daughter made me feel a little nostalgic of times long past. I loved the fact that we were together, talking about our travels through Dublin and New York, and the new theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. We discussed, agreed and disagreed about things, and spent much of the time laughing and smiling, but there was also a bitter sweet aura of time having passed us by – that Kathy and I were no longer as capable and able as we once were. We weren’t the primary caretakers. Over time, Toñito and Prisa had gently usurped that title. They had families, careers, homes, and futures, and they organized and managed their time based on changing demands and responsibilities. They were now the grownups, and were far more capable of traveling, negotiating new cities, and making quick decisions than Kathy or I. I suppose this sad realization would have come to us eventually, but I’m glad it happened when it did – in the company of our children, in two special places.

Nov. 18th, 2018


Rewarding Actions

Spider-Man, Spider-Man
Does whatever a spider can
Spins a web, any size
Catches thieves just like flies

Spider-Man, Spider-Man
Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man
Wealth and fame
He’s ignored
Action is his reward

To him, life is a great big bang up
Where ever there’s a hang up
You’ll find the Spider-Man
(Spider-Man theme song: Paul Webster & Robert Harris – 1967)

The death of Stan Lee, a founding member of the triumvirate who wrote and illustrated Marvel Comics in the 1960’s, was announced on Monday, November 12, 2018.  He was 95 years old. The idea of writing about him didn’t really occur to me until I read the memorial Facebook posts of my brother, Eddie Delgado, and my nephew, Tim Holiday, and I reflected on the generational impact that Marvel comics had on all of us, old and young. Stan Lee and his creative partners changed the landscape of the comic book universe and ushered in the advent of the graphic novel and the live action super hero movies of the last 30 years. However, for me, and I believe my 5 siblings (Arthur, Stela, Gracie, Eddie, and Alex), comics represented the first connection between having the ability to read and reading for personal enjoyment, and the joys of family bonding.

Before I begin, however, let me again put forth a disclaimer about writing a piece about events that happened long ago in our family. All memoirs are suspect because in writing about old memories, the author constructs a personal narrative of past events, even though hazy and jumbled ones, that makes sense to him now, decades after they occurred. Each of my 5 brothers and sisters shared in the events I describe, but how we remember them, and their sequence, will vary greatly. The following is my personal perspective of the events surrounding comic books and how I viewed them, but I would heartily welcome more input from my brothers and sisters on this subject, through email or conversation.

I’ve been a comic book fan since the time I was able to read. My introduction to them came by way of my Uncle Charlie, and two aunts, Lisa and Espee, who were only 3 to 7 years older. They had purchased and stockpiled comics for years and my siblings and I were allowed to see and read them when we came to visit our grandmother’s home. There we found Walt Disney comics, Archie comics, and the early heroes of the goliath publishing company, D.C. comics. A myriad of superheroes were developed by D.C. – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Super boy, Super girl, Aqua Man, and Green Arrow. Yet, at that time, despite a seemingly plethora of comics on the market and a ready audience of readers, this artistic genre suffered from a generational prejudice. Except for a few enlightened adults, many children and teenagers were forbidden to buy or read them by their parents, and other adults of their generation. I suppose this was an extreme overreaction to the previous style of comic books, which illustrated lurid crime stories, violence, and scantily clad women. My mom and our teachers (who were nuns in our grade schools) forbade the presence of comics in our home and at school, despite our pleas that D.C. comics were wholesome and decent (even arguing that “D.C.” stood for “Decent Comics”). So to be in possession of a comic book was pretty risky for a kid in those early days. I would only read them while visiting my grandparents’ house, in the company of my uncle and aunts. However, that changed in 1958 when I was 10 years old and we moved to our home on Yale Avenue in Venice, California.

Since we were now separated by time and distance from our grandparents’ home in Lincoln Heights, we lost ready access to comics. So, during our first summer in Venice, we pleaded with our mother to allow us to BORROW comics from our uncle and aunts, and return them later. Our Dad, we discovered, had been a comic book reader in his youth, and we recruited him as an advocate in this argument. Our Mom finally relented, with the stipulation that we were forbidden to BUY comics ourselves. Later that summer, my siblings and I managed to expand on this ruling that forbad the PURCHASE of comics, to be allowed to BARTER for them with the neighborhood children on our block whose parents were not as adamant. We would trade bags filled with the peaches and apricots that grew in abundance in our backyard for comics. That was a glorious summer, and for the first time in our lives we finally had an almost boundless supply of comics.

 D.C. comics were the standard of the age during the 1950’s, and I was a wholehearted fan of Super Man, Super Boy, and Super Girl, Batman and Robin, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Green Arrow – they were all my heroes and I consumed their graphic tales greedily. However, the problem with reading a steady flow of those comics was that their repetitive plots were soon exposed as formulaic and predictable: Super heroes are confronted with a wily or powerful anti-hero, or arch villain enemy (Super Man versus Lex Luther or Brainiac, Batman versus Joker or the Penguin); they battle back and forth, with the arch-villain at the point of victory, until the superhero suddenly turned the tables and defeated the villain. D.C. comic stories were also too short, with flat, one-dimensional heroes. Each comic book would be a collection of two or three graphic stories. A Batman comic, for example, would contain one featured story of Batman and Robin, and then two minor stories of Green Arrow and the Martian Man-hunter, J’onn J’onzz. The stories were exciting, but not very satisfying. They lacked complexity and little background information about the heroes or the villains. My siblings and I did not have much to discuss about these stories or characters after finishing the comic, so we just speculated on their back-stories and their powers. Although I didn’t stop reading D.C. Comics, I filled my need for fuller tales and complex plots by reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s paperback novels of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars.

 In high school during the 60’s, my mom finally relented and allowed us to buy our own comics. I assume this was because, by that time, all of us had become voracious readers of popular and more classic novels from the library and used bookstores, and she no longer viewed comics as a threat. It was in those selected Liquor stores that specialized in comic books that we finally encountered the new Marvel Comic books. It was a revelation to discover a different graphic style of illustration and a whole new writing approach to superheroes and their stories. Marvel was totally different from D.C. Comics, and addressed all their weaknesses. Marvel comics seemed longer, divided into three chapters and dealing with one new superhero, or a band of superheroes – The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and Spiderman. These longer stories usually did not reach a culminating climax in one comic book, but ended with a cliff-hanging event that had to be continued in the next issue. Marvel comics were serials that continued for two or three issues. At first these delays were frustrating, but we quickly realized that the interval allowed for fuller character development of the heroes. Stan Lee treated his characters as would a novelist or short story writer, but on an illustrated format. His protagonists and antagonists were complex, and sometimes conflicted individuals. He gave them back-stories, personal problems, and conflicts with each other, or the characters they interacted with. Plus, the Marvel stable of superheroes just kept growing and growing, with the addition of Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and the X-Men. It was a marvelous time to read comics. The Marvel universe eventually overwhelmed the D.C. world of comics and soon dominated the industry for decades.

There are countless benefits to being a member of a large, multi-generational family, but the one I’m sure we all agree on, is buying comics in a group. When we went shopping for Marvel comics, the original four siblings (me, Arthur, Stela, and Gracie) would buy them together, each of us selecting a different super hero. One visit to the comic/liquor store would garner 4 comics – Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, or Spiderman. We would be in comic book heaven for a month, and then do it again the following month. It was a great way to stimulate early readership in our two younger siblings, Eddie and Alex. They had a huge backlog of comics to read as soon as they learned how, and they developed a lifelong connection with Marvel comics, and the graphic novels that followed. In fact, by the time I had graduated from college and returned home from the Air Force, and my interest in comics was waning, Eddie and Alex introduced me to the second generation of Marvel heroes. Taking the two of them to the comic/liquor became a special treat for me. Their excitement at choosing their own comic was contagious, and their interest always went in directions different from mine, but I got to read their choices. Where my favorites were still the early Marvel characters, they went beyond to include Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, and Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Stan Lee’s passing is a sad reminder of the marvelous beginnings of a genre that evolved into the current action movies that dominate the film industry. Hopefully, the creative actions of the founding trio of Marvel Comics, the writer/editor, Stan Lee, and the illustrators, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, rewarded them with great wealth. But regardless of their financial success, they created a benchmarking graphic universe that inspired millions of young readers to dream, imagine, and create. Rest in Peace, Stan Lee.

Nov. 12th, 2018

My publications in Instagram for last week

Transfered from instagram

Nov. 1st, 2018

Calavera de la Muerte

One Day at a Time

You've got to live your religion
Deep inside, when you try
For the kingdom on high
By His grace, by His grace

Open your mind to the wisdom
When you try for the kingdom, on high
By His grace, by His grace

Open your heart to the wisdom
In your mind when you try
For the kingdom on high
By His grace, by His grace

One day at a time, you got to try
Open your eye, it will come
By and by, when you try
By His grace, by His grace
By His grace, by His grace.

(By His Grace: Van Morrison – 1990)

Last year, when visiting my mother, or calling her on the phone, she always mentioned my participation in the Catholic jail ministry.
“Are you still going to the jails?” She would ask in Spanish.
After replying that I went regularly on Mondays, she would pause for a moment, as if considering the best way to respond.
“You know”, she would finally resume, “visiting people in jail is one of the Church’s Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. It’s a wonderful thing to do. I’m very proud of you.”
“It’s not a big deal” I always replied. “I just show up.”

I mention this interaction with my mom because I recently called Gonzalo de Vivero, the Co-director of the Office of Restorative Justice for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to tell him I was ending my involvement as a facilitator in his Finding the Way program. I had volunteered for this program in 2009, when he was the Catholic Chaplain at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. Gonzalo befriended me and guided my early training and involvement in working with the incarcerated men in jail. Over those nine years I met, and worked with, some exceptional and inspiring men and women, occasionally writing about our experiences in this blog. I discovered that the volunteers and the incarcerated men we worked with had much in common – we were all flawed human beings, searching for ways to change and be better people. My involvement was never predicated on my success in changing their lives. I simply showed up and spent a few hours talking with them about finding our way to happier, more satisfying lives. I believe I always benefitted more from these encounters than the men I served. I just showed up, year after year, Monday after Monday, until my mom’s stroke last year, when I asked Gonzalo for a leave to help my sister care for her. My most recent conversation with Gonzalo was awkward because I couldn’t give him a clear reason for not returning. He’d understood my need for a leave to care for my mom, and then more time to process her death, but now I was struggling to explain that something had changed in me during the course of the year and I felt the need to move on. I could not visualize going back to what I once did and who I once was, before my mother’s illness and death. What was doubly confusing was a nagging sense that there was a connection of sorts with my mom’s death and jail ministry. A connection I could not yet explain.

October and November loomed as very intimidating months for me this year because of the emotional significance of certain days. October 17th was my mother’s birthday, when she would have turned 94. In 1971, my father died on November 1, celebrated as All Saints’ Day in the Catholic tradition and Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. It is also the day my mom suffered her precipitating stroke, which led to her death on November 22, 2017. I thought I was immune to the physiological effects that momentous dates such as these can have on people. I was never one to ascribe moods, or feelings of joy or depression to any particular date or time. In fact, Kathy has to remind me of birthdays, anniversaries, or commemorative dates, or I forget them. Somehow this year was different. I found myself feeling disconnected from people and events, and pondering the idea of grief, and how I have dealt (or not dealt) with it. In trying to get a handle on this subject, and putting words to my feelings, I sought out two sources – The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, and A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis. Although the things Joan Didion said struck closer to home (perhaps because of her more secular perspective on the subject), Lewis was remarkably concrete in his own descriptions, which sounded similar to many of the reactions and sensations I had experienced after my mother’s stroke and death.

