Sunday, March 29, 2009

"We will bury you."

On each trip I discovered something about a country or a city which I never would have suspected if I had not seen or heard it “in situ.” The most interesting thing I heard in all the places I visited happened on a cruise and on the wide rivers “from St. Petersburg to Moscow.” From the “picture window” of our cabin I expected to see industrial plants along the banks; instead, day after day our ship glided past “plants” of the green, living kind.

For hundreds of miles the shore was lined with tall trees, close-ranked like Russian soldiers, emerald green against a pure blue sky. Although beautiful, the monotony tempted me to dose off. I came 7,000 miles to sleep? No way! While my roommate read romance novels in the cabin, I climbed four flights of stairs to hear a young Russian historian lecture on Soviet history. He had been an exchange professor at Cambridge and spoke excellent, fluent English.

As he talked about Russian trade, I could see, through the windows of our minuscule “activity room,” along the shore-line trees taller than our ship. A few times we passed timber yards, the result of cutting down the forest behind those trees. Planks were stacked up tree-high, in groups like Southwestern mesas, extending for miles, waiting to be loaded onto barges. Surely, I thought, lumber must be Russia’s No. 1 export. Don’t always believe your eyes. I learned it is No. 4. The No. 1 is petroleum, which Russia sells to India.

Then our professor talked about Krueschev. I can’t find the proper spelling in my spell-checker, but you know whom I mean: the man who banged his shoe on the desk at the U.N. and said, “We will bury you!” You’ve heard that repeated time after time on radio and television as evidence that the Russians considered the U.S. an enemy which must be destroyed.

On that English cruise in Russia, I learned something extraordinary. “We will bury you” is not what Khruschev (I’ll try another spelling) said at all! At the United Nations the translator must make an instant translation as the speaker continues to speak. “Bury” was a hasty substitution that popped out of the translator’s mouth because she/he had no time to think of a different word. Our professor on the cruise explained that the word which the Russian premiere used HAS NO ENGLISH EQUIVALENT. The original Russian, conveyed by a short phrase, is complicated, meaning something like, “We disagree, but let’s sit down and talk about it.”
Quite different from “We will bury you.”

(I recently heard a Russian expert on Book TV give a similar explanation.)

We all see things and think we “get the picture.” We all hear things and think we understand the meaning. We all need to think about things – our relationships, our religion, our politics, all our ideas – and ask ourselves, “What don’t I know about this?” It is always easy to say, “There are two sides to every question.” That’s too simple. Life is complicated. We are all limited by our backgrounds and our experiences. Or lack thereof.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

John in the Stock Market

As Wall Street tumbled in October, I heard much moaning over lost money. Didn’t people realize that you only lose on stocks when you sell, and then only if you sell for less than you paid originally? The person I’ve known who was skillful in buying and selling was John. He waited out the downturns.

I was 57 when I met John in the fall of 1986. He was a dapper little man, 68 years old, who wore glasses and had only a fringe of gray hair around his bald head. He was absolutely wonderful! Intelligent, witty, generous, and, above all, kind to everyone. (Remember that, you young people, who refuse to date anyone who is not “attractive” physically.)

John and I dated a few times, when he called me one day and asked if I would take him to get his new car. Early one morning I picked him up at his condo and drove him to the auto dealer. Then he drove his shiny dark blue Oldsmobile, and I drove my three-year-old BMW, and we went to McDonald’s for breakfast.

Over egg McMuffins he told me he paid cash for the Oldsmobile, bought with profits he made in the stock market. I sipped orange juice (I don’t drink coffee), as he explained. He invested in only one stock. “I noticed,” he said, “the price fluctuates between 25 and 33. I buy at 26 and sell at 32.”

From then on he gave me almost daily reports on how “his” stock was doing. He made a large investment, and the price was rising: 28 . . . 29 . . . 30. One day he said, “When the price goes to 32, I’ll sell and take you on a cruise.”

The price went to 30 1/4 . . . 30 3/4. . . . 31 . . . 31 1/4. . . 31 ½ . . . 31 3/4 . . . 31 7/8 . . .

“We’re almost there!” John told me triumphantly over rib-eye steaks at a local restaurant.

Then the stock went down: 31 1/4 . . . 30 ½ . . . 30 . . . 29 . . . 27 . . . 25! . . . 23 . . . All the way down to 16! John stopped trading. Even when the stock started going up again, John did not rush to sell. He set his goal and stuck to it.

