Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Itteh Bitteh Kitteh

My friend said the best cats are the ones that come to you. When you go looking for a cat to adopt, they're not as nice as the ones that come to you. Ordinarily, I would think this is an odd statement but given our experience, I'm inclined to believe her.

This event was foreshadowed by Ranger, my friend B's cat. B was going out of town and needed someone to look after her cat, Ranger. Rather than leave him home alone, she thought Ranger might enjoy the company of our family. I reminded her that "our family" included Baby and Gummi, but B thought Ranger could deal with that.

Ranger was a handsome cat, a furry tortoiseshell colored cat with a mellow disposition. After a few minutes to gather his bearings, he just became one of the gang. Within half a day of residence, we already had 15 nicknames for him. Endearing ones, not the other type.

Now we had a cat a while ago. Boots the Chemist was her name. I'd try to explain the story behind her name, but you'll just have to trust me that's it's a lot funnier in my mind than in yours. Bo and I got her when we were first married. She was like our trial child. We figured, if the cat lived past a year, we were responsible enough to have babies. So Boots was a part of our lives for 20 years. And people loved that cat. I don't know what it was about her. She had a mojo going on like no other pet I know. One friend who used to stop by regularly would make it a point to greet the cat. Others would just gush how pretty she was.

But Boots eventually took ill a year ago and passed on to her great reward, that great sunny spot on the rug in the sky. Bo and I figured, with 6 kids, we're done with the pet thing; the cat hair getting into stuff, allergic guests, "accidents." I swear cat urine is one of the great under-utilized weapons of mass destruction. Bo was really adamant about no pets since he was on litter box cleaning duty for 20 years. We didn't want any pets. At least nothing that wasn't going to give us a gallon of milk per day.

So after Ranger went home with his mom, the kids were asking us for a cat. While we enjoyed having our 'guest pet', Bo and I looked at each other and confirmed we didn't want to deal with a pet for a while.

The very next day, the mail man rang our doorbell to give us a package. Over the years, we've gotten to know Mailman Mike. Yes, I know they're called Letter Carriers, but then there would be no alliteration, now would there? While I was talking to him, he said, "Hey, your cat got out." For a brief moment I thought, "Did Ranger make his way back here?" I mean, you hear those crazy stories of animals traveling thousands of miles to be with someone and maybe Ranger and Gummi really bonded. All this went through my mind in a flash before I said to Mailman Mike, "We don't have a cat." To which he replied, "Well, whose cat is that?" pointing to the kitten on our front porch. I looked at the kitten, I looked at Mike, Mike looked at me. It was soon obvious that Mailman Mike was impervious to my telekinetic powers willing him to take the kitten with him. After a brief discussion about where said kitten could have come from, Mailman Mike smiled and said, "Well, good luck!" and walked off.

Aarrrgh! What was I going to do now?!? I didn't have any cat food, no litter, what if the kitten had fleas? I went to my neighbor's house. He's a vet. He's got four cats already. He's probably got cat food and litter and heck, he might, out of the kindness of his heart, offer to take the kitten off my hands, right? He gave me food, he gave me litter and told me, "Let me know how you make out." Don't people recognize someone who is in desperate need of shirking responsibility? Could they not see the panicked look on my face?

I went home and with my son, W. Bear, posted signs around the neighborhood. I also told all the swooning children to not get too attached to the kitten because we were not keeping it. Obedient children that they are, they started to call the kitten Boromir.

That evening, we got a call from someone in the neighborhood who didn't own the kitten, but would be willing to take her if no one else claimed her. "Yay!" I thought, "a happy home!" I did the responsible thing by calling his landlord to make sure this guy was on the up and up. I thought this was divine intervention as the landlord turned out to be an acquaintance of ours. This kitten would go to someone responsible who wanted her. Alas, a day later, he called to say he changed his mind.

Disappointed, I informed the children that we would have to take the kitten to the animal shelter. Thankfully, the Providence Animal Rescue League (PARL) is a no kill shelter, but I still felt bad that this itty bitty thing was going to the shelter.

The next day, W. Bear, Baby and I took the kitten to the shelter to drop her off. The shelter volunteer told me they ordinarily do not take strays unless I called the city animal control officer first. I looked at the woman, "I'm supposed to call a city agency and hope to have this situation addressed before next