There is a feeling that everything changes with the death of a parent – that nothing will ever be the same again. Foremost there is a sense of emptiness and loss because something is absent, or someone is missing. Despite our most determined efforts, we flounder at grasping the cause, or giving it a name – even when it is obvious: dad is gone, and mom is dead, and we are orphans. “The death of a parent”, Joan Didion quoted, “despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections.”

I suppose I navigated the first tumultuous months after my mother’s death by surrounding myself and staying in touch with people I loved: Kathy, my children, grandchildren, siblings, and friends. They were real, they were concrete, and they grounded me in the present. I also continued a practice I started after my mother’s stroke. Once it became obvious that her worsening conditon required around the clock observation and care, I would call my sister Stela on a daily basis to see how she was handling the primary burden, and visiting her two or three times a week to allow her some free time away from my mom’s care. At first I thought I was doing this for Stela’s sake, but as mom’s condition worsened with the encroaching specter of death, being with Stela, and talking to her about what we were experiencing, brought me a great deal of emotional reassurance and solace. After the funeral, I continued the practice, which gave me the chance to stay in touch with Stela as she hunted for and found an apartment, and settled into a separate existence, independent of our mom. Visiting with Stela allowed me to speak openly about the uncertainties of correctly handling mom’s care and illness, the absence caused by her death, and how we were dealing with loss and grief. I even started hoping that this continuing connection with friends and family would act as my therapy in dealing with grief. The trouble with grief, however, is trying to figure out what it is.

“Grief”, Joan Didion writes, “turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes”. I experienced these moments of “magical thinking” that come with grief for many years after the death of my father. Perhaps because I was so young at the time, and absent at the moment of his death in 1971, that I firmly believed I saw my father driving next to me in cars as I traveled to work on the freeways. I had to fight the impulse of following this car and confronting the driver, whom I was sure was my father. I assume these “magical” sightings did not occur after my mother’s death because I had been an active witness to her dying process, and knew that she was gone.

C.S. Lewis grappled with grief by describing it in metaphors. “Grief” he wrote, “is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” Then he shifted his view and described it differently. “For in grief”, he added, “nothing ‘stays put’. One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?” Didion also employed metaphor when observing grief. “Grief” she wrote, “is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” All of these descriptions felt familiar to me as the months went by after my mother’s death, and I believed that the only way to survive the grief and sorrow I was experiencing, was to live through it. Paradoxically, assistance came in the form of four more sorrows.

The old superstitious belief that deaths come in threes didn’t quite hold up in my mother’s case.
In the months following the death of my mother I was visited by the deaths of four friends and relatives. In December I learned of the passing of a dear friend and colleague, who had been an administrator and principal with me in the LAUSD. Johanna Kunes’ death was followed in March with news of the eminent death of my brother-in-law and longtime friend, Danny Holiday. Then I learned of the death of two relatives, my paternal aunt, Helen Delgado, and my last surviving maternal uncle, Eduardo (Lalo) Villalpando. Each of these deaths, following, it seemed to me, so soon on the heels of my mother’s passing affected me in very different ways. Johanna’s death filled me with a sadness that bordered on anger at the loss of such a close friend, confidant, and contemporary who had shared so many of the trials, frustrations, and joys of being an educator in Los Angeles. Danny’s surprising illness and subsequent death shocked me with the realization of the frailty of life and my own denial of the mortality of friends of my own age. Helen’s death was a reminder that my father’s siblings were quickly disappearing, but Lalo’s death, on the other hand, filled me with a tragic sorrow with the realization that the Villalpando family – my mother, and all her many brothers and sisters whom I knew in my childhood and youth – was gone. My response to all of these deaths was to write about these men and women so as to remember them and the times and experiences we shared. I took Lewis’ advice that “what we work out in our journals we don’t take out on family and friends”. To alleviate the sorrow of loss and the absence of these loved ones, I wrote, and wept, and remembered.

Last week, at Kathy’s suggestion, we invited our daughter and son-in-law, Teresa and Joe McDorman, to come with their two daughters to share in a Dia de los Muertos activity. We invited them to bring photographs of Joe’s parents, and combine them with photos of Kathy and my parents to create family remembrance shadow boxes as “dia de los muertos altars” for Sarah and Gracie’s deceased great-grandparents. The activity gave us all the opportunity to share photos and tell stories of these recent ancestors who had passed away, but will always be remembered, as long as we make an effort to recall them. Didion concluded her book by writing, “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. ” In the process, of that afternoon, with my wife, daughter, and granddaughters around me, I suppose, I finally said goodbye to my mother, with the resolution that I would continue to recall her and my father on the anniversaries of their deaths, and on Dia de los Muertos.

As to why I was leaving the jail ministry I was involved in for so long, the only conclusion I could reach harkened back to what I said earlier about everything changing after the death of a parent. Sadly, I think, many relationships and activities become casualties after a life-altering death. Routines are changed, habits are altered, and acquaintances drift apart. Yet, I also believe that although many things come to an end, we try to move forward, “one day at a time, by His grace, by His grace”.

Oct. 12th, 2018

A Terrible Beauty

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
This is heavens part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them til they died?
I write it out in verse –
MacDonah and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
(Easter, 1916: W.B. Yeats – 1916)

Any essay about a voyage taken begs the question, why? Why write about a journey to a foreign land, or a trip to a far off isle? Is it to describe the sights, and the cities, towns, and villages we saw and visited, so as to induce others to follow in our path, or is it to give others some points for comparison? Why write about it at all? Why not just experience the trip, savor it, and remember it? I’ve pondered these questions since returning to Los Angeles, and the only answer I can come up with is this: I write in order to process and make sense of the thoughts, feelings, and reactions I experienced why traveling through Ireland. I was confronted by so many surprises, sensations, ideas, and questions about this country and its people, that it seemed impossible to encapsulate, when asked, “How was your trip?” I felt the need to figure it out before I could answer the question. I had to make sense of the whole experience for myself. Every tourist walks away from a city, town, or country they visit with their own opinion of the land, people, sights, and food. Some even write travel books about it. This is not a travel book. I don’t want to list all the places we visited, the sights we saw, and describe and evaluate them. I simply want to describe my impressions of Ireland and be able to cite the things I learned about it and myself. So that is my task, and, hopefully, what you will read.

Kathleen and I just completed my second trip to Ireland in three years. The first was in late December of 2015 to celebrate our 40th Wedding Anniversary, and the latest in September to celebrate my 71st birthday. The real purpose of this trip was to complete the tour we had originally planned in 2015, but which had been unceremoniously cut short by a medical emergency that necessitated my spending four days in St. James Hospital (see The Irish Sage; or Do You Love an Apple). So after two attempts, I can honestly say that I come away from this land of rugged beauty and harsh history with barely a novice’s impression of Ireland, its history, and its people. I also recognized in Ireland the attractive native characteristics I had all ready detected in all the Irish-American friends I made over the years, and in the Irish-American family I married into. I encountered these traits throughout the island – in their friendliness and charm, their openness and willingness to help, their self-deprecating humor and love of travel, and their songs and laughter. Despite the difficulties of driving and travel, and relocating into three cities and one village, Ireland felt like home. I know it sounds strange coming from a Mexican-American, with strong ancestral ties to Mexico and Mexico City, but it many ways Ireland, its history, and its people felt like home to me.

Our 14 day excursion of Ireland involved stays at four locations, plus travel: Dublin (4 days), Galway (3 days), Ballyvaughan (2 days), Kilkenny (2 days), and Dublin again (3 days). Of all the many positive aspects of the trip, I was only really ambivalent about the travel involved. We journeyed by plane, train, automobile, bus, and foot. Of these different modes of transportation, airport security, the long airplane rides, and driving on the left side of the road were the most arduous for me. I was searched at each of our two airport security stations at LAX and Heathrow Airport, and a third time as one of the unfortunate victims of a “random search” before I was about to board our plane for the trip home. I will never be able to overcome my immense dislike of having to unpack and separate designated electronic devices from ones carry-on luggage, and practically disrobe (okay, that’s an exaggeration) of coat, jacket, belt, and shoes. It’s a tiresome necessity, I know, but it’s such a hassle, and it always prompts me to nostalgically recall the blissful days when we dressed up in coat and tie to fly, and one simply sauntered into the airport and casually boarded your plane to assume a roomy and comfortable seat. Adding to theses hassles was my inability to sleep comfortably during an eight and eleven hour plane ride. Even the luxury of 1st Class accommodations did little to mitigate my inability to sleep dreamlessly and uninterrupted. But even the discomforts of airplane travel paled before the hair-raising, white-knuckled reality of driving on the left side of the road, in cars with the steering wheel on the wrong side.

So let my get this second peeve out of the way. On my first outing in a rented, Irish vehicle on the outskirts of Galway, I sideswiped a parked truck with my left side-view mirror. I then spent the next hour on a wide double-lane highway in Connemara, enroute to the town of Clifden, in terrified silence – searching for road signs and speed limits, and concentrating on keeping my vehicle in the middle of the lane, while fighting the tendency to drift to the left. It was a nerve-wracking experience that allowed no time for sightseeing, conversation, or the notion of making photo stops at scenic vistas or locales. I was a man on a mission – get us to our destination as soon as possible, alive, and without further damage to the car. Irish-American Kathleen, on the other hand, seemed to meld right into the art of driving and had little trouble adjusting. When she drove, she pointed out the scenery, conversed naturally about the sights and their characteristics – pointing out the rock fences, the loughs of Connemara, and the thatched roof houses we passed along the way. She took single one-lane roads in stride, never blanching when confronted with wide, on-coming buses and trucks, and casually pulling over to the side of the road to inspect first hand the ruined monasteries, chapels, towers, and beaches she saw along the way. Having gotten those two personal peeves off my chest, let me just add that the trip would not have been possible or successful without the necessary tribulations of airplane travel and driving.

Traveling by train from Dublin to Galway was especially delightful and it allowed us to experience the quick transition from a bustling, cosmopolitan city to the rural countryside of Ireland. The change was shocking. Ten minutes out of Dublin on a smooth, modern, and seemingly motionless train, and suddenly one is presented with the pastoral beauty of Ireland – lush green meadows, and pocket-sized pastures with huge cattle, and black-faced sheep, all divided by fenced in barriers. The trip Dublin to Galway took less than 2 hours, and yet it seemed to present a variety of scenes and vistas that would take days in California: pastures, meadows, villages, towns, rivers, forests, and loughs. It was breathtaking in its scenic rapidity.

Once arrived at our destinations, walking, with the occasional need for motorized travel, fleshed out the tour. Dublin, Galway, and Kilkenny are flat cities and meant to be walked and inspected by eye and foot. Each was unique, with its own feel and charm. Dublin was the first and last of our stops, and in many ways the most significant. I was already somewhat familiar with Dublin from our first trip, having previously spent two full days walking through its various sections – St. Stephen’s Green, Grafton Street, Trinity College, the River Liffey, O’Connell Street, the Abbey Theatre, Temple Bar, and Dublin Castle – and traveling throughout the city on the Hop on Hop off Bus Tour, and stopping at the Guinness Storehouse. On this occasion we expanded on these points to include visits to specific locales near the bus stops: Merrion Square, the General Post Office (GPO), the Book of Kells, and various museums and pubs. We would also visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Teeling Whiskey Distillery, and Kilmainham Gaol. The overwhelming sense of Dublin is its political, economic, and cultural significance, and its role in Irish history, independence, and tragedy – the sum of which I will touch upon in my conclusion.