John and I were married for two years when the price of his pet stock finally rose to $32 a share. Then he sold. And we went on our cruise.

Since John died, I’ve managed the “portfolio” of stocks and bonds he left me. I made some profits. I’ve also had a couple of spectacular losses. I learned hard lessons in the corruption of corporate America. But that’s another story.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me

When my sister-in-law, Mary, offered to host a birthday party for me, my initial reaction was, “Whom would I invite?”

Three years ago I moved back to Texas after living in distant parts of the U.S. for more than 50 years. Besides Mary and my brother Don, the only people I had met in this Dallas suburb were Mary’s friends and relatives. But my friends? I have two excellent neighbors and two friends I met at the senior center. That adds up to four. Enough for a party? To celebrate my 80th birthday?

Then I thought of all the people I’ve known for more than 60 years who live within a couple of hours drive. Some of them I have not seen since I returned to Texas. I gave Mary a list of 35 names. We decided Mary’s beautiful house did not have room for that many people. Mary sent out the invitations, and we waited to hear if anyone would want to see me bad enough to make the trip to my house.

On Saturday, the day before the party, plans were my son David and my daughter Martha to arrive at DFW Airport within 30 minutes of each other. When David’s flight from California landed on time, we learned that Martha’s plane was still on the ground at O’Hare in Chicago. To meet her final arrival in late afternoon required a second 80-mile round trip by car (40 miles each way from Garland to the airport.) Did that snafu portend mixups at the party? I was so glad to see my kids, I did not worry.

Don and Mary set up for the party, putting both leaves in the dining table, where Mary spread the freshly ironed blue tablecloth. Don unpacked 40 punch cups and the cut glass punch bowl (simply gorgeous!) which belonged to Mary’s mother. Mary set out yellow plates and napkins, while Don hung a “Happy Birthday” banner over the wide doorway between dining area and den. An enormous chocolate cake (a full sheet) was decorated with blue and yellow flowers. The centerpiece of yellow roses and daisies with blue delphinium and hydrangeas was a gift from my daughter Martha. The caterer arrived with punch, little sandwiches (chicken, cucumber, and seafood), and a large cut glass compote filled with strawberries, a perfect compliment for Mary’s pedestal punch bowl. We were ready to party.

Guests arrived. Twenty-six in all, to sit on chairs, upholstered and folding, in the open area which stretches from my living room through to the add-on den. They came from Rockwall, Dallas, Fort Worth, Denton, Decatur, and even Wichita Falls. . If you are unfamiliar with Texas, this may not mean much to you. But I was thrilled to have celebrating with me in my house all these old friends – friends who have kept in touch for more than 60 years and who also are simply old, all being in their 80th year.

Norma wrote, “Ilene, isn’t it fun all of us turning 80 at the same time?” Fun? Being 80 is not fun physically. All of us have health problems Many no longer drive, certainly not the 60 miles or more through city traffic to come to Garland. Sally, my friend since high school (we graduated in 1946) lives on a farm near Decatur, her daughter Amy brought her. Emmy’s daughter came from her weekend house at Eagle Mountain Lake to bring from Fort Worth four “girls” who have been my friends since we met in college (Texas Woman’s University classes of 1949 and 1950).

Fun? We all had great fun at my party. I enjoyed every minute. Marjorie admitted she made the effort to come for the opportunity to meet Charlie. In the midst of the confusion, Don drug him out from under the bed. Charlie stayed behind Marjorie’s chair and let her scratch his head.

What a birthday! The party was just the beginning. Stacks of cards came from friends who live too far to come to the party. I treasure every one. And telephone calls. From Joan in South Texas, Gertrude in New York, Nancy in Illinois, Doris in New Mexico, and John’s sister in Pennsylvania. I feel blessed, loved, honored, and deeply grateful for EACH of these wonderful people who care about me. One advantage of living 80 years is getting to know and love, and be loved, by many true friends.

They may not be ready for “Dancing with the Stars,” but my friends are still walking. Only one came to the party leaning on a cane. They still have a zest for life. To anyone who dreads getting old: STOP! Enjoy each day. . . and, when you have a birthday, CELEBRATE!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St.Patrick's Day

St. Patrick’s Day is special for me. It is my birthday.

