Monday, April 20, 2015

Come Back To Us

In the news. Last fall I got a Kindle Fire—and now I spend way too much time playing solitaire and watching YouTube videos. A subscription to the Washington Post came gratis with the Kindle. And, I just read that
they are doubling down on their search for that missing Malaysian airjet. Isn’t that how they always refer to it? The headlines are part of my subconscious.

Yet—where are the girls? I haven’t seen any headlines about the missing girls recently except—
one year on 219 Nigerian schoolgirls are still gone. That a lot of grieving parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters.

If only the international community could put its resources behind the search for these girls. “Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters that the next phase of the search was expected to cost about 50 million Australian dollars (about $39 million in U.S. currency), according to Reuters.” I wonder how much has been spent looking for the missing girls?  Goodluck Jonathan, the former Nigerian president was defeated at the polls by Muhammadu Buhari, who promises to renew the search, but I’m afraid after one year there is very little will or interest. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

What Time Is It?

What Time Is It?

Once upon a time I heard this story:

In a small town at 12 noon the fire house always tested its emergency siren, you know blowing out the cobwebs and making sure everything worked—in case there was an emergency.

Also at 12 noon the bells in the carillon began to play.

At the diner the waitress dropped another pot of coffee for the lunch time crowd. And, at the local school the children were excited for lunch and recess, which happened at 12 noon.

In a way the whole town moved in a type of ballet, all doing their individual routines in synch with each other, according to the clock.

Then one day the announcer at the local radio station was set to retire. For thirty or so years she had sat at her desk reading the news, time, and temperature and playing records. At her retirement party the whole town came to wish her well. As they sat around chatting the fire chief and priest and the owner of the diner all lamented to her that they would miss her. How will be know when it’s 12 noon, they said and laughed?

She looked confused, then confessed. I always knew it was noon when I heard the bells ringing and the siren go off. For thirty years she had been going by their time while at the same time they had been going off of her at the radio.

I guess it’s all relative.

Like when we judge someone against what we think is the norm, only to find out there is no norm. How do we decide what is the marker in which to measure?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Food Revolution

Imagine a time before Thai. Before bureks, pierogis, pho.

That was me growing up in the 60s and 70s in the land of meat and mashed potatoes. I think the most exotic thing I ate before age 23 was pizza. Americanized pizza.

Since coming to Chicago in 1982 my palate has experienced a food revolution. Down the street from me is a gyro joint and then down the block is the best Thai food ever—Siam Noodle. Once when trying to decide with local friends where to eat I began to talk up my favorite noodle place—of course, there are hundreds here in Chicago—and the person on the other end of the phone equally advocated for theirs. Come to find out we were talking about the same restaurant. We have here in Uptown one of the BEST Ethiopian restaurants. Eating Ethiopian is an experience on par with transcendence. This weekend I visited the Lebanese Bakery a bike ride away in Andersonville. They sell the cheapest lamb and potato pies (also the spinach and feta are out of this world) for less than $2. They are as big as your hand, less than a meal but a filling snack. I’ve also had Turkish and Greek food, which share many of the same qualities though they might not want to hear that.

Even bread. I grew up eating Wonder bread. It’s a wonder I lived. It was possible to smoosh the whole loaf and roll it into a tennis-ball size. Ask me—I did it once it much to my mother’s horror. It was 90% air and chock full of unhealthy carbs. Here in Chicago you have your choice of naan, pita, several different kinds of injera, and barbari bread from Iran just to name a few. And you thought there was only white and dark.

That’s the problem: We get in a rut, and we have no idea that there is more out there. When did you discover there was a whole world of tantalizing flavors? Leave a comment!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Dust of Eden

Dust of Eden, a novel by Mariko Nagai
Book review

This past weekend I read a small novel in verse by Mariko Nagai called Dust of Eden about the forced evacuation of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast to internee camps situated within the formidable interior—mostly land unsuitable for much else. While reading I was struck by how similar the story read next to the historical novel I wrote, Beyond Paradise, about a young girl and her family and their experiences within internee camps in the Philippines.

War brings about strange, uncontrollable circumstances.

In both instances these were civilian camps, not military or POW. In most cases the people were rounded up and ordered to live within confined spaces for an undetermined amount of time. So there was very little information and a lot of speculation about what the future might hold. The internees were told they could go back as soon as . . . but no one really believed it. Because no one knew what the outcome of the war might bring. The civilians were treated as the enemy.

Another thing the two stories had in common was lines. People lined up for everything until they felt like they had to line up for the sun to shine and for a new day to begin. In all my research for Beyond Paradise I was struck by how many primary interviews talked about queues. It was tiring, seemingly endless, and part of the de-humanizing process. You could never relax or feel at home because sooner or later you’d have to go stand in line for some basic human need whether it was food, the showers, or to see the CO about something. The dust and dirt and shortages were just a part of everyday life.

Of course the two stories differed in that the Nissan internees felt betrayed by their own government and in my book the civilians were expatriates living abroad who were rounded up by an occupier. Both felt equally alone and forgotten during the four long years of war. Entire families and lives were uprooted and eventually changed forever.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Story of Us

After 27 years of marriage I finally bought a tea kettle. Our first electric tea kettle was a hand-me-down and lasted approximately twenty years. It had a revival after we repaired the plug, but eventually the wiring in the cord went wonky. We continued to try to use it by arranging the cord a certain way to get everything to connect.