In all the previous tales I’d heard about traveling in Ireland from reliable past travelers (Kathleen and my friend Jim Riley) there was one consistent narrative – to fully appreciate the rugged beauty of the land, and the charm of its people, one had to travel west out of Dublin, and explore the counties of Galway and Clare, while visiting the regions of Connemara, the Burren, and the Cliffs of Moher. The city of Galway was a delightful contrast to Dublin. It was smaller, quaint, and more approachable. Kathy had masterfully booked us into The Jurys Inn Hotel, so we were situated on the banks of the River Corrib, near the Spanish Arch, and the old fishing Claddagh section, at the entrance to Galway Bay. We were also next door to the Latin Quarter of town, with its plethora of restaurants, pubs, shops, and jewelry stores. This made eating and shopping incredibly easier than in Dublin, and the city was centrally located to the regions we wanted to explore by car – Connemara, and the Burren and Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Galway was also significant because it signaled the throwing out of our fixed itinerary to a more spontaneous selection of places to see and visit. Since the day we picked up our rental car was so sunny and clear, we impulsively decided to set out on the national highway toward Clifden, a seaside town in the Connemara region, and then work our way back to Galway along the Atlantic seacoast. When we were about halfway there, we serendipitously decided to make a rest stop at a village called Maam Cross. There, Kathy engaged a hostess at the nearby hotel to discuss travel options and directions. Annie, was another of the countless Irishwomen and men we encountered on the trip who went out of their way to be helpful and friendly. This was not merely a verbal transaction to gain useful information; it became an introduction to a full conversation of past and present circumstances, ending in friendship. Annie advised cutting our trip short and heading south through the Connemara region on small roads, which allowed better viewings of the area, and then traveling along the Atlantic coast toward Galway, stopping at the seaside villages of Spiddal or Furbo for lunch. There was little traffic on the roads, and with Kathy driving, we were able to slowly and comfortably take in the sights of the countryside, with its rock walls, lush green pastures, and nearby loughs.

I’ve always kidded Kathleen about her TMI tendency – her proclivity of revealing or volunteering Too Much Information about herself, her children, or me, in her casual encounters with strangers. I’ve always considered it a personal weakness and would never have recognized it a national trait. But in Ireland this tendency was rampant in the people we meant and spoke with. In every city and in every any situation we encountered Irish men and women who always welcomed a verbal encounter to learn about us, and to share their own stories, travels, and counsel. We met these citizens in hotel lobbies, lounges, stores, pubs, and on the streets of cities, towns, and villages of Ireland. And after all of these encounters I walked away learning more about the person we met than what we revealed. We learned about Dublin’s problems with affordable housing from a young Dot Com data manager with a growing family, and the fact that Kilkenny was the primary “stag and hen” destination city for bachelor and bachlorette parties from a lounging smoker in Ballyvaughan. In fact, during a musical interlude in Dublin’s O’Donough’s Pub, a stranger named John expounded on this Irish proclivity of sharing stories and giving friendly advice to strangers as a paradoxical byproduct of their harsh and brutal treatment at the hands of the British. “Ask anyone on the street for help”, he volunteered in accented brogue, “they’ll always take the time to guide and direct you. That’s our nature”. Kathy, of course, was in her element in all these encounters that allowed her to tell stories of her own. She would stop strangers in the street without a moment’s hesitation – questioning a covey of uniformed schoolgirls on their way home, or chatting with a bride and bridesmaids on their way to a wedding in Kilkenny. In every conversational encounter with Irish men, women, or children, the informational scales always tipped in our favor.

In many ways my Irish-American mentors, Kathleen and Jim Riley, were right. I found MY Ireland in the West – specifically in the village of Ballyvaughan, the Burren region of County Clare, and the Cliffs of Moher. Connemara was truly lovely in its pastoral landscapes, but nothing compared to the desolate, stony terrain of the Burrens, and the craggy beauty of the plunging seaside cliffs of Moher. These regions called forth memories of my native California when I first discovered the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Coast along Highway 1, and the sparse mysteries of the desert. But while I usually traveled these Californian terrains by car, the west of Ireland invited them to be walked and meditated upon. Walking along the Cliffs of Moher was a religious pilgrimage of sorts that I felt compelled to make. I had seen old photographs of Kathleen, my teenaged son Tony, and my niece Maggie Denison, during their first visits to Ireland, standing on these cliffs that also seemed to beckon me. The imperative to join their number demanded my obeisance, and I walked the long, worn, cliff-side trail in reverent silence – speaking only once to ask a fellow pilgrim to take my photo with the craggy cliffs in the background. Ballyvaughan stood in dramatic counterpoint to the robust landscapes of Moher and the Burrens. It was a tranquil village that invited you to pause and breathe slowly, allowing your heart rate to lower to a dreamlike level. A walk from our hotel to the seaside dock, with Monk’s Pub standing sentinel, saw the color and look of the scenery change every hour, and at each tide. The weather could vary with a blink of an eye – shifting from sunny and bright, to dark and misty. There was a timeless quality to the air that called forth thoughts of mythical Brigadoon, the romantic village that appeared once every 100 years. And at night, one could see the lights of Galway city slowly come alive across the bay, and twinkle their greetings to the neighboring county. It was a village and a region I hated to leave, and swore to remember.

The most significant change in our itinerary was substituting Kenmare and the Ring of Kerry for a two-day stay in the medieval town of Kilkenny. After our earlier trials with driving, we decided to forego the longer drive to Kenmare, for a shorter one to Kilkenny, which would also shorten our ultimate ride back to Dublin. It was this castle town with its winding, romantic river, and countless churches and cathedrals, that brought out the song in my traveling companion. While strolling along the medieval walkways during our first afternoon in Kilkenny we espied a picturesque restaurant called Kytellers Inn. There Kathy noticed a sign advertising its musical schedule for the night. For the past week she had scanned the front of every pub we passed in Dublin and Galway, futilely listening and looking for signs of Irish music – all to no avail. She was not about to pass up this final opportunity, so clearly marked and advertised. So later that evening we returned to Kytellers Inn for dinner and music, and I witnessed a musical colleen come alive in Kathleen. I’ve seen Kathy’s face radiating happiness and joy on numerous occasions – while watching her children and grandchildren cavorting on the beach, or walking into the silent beauty of an old church – but I’ve rarely seen her whole body sway and vibrate like a tuning fork while listening to the singing of Irish ballads. We stayed for the entire set of the group called Drops of Green, and I left with an exhausted, but elated companion.

Dublin was where our travels started and where they ended – beginning with our stay at The Alex Hotel near Merrion Square and Trinity College, and ending with an immensely sweet reunion with our son Tony and his wife Nikki, who had flown in from Scotland.  There is something special about meeting up with a family member in a foreign country, away from the normal boundaries and routines of home. Despite the difficulties of merging two diverse travel itineraries, we managed to connect with Tony and Nikki at the Pearse St. Station, around the corner from our hotel, and take them to dinner at Kennedy’s Pub in Dublin. Although the capital city lacks the picturesque beauty of Galway or Kilkenny, it remains the historical, cultural, and economic cornerstone of the country. During any leisurely walk along its streets one can’t help stumbling over an artifact or footnote of historical or artistic significance: The General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street, where the Easter Rebellion began; St. Stephen Green and the Shelbourne Hotel where Irish insurgents battled the British Army; or Kilmainham Jail, where the Easter rebels were imprisoned and later executed. These were the streets that Michael Collins traversed by bicycle, directing the IRA’s undermining war against the British Empire that finally brought it to its knees. Simply strolling through Merrion Square brings you to the former residences of W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde, and crossing the River Liffey brings you to the Abbey Theatre, the Mecca of Irish literary arts. Gazing into a shop window when leaving Kennedy’s Pub brought me face to face with a display proclaiming it as the store where Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s fictional hero of Ulysses, purchased a bar of soap for his wife Molly on June 16, 1904. All these locales and literary footnotes seemed to point to a sorrowful past and a people’s continuing attempt to sublimate it into something artistically and historically redeeming. Still, Dublin is a modern city that struggles with modern problems. Although its economy is rebounding mightily from the Economic Recession of 2009, when the Celtic Tiger collapsed, the city grapples with a bulging workforce. Ironically, while there are jobs to be had in Dublin, there is insufficient room to house its growing population. This points to the final characteristic I found in many of my encounters with Irishmen, young and old. So many of the men I met and spoke with in Ireland had lived and worked in Los Angeles, California, and other parts of the United States. In every encounter their stories were the same: not enough work in Ireland, outside of Dublin, and encountering visa problems in the States which prevented their return. They also ended their stories in the same way, each man voicing an optimistic (though sardonic) attitude that everything would somehow work out. These Irish men and women had an air of universal citizenship, as if they could be comfortable in any city, state, or country – yet always retaining their unique cultural and poetic traits. It was no accident that James Joyce chose to make Leopold Bloom, his fictional Irish hero, a Jew – a member of a world-traveling people from a country without borders – but first and foremost a Dubliner.

So I fly away from Ireland a more thoughtful man than when I arrived. The visit filled in some of the blank spaces I often wondered about: How a land so small could be so diverse in its beauty? How a terrain and a climate so rugged and harsh could be so mystical and soothing? How a history so terrible could bring forth such a romantic and openhearted people? I didn’t leave with answers to these questions, but that was never the point. I flew away having seen the country and gotten a taste for its people, feeling richer for the experience.

Oct. 1st, 2018

My publications in Instagram for last week

Transfered from instagram

Sep. 9th, 2018

America's Hope

Things Fall Apart

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(W.B. Yeats)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sixties lately. You know, the decade that was ushered in so brightly with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1961, ended with the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, and was then sealed with the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. Strangely enough, I wasn’t prompted into these thoughts by music, which is my usual trigger to thoughts of the 60’s, but by a writer – Joan Didion – and our current political state.

I discovered the writings of Joan Didion years ago, when I was searching for essayists to copy. Her style appealed to me. Her essays were thoughtful, elegant, and personal. She was part of the new wave of journalists who inserted themselves into the narrative of the stories they were telling, without actually participating in them. They were dispassionate observers or witnesses to the people and events they were describing, never quite revealing their own sentiments, or at least masking them so well that they were hard to decipher. That was the type of writer I wanted to be – so I read her essays from time to time, and her two-bestselling memoirs on death – The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. However, it wasn’t until I rediscovered her works on Audible (an online provider of spoken audio books, information, and educational programming on the Internet) that I began listening to her works anew, and hearing her collections as a whole, to discover their unifying theme.

