Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

396. Missing Ted

In Family, people, places, poetry, Stories, United States on March 18, 2017 at 2:56 am

My father-in-law Theodore (Ted) Melnechuk passed away on March the first, at the age of eighty-nine. There is a void where he once was, and we cannot fill it. Science writing was his profession—neuroscience writing in particular, but his interests and expertise were broad and eclectic. Poetry was his avocation, and he loved form in verse, from sonnets to limericks, which he wrote daily, for years, thousands of them. He wrote a poem for every occasion in our lives, on my mother-in-law Anna’s birthday and their wedding anniversary and, also for Anna, every Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. He was kind enough to read and edit all my writing for years, and I still follow his rules about the serial comma, the adverb following the verb, the title of an essay stating its thesis. Gently, he pointed out some of my tendencies to verbal excess, noting only that a second adjective tended to cut the impact of the word in half rather than doubling it. Once, wistfully, he expressed a wish that I would evaluate literary works for their intrinsic beauty, the way he had learned to do, rather than merely interrogating them politically.

For more than 40 years he marked, clipped, and sent me and many others articles of interest from The New York Times, which he read religiously every morning. He read the print issue, of course, and if for any reason it was not delivered he would fret, fume, make phone calls, and eventually drive down to the newsagent’s to pick up a replacement copy. Only then would his day take its proper shape.

Ted loved words, puzzles (crossword and jigsaw both), word games, games of all kinds. Puns, anagrams, acrostics, homonyms, palindromes, all endless sources of pleasure. He loved playing games with his children and together they made up their own idiosyncratic rules for them. In the ten years after his beloved wife, my dear mother-in-law Anna, passed away he had taken to organizing a games day on the third Saturday of every month, when all four children joined him for lunch followed by an afternoon of high jinks and tiddlywinks, Melnechuk-style, followed by Scrabble in teams. Ted always kept score, meticulously, and the family not only kept them in perpetuity, but compared their new scores to old ones, delighting in besting themselves. But the older he got, the less Ted, once super-competitive, cared about winning; he simply enjoyed finding good words, a place to put them on the board, and the company of his children.

Still, as much as he loved his children, my father-in-law had his priorities. He did move up his daily nap time on games days to accommodate the special schedule, but even Games Day had to give way to big football and baseball games; sometimes he would peremptorily announce that it was time for us to leave. Other events that could not be missed: all three of the horse races that make up the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes (on television of course). For every one Andrew and I would receive a cordial invitation to join him half-an-hour before the race began, when we would be given a photocopy of the line-up and invited to pick our first three choices for the winner. Ted would always pick the horses with the best odds of winning, while Anna would pick the names she liked best. Another must-watch ritual was the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day—mostly, I think, because it was held in his native New York City.

Ted loved New York. As a son of Ukrainian immigrants, he was born (in 1928) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended high school at Brooklyn Tech (where even then he brought the arts to a science and technology high school as Editor of their literary magazine), and college at Columbia, where he studied science, took literature classes with Mark Van Doren and wrote poetry with classmates Alan Ginsberg and John Hollander. Although he left New York for Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he followed the New York scene avidly and, as long as he was able, used to travel down to the City with an old friend once a year to go to the opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Amherst he was a member of a group called the Ex-New Yorkers, who used to gather once a month to reminisce about their hometown, choosing a different theme every time.

Also every month, from the very beginning of his stay in Amherst, Ted held a men’s poker game on a Friday night—low stakes, high seriousness. He cancelled the game only once that I recall— the month after Anna’s death. In the last month of his life he moved into assisted living in Amherst, and one of his poker mates moved in soon after. But they didn’t have time to get Poker Night going again in the new venue.

So many daily, weekly, monthly, annual rituals, now all gone. Will any of us ever manage to be as faithful to them? Which of them will we keep up? Now that I no longer receive my regular envelope of clippings from the Times, I must subscribe on my own, though mine will have to be the digital edition. Nights, when I am at a loose end, I will play Canfield’s Solitaire, Ted’s favorite, though I won’t keep a running score as he did. When I need to soothe my soul, I must remember to play music, like Ted, who always listened to classical music on the radio or CD player as he worked at his desk. And on Saturday mornings I will visit the Book Shed at the Amherst town dump to see if there’s anything of interest; but I won’t get there as often, or keep my eyes peeled anymore for British murder mysteries, Ted’s favorites (he went through hundreds of them, some of the best ones many times over, since he claimed that he always forgot whodunit).

His house is empty. This weekend Andrew and his siblings are clearing his room at the assisted living place, where he stayed for only six weeks. He had insisted on continuing to live in his own home, resisting home help, remaining independent to the end. Here is the obituary that he wrote himself; a shorter version will run in his beloved New York Times this Sunday.

Rest in Peace, dear Ted.