The reason I moved to Texas three years ago was to be near my brother Don and his wife Mary. They hosted a party for me on Sunday. A real celebration! I’ll write more about that gathering of friends on another blog. Years ago, when I was homeless and commuting between Albuquerque and Chicago, and Don and Mary were living in New York, they invited me to visit them on my birthday. I went into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, intending to say a short prayer, and found myself watching a procession of three cardinals, a dozen bishops, and numerous clergy, the beginning of a high mass more impressive than Christmas Day mass I attended in St. Peter’s in Rome. The Pope had a much smaller entourage.

Afterwords I stood on the curb with a lot of New Yorkers who greeted their friends in the bag pipe bands and police brigades marching past in the big St. Patrick’s Day parade. Thousands and thousands of police, and someone among the people surrounding me seemed to know someone in every group. If you want to rob a bank in Brooklyn, do it on St. Patrick’s Day. All the police will be in Manhattan marching in the parade.

As I walked up Park Avenue, headed for the Waldorf and the most elegant public ladies’ room in NYC, I saw in front of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church a sign inviting the public to a “Service of Reconciliation.” I went in. The program was held, not in the sanctuary with its Byzantine mosaics, but in a much plainer adjoining hall. I listened to an Anglican clergyman and Catholic priest talk about growing up in Belfast during “the troubles.” As boys they both had “typical Irish childhoods.” They played soccer and studied the same things in school, but their lives were kept separate by religion. A little pot of shamrocks was passed around the congregation, and each of us were told to break off a small piece of the plant and pass it on to our neighbor. I was alone on a pew near the back. I turned to the young man behind me, handed him the shamrocks, and said, “I’m Ilene from Chicago.”

“I’m Bernie,” he said, “from Staten Island.”

The clergy invited “everyone” to come to the social hall for a reception. I asked Bernie if he would come with me. He said, “I couldn’t. I’m Jewish.”

“This service was about including everyone,” I said. “Won’t you come with me? I don’t know a soul here.”

We went upstairs and stood, sipping punch and nibbling undistinguished cookies. We talked to each other, as no one else spoke to us. I told Bernie that it was my birthday. The Anglican had written a book about his experiences as a chaplain in a Belfast prison. Bernie asked, “Are you going to buy a book?”

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m here in New York as a guest of my brother. I can’t afford even to buy a little paperback.”

Bernie walked away. A few minutes later he came back with two books. He handed one to me and said, “Happy birthday.”

One of the best birthday gifts I ever received was that little paperback written by an Irish clergyman and given to me in a rich Episcopal Church in New York by an unemployed school teacher – a Jew and a stranger.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Van Gogh's Ghost

I am a writer. I write long, involved novels that no agent will look at and no one wants to publish. These days I mostly write blogs. I’ve had an unusual life, and friends urge me to write my autobiography. Others ask me to write down stories about my travels. Maybe some of my blogs can be assembled into an autobiography or a travel book. For a journal I keep brief entries in the engagement calendar I buy each year from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I save these year after year, not because the journal notes are significant, but because of the beautiful art accompanying each week’s calendar. This year’s book is called “Seasons of Impressionism” featuring full-color art next to each week’s calendar – 52 gorgeous pictures.

This blog is about a travel adventure recalled by the painting reproduced opposite the March 1 to 7 blank spaces. A gardener put down his spade, knelt down, and stretched out his arms towards his baby, just ready to take first steps away from the mother’s arms. The Met curator explains:
In the hope of cheering up his brother at the asylum at Saint-Remy,
Theo van Gogh sent Vincent art supplies and black-and-white
reproductions of drawings by Jean-Francois Millet. . . .
This painting is Vincent van Gogh’s colorful interpretation
of one of those images.

Saint-Remy was one of the “out-of-the-way” places I visited in 1983. The town was hosting a car show in the town square; when I drove in at the wheel of my new BMW, the French thought I had come to join the party! I found a small hotel, very French, very elegant, and very self-indulgent for me, as the cost was ‘way above my budget. My room had a bed with floral chintz bedspread and carved headboard. A Louis XV chair with needlepoint seat. I stayed for two nights, further indulging in fresh orange juice for breakfast and two excellent dinners.

For two days I went sight-seeing in this small town. Beside the road I was awed by a triumphal arch raised by the Roman legion stationed there when this part of France, called Provence, was a province of the Roman Empire. Monuments like this inspired Napoleon to erect the more famous Arc de Triumph in Paris.

Next to the arch was a tall column surmounted by statues of two boys, the Emperor Augustus’s grandsons. Years before, watching “I, Claudius” on PBS, saw these youth portrayed by actors. Their wicked step-grandmother had them murdered so that her own son could inherit the title of emperor. Some loving family!