After listening to her first two collections in sequence, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and The White Album, (the former published in 1968 and the later in 1979) I was actually startled by the way Didion described the 1960’s of my youth. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about the 60’s for a long time. I thought the decade long gone and without much merit outside its music. Sure, they encapsulated the ten important years of my academic education, but I considered that time dead and over, with my 50th high school reunion acting as its final memorial. However I was not prepared for Didion’s perspective on the 60’s and the way she saw that era as a type of Armageddon, signaling the disintegration and end of the American Dream she had envisioned in college. In those two books she was chronicling the Sixties in a uniquely masterful manner. She eschewed the campy, sarcastic style of Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction books on the psychedelic adventures of Ken Kesey, Neal Cassidy, and their bank of Merry Pranksters who travelled across California and the country hosting LSD “acid test” parties in his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Instead, Didion stands seemingly aloof from the stories she is telling of hippies and the drug culture of Haight-Ashbury, Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Non-violence, the wedding chapels of Las Vegas, the Black Panthers of San Francisco, and the Manson Murders. In a subtle, nuanced fashion, she is in fact describing the deterioration and crumbling of the American Dream, and its optimistic trust in The West.

In 1968, Didion began her first collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, with a poetic epigram from W.B. Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds,
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

Then she proceeded to say: “This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern. ‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’ is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time I spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me both the most imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that all things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder…”

This idea of  “coming to terms with disorder” resonated to me while listening to (and later reading) Didion’s unsettling descriptions of the 1960’s in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and The White Album. I found myself relating to the books on two levels. First, there was real surprise at her feelings that the 60’s were a manifestation of the revolutionary destruction of the American Dream (with its idealization of The West) and the undermining of the American Way of Life. It was a perspective I’d forgotten about because, as a participant of the 60’s, I never took it seriously  – considering it the old-fashioned thinking of my parents, and mere evidence of our generation gap. Second, and more importantly, I now began to see how her reactions to the 60’s seemed to mirror my own responses to the current decade we find ourselves in – the 2010’s (the “teens” of the 21st Century. You see, ever since the inauguration of President Obama on January 20, 2009, I believe I’ve seen things falling apart, because the center wasn’t holding; and I’ve seen “anarchy loosed upon the world” with the election of Donald Trump, and watched innocence drowned. I’ve witnessed how the “best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. These two reactions constitute the body of this essay.

I believe that Didion’s nuanced stories of the Sixties and Seventies very much reflected the sentiments of the generation of my parents and the children born during WWII – my older aunts and uncles and Kathy’s older siblings. Like Didion, these were Californians born in the early and mid 1940’s and raised in the Fifties. They shared the values and aspirations of their Depression-era parents who came to California looking to build and not destroy. These were generations looking to build on the social and economic progress of their own parents, and saw the achievements and affluence of America as a continued strengthening of its democratic ideals and values. Order, tradition, manners, and decorum were essential, and went hand-in-hand with trust in our American System of democracy and Capitalism. It was a conservative California that nurtured and cared for them, but one that also believed that a quality public education and the new California University system was essential in building foundations to insure its continuity. All these foundations began cracking and crumbling in the 1960’s with the disorder of the Civil Rights Movement, the violence of the Anti-War Movements, and the unsettling music of Rock and Roll. And even though I lived through the same times that Didion described, I somehow missed, or misunderstood, her perspective on it.

The first eight essays in Slouching were titled “Lifestyles in the Golden Land”. Taken separately they told acerbic stories of California in the early Sixties and how they reflected a weakening in the fiber of traditional American life, and a slow moral and cultural disintegration. One recounted the story of Lucille Maxwell Miller, a wife who moved to San Bernardino with her dentist husband only to become disenchanted with that modern Southern California lifestyle and murdered him for the insurance money and the hope of trading up for a better marriage. Three more described the absurd political naïveté of socialist and liberal causes and organizations developing in California, centering on Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Non-violence in the Carmel Valley, Michael Laski and the Communist Party of the USA, and the Liberal “think tank” called the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Another piece was on Las Vegas, and how it was “the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies room attendants”. A place where “there is no time, no night and no day, no past and no future.” Essays on John Wayne and Howard Hughes presented interesting contrasts. The first was idyllic, presenting Wayne as a symbol of the old western concept of the heroic cowboy facing the onslaught of cities and industrialization, but being brought down by the ravages of cancer. It was titled, “John Wayne: A Love Song”, and it ended with Didion wanting him to “take me to the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow”. Howard Hughes, however, was painted as a different type of western man. He was the bizarre, rich, and antisocial personality who sold airline companies, bought casinos in Las Vegas, and hid from sight. Yet “that we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake, but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific…” The last essay was the darkest and most disturbing. In a detached and emotionless manner Didion describes the contemporary wasteland of Haight-Ashbury in Sixties, “where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves ‘hippies’.”

At the time, I never saw the destructive, viral effects of the counterculture that Didion was describing from 1964 to 1967. Those were the middle years of the Sixties for me, when I was in high school and just smelling the early euphoric whiffs of teenage independence. The wondrous decade opened with President John Kennedy’s youthful promise of a New Frontier and continued through President Johnson’s Great Society. They were idyllic years for me, with the soundtracks of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan playing in the background. Idealism and change were in the air, and a belief that the adult attitudes, prejudices, and hang-ups of our parents were wrong and needed to be exposed, re-worked, or replaced. The Civil Rights Movement was the first clarion call for social change. Photos and newsreels of civil right marches, sit-ins, and boycotts pointed out the injustices of the times, and young people felt obliged to support, join, or participate. We had youth, idealism, and intelligence on our side, but what our post-war generation of “baby boomers” lacked was thoughtful and moral guides or models to follow. Change was an end in itself, and our motto seemed to be to distrust anyone over thirty. So there developed an attitude of being open, tolerant, and accepting of anything new, with rock and roll musicians leading the way: peace, Love, drugs, and sex. The sheer size and vocalness of our generation must have scared our parent’s generation to the core. We were a tidal wave about to crest and wash their civilization away.

In the White Album, Didion resumed her tales of the late 60’s and early 70’s in a much darker and brooding style as she described the social, political, and cultural chaos and disorder around her. Although she never explained the title of the book, the way she did in Slouching, readers saw an immediate connection to The Beatles’ White Album and Charles Manson, who usurped the title of their song Helter Skelter, and painted it on the refrigerator door in the LaBianca home after their murders. For him, “Helter Skelter” meant confusion and chaos, and a call to rise up and kill. The collection is divided into 5 chapters dealing with the Sixties, California stories, Women, her travels, and concluding with the Seventies. In the first and most critical chapter of the book, also titled “The White Album,” Didion began by diagnosing her own mental breakdown and explaining that such an event did not “seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968”. She then interwove a series of 15 vignettes anchored by two violent and senseless murders that occurred in and around the neighborhood where she lived in Hollywood: the murder of the silent screen star Ramon Novarro by two brothers, Paul and Thomas Ferguson, ages 22 and 17 on Laurel Canyon, and the Tate-LaBianca murders by Charles Manson and his followers, in Beverly Hills and Los Feliz. Sandwiched between these two killings were ominous and disturbing tales of the musician Jim Morrison of The Doors, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, leaders of the militant Black Panther Party, and the Student Strike and shutdown of San Francisco State College. She concluded the chapter with the thought that although many people in Los Angeles believed that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1968 when word of the Sharon Tate Polanski murders broke that day, she considered the Sixties over two years later, when her family left their home in Hollywood and moved to a house on the sea. There she later learned that Paul Ferguson, one of the murderers of Ramon Navarro, had won first prize in a PEN writing contest, saying that writing helped him “reflect on experience and see what it means”. She ended the chapter by adding: “Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions” and on Ramon Navarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it all means”.

Although I enjoyed all the essays in the White Album, and I was knowledgeable of all the people and had lived through the events she described, I was at first surprised by Didion’s choices and omissions. There was no direct mention or exploration of assassinations, elections, or political conventions. Conspicuously absent were stories on the Vietnam War and the Anti-War movement. It slowly became obvious that Didion was not interested in reporting or describing the historical events of the time, but rather of telling personal stories of disturbing or confusing people, their words, and their actions, and, for the most part, letting the reader draw their own conclusions. She, who was recovering from a mental breakdown, explained “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria, which is our actual experience.” I think that is what I am trying to do in this essay.

I have never mentioned Donald Trump in my blog, although I do admit using his picture with the caption “You’re Fired!” to illustrate an essay I wrote about dismissing a teacher. And ever since the inauguration of President Obama, I’ve avoided politics in my blog and on all social media outlets. But as I was reading these two collections by Joan Didion, I was struck by how much her reactions to the 60’s reflected the ones I was feeling during the 2010’s. From 2009 to the present, there has been one catastrophic event after another: the banking collapse and economic recession, the bitter and divisive partisanship in congress, the do-nothing attitude of the Federal Legislature, the growing racism and anti-immigration feeling in the nation, the election of Donald Trump, and the publication last week of a book and an anonymous op-ed piece in the New York Times describing a resistance movement within the White House to prevent our flawed, impetuous, and temperamental President from doing something dangerous or detrimental to the welfare of the nation. Even Didion’s mental health diagnosis seemed to mirror many of the same symptoms I was experiencing after watching the daily news on television, and reading The Los Angeles Times, and New York Times. I suppose all I can hope for is to learn the lesson that Joan Didion offered in her essays while living through the Sixties as a depressed and despondent adult, and was confronted “directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that all things fall apart… Perhaps we too need to come to terms with the disorder around us, and continue telling stories so that we can live through it.

Aug. 3rd, 2018

Aztec Lord

Si Muero Lejos de Ti (If I Should Die Far From You)

Voz de la guitarra mía
Al despertar la mañana
Quiere cantar su alegría
A mi tierra Mexicana.

Yo le canto a sus volcanes
A sus praderas y flores
Que son como talismanes
Del amor de mis amores

México lindo y querido
Si muero lejos de ti
Que digan que estoy dormido
Y que me traigan aquí

Que digan que estoy dormido
Y que me traigan aquí
México lindo y querido,
Si muero lejos de ti.
(México Lindo y Querido: Chucho Monge)

Two days before the start of the new 2017 year, Kathy and I had dinner with my last living Mexican uncle, Eduardo Villalpando Nava (whom we called “Lalo”), his wife Lilia, and the family of their youngest daughter, Silvia. We traveled to Mexico City for the expressed purpose of seeing him. His brother, my uncle Pepe (Jose Manuel Villalpando Nava), had died earlier that year, leaving my mom and Lalo as the last surviving siblings of the once large Villalpando-Nava clan. When Kathy and I first talked about this trip, I told her that I probably wanted to go to bid farewell to Mexico and say goodbye to the baby of the eight children of my long deceased grandparents Mima and Adalberto Villalpando. My mom was 92 years of age at the time of this visit, and her health and mental acuity was fading quickly. I wanted to see my remaining uncle for myself and give him a verbal and face-to-face update on her condition and the status of her children. It proved to be a wonderful evening of conversation, laughter, and nostalgia at a downtown restaurant specializing in Spanish cuisine. I had purposely requested a Spanish restaurant when Lalo first asked for my preference of meals. I wanted to reconstruct a 45-year old memory – when Lalo and Lilia invited my cousin Gabino and me to the famed Spanish restaurant and nightclub of the 1960’s and 70’s called Gitanerías. There one could dine and be entertained by exotic flamenco dancers and Spanish gypsies reciting verses of the famous Andalusian poet Garcia Lorca. My adult life was just beginning back then, in 1973, and being with Lalo allowed me share in the taste and milieu of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan Mexican intellectual and successful professional.