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392. Pecking Order

In Family, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on November 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

b943939cc38c7a4c769c401ab271f47cIn the past couple of years I’ve taken over the job of keeping my parents’ bird feeder filled. They always did so religiously, observing the birds’ behavior intently, keeping track of all the different species that paid them a visit, watching over the eggs and fledglings in the spring (see TMA #301, Babysitting), and worrying about their well-being as winter approached. I watch through the kitchen window as I do the washing up, trying not to anthropomorphize, though it’s well-nigh impossible for me not to do so.

At first I couldn’t help but notice the large birds taking up too much space, scaring off the smaller ones, and trying to scarf up all the seed. I also noticed little birds of many species perching on a nearby tree, like so many Christmas-tree decorations, and coming forward one by one to take their turn at the feeder. The term “pecking order” immediately came to mind, and it struck me how apt it was; here were the birds lining up hierarchically by size, taking it in turns to peck at the birdseed. But I was wrong, wrong on the origins of the term, and wrong in my knee-jerk interpretation of what was happening at the feeder.

It turns out that pecking order was coined by Norwegian zoologist and psychologist  Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, whose 1921 PhD dissertation presented his observations and interpretations of  social dominance among cooped-up chickens who, apparently, punished transgressors with a “painful peck” that taught them their place in the hierarchy. He claimed that this hierarchy was not learned, but inherent in the birds’ nature. Other scholars seized on this notion, and applied it to human social hierarchies as well, arguing that we are competitive creatures who naturally establish social pecking orders.

This line of thinking reached back to the 19th century, when Darwin’s theory of natural selection was seized upon by social Darwinists who extended it to persons, groups, and races, arguing for Herbert Spencer’s theory of the “survival of the fittest.”  According to them, human society naturally followed the law of the jungle, and those who came out on top were evolutionarily superior to the rest. In his 1949 elegy, In Memoriam, Tennyson entered what was to become a long-running debate with his now-famous phrase, Nature, red in tooth and claw, in a section of the poem where he contrasted the seeming heartlessness of Nature with the religious belief that Love was the ultimate force in the universe. And ever since, the work of politicians, artists, social scientists, and natural scientists has been shaped—or skewed— by the assumption that cutthroat competitiveness is hard-wired in human beings, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

How many Nature documentaries have you watched where a powerful predator stalks, kills, and devours its hapless prey? Take note of the narrative thrust of the storyline and tone of the commentary. More often than not, it seems, the narrator focuses almost obsessively on the gory details, delighting in the bloodthirsty order of things, as if to naturalize, even valorize, similarly violent behavior in human beings.

Back to my kitchen window. Viewing the birds at the feeder without my pecking-order lenses, I still saw the blue jay crowding out the smaller songbirds or the red-bellied woodpecker drilling far into the feeder with its long, rapier-sharp beak, which other birds wisely gave a wide berth. But I also noticed other kinds of behavior. First of all, there was very little actual fighting, aside from the occasional wing-beating flap when two birds descended on the feeder at the same time, and one made sure it got in first. But there was no further fussing and fighting, and certainly no pecking. The other bird simply waited in line, as customers do at a crowded restaurant, until there was space for it at the bar, and then took its place, first-come, first-served. I also observed that while big birds were dominating one side of the feeder, the smaller birds simply lined up on the other side, and there seemed to be little conflict either between the big and the small or among the small ones.

In addition to competition, I observed an interesting symbiosis among different species. While most of the birds perched on either side of the feeder, others who were no good at perching, like the mourning doves, picked up the fallen seed, as did the squirrels. One morning, I even saw a flock of free-ranging hens from next-door cleaning up on the ground—amicably, I might add: no sign whatsoever of a pecking order.

There have been some exceptional scientists who have been free enough from the prevailing social-Darwinist bias to pioneer other approaches, both at the cellular level and at the level of relationships between different organisms.  One was the late evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, who focused on symbiosis and  cooperation rather than competition as the driver of evolution. Her perspective brought her into vigorous debate with neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene), but while her ideas were initially ridiculed, many of them were eventually accepted.

alcc41

My father felt so strongly about keeping the bird feeder well stocked with seed that he was reluctant to leave home for any length of time lest it run out. As for the larger predators, he was a particular lover of the Big Cats. He never tired of watching documentaries of lions and tigers, neither reveling in or recoiling from their carnivorous natures. “They have to eat,” he would simply say, “What magnificent creatures they are!” But his favorites were the videos showing the close relationships that developed between Big Cats and humans, and he never tired of watching a YouTube video of the joyful response of a lion raised by humans, released to the wild, and then reunited with them when they returned to visit after many years. He was deeply touched by the scene every time. “We under-estimate these animals,” he would always say, shaking his head in wonder and sadness, for I think he was remembering having to leave behind our beloved dog when we left India for the United States (see TMA #54, Flash).

So what a person sees at the bird feeder depends on how that person sees the world. While one cannot  eradicate one’s own biases altogether, one can at least attempt to be aware of them. Pecking order—pshaw! More like pecking disorder.