Our second kettle we bought used from a thrift store. It also lasted a number of years. The electrical went out on it too, but again we continued to use it by clicking it down a dozen or so times until it engaged and cooked water. So finally, after 27 years of domestic life, we bought a brand new kettle.

In the Story of Stuff we learn about the interconnected nature of stuff. We think we’re buying a bottle of water without realizing all the eventual consequences. And then we give ourselves cancer if we re-use the plastic bottle too often. Throwing it in the garbage has its own negatives. Recycling gives it the biggest chance of coming back again as another plastic product.

All I can say in defense of me and my husband is that you will never meet a pair of people who wear things out. We patch the holes in our clothes, re-attach buttons, polish shoes, send them to the menders, re-wash rags, cut up old clothes for rags. We do crazy stuff, not only to save money but so that we don’t have to buy stuff. We’ve picked up whole wardrobes off the ground at the marathon, shopped the free bin outside the book store, and made Whole Foods deli samples our entire lunch. The worst part is we called it a date.

After 27 years, we’re still hanging on to old stuff. He’s got me and I’ve got him.

Friday, April 3, 2015



When I first met Jill Essbaum she was a poet. Now nearly a dozen years later she is still a poet—plus a bestselling New York Times author.

The above link describes Jill as a writer of erotica. I know people who write erotica and usually they don’t use their real name. (Hey! No judgment here—these gals are making BIG money writing racy eBooks. Friends who by day write children’s lit and by night pay the bills under a pseudonym.)

More than for looking for sex in all the “wrong” places, Jill loves to uncover a pun. Word play is her forte. And, let’s face it, innuendo is one of the easiest ways to get one’s attention. It sounds like I’m writing one thing and really I’m saying something else. That kind of writing engages the whole mind because it makes you question—is it her or me who’s thinking about . . . ?

In many ways Hausfrau is straight forward. It is literature and sexy. It is suspenseful and allows for word play—such as the scenes where the questioning of grammar and the exact word drive Anna’s sessions with her psychologist. Anna, an unhappily married housewife living as an expatriate in a tiny town outside of Zurich has three outlets: her Swiss German language classes, her therapy sessions with a Jungian analysis, and her lovers. That last one is a bit layered, as there were many, secrets of them.

At Goodreads there are atleast 12 pages of reviews and at Amazon there are 94 customer reviews. And, here is my secret: Jill sent me a PDF last fall. I read it while vacationing in Sweden. Imagine reading about the plight and sexual misadventures of Anna, the main character, by moonlight and the light given off by a campfire. The next day the story stayed with me while hiking 20 or so kilometers.

Now I’m not going to go into a ton of background, though I could about Jill and our years of long phone conversations; she had her own unbearable sadness just like Anna Benz. She also at times felt like a stranger in her own skin while living abroad. The Jill I know was/is always looking for signs. For dominos on her morning walk, or marbles, or playing cards. Just like messages inside fortune cookies or the prize inside Cracker Jack, she knew they were out there in the ordinary. One only has to look. And, that is how Jill writes—leaving little trails of words in the midst of ordinariness. Hausfrau, though the character of Anna spirals out of control, is someone we all can relate to. Her insecurities, that feeling of otherness, the woman searching for meaning (in all the wrong places). She is so empty inside, you can hear her echo when she speaks.

Thanks Jill for pursuing Anna, for pursuing a genre you were new to, for going (a lot) outside your comfort zone to write a book that has left many readers equally uncomfortable. For Jill there has been a happy ending: a New York Times bestselling author.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Overnighters

Palm Sunday signals in the liturgical calendar the tumultuous week called Holy. I say tumultuous because nothing says crazy more than a triumphal entry followed by a crucifixion. Holy Week reveals the cracks in humanity, man’s capability of othering. It is a time of turning inward and outward with terrible results.

Which leads me into a review for the documentary The Overnighters. Jesse Moss and his film crew followed a local pastor around as he searched for ways to accommodate the overwhelming tide of workers flooding a small North Dakotan town during the onslaught of the oil and gas boom. One minute you are hailed as a hero for showing compassion and the next you are the sacrificial goat left out to draw flies. The congregation knows all about the Golden Rule to do unto others, but certainly not for this long or not when the sanctuary carpet is getting ruined. My favorite line was when the pastor’s wife casually comments: I can’t wait for things to go back to how they were.

And I’m thinking, Honey, they never will.

Of course, there is so much that gets revealed. Not only the town’s growing animosity towards the homeless workers but also the pastor’s weaknesses. Beneath the evanescent willingness to take in strangers and help others, we see that he is driven by some unnamed need or compulsion. He readily admits, it is hard for him to say no. He also confesses that he is broken and, therefore, wants to reach out to other broken people. He feels that he understands them.

Unfortunately, some of the people he tries to help turn their back on him. Their brokenness goes beyond a warm bed, a place to shower, and other social resources. Some wounds can’t be healed so easily.

From the film’s website: “Like a punch in the gut. I can’t remember the last time a documentary hit me so hard… layered, provocative, and surprisingly intimate”
Leonard Maltin

We see through the course of the documentary a congregation unravel, a town divide, and a pastor come apart, his family face-to-face with inevitable change. Nothing will ever go back to how it used to be.

I think this is an important film—social agencies and congregations, Sunday school classes and catechism classes should sit down and watch it and then find time to discuss what they’ve seen. It’s about how we all start out just wanting to help and end up with so many questions about ourselves and our own motivations. We were able to get the movie from the library. Probably also available on Netflix.

CLICK here for trailer