At dinner, on the third night of our stay in Mexico City, I talked with Lalo and his wife Lilia all night, my Spanish fluency improving as we went along. We spoke of current happenings and events, avoiding the past with its sad chronology of deceased brothers and sisters. Both he and his wife were retired educators and professionals, and Lalo had just finished a manuscript on Educational Leadership and Practical Administration. Their conversation was focused and exact, demonstrating none of the vagueness or time confusion that I observed in my mom when I visited her. Lalo was the youngest in the family, born 6 or 7 years after her, and he still retained all his mental and rational sharpness. The nostalgia only arose as the evening came to a close and I was overwhelmed by a strong sense that I would never see this uncle – with whom I had spent so much time during my many trips to Mexico City – again. That prescient sentiment was confirmed last week when, on the morning of July 18th, I received notification from his daughter Silvia that he had died at the age of 87.

As I’ve come to learn, with age and correction, all stories are suspect, and personal essays and memoirs are outright lies. One is fiction and the others are reconstructed events told from an entirely personal and biased perspective. I plead guilty to the latter. Because of my lack of specific dates and biographical facts about him, the Lalo I remember is a collage of fading memories – a mobile of swaying and changing scenes, images, and events that shift, change shape, and reform over time. The images and scenes that I recall seem concrete and real at one point, and then undergo a type of sublimation with the passing of time and the vagueness of memory. This is the case when writing about my Uncle Lalo in this piece.

My earliest memories of Mexico always revolve around the Villalpando family home on Calle Chopo, in the Colonia de San Cosme, across the street from the Museo de Antropologia, a massive glass-faced structure, with two towering metal steeples.  In an ancient, stucco, two-story colonial townhouse, my grandmother, Mima, maintained a home for her remaining three unmarried children, Maria Aurora (Totis), Jose Manuel (Pepe), and Eduardo (Lalo). The residence was part of a large complex, built around a rectangular central plaza made of weathered, granite blocks. My uncles and aunt were just beginning careers at that time, while also attending school. Totis, beginning as a secretary, would eventually become a homemaker and secondary teacher of English. Pepe would pursue a writing career and become a university professor of Philosophy and Education. Lalo, the youngest, would teach history and practice Law, eventually becoming an adult school principal. This is the household that my mom and her family of four children resided in every 4 or 5 years, when we visited Mexico during the summer. In that home, during those early years, those uncles and aunt were our first “crushes” – the first people we fell in love with. Yet my brothers and sisters and I, always gravitated more towards the younger Lalo. He was the kind, soothing, and gentle uncle who was patient, easygoing, and funny. Lalo avoided the biting humor and sarcasm of Totis and Pepe. He was kind in his corrections of our language and behavior, and treated us as with adult care and attention. He took time to tell us stories of Mexican history, taught us words in Nauatl (the indigenous language of the Aztecs and the Mexica natives), and wove in tales of myths and legends. He pointed out the large family portrait in the dining room, whose eyes, he warned us, would follow us everywhere in the room. He taught us how to roll tortillas into tacos of aguacate (avacados) at the dinner table, and showed us how to eat the sumptuous local Mexican fruits – tunas (the prickly pear) and mangos – we bought in the open-air mercados of San Cosme. He took us to movies, accompanied us to Chapultepec, the large central park in Mexico City, and took us rowing on its lake. After Pepe and Totis married, Lalo and our grandmother eventually moved from Chopo into a smaller apartment.

When I traveled alone to Mexico in 1966 as a high school graduate, and enrolled at the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico for the summer, Mima and Lalo were living with Helen, the widowed eldest daughter of the family, and her son Gabino. Lalo had matured by then into the family lawyer and counselor, and a sophisticated man-about-town who was starting to think of marriage. Lalo, in those years, presented a dual persona. He was a solid professional by day, and the closest thing to a swinging bachelor, as the Villalpando family would produce, by night. As best as I can remember of those days, his routine consisted of an early morning breakfast with Mima and Helen, who would serve the meal and then joined him to review his day. Dressed in starched white shirt, suit, and tie, he proceeded to his despacho, or downtown law office, for morning and afternoon clients and court, and be home for dinner at 2 pm. La cena was the formal meal of the day where the family, consisting of Mima, Helen, Gabino, and I would come together to eat and talk about the days activities, current events, and family matters. I usually had more questions about school and travel than providing information. Lalo was the titular head of household, the pater familias, and would respond first, with Helen and Mima chiming in with commentary or corrections. When his advice was solicited he responded in a characteristic fashion. First he would give a Cheshire Cat smile, accompanied with a long pause, and routinely begin his response with the preface, “Bueno…”. To me it sounded like melodious wisdom coming from a fresh-faced venerable sage. I trusted him completely. His advice was always sane and reasonable, albeit somewhat conservative. If I wanted to hear risqué or adventurous suggestions I would ask Uncle Pepe. Lalo was our trusted counselor and we were his family clients, and he always had our safest interests in mind.

After supper, he proceeded to his second career as adult-school teacher (and later principal). Dual careers were common among university-educated professionals in Mexico at that time, especially teachers and lawyers, because separate salaries and fees were insufficient for full time employment. Most days Lalo would return home in time for “la merienda”, or a light, late supper, unless he had an evening date – which would be the topic of conversation the next day. Living with a dating professional bachelor was the height of coolness for two high school grads that were just beginning college. Gabino and I asked him about night clubs, restaurants, coffee houses, and dating strategies. He recommended locales in and around La Zona Rosa, the hip  “Pink Light District” of Mexico City in the 1960’s and 70’s, and sending flowers after the date. The only topic he wouldn’t discuss was the identity of the women he dated. All the women Helen or Gabino mentioned as candidates were, according to Lalo, past history. It was only late in the summer that the identity of the mystery lady who was dominating his mind and attentions was revealed. As Lalo finally described her, she became more and more exotic and fascinating in my imagination. Her name was Lilia. She was a young, attractive, Japanese-Mexican scientist, who taught at the Polytechnic University. She was a lovely and successful professional with an established career, but who, according to Lalo, pretended indifference to his attentions and amorous stratagems – never quite amplifying on what those amorous stratagems were. I learned later, after leaving Mexico to begin school at UCLA, that Lilia finally succumbed to Lalo’s charms and grace, and the two would soon wed.

 On every subsequent trip to Mexico after 1966 (seven or eight, I think), Lalo and Lilia’s family grew in prosperity and size. First came Lilia (Lili), then Eduardo (Lalito), and finally Silvia (Silvi), who all married and had children of their own. Unfortunately, in the more recent visits, more and more of my aunts and uncles were missing – first there had been Carlos, years before, then Helen, Chita, Totis, Beto, and finally Pepe two years ago. It was like watching the fading process of an old color family portrait that has been exposed to the bleaching effects of the sun too long. The colors wash away, and the distinctive lines and features of faces and forms slowly dissolve into an indecipherable hazy glow. Lalo’s face was the last to disappear.

It was probably during one of my random conversations with my sister Stela, as we sat together keeping our mother company as she slept in the hospital or nursing facility, that I mentioned the last supper Kathy and I had with Lalo and his family in Mexico. Stela gave a long sigh and said it must be sad being the last surviving sibling of a family of eight. All your brothers and sisters have preceded you in death – one by one – leaving you alone to live with their memories and stories. The impact of those words didn’t hit me at the time. Mom was still alive (barely), and Lalo appeared hale and hearty with many years still ahead of him. How foolish that sentiment seems now, eight months later. I cannot imagine a lonelier feeling than realizing that all your brothers and sisters are gone – having dropped away, piece after piece, over the years, like a row of cascading dominos in slow motion. No one is left except for the children they sired and the stories they recite to their own children of times past, and lives gone. The Villalpando-Nava family seemed immortal once – in my childhood and youth. They lived in a remote, almost mythical place called La Ciudad de Mexico, an ancient city of Aztec legend, Spanish conquest, and colonial independence. That myth has evaporated with time, and I find myself doubly saddened by the news of Lalo’s death. It’s like re-experiencing my mother’s death again – only differently. While Lalo lived, his eye-witnessed stories and memories of my mom continued. With his death they are truly gone. I suppose this essay is my meager attempt to keep his memory, and the memories of his brothers and sisters, alive for one more moment through my words. They are a poor substitute. Lalo’s passing has left Mexico a place of sorrow in my heart. It will never be the same again.

Jul. 13th, 2018


I’m Just that Way

What do you think about love?
Is it a game to be played?
To be torn and lost in the wilderness?
To be lost and lonely after all?

What do you think about love?
Is it a way to be saved?
To feel the warmth of another love?
To be lost and lonely after all?

I really don’t know anymore,
I really can’t say.
I really don’t care anymore,
I’m just that way.
(I Don’t Really Care Anymore: Christopher Cross – 1980)

It started with Peter Greaney’s Facebook post in June, when Kathy read it and informed me that our godson Peter was participating in a rough-water swim across San Francisco Bay for charity and was asking for sponsors. She immediately called him to get the facts about making a contribution for Cancer research, and finding out the details about his swim. After the phone call we began talking and reminiscing about Peter, and our other "Greaney" godson, Billy Kirst. Bill was Kathy’s oldest sister, Mary Ellen’s oldest son, and Peter was Kathy’s youngest brother, Greg’s youngest son. They’re sort of the yin and yang of nephews and godsons (Kathy and I also have one godson on the Delgado side of the family - Tommy, the youngest son of my sister Grace Holiday Baloh). I’ve mentioned both "Greaney" boys in a few of my blog essays, but Peter has somehow always gotten the major ink (see tag: peter). Kathy makes a point of always staying in touch with them, sending them notes and gifts on holidays and birthdays, and calling them periodically to see how they are doing. The spiritual connection of god-parenthood somehow makes them special, and a little different from their other nieces and nephews. Last summer we even managed to have them visit us at the beach house we were renting in Ventura. Talking about Peter and his latest athletic venture got me to thinking about god-parenthood and these two young men, and I told Kathy I might write a personal essay about them.
“About them, or about you?” She asked accusingly with a smile.
“Well”, I answered defensively, knowing how my essays always tended to revolve around my personal memories and perceptions of people and events, “it is MY blog.”
The way that I remember one occasion went something like this.

In June of 2014, Kathy and I drove to La Jolla to attend Peter’s graduation from the University of California in San Diego. We were staying at the same hotel as his parents, Greg and Anne, and his two brothers, Clay and Clark, and planned on joining them for the graduation ceremony on the following morning. After unpacking, I took my camera and we went down to the lobby where we found Greg and Anne there with their boys. Joining them in the spacious lounge, we began talking about family events and what they had been doing recently. At some point in the conversation, while I took some photos, Anne interjected, in her usual attentive and expressive manner,
“I can’t believe you traveled all this way just to see Peter’s graduation! You took all those wonderful pictures at his high school graduation.”
“We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I responded. “Kathy wasn’t able to make that graduation because of work”, I explained, “so I wanted to get plenty of pictures for us.”
“They were fabulous!” Anne exclaimed.
“I’m hoping to get just as many of him at this graduation”, I added. “You know Peter is a special godson to us.”
At that last statement Anne’s face suddenly froze, and her eyes widened in confusion. This was followed by a long eerie silence. This look was not typical of Anne’s complementary, conversational style. Normally she would have expanded on my last sentence, and been effusive about our support of her son. Instead she looked over at Greg as if pleading for assistance. Greg, however, simply reflected back a look of non-engaged neutrality, leaving Anne to dangle on her own.
“I thought,” she finally stammered, apologetically, “ that Peter had another Godfather”.
Now I was stunned into confusion and looked to Kathy for clarification. Crazy thoughts started careening through my mind. Hadn’t we stood side by side at San Roque Church as Godparents to Peter and sent him gifts and cards at Christmas and birthdays? Could I have imagined all this? Was Peter’s baptism a false memory? Had I been living under a delusion all this time? Greg’s intervention finally broke the uncomfortable silence and halted my spiraling descent of self-doubt and pity.
“I’m sure Tony and Kathy are Peter’s Godparents and we have the certificate somewhere. So,” he added, bringing this topic to a close, “you two will be joining us for dinner, right?”