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391. buying up the whole store

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, parenting, United States on October 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Birthday haul from the Indian store

Birthday haul from the Indian store

Dad was never one to cocoon himself in the comfort of “his own people,” however one might define one’s own. In his teens he left his small hometown on the Konkan coast of India for the big city of Bombay, where he apprenticed himself to an accomplished watercolorist for a year, then took a diploma in architecture from the Sir J. J. School of Art. Soon afterwards he boarded a steamship for London, where he was to stay for 5 years, studying, working, and befriending and sharing digs with Indians and Britishers alike. He met and married an Englishwoman (soon to become my mother), withstanding and wearing down the opposition from his bewildered family. Back in India, at I.I.T. Kharagpur, my parents’ friends included Indians, some mixed couples like themselves, and a few visiting foreigners. Later, in Athens, their friends included many Greeks and a cosmopolitan crowd including Australians, Austrians, Americans, Britishers, Germans, Indians, and Pakistanis. And when Mum and Dad moved to the United States, at a time when there were still very few Indians in the country, their closest friends here in New England were both American and Indian.

But despite his diverse circle of friends and acquaintances, in the last few years of his life Dad admitted, almost guiltily, that he pined for Indian faces. He looked forward eagerly to the local Indian association’s annual Diwali event, when they laid on a catered Indian feast and everyone took out their gold ornaments and dressed up in the silks that lay folded in boxes all year. Dad would put on his best Indian woolen jacket and Irish tweed hat and pace the front hall for hours in advance, while I fussed anxiously over the draping of my sari. Funnily enough, though, once he was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a lively, multigenerational, multilingual Indian crowd, he wasn’t much interested in interacting with anyone; he was content to eat, take pleasure in the sights and sounds, bask in the warmth of the organized chaos, and just be.

We don’t live in an area with a high concentration of Indian Americans, so the nearest Indian grocery store is in Springfield, about twenty miles away, and we usually managed to get there only a couple of times a year, when Dad had an eye doctor’s appointment. Last year we paid them a special visit on his birthday and came away with a highly satisfying haul that would last us until the next time. Just looking at all the choices made us ravenously hungry, so we always bought a fresh samosa each and ate it in the car on the way home, with Dad pronouncing it “Delicious.”

Our last visit to the Indian store, back in late May or June, had been delayed due to Dad’s second hospitalization of the year. He was now having to be on supplemental oxygen day and night, trundling a small oxygen tank in front of him in a little three-wheeled walker wherever he went.  On this visit, he put the oxygen tank in a shopping cart and pushed that around the store instead. We oohed and aahed at everything we saw: packets of savory snacks of every description (“munchies”, Dad called them); tins of pure ghee; frozen chapatis from Malaysia that tasted almost as good as home-made; heaps of fresh curry leaves, dhaniya-patta (cilantro), and green chillies; sweets of all kinds by the pound, driven up from New York; several varieties of  mangoes, sold by the box; blocks of jaggery made in Kohlapur, right near Dad’s hometown of Ratnagiri; cans of mango pulp made in Ratnagiri itself; and, of course, a myriad varieties of rice, tea, and spices.

As the clerk rang up our order and we began to maneuver our cart out to the car, Dad said wistfully, “one feels like buying up the whole store.”

The next month, the day after his 92nd birthday, we had to call an ambulance for what turned out to be Dad’s final hospitalization. Most of the Kohlapuri jaggery and the pure ghee still sits here at home, looking as lonely and bereft as we feel. Diwali approaches again, but this year it will be a quiet one. We will simply be content to attend the function and to be surrounded by Indians for a while.

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384. Auntie Bette’s Litmus Test

In 1980s, Britain, Family, Food, people, Stories, travel, United States on June 28, 2016 at 9:35 pm

TrumpTower

My Auntie Bette has always had impossibly high standards and we were anxious not to disappoint her. In the summer of 1984, older then than I am now, she stepped off the plane at Logan Airport looking regal in a powder-blue jumpsuit, as ravishing as if she had just stepped out of a beauty salon, rather than having survived the ravages of a seven-hour transatlantic flight. England, of course, was the pinnacle of perfection and in her eyes, the U.S. would always be playing catch-up. For years she sent us massive care packages at Christmas, telling the neighbors, sweet-shop man, and post-office clerk that it was “for my poor sister out there in America who can’t get a good Christmas pudding for love nor money.”

So when we took her to New York City we wanted to show her something really impressive. But was there anything there that could match London? She didn’t think so. FAO Schwartz wasn’t bad, she conceded; the Statue of Liberty: well, all right if you liked that sort of thing; bagels, meh. We’d heard of this building that had just opened a few months before and which we hoped would be just Auntie Bette’s cup of tea: unashamedly luxurious, in-your-face-opulent, totally over the top. It was named Trump Tower, after some wealthy toff who had developed it, no shrinking violet himself, by all accounts.