Across the road archeologists are uncovering on a hillside a Roman town buried for almost 2,000 years in mud from an overflowing stream. Only part of it has been unearthed, but I was able to walk on the ancient stones and go into the remains of shops and little houses, as I was later to do at Pompeii and Ephesus. Also at the Chaco Canyon ruins in New Mexico. For a few moments I transported myself back to the 1st Century. It was a mirage. There is nothing left but stones.

After hours with the Romans I moved up to the 19th Century and Vincent van Gogh. Next door to the archeological site was the gateway to the asylum. I drove through the gates and up the long drive to park my car next to the cedar trees in front of the building. I once had a poster of a painting van Gogh made on this very spot. The big double doors were unlocked. I walked right into the stone passage which lead to the courtyard, an open space surrounded by a covered n arcade, like a Medieval cloister. Yes, Van Gogh painted that, too. As I stood there, light from the arched openings marking scallops on the stone floor, along the passage two figures slowly walked towards me, a nurse holding the arm of a child. Van Gogh’s assylum is still a hospital for treating ill and disturbed children. As these very real people came near me, I truly felt the presence of Vincent van Gogh. Crazy man and a great genius. Gifts of the gods, who give and take at the same time. Who would care if he/she were crazy, to be endowed with such talent?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lone Star

Driving home from the art museum, I passed flagpoles, big flags whipping in the spring winds. One pole with two flags, the stars and stripes above the lone star of Texas. Some places had two poles, side by side, with two flags, equal in size, the state flag flying just as high and proud as the national one. I remember my grandson, visiting from Chicago, commenting, “I don’t know what the Illinois flag looks like.” But he recognized the Texas flag, as do people throughout the World. (Thanks to Western movies.)

Texans are proud of their flag and of their state. As a child I was taught Texas was the only state whose flag can fly at the same level as the U.S. flag, “because we were once a republic.” The Republic of Texas only lasted for ten years, from 1836 to 1846. Texans never forget it.

I “escaped” from Texas more than 50 years ago. Since returning three years ago, I have been alternately amused and exasperated by how little Texas has changed. Politically the people, formerly Democrats, now vote as Republicans. Actually, they have no changed at all. Most Texans are deeply conservative.

Of the millions who live in Texas, 75% were “born and raised” here. Most never traveled out of state, except maybe to casinos in Oklahoma and Louisiana. The schools are poor and provincial. “Abstinence Only” is taught as sex education. Biology teachers are required to teach the “flaws in Darwin’s theory.” Many of them believe the World and all its creatures came into being in one week in 6,000 B.C. That’s what the Bible says, and the Bible was dictated word for word by God, and if you don’t believe that, you will go to Hell. They also believe that Jesus told them to go out and save the World, so instead of opening their minds to other points of view, they try to convert you to their warped way of thinking.

As Ian McEwan pointed out, “The best way to deceive someone is first to deceive yourself.” Daniel Zalewski added, “because you’re more convincing when you’re sincere.” My Texan friends are good people, honest, kind, generous, and totally sincere. I hesitate to humiliate them by telling them I am better educated, have read hundreds more books (maybe thousands), and have traveled and had wider experiences. Even as I understand their ignorance and admire their sincerity, it bores when they continue to try to convert me.

In 1983 I traveled Yugoslavia’s narrow, pot holed roads, the worst I subjected my new BMW to in Europe. In area smaller than Texas, I still drove hundreds of miles on bad roads through the mountains to Prestina and down to Titograd and up to coast to Rejeka. At that time Yugoslavia was still one nation – a Communist nation. Since then the people bombed and killed each other in civil wars. Yugoslavia is now half a dozen small “nations.” On a repeat trip to the Balkans in 2007 I saw shattered buildings in Croatia and Serbia. I do not know how many lives were destroyed in the conflict between Orthodox and Catholics I have only seen on television and read in magazines about the Serbs massacring Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.

I keep thinking, “What’s wrong with those people?” Texas gave up its independence when it joined the United States (the only state to join by treaty) in 1846. Yet everyone knows Texas has not lost its identity. So here is the paradox. Texas is part of the United States, yet a Texan is still a Texan. Our fellow Americans put up with Texans, who are often ignorant and boring – and who remain blithely unaware that they are ignorant and boring, Too bad the Yugoslavs did not follow Texas’s – and America’s – example before one small nation became a half dozen tiny, ineffective “independent” countries – not to mention all the destroyed property and lives.