I’ve occasionally wondered why I let this little lapse of memory bother me so much. After all, God-parenting has become something of an anachronism in these post-modern times. In America, the role of godparents seems mostly symbolic, calling upon two adults to act as christening sponsors for a child, and boosters of the parents. It doesn’t carry the same level of responsibilities as in other cultures, especially in Latin America and some European countries. In Mexico and Italy, for example, the term for god-parenthood is “compadrazco”, or co-parenthood, and it embodies the concept that parents and godparents shared a cooperative responsibility for the upbringing, education, and professional success of their child and godchild. Kathy’s level of involvement in the lives of all three of her godsons (the third being Jeff Parker, her sister Debbie’s son) comes closest to this concept. She made a point of intersecting with their lives, and making time to call or visit them whenever possible – and I go along for the ride. I recall two of many such occasions with our godson Billy that had a special significance for me – when he graduated from college, and last September when he was in Los Angeles for a business meeting.

There was never any doubt that Bill Kirst was our godson, because his birthplace and baptism were unforgettable. He was born and baptized in Tehran, during the times surrounding the fall of the Shah, while his family was living in Iran. Kathy and I were asked to be his godparents by proxy – meaning that two other adults stood in our place in Tehran during the actual baptism, while we signed the certificate in the United States. However the only times we saw Billy as a child and young adult were when his mother and father would visit Los Angeles in between their travels, and we could talk to him about his life and plans for college. When he graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2000, Kathy and I travelled to Washington D.C. to attend the ceremony, while staying at a hotel near his parent’s home near the National Cathedral. That evening, while Kathy and I relaxed in the outdoor patio of the hotel, with the pomp and drama of commencement and a family celebration at an Annapolis restaurant behind us, we saw Billy emerging out of the darkness to join us. There we listened to a naïve and thoughtful young man speak of his hopes and fears at this crossroads of his life, and reflecting on graduate school, relationships, and happiness. We offered advice where we could, but spent more time simply listening, and supporting his plans and dreams. Over the next 18 years, which witnessed him joining the Army, working at the Pentagon, and pursuing a career in Management Leadership, we kept in touch with Billy by phone, social media, and visits, and he with us. He joined us at the beach last summer when we vacationed at the Channel Island Harbor in Oxnard, and he spent the night with us last September when he was in Los Angeles for a business conference. It was there that we heard a now mature man describing the stresses of work and travel, the hardships of maintaining a long-distance relationship with his loved one, and the contemplative strategies he employed to cope with them. Then, as before, Kathy and I spent more time listening and validating his plans and actions, always expressing our joy over his successes and happiness. I suppose that’s all a parent or godparent can do when children grow up and become adults.

The morning after the god-paternity issue arose, I decided, in true Greaney fashion, to make light of the awkward conversation over who were Peter’s godparents by moving it to the forefront of conversation and making a joke out of it. Geared up with camera and telephoto lenses, I made my way to the staging area of the commencement exercise, prepared to take pictures of Peter from beginning to end. There, excusing myself for my presence and constant intrusion with a clicking camera, I introduced myself to his friends and schoolmates as “his true godfather”. You got to love Peter for his patience with me when it comes to taking pictures of him, he just smiles and puts up with my posing requests. This was the case in high school and in all the Greaney family reunions and celebrations. I must admit that watching the faces of these young men and women that were reflecting the nostalgic realization that their carefree collegiate days were over also caught me up in the paradoxical excitement of the moment. Young people who were laughing, hugging, mugging, and crying surrounded me – and I photographed it all. Once the processional began, and Peter disappeared from view, I made my way to the seating area and joined the rest of his visiting family.

Peter’s Facebook announcement of his participation Swim Across America to fight cancer brought back all those old memories, as well as pride in his budding career as a scientist for Genentech. He was moving on and forward, and Kathy and I were going to remain a small part of his life, with or without verification of our god-parenting status. I suppose I really don’t care anymore about official certification. I’m simply claiming the family title of being Peter’s godfather, with all its burdensome responsibilities, along with the joys of watching him grow old and happy in his achievements in the future. I’m just that way.

Jun. 30th, 2018


Stardust in Their Eyes

Ten minutes ago, I saw you
I looked up when you came through the door
My head started reeling
You gave me the feeling
The room had no ceiling or floor.

Ten minutes ago, I met you
And we murmured our “How do you do’s?”
I wanted to ring out the bells
And fling out my arms
And to sing out the news
“I found her, she’s an angel
With the dust of stars in her eyes
We are dancing, we are flying
And she’s taking me back to the skies”.
(Ten Minutes Ago: Rodgers & Hammerstein – 1957)

An offer from Meg and Lou Samaniego to accept their tickets for the touring Broadway musical Cinderella at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre would have been tempting on its own merits – but offering 6 tickets so as to include our daughter Teresa (Prisa), her husband Joe, and their two girls, made it a necessity. Nothing can compare with the joy of exposing young people to their first taste of live musical theater, and the prospect of actually observing my two granddaughters experience it was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Kathy quickly accepted the wonderful gift and immediately called our daughter Prisa to arrange the logistics of the evening. I merely sat back in my chair and allowed the waves of anticipated happiness to sweep over me. This would be a chance to relive the glorious magic of watching a quality musical through the first-time eyes of children.

I’d already witnessed Sarah’s reactions to animated musical movies by Walt Disney since she was 3-years old, watching Frozen for the first time. Her response was visceral and it was hard to keep her in her seat. She seemed to project herself onto the screen and was soon mimicking the actions and songs of the two lead female characters in the story. In the course of that year she watched the movie multiple times and memorized all the songs and actions. Other animated movies were watched over the years, but I couldn’t help wondering how she reacted to LIVE musical theater. Her mother and Kathy had taken her to see the Broadway productions of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, but I had missed out on those occasions. Sarah’s younger sister, Gracie, on the other hand, hadn’t yet seen a musical play, and had responded differently to the animated movies she saw.

There is an inherent curse and blessing in being the second child in the family. On the downside you will never be the FIRST to experience anything, because your sibling has already seen it and done it. The second difficulty is always being compared to your elder, and his/her development and achievements. On the upside, the second child has the gifted advantages of observation, assessment, and the choice to be DIFFERENT and UNIQUE from her sister. This is Gracie in a nutshell. She has never been “a little Sarah”. I stopped comparing them when Gracie was two years old, and she was foiling all the strategies and practices I employed and perfected with Sarah. I had to watch and re-learn with Gracie. It was as if she were doing it on purpose, all the while thinking: “If Sarah did this – I will do that”. It was confusing and sometimes annoying. So I was curious how she would respond to live theater for the first time.

I fell in love with live musical theater when I was 16 years old and a sophomore in high school. Oh, I’d seen musicals before, but they were always movie versions of Oklahoma, Carousel, and West Side Story. It wasn’t until a creative English teacher arranged to take the class to a local production of Meredith Wilson’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown that I was transported into the magical world of live theater. In a storefront space, accompanied solely by a piano player and drummer, a small company of singing actors transformed a tiny stage into multiple locales and settings with a rousing score of songs. I loved it, and never forgot the feelings and sensations I experienced. I stuck with local theater productions through college, seeing them at Royce Hall in UCLA or in Hollywood, like the Fantasticks at the Las Palmas Theatre. While dating Kathleen, I remember going to countless local musical productions directed by her sister Debbie, which included her son Jeff. I really didn’t pay much attention to touring Broadway shows until after the L.A. Music Center was completed in the late 1960’s, and more and more Broadway shows were presented there.

Marrying Kathy brought a whole new dimension to theater going. While I thought I enjoyed live theater, Kathy was passionate about it. She went beyond merely dreaming of seeing Broadway shows and waiting for them to appear in movies. She wanted to see them NOW – despite the ticket cost. If Kathy suggested a show we might see, and I mumbled back, “Sure, that would be great. Whatever you want” – she would have tickets ordered within the week. The first one I remember seeing after we were married was Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line, when it toured L.A. at the Shubert Theatre in Century City in 1976. A touring hit Broadway musical is a stunning production, and A Chorus Line didn’t disappoint. That evening Kathy and I talked about our responses to the play and promised each other to continue going. We also imagined, for the first time, the wonderful experience of taking our yet-unborn children to see a quality musical production while they were still young.

Kathy was already a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber before we were caught up in the excitement over the Broadway sensation Cats in 1982. We’d seen a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Universal Theatre, and loved the music from Evita, but it was the arrival of the touring company of Cats in 1985 that got us thinking about taking the kids. We prepared them by playing a cassette version of the Broadway musical for a month until they knew the songs by heart, and then we bought the tickets. In those days, going to the theater was a special event. We “dressed up” in formal attire, dresses, coats and ties, and scheduled dinner at a nice restaurant near the Shubert. After the meal, we walked to the theatre, anticipating with growing excitement the story we would see that accompanied the songs we had learned. Tony at 7-years of age was more talkative, speculating freely, while Prisa, at five, was more subdued. Normally a girl who scoffed at dresses and “dressing up”, she was very acquiescent to our sartorial wishes that evening and had been remarkably receptive to learning the songs from the play. At first, Kathy and I had debated taking her, thinking her too young. But Prisa was always sensitive to disparate treatment over such special occasions, so we didn’t risk leaving her out. It remained to be seen how she would actually respond to her first exposure to live theater.

We were pretty high up in balcony seats (what Kathy would call “the nose-bleed section”) when the house lights dimmed and then went out, leaving only a single spotlight on stage to illuminate the vast darkness. As the Overture began there was a muffled murmur from the seats below and then a sudden, sharp yelp from Prisa, who was sitting in the aisle seat. Two red eyes danced in front of her, soon revealing a costumed catwoman kneeling by her side. Once the surprise of having two disembodied eyes floating next to you wore off, the costumed cats scampered away on all fours, letting the audience slowly return their attention to the stage. Kathy and I worried for a while, checking on Prisa to see how she recovered from her original shock, but eventually stopped when we saw how the songs, dancing, and actions on stage soon absorbed her attention. From that point on I stopped observing the reactions of the children and became equally absorbed by the play. That first theatrical experience with the kids was a tremendous success. They couldn’t stop talking about the music, the costumes, and those eyes. The only way we could quiet them down after we drove home and prepared them for bed was promising we would do it again. That happened 3 years later, when I took them to see Les Miz.