Atrium, Trump Tower

Atrium, Trump Tower

The building’s massive foyer—the Atrium, they called it—was dazzling with gold glinting and reflecting off every surface. The walls, the ceilings, even the escalators were gold. Auntie Bette didn’t think so. Gilt, she was sure, and showy; she remained singularly unimpressed. We checked out the restaurant, but no dice: the menu was ordinary and overpriced, and you couldn’t get a good cup of tea. Suddenly Auntie Bette said, “What about the loos? Are the seats made of gold? Now that would be something.”

There ensued a half-hour search—upstairs, downstairs, and in my lady’s chamber—but most of the building consisted of a hotel and high-end retail stores, and we couldn’t find a public toilet anywhere. Finally, deep in the bowels of the building, in some lower basement, we found it. There was a line of expensively-dressed ladies waiting outside in the corridor for a few miserable stalls to be vacated. We joined them, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other until it was our turn. What a disappointment! They were just ordinary toilets; no gold seats or gold faucets, in fact, not a glimmer of gold anywhere in sight, except on the ladies’ fingers. “I thought so,” said Auntie Bette; “All show and no substance.”  Or words to that effect: maybe she said, “Flash waistcoat and dirty knickers.” You can always judge a place by its lavatories, says my Auntie Bette, and I fully concur.

photo by Joseph Burke (josephx.com)

photo by Joseph Burke (josephx.com)

Thankfully, America did redeem itself that day. On the drive home we broke our journey at the legendary Secondi Brothers truck stop where Andrew’s brother Dan always had breakfast on his weekly food co-op truck run to New York. (Sadly, the restaurant is no more, only a gas station and convenience store.) This was a place guaranteed to fill the stomach of the heftiest trucker, but Auntie Bette is a good trencherwoman and more than a match for anyone. And breakfast is her favorite meal.

She asked for a fried-egg sandwich, with home fries on the side. If I recall, she gave the amused waiter detailed instructions about how she  liked her eggs and how many pieces of toast she wanted. At least, he started out amused; by the time he had finished taking the order he was quaking in his boots. It was going to be hard to satisfy this customer.

But Secondi’s delivered. When the massive platter arrived, steaming hot, with the food threatening to fall off its edges, even Auntie Bette was suitably impressed. There was silence all round for a few minutes, as she did justice to the order and we all looked on, amazed. Her only remark, halfway through, was, “three eggs!” And at the end, she went up to the front personally to thank the cook. “Now, they know how to do breakfast,” she pronounced, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Secondi Brothers had her seal of approval.

Trump Towers, however, failed to pass Auntie Bette’s litmus test. And I suspect the man behind the (gilt) curtain would do the same.

(from the guardian.com_

(from the guardian.com)

 

Note: Word must have gotten out that the TT toilets had failed to pass muster because, in search of images to illustrate this story, I found a 2012 article listing the locations of the top ten public bathrooms in New York City, guaranteed to “make you feel like royalty.”  Whaddya know? Listed at number seven was Trump Towers at Columbus Circle.

(not at Trump Towers)

(from 212access.com)

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381. Cousin Mischa

In Family, people, Stories, United States on May 10, 2016 at 1:58 am
Vortex site, Sedona, Arizona

Vortex site, Sedona, Arizona

He was frequently the first person who called to wish me a happy Mother’s Day. Now, I’m not sentimental about Mother’s Day, but he was. I appreciated his calls all the more because he had no biological obligation to me: he did what he did only out of the goodness of his heart. Mischa (Michael) Wecher was Andrew’s maternal cousin, his mother’s sister’s son, and an elder brother to us all.

I hate having to use “was” to describe someone who was such a life force. On Wednesday, May 4th, I received a tearful phone call from Andrew’s sister Eve, who had flown out to Oregon with their brother Dan, with the sad news that Mischa had just passed away. They had got there less than two days before, and it was almost as if he had been waiting for them to arrive before he took his leave, just a couple of weeks short of his 68th birthday.

I first met him when I was just 17, when he spent a year in Andrew’s family’s uninsulated cabin on the banks of White Pond in Concord with his lifelong friend Bob Parker. At the end, in Coos Bay, Mischa waited for Bob, too, and breathed his last only after Bob had left to return to Los Angeles. But that winter of 1972, they kept warm with cheap Ripple wine and by coming to my college dorm during the coldest spells, when the preppies gaped at their tattoos, biker gear, and Mischa’s expansive presence. For he was well over six feet tall and was not one to tone himself down for anyone. No doubt he got a kick out of the wide-eyed Cliffies, and played up the role of the stereotypical biker to watch their reactions. Mischa invented the fast-and-furious game of Gnip Gnop at my dorm: it was played with ping-pong paddles and ball over a ping-pong table, but although the ball had to be kept in the area over the table, it was not allowed to touch down on it.

John_Prine_self-titledThat was also the year when Mischa introduced Andrew and me to John Prine. He was on tour to promote his first album, and was giving a now-legendary performance at Passim’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After listening to the young postman and Vietnam Vet-turned singer-songwriter-poet introduce and sing all the songs on the album and then some, starting with the now-iconic Spanish Pipedream, I was a fan for life. Since that day I must have seen John Prine half a dozen times, and know almost all his lyrics by heart. The New York Times was calling him “the working-class Bob Dylan,” and they were half-right in terms of his genius, but John Prine can’t be compared to anyone else. Neither can Cousin Mischa.

The chorus of Spanish Pipedream goes:

Blow up your TV, throw away your papers
Go into the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus, on your own.

In his own way‑and he did everything in his own way‑Mischa might have adopted this song as the anthem of his life. Home and family meant everything to him, especially his beloved daughters, Jessie and Michelle. He was a fiercely protective father and would move heaven and earth for them. He did just about everything himself, letting nothing and no one dictate his beliefs and behavior. For several years when his daughters were small, he moved the family to the wilds of Northern California and panned for gold. He made homes in New York (Brooklyn; Massapequa, Long Island), Concord, Massachusetts; Washington State; California (Redondo Beach, San Diego), Phoenix, Arizona; and, in what was to be the last year of his life, in Coos Bay, Oregon, where he realized his dream of living by the water, buying a boat, and fishing as his father had done before him.

In every home of his, he threw himself into building and remodeling, building a garage single-handedly, putting in a pool, creating a desert rock garden in Phoenix, completely renovating the house in San Diego that he inherited from his brother Richard before selling it and moving with Debbie to Coos Bay. On his Google+ profile he listed himself as “Bum,” but he was one of the most hard-working people I have ever known.

Mischa was larger than life in every way, not just in terms of energy and physical size; he was also big-hearted and the soul of generosity. Like all of Andrew’s family, he celebrated the Ukrainian Orthodox Easter and Christmas, and never failed to call in whenever we gathered for those occasions, talking to each of us in turn as we passed the phone round the dinner table. When he came to visit he would cook for us, shopping in bulk at Costco and preparing about three times the quantity  that anyone could be expected to consume in one sitting. On every visit Back East he helped complete projects around the house; thanks to him, our bathroom floor is beautifully tiled.

Also thanks to Mischa, we have a small glass-stoppered bottle of his younger  brother and our cousin Richard’s ashes on the shelf in our living room, next to the Russian icons, the statues of Ganapati, and Nikhil’s school photos and sports trophies. After dear Richard’s untimely death a few years ago, Mischa rode his Harley across the country with Bob as he had many times before, this time carrying his brother‘s ashes with him everywhere he went, even to the table at restaurants, before bearing them to the cemetery and his family’s plot. But he left some of them behind with Andrew, and perhaps with others along the way.

gandalf-and-staffcMischa had more than his share of health problems over the past decade, undergoing several surgeries and forced to take heavy-duty meds, but his zest for life was undiminished. He decided to have two hip replacements, and in close succession so that he wouldn’t be long out of action. While grounded, he threw himself into a new project, making striking, intricately carved walking sticks, each one worthy of Gandalf himself. He insisted that the hospital return one of his hip joints to him, and embedded the ball in his personal walking stick like a royal sceptre. And when he was given the green light to walk free, he went right out and bought jet skis to test-drive his new hips.

As a strict rationalist, Andrew’s father Ted is liable to scoff at anything that hasn’t been scientifically proven. Mischa always saw it as his personal mission to get Ted’s goat, and Ted usually obliged by rising to the bait. On this one particular occasion, though, he outdid himself.

star-trek-transporterMischa was planning another cross-country road trip but didn’t reveal his plans to his uncle. Instead, he mentioned to him on the phone that he’d heard about a new device, like a Star Trek transporter, that actually made it possible to teleport oneself across long distances. Ted just switched his mind off as he tended to do when Mischa was talking nonsense, as he saw it, but he was playing right into his nephew’s hands. When he arrived at our house, Mischa called his uncle as if he were still in California, and again brought up the story. “Ted, remember that teleporting device I told you about? Well, I’m going to test it out right now.” And such were his persuasive powers that he pulled it off! He materialized in Ted’s kitchen, tiptoeing over from our house next door with the cell phone to his ear, and, for a few minutes, rattled even a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic like my father-in-law.

He delighted in getting a rise out of all of us, ruffling our East-Coast-liberal feathers with his forwarded emails and jokes that we often considered off-color, offensive, or downright wrong. But they were part of the total package, and because it was coming from someone we loved, we were forced to confront this point of view, much as Ted was forced to consider the possibility of something he considered unscientific in the extreme.

Mischa is responsible for so many high points in my life. He got us into Disneyland on special passes when Nikhil was four; took us to Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Festival on the banks of the Hudson River in New York State; drove us to the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, at whose legendary vortex the earth is said to be exceptionally alive with energy; and when, on a cross-country trip at age 18 I had the worst sunburn ever or since, he gave up his king-sized air bed to me, where I was rocked to sleep like the first created being on the floating islands of Perelandra. And, of course, he introduced me to the music of John Prine.