In 1988 when Kathy learned the dates of the Les Miz L.A. tour, she bought the Broadway album and made plans for tickets. However nothing prepared us for the power of the actual drama in combination with its music. I’ve rarely experienced such an overwhelming sensory and emotional musical production. We were literally speechless for a long time before we started talking about it. We also discussed whether or not the kids were ready for this level of dramatic involvement. We decided they were and then moved on to the next question of who should take them. Surprisingly (I thought at the time), Kathy insisted that I take the kids alone and make a special night of it, with dinner and the theater – just them and me. I reluctantly agreed. Kathy is the bon vivant, the talker in the family. She loves to chat, ask questions, and share opinions with her children, family, and strangers. I prefer listening, without volunteering too much information. I had mixed feelings about the evening. On the one hand, I wanted to share this powerful musical with our children so I could watch and measure their reactions; but on the other, I would be solely in charge of conversing and entertaining them on the car rides and dinner without Kathy. It was the first of many future opportunities I would learn to cherish and treasure all my life. That time together became a timeless memory of a fleeting moment in the lives of two children who were both growing up too fast. I tried “morphing” Kathy’s behaviors all night. When we dined at Harry’s Bar and Grill next to the Shubert Theatre, I talked about the play and started asking personal questions about them, what they were doing in school, about their friends, and their plans. It was a wondrous prelude and postscript to one of the finest musical productions of all time. What I didn’t do enough of during the actual play was to watch their faces and their reactions. I only regretted it later when Kathy and I recalled that experience and wondered about their thoughts and their memories of the evening. It was a regret I did not want to repeat with my granddaughters.

Sarah was literally bouncing with excitement when she spotted me walking through the lobby of the W Hotel, across the street from the Pantages Theatre.
“Poppy!” she exclaimed, running and giving me a hug. “We’re going to see Cinderella together.”
“Yes we are”, I replied, catching sight of Gracie who was joining us, followed by her parents. Inspecting the two girls, who were already bubbling over with anticipation, I saw that they were prettily “dressed up” for the theater. They were both wearing sleeveless dresses that evening, and abandoned the popular fad of wearing Disney-inspired princess costumes to storybook productions. Sarah wore a black dress covered with sparkling sequins of differing colors, while Gracie had on a dress with a pink chiffon skirt and black top, highlighted with a large sequined star in the middle. The only real difference was Sarah’s proclivity for adding stylish accessories to complement the occasion or setting – this time eye-catching rainbow sunglasses to crown her blonde hair. There is nothing more contagious than the excitement of children experiencing something new and novel, and their desire to share their feelings about it. They studied the sights, storefronts, and people who were making their way to the theatre, taking special note of other children and how they were dressed. I just listened and watched, taking photos with my cell phone and asking them leading questions to gauge their reactions. Holding out tickets, which Kathy had handed each girl, we entered the theatre and made our way to a private reception area that came with the Samaniego package. From that point on, the evening played out like a kaleidoscope of scenes, expressions, and heightened emotions. Sarah and Gracie sometimes look about as if they were entranced, or they would break into animated conversations with the other adults and children who joined us in the room. Once seated in the theatre, Gracie, sitting between Joe and Prisa, stared, wide-eyed at the stage and set, while Sarah looked around and began talking to the children or adults sitting behind or in front of her. Once the play started, they were both spellbound, rarely taking their eyes off the stage.

It’s a sad fact of adulthood and growing up, that we learn to generalize our experiences and forget them. We forget what it felt like to see and feel things for the first time – the first time we saw a blooming flower, a bird in flight, or the ocean, and wondering if the waves ever stop. With age comes our need to define, generalize, and categorize the things that we saw and made comprehensible, normal, and mundane. Yet by doing so, the events lost their wonder and uniqueness. I’ve discovered that the only way to recall these lost memories is to watch the open faces and expressions of children as they participate in those experiences for the very first time. Once the musical started I kept looking at the faces of Sarah and Gracie and tried to read their feelings and reactions. Their eyes were fixed on the actors, costumes, scenery, and staging. They gasped at the smoke-puffing dragon chasing the prince, laughed at the interactions of Cinderella with her stepmother and stepsisters, and were stunned by the sudden costume changes and transformations on stage. They also followed the plot line closely, and were able to describe to me at intermission where this Cinderella story deviated from the traditional one.
“Poppy”, Gracie exclaimed in worried tones at intermission, “Cinderella didn’t lose her slipper at the ball! She picked it up!”
“Did you see how the pumpkin turned into a carriage?” Sarah asked me. “It was like magic!”

This must have been the way Tony and Prisa felt and reacted when they watched Cats for the first time in 1985. Adult reality was suspended for a magical moment, and they were transported to a theatrical realm where youthful wonder and imagination prevailed. At the close of intermission I took Sarah and Gracie’s hands, and together we returned to our seats in that magical realm to watch the end of the play.

Jun. 25th, 2018

My publications in Instagram for last week

Transfered from instagram

Jun. 16th, 2018

Down the Champs Elysses

I deal in dreamers
And telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for
If I had my way
I’d just walk out those doors

And wander
Down the Champs Elysses
Going café to cabaret
Thinking how I’ll feel when I find
That very good friend of mine

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
Nobody calling me up for favors
No one’s future to decide
(Free Man in Paris: Joni Mitchell – 1974)

About two months ago, Kathy, my personal muse, announced that her grandniece Grace Parker had started a blog called Good Gracious. She reminded me that Grace had just graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, and was spending some time in Paris and London, before beginning work in New York.
“It’s about her experiences living and traveling alone in France”, Kathy explained. “It’s pretty good. I think you’d like it”.
I think I gave her a noncommittal response, like “Uh huh”, or “Sure”.

About 10 or 11 years ago I stopped reading blogs, and I don’t remember why. I was an avid reader in 2006, about the time I started writing my own blog. I was new to the genre and I wanted to see how it was done. I especially wanted to become a better essayist and writer. I figured the best way to begin was to write – and read the works of other essayists and bloggers. Initially I started with my son’s blog, Tablesaw: It’s the Saw of the Table, and slowly developed a library of about eight favorites, starting with Joan Didion. I even wrote a few essays about the bloggers I was discovering (see A Personal Narrative). However, slowly over time I stopped checking on these blogs and concentrated on writing my own. Perhaps I’d reached a level of confidence in my own personal style that I didn’t feel the need to compare or copy others. I just kept writing, with little curiosity in other blogs. It wasn’t until I read an obituary in the L.A. Times in May about the life and death of Ninalee Allen Craig, that the significance of Grace’s blog really hit me.

Ninalee Allen Craig became famous for her collaboration with another woman, Ruth Orkin, a photojournalist who, in 1951, was seeking a subject for a magazine photo spread about the experiences of women traveling abroad alone – a rare thing at the time. Ninalee Allen was a 23-year-old, adventure-seeking graduate of Sarah Lawrence College who had been traveling solo for months through France, Spain, and Italy. She agreed to the photo shoot in Florence, and there, in less than a minute Orkin captured what would become one of the most iconic photographs of the era, titled “American Girl in Italy”. The photo was fascinating – catching the trepidation, excitement, and courage of a young woman traveling alone in a foreign country. Suddenly, in my mind, the girl in Orkin’s photo was transformed from Ninalee into the newly minted, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Grace Parker, and it reminded me of my own experiences of traveling alone in a foreign country, and I felt the strongest need to read her blog and find out how she was doing.

Grace is the elder daughter of Jeff and Lynn Baber Parker, and the first granddaughter of a very special Greaney sister-in-law, Deborah Parker. Debbie passed away in 2003 (see New Beginnings), but she was always committed to the education of her children, Jeff , Christy, and Alicia, and supported all their personal and artistic pursuits and endeavors from their earliest years. Jeff, the eldest, concentrated on the arts and acting, beginning with local play productions in his youth, and graduating from USC with a BFA in acting. During that time he met Lynn Baber while participating in the Cherub Acting Progam at Northwestern University, near Chicago. Lynn came from an acting family with strong connections to Chicago Theater, and Jeff soon fell in love with her and Chicago. After their marriage they settled in Chicago, raised two daughters, and continued their mutual careers in acting, drama, and theatre. Grace would continue that artistic tradition, but in her own way.

I watched Grace grow up in vignettes of time, with, I must confess, no real in-depth or lengthy conversations. Jeff and Lynn would bring the girls to Los Angeles for holiday celebrations, or to visit family members, or Kathy and I would see her when we visited Chicago to watch Jeff perform in a play or musical. Grace would spend most of her time with her cousins, and I would concentrate on Jeff and Lynn. Kathy was my real source of family information. She was the conduit by which I heard about, and kept up with, what Grace, and all of Kathy’s other 25 nephews and nieces, was doing. I learned that Grace graduated high school in 2014 at Loyola Academy Chicago, and passed on USC to attend her mother’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and pursued a BFA. She graduated in May of 2018.

There are probably no greater transitional moments in the life of a young person as their graduations from high school and college – although they are very different. Upon leaving high school, one leaves their childhood behind and begins a period of experiential learning that will lead to adulthood. We separate from parents and tutors, physically and emotionally, begin mapping out our own course of study, and start practicing at life – albeit in the controlled environment of a college, college dorms, or off-campus apartments. It’s a heady time, never to be repeated (thankfully – if you remember some of the boneheaded decisions we made and actions we survived). Graduating from college, on the other hand, is another proposition. With diploma in hand, a young college graduate faces the vast, unknown territory of The Future. Hopefully with a solid intellectual, ethical, and moral compass in hand, but without a map to follow. It is a paradoxical moment filled with conflicting sensations and emotions. We feel scared and excited, meek and determined, courageous and cowardly. Yet as any explorer, we can only move forward with the aid of guides we meet along the way, and faith in ourselves. Sometimes the only way to find the path forward is to first discover ourselves. We need to experience life in new and strange places, filled with new people and sights. It is one of the roads less traveled, and it can offer boundless rewards – and I think Grace Parker is on one this summer as she travels through Europe alone.

I envy and admire what Grace is doing this summer, perhaps because I once shared something of her imperative to travel alone when I graduated from college in 1970. When I received my diploma from UCLA, I just wanted to get away. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next with my life. Join the Peace Corps, go to graduate school, or look into applying to law school? The Damocles Sword hanging over my head was the draft, since by graduating I’d lost my deferred status and was suddenly reclassified 1-A. The prospect of military service in Vietnam loomed threateningly on the horizon that year. So a summer trip to Mexico seemed eminently appealing. I could get away. Away from my parents, brothers, sisters, and even friends who lived in Los Angeles. I could leave everyone and all my doubts and questions behind, and experience something new, wonderful, and unknown. Mexico City held that promise for me. During a two-month stay I fell in love with this ancient cosmopolitan metropolis. I improved my Spanish and walked its broad avenidas, plazas, and mercados alone. I studied the architectural charm of its colonial homes and buildings, churches and patios. Everything was new and different, so I saw everyone as unique and fascinating. I filled those days with endless sightseeing and exploring. I discovered the new Metro subway system, and spent hours traveling up and down its routes, sitting in station plazas, and surveying the surrounding neighborhoods. I walked throughout the Zona Rosa, with its restaurants, cafés, and coffee houses, stopping at bookstores, and inspecting interesting shops and booths. On that trip I also brought along all my college vices (tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol) and cultivated them in new environments. I found comfortable male-only bars and pubs and sidewalk cafés where I could sit all day reading, writing, smoking, drinking, and just watching people go by. I even participated in a failed attempt at hiking up Popocatepetl, an inactive volcano outside of Mexico City. However, despite these similarities with what Grace is doing in Paris, I was never really ALONE. I may have traveled and explored by myself, and interacted with strangers and new experiences alone, but I LIVED with family members who were always nearby. Reading Grace’s blog gave me a window to her unique experiences. Kathy was right, Grace is a gifted and insightful writer and I would invite you to share in her adventures through Europe during this summer of ’18. You can find her at goodgraciousblog.com .