I can’t wrap my head around the idea that Mischa has gone. He was always calling in and reminding us that we had family who cared about us, and we took it for granted that he would keep on doing so. Even when he was ill he kept on calling, and making light of the round after round of chemotherapy that he was enduring. Eventually Debbie contacted us and told us that he was not doing well, and Eve and Dan made the trip out to the Northwest, where Andrew had traveled with him less than a year ago to help him move. I wanted to go, and told him so, but never made it. I wanted to tell him how much we all loved him and how much of him would forever be part of us, but now I can’t do that, except in spirit.

Two more songs by John Prine will always bring Mischa back to me. The first is Please Don’t Bury Me, from the Sweet Revenge album, especially the last verse and the chorus, which go:

Give my feet to the footloose
Careless, fancy free
Give my knees to the needy
Don’t pull that stuff on me
Hand me down my walking cane
It’s a sin to tell a lie
Send my mouth way down south
And kiss my ass goodbye.

But please don’t bury me
Down in that cold cold ground
No, I’d druther have ’em cut me up
And pass me all around
Throw my brain in a hurricane
And the blind can have my eyes
And the deaf can take both of my ears
If they don’t mind the size.

The second is Paradise, John Prine’s beautiful environmental elegy, which I heard for the first time that evening at Passim’s 44 years ago. Here’s the last verse:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam,
I’ll be halfway to heaven with Paradise waitin’,
Just five miles away from wherever I am
.

Love you, Mischa. Let your spirit soar.

Washington State (ridermagazine.com)

Washington State (ridermagazine.com)

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378. Xýpna / Ξύπνα

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 29, 2016 at 10:43 am
[from amyapplebaumsalbums.com]

[from amyapplebaumsalbums.com]

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

XDuring the nearly-three years my family lived in Athens, we memorized part of a story in a Greek children’s reader we had. Whether it was because it was one of the few Greek passages he had learned by heart or, more likely, because it was one of those inside family jokes (see TMA#162 Heuch, Heuch! (and other family lingo), I remember my Dad repeatedly reciting the first few lines of the piece, about a mother waking up her daughter to get ready for the first day of school. Here’s the Greek (apologies in advance for any errors) with transliteration and translation:

«Ξύπνα!», μου είπε, «παιδαkι μου. Σήμερα το σχολείο ανοίγει. Πρέπει να ετοιμαστούμε, για να πάμε. »

« Xýpna ! » , mou eípe, «paidakí mou . Símera to scholeío anoígei. Prépei na etoimastoúme , yia na páme . »

“Wake up!” she said, “my child.  Today school opens. We need to get ready to go.”

[from huffingtonpost.ca]

[from huffingtonpost.ca]

Since then, I’ve always remembered the Greek word for Wake Up!: Xýpna! And perhaps because, not being a morning person, I struggle to leap up and embrace the day, I am drawn to songs and poems that call upon us to do so:

Bob Marley’s always-inspiring Wake Up and Live.

The lovely Greek folk singer Nana Mouscouri’s Xypna Agapi Mou (Wake Up My Love). (By the way, here’s Nana and a very young Donovan singing Donovan’s In the Morning, better known as “Colours.”)

Yusuf Islam (then Cat Stevens) singing the beautiful Morning Has Broken, sung to the equally beautiful words by Eleanor Farjeon.

And perhaps my very favorite crystal-clear wake-up song, Utha Utha, Sakal Jana, sung here by Asha Bhosle.

In several of these songs you’ll see that waking up refers not merely to dispelling one’s morning grogginess with a strong cup of tea, but to nothing less than Enlightenment, living fully and alertly as our best selves and embracing every moment of every new day.

Xýpna!

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369. the Outdoors

In blogs and blogging, Britain, clothing, Family, Food, health, Nature, parenting, Stories on April 18, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

[hertfordshire life.co.uk]

[hertfordshire life.co.uk]

OWhen I was in secondary school in England, age 14-15, the prefects, older students with positions of authority, enforced the rule that we had to spend recess out of doors, in fair weather or foul. They would patrol the hallways, especially in the winters, rooting out any poor soul who might be huddling in a corner, hoping to avoid being thrust out into the cold and wet. I remember ducking into the girls’ lavatories with a friend of mine and hiding in the cubicles, only to hear the prefects’ footsteps loom louder and louder, until finally, they heaved open the door. In a trice we climbed up onto the toilet seats and squatted there, so that our feet could not be seen when they peered under the doors. Fortunately we were lucky, that time, and gloated at our victory over the fresh-air police.

But we were in grey school uniforms (emmahennessey.blogspot.com)

But in 1968 we were in grey school uniforms (emmahennessey.blogspot.com)

1024px-Traditional.Sunday.Roast-01We weren’t getting off so easily. During that year, my mother, sister, and I were living with our Uncle Ted and our two cousins, Jacky and Carol, while waiting for the arrival of our green cards so that we could emigrate to the States with our father, who was still in India. Uncle Ted, it turned out, was a fresh-air fiend, one of those parents who believed that children should spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. So when, on the weekend, just as we were leaning back lazily, loosening our belts after a massive English Sunday roast with all the trimmings, Uncle Ted would invariably say, in hearty tones, “Who’s for a brisk country walk?” we would all groan, because we knew that it was a rhetorical question—we had no choice. We would turn appealingly to my mother, who wouldn’t let us off the hook, but sweetened the deal with the promise of tea and cakes when we returned; and so there was nothing for it but to put on our heaviest boots and plunge into the country lanes and byways with Uncle Ted.

It was always an adventure. Our sulks would be forgotten before we’d rounded the first bend and one of us had spotted our first artefact for the shelf back at home. We argued and speculated about everything we found, and eventually determined it to be an ancient Roman arrowhead, a nail from a hob-nailed boot, the tiny skull of a shrew, or an as-yet-undiscovered species of fern or fungus. We bore them proudly back home, covered in mud, like the rest of our persons, to be displayed on the special shelf, duly washed and labeled. And then we had tea and cakes.

Britain is famous for its footpaths, and one can still ramble the length and breadth of the island on both short-and long-distance national trails. Much as I detest the self-important officiousness of school prefects, and root for the rebels who refuse to catch their deaths out in the rain simply because it’s supposed to be good for the character, I can’t help but applaud the parents who instill a love of the outdoors in their children.

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I just read a sad story in a British newspaper, reporting that some middle-class parents are refusing to let their children ramble around the countryside because they (the parents) can no longer read maps and, besides, their offspring might come home covered in mud.

Long live map-reading, and muddy boots, and the glorious Outdoors!

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365. Kindred

In blogs and blogging, Books, Britain, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, Words & phrases on April 14, 2016 at 8:35 pm

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  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

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There are those conversations with cousins and aunts during which you realize that not just your features, but your quirks, as well as those of your parents, are theirs too. My Auntie Angy, married to my maternal Uncle Len, used to joke with my husband and my cousins’ spouses, that they were the A-Team—united by a crime they didn’t commit and forced to live with members of the Sharp family. Thank goodness for the long-suffering A-team in every family that tempers and balances the eccentricities of the other side!

UnknownSharp by name and sharp by nature: that’s my mother’s family. They have a way with words, both spoken and written, do everything quickly (quick-witted, quick-tempered, quick to take offense), but are fiercely loyal to those they love. They are also just plain fierce. It can be infuriating to encounter this fierceness on your own; but when, commiserating with siblings and cousins you realize that, a) you have the same traits yourself and b) you’re all in it together, you gain a new understanding and tolerance for the behavior, and it even becomes endearing—well, sometimes and to some extent. You are all kindred, and that is so comforting.

Now, Reges, my father’s family, are another kettle of fish (Pomfret/pamflet, if you want to get specific). They are contradictory characters, artistic and free-thinking, yet set in their ways; gregarious and hospitable, yet solitary, even shy; high-performing but wracked by self-doubt; stoic on the outside, but nursing anxieties and worries to which they will never admit (or is that myself I’m thinking of?). Getting together with Rege cousins to share stories about our respective parents allows us to see how many of the traits that baffle us about our beloved seniors are shared among all their siblings. On a recent, rare visit from India, my cousin Vidya instructed my father—lovingly, but in no uncertain terms—to listen to his elder daughter. She knows: she too is an elder daughter, and her father is just two years my father’s junior. I can’t tell you how supported she made me feel.

It is a truism that you can’t choose your family. This is another wonderful thing about kindred. This lack of choice means that your family contains all sorts, including people whom you might never have got to know, or even meet, unless you were related. This is good for your soul.

Then there are the kindred spirits. You’re not related at all—not by blood. But as soon as you meet you find yourself completely at ease. There is no need to explain; everything you do, everything you say, is understood and accepted immediately. And you can trust them to the ends of the earth.

Kindred-octavia-e-butler-124291_408_600 The late Octavia Butler wrote a novel called Kindred. If you haven’t read it yet you’re in for a treat. Her protagonist Dana (interestingly close to DNA) has kindred of both kinds: those whom she wouldn’t go anywhere near if she weren’t related to them, but for whom she must risk her life because she is. (Sorry, that’s a convoluted sentence, but as they say about fraught relationships on Facebook, it’s complicated.) These kindred force her to recognize that she has to know them to know herself, however difficult that is for her. To her dismay she finds that, even as she hates the things they do, she continues to care for them. Thankfully, Dana has the other kind of kindred in her life as well: the kindred spirit whose love and integrity she finds that she need never have doubted.

I am lucky to have both kinds of kindred in my life. All of them, but all of them, bring me joy.

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364. Jai Jagat!

In blogs and blogging, Family, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, Words & phrases on April 13, 2016 at 5:29 am

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  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

JMai-Atya, my Aunt Kumud, now 93, was a Gandhian social worker and educator all her working life. She took a vow of simplicity as a student in 1942, during the Quit India Movement, and has worn only khadi, homespun cotton, ever since. She has worked tirelessly for Dalits,  women, children, anyone in trouble—with their families, society, the law—her vision one of freedom, justice, and a sustainable life for all the people of India.