Jun. 11th, 2018

My publications in Instagram for last week

Transfered from instagram

Jun. 10th, 2018

Abuelo & Nena

Gracie Girl

You can’t fool me, I saw you when you came out
You got your momma’s taste, but you got my mouth
And you will always have a part of me
Nobody else is ever going to see
Gracie girl

With your cards to your chest walking on your toes
What you got in the box only Gracie knows.
And I would never try to make you be
Anything you didn’t really want to be,
Gracie girl

Life flies by in seconds.
You’re not a baby Gracie you’re my friend.
You’ll be a lady soon but until then
You gotta do what I say

One day you’re gonna want to go.
I hope we taught you everything you need to know,
Gracie girl

And there will always be a part of me
Nobody else is gonna see
But you and me.
My little girl.
My Gracie girl.
(Gracie: Ben Folds – 2005)

Standing guard in the middle of our cul-de-sac street, I watched the two little girls skimming their scooters up and down the pavement. Seven-year old Sarah, her blonde hair peaking out from under her helmet, was by far the more experienced rider, literally scooting circles around her four-year old sister, Gracie. She maneuvered in and out of driveways, and slalomed her way across the street. I had briefed them both about my warning whistle, which indicated an approaching car, and had tested them a few times. After 10 minutes of this, I could see that Gracie was getting more and more annoyed and frustrated at her older sister for not slowing down and letting her catch up. She finally stopped her scooter in the middle of the street, scolding Sarah for not being a good sister, and walked the scooter back to our driveway. Wearing her Minnie Mouse helmet, Gracie stormed into the house and soon reappeared, holding an old, unused cell phone. She sat herself down comfortably on the driveway near the lawn and started played with it, looking up periodically to see what Sarah was doing. Sarah, in the meantime, had encountered a teenage boy riding a skateboard at the far end of the street, and started chatting with him, as they rode up the street toward us. Sarah, obviously proud of having made a new friend, introduced the boy to me as Kyle, a high school student whose family was renting a house on our street. Our neighbors soon joined us on the street, and quickly encouraged their two children, with their two cousins, to mount their own skateboards and bikes and join the fun. With this infusion of new friends, Sarah scooted off again, starting new conversations. As I looked over my shoulder, checking on Gracie, I saw that she was now actively chatting with Kyle, who had joined her on the driveway pavement. In animated fashion, she was telling him of an imaginary adventure searching for treasure through a magical forest with rivers, caves, and houses. After a momentary break to check on Sarah, who was again at the far end of the street with the neighborhood children, I looked back at Gracie. She was now sitting next to Kyle, intently gazing down to see what he was drawing on a pad of yellow paper. Brushing back her lightly streaked brown hair from her face, she occasionally pointed at the drawing, as though directing Kyle’s action. By this time, Kathy had come out of the house, and was talking with both Gracie and Kyle. With our neighbors guarding the street as the children rode around, I curiously joined the trio on the driveway to find out what had been going on.

As I approached, Gracie looked up, taking the yellow pad from Kyle, and ran to me, excitedly showing me a pirate treasure map, and explaining what Kyle had drawn for her. It was a circular route of dotted lines, interspaced with sketched representation of figures and objects along the way. These, she explained, were the drawings of the people and places she had described to Kyle about the adventure she had imagined. I marveled at her language and imagination, as she described characters and a drama that was a mixture of movies, stories, and television programs.
“X marks the spot!” She concluded proudly, beaming a victorious smile at me.
I was amazed. Our little Gracie Girl was growing up, and I was beginning to see her in a new way.

Kathy and I had finally worked up the courage to host our first sleepover with both our granddaughters. It took us a while for us to come to this point, having slowly and incrementally built up our sleepover confidence over time – first with Sarah, a couple of times, and then with Gracie and her mother Teresa (Prisa). Although we babysat both girls on occasions, it was with the knowledge that their parents would be returning, and we only had to keep them busy and entertained for a few hours. An overnight stay with both of them was altogether another matter because the two girls are so different in their preferences and choices, likes and dislikes. As the evening progressed, with Kathy and I tag-teaming our approach of keeping the girls occupied and entertained, I was struck by the realization that I had written only two personal essays about Gracie, while producing 16 about her older sister Sarah. Like a thunderbolt, I feared that this fact could become the source of potential quarrels between them over who was their grandfather’s “favorite”. It reminded me of the rivalries between my own brothers and sisters when we argued over which child our parents loved most. When Kathy and I had children of our own – who were 2 years apart in age – we tried downplaying the idea of sibling rivalry by stressing that we loved and treated Toñito and Prisa the same – equally and fairly. That was our official parenting line, and we stuck to it, year after year, even when we realized that it was flawed. You can love your children unconditionally, but you can’t treat them the same, because children are distinct, and we react to them differently. They are dissimilar in sex, age, intelligence, ability, personality, etc, and parents have to take those variations into consideration when playing with, teaching, directing, or disciplining their children. So the “equal and fair treatment” line became our Santa Claus myth – we stuck to it, until Toñito and Prisa saw through it.

Gracie, you see, is a unique child, and she caught me unprepared as a grandfather. I thought I had mastered the duties and skills of babysitting until I started caring for her at the age of 4 months. I expected to simply replicate the schedule, actions, and interactions I preformed with Sarah – which I’d even written down in notebooks so as not to forget. However, Gracie never cooperated with my notes, plans, or itinerary. She slept for hours, preferring her crib to my arms. She awakened gradually, without crying, and kept herself occupied in the crib for long periods of time. In many ways Gracie was easier to care for as an infant – almost to the point of being boring. She had the special ability to entertain herself, giving me tons of free time – but I only felt left out. Our sole bonding times came during our stroller walks around the neighborhood, which I stretched out as long as possible. However, these walks would eventually end when she turned two, and preferred staying home or being driven. Her transition from bottle to solid foods was also different. While I could feed hand-feed Sarah her prescribed and predictable breakfast and lunch, interacting with her while she ate, Gracie preferred feeding herself, pointing to and grasping the foods she liked, and ignoring those she detested. Once she was walking and could open the refrigerator door, she was choosing her own snacks and vegetables, as I sat back and watched. She would also dress herself. I was used to selecting the wardrobe for Sarah, or at least giving her options from which to choose. Gracie would have none of that. She picked the shoes, dresses, and jackets, regardless of their appropriateness to climate, activity, or time.

Gracie had a more difficult time separating from her mother. While Sarah was eager to say goodbye to her departing working parents on the days I babysat, for about 3 years, Gracie was upset at seeing her mother leave in the morning. To avoid emotional meltdowns, we developed elaborate morning strategies to insure that only her father Joe was present on the days I cared for her. Once together, she was comfortable and happy in my company, but her preferences routinely demolished my agenda of activities. I was forced to be very flexible and accommodating – to the point of considerable irritation. Once she was talking, I learned quickly that I could not bargain with Gracie or give her “either/or” options when determining our activities for the day. For example, Gracie loved watching morning television programs when I babysat, and I would agree – on the condition that after one or two episodes she would take a break to dress and get ready for the day. Although Gracie initially agreed, when I turned off the TV at the end of the show, she would renege on our deal and insist on seeing one more. If I refused, she’d have a meltdown. She would do this in a variety of places – in park playgrounds, malls, stores, or at home. I had to abandon the practice I’d perfected with Sarah in giving Gracie a list of possible activities to choose from, because if she didn’t like any of them, she was happy staying at home, playing in her room. When I recounted my frustrating interactions with Gracie to Kathy at the end of the day, she would give me a puzzled and amused look and exclaim: “You’re bargaining with a three year old child???”

My breakthrough with Gracie came in May of 2016, when I was ready to abandon taking photos of her over her constant refusal to pose. I had grown frustrated with this reluctance. As opposed to Sarah, who always had an eye for the camera and a ready smile, Gracie could care less, acting as if the lens was an intrusion into her private world. Most of the time, she would turn away or grimace. I’d accompanied Kathy to Sarah’s school, where she was being recognized as Honor Student of the Month in Pre-K. I’d taken lots of photos, and was ready to leave when Teresa asked if we would drop in at Gracie’s Nursery School for a Mother’s Day Reception. She couldn’t get away from school, and hoped we could fill in for her. I was a little apprehensive about accepting, unsure how Gracie would react to this substitution of grandparents for her mom, but Kathy accepted. Walking into her Nursery School with camera in hand, an aide directed us to a long, children-size table in a large classroom where a number of 3 year-old students were seated. There we spied Gracie chatting away gaily with students on each side of her. When she glanced up in our direction, a gleeful shout of “Poppy! Mima!” burst out, and she ran to us. I was snapping pictures like crazy, and the smiles on Gracie’s face were wondrous. She was completely oblivious to the camera. Since that morning, Gracie and I have come to an understanding with my camera. She reserves the right to be herself when being photographed, and I just have to be patient with her mood. Gracie doesn’t pose, and that somehow makes her photographs more honest and natural – and in many ways better. I’ve caught so many different moods in Gracie’s face that I shake my head in wonder. Who is this girl?

At one point during their sleepover, Gracie asked me if I would join her on a treasure hunt in the front yard, using her map. Sarah and Kathy were busy doing puzzles in the living room, so I agreed to accompany  her, pleased that she had asked. As she guided me in and out of the hedges dividing our neighbor’s lawn, pausing at trees, bushes, and fences, she described the imaginary places they represented and the people. Trolls lived in that cave, she explained, and heroes and wizards hid behind that fence. At one point she stopped me, pointing up at a towering palm tree.
“Who lives there?” I asked in a hushed voice, wondering what character she would come invent.
“Rapunzel”, she whispered.
“How do we climb up?” I prompted.
Gracie cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” When nothing happened, she turned to me and said with a shrug, “She must be asleep”.
After 10 more minutes of these travels, ducking under bushes and tree limbs, I asked if we could sit down.
“Poppy’s old”, I explained, “I need to sit down for awhile”.
As we sat on the front porch bench reviewing our adventure, it occurred to me to ask a personal question, wondering how she would respond.
“Does Sarah act like the boss of you?” I asked.
“Well”, she replied with a sign, “she tries being the boss of me. But I don’t always let her”.
“Yeah”, I said sympathetically, “I bet it’s tough being a little sister”.
“Yeah”, she agreed,  “it is”.
We sat together in silence for a while longer, and then went inside to join Kathy and Sarah.

Looking back now, it’s obvious that Gracie went through an early and protracted period of “the terrible twos” – that period around the age of two when toddlers begin speaking in two-or three-word sentences, walking, climbing, and understanding concrete ideas like “mine”, “no”, and “bad”, which they didn’t understand as infants. At its root, the terrible twos are about testing boundaries, asserting independence, and learning to communicate needs and desires – as well as recognizing that those desires may be different from those of their parents or grandparents. Children get older, growing, developing, and evolving. It took me awhile to remember the wisdom of patience, and give Gracie time to become Grace. She’s becoming quite an interesting person.


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