Mai-Atya was our family chronicler. She wrote to my father regularly, wasting not a centimeter of space on the blue aerogramme, telling him who had got married and when, who had had a baby and its date of birth, who had passed their exams, who had shifted their job or their place of residence. She ended her letters with the stirring slogan, Jai Hind!  —Victory to India!imgaerogram

I would try to read her cursive Marathi and ask my father to translate what I could not. One letter, she signed off with a new slogan: Jai Jagat!—Victory to the World!

Victory to the World—what a concept! Trust my dear Aunt Kumud to be several steps ahead of the rest of us. While most of the rest of us were wallowing in feel-good nationalism—all-too dangerous, though we didn’t realize it then—she had decided to broaden her vision to include the well-being of everyone on the planet.

I looked up Jai Jagat on the Internet, and found the website of Ekta Parishad (unity council), a “peoples movement dedicated to the principles of non-violent action, aiming at social and land reform.” Their vision is of an India in which:

Each one could benefit from equal and guaranteed access to land, forest, and water, and the whole population—regardless of origin or caste—could live with dignity.

Jai Jagat 2020 is a campaign launched by Ekta Parishad, in which they too make their vision global.

Ekta_Parishad_logoIn the 2020 campaign we are broadening to Jagat, meaning all people in the world. This does not mean that the work of Ekta Parishad alters its direction from changing its focus away from the lives of poor people. We continue to organize marginalized communities for their control over land and natural resources, as a way to fight poverty. At the same time we realize that this problem is not limited to India alone and that people from almost every country across the world are experiencing similar challenges. Market driven globalization is depriving millions of people from their land and accessing resources. People are being dispossessed and forced into cities and slums.  This means that we need to work at a global as well as at the grassroots level to bring about real change.

 Jai Jagat actually means VICTORY OF THE WORLD. That is very close to the concept of  Sarvodaya (‘well being of all’) that was given by Mahatma Gandhi. The underlying principle is that, if there is a victory then it should be the victory of our common humanity not the victory of one nation over another. The victory should also be based on the victory of living commodiously together, and of people coexisting with nature. If the victory is for everyone and for everything, then this is the best. A modern world needs to imbibe these new values, the values of Jai Jagat and Gandhi’s notion of Sarvodaya.

Dear Mai-Atya, who signed off, Jai Jagat, some 35 years ago; ahead of her time, as always. Let’s hope that the rest of us can catch up in time to save this struggling world. That is a vision that brings me joy.

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354. The Pursuit of Happiness

In blogs and blogging, Family, reflections, Words & phrases, Work on March 27, 2016 at 5:24 pm
(from fitforaframe.com)

(from fitforaframe.com)

A few years ago my brother-in-law Dan, computer wiz extraordinaire, designed a little game for each of our computer desktops. He called it The Meaning of Life. In those days, about all I knew about computers was that in order to open an application you had to click on it. I duly took hold of my mouse and aimed it at the little Meaning of Life icon: but it slipped away from me. I tried again: again, perversely, it darted out of reach. Yet again: no dice. Once more: still no joy. Eventually I realized was that this was, in fact, Dan’s point. No matter how hard one tried to get a fix on the meaning of life, it would remain elusive. It was bound to be a lifelong pursuit. That is, if one saw life in such terms, as a pursuit.

This anecdote has come to mind as I have been contemplating my no-doubt foolhardy decision to sign up for the April Blogging from A to Z Challenge with my chosen theme of things that bring me joy. I had thought it would be quick and easy to write a daily paragraph on something that lifts my spirits, brings a smile to my face, or makes me laugh out loud. But today I’m feeling doubtful about the task, and wondering whether this whole Pursuit of Happiness business—enshrined as an inalienable right in the United States’ Declaration of Independence—is misconceived. What is the pursuit of happiness but the lifelong attempt to play Dan’s little game, self-defeating by design? Isn’t happiness something that comes quietly, unsought, like grace, when least expected? Isn’t it the by-product of consistent hard work, of loving commitments kept, furthered, moved closer to realization?

My parents’ generation didn’t seem to believe in the pursuit of happiness; at best, they distrusted it. They felt that doing something simply because it made one happy was mere selfishness. Instead, even while showering the fruits of their labors on us, their children, they attempted to instill in us the principles of hard work, thrift, and delayed gratification. What we saw, even at the cost of their personal happiness, was their continual, habitual self-sacrifice, even when we felt it to be unnecessary. While we supposed it was kinda noble, it was also infuriating. We wanted to be happy, and we also wanted them to be happy. Young and restless, we wanted it all, and wanted it now.

I’m now older than my parents were when they routinely infuriated me with their self-denial. I still want personal happiness, but I’m enough of my parents’ daughter to distrust it for its own sake. I hope that if I can manage to keep up with this year’s one-a-day challenge, my month of daily posts will explore the visitations of happiness in all its facets and forms, from overflowing joy to quiet contentment, from hot-footed pursuit to simply letting the mystery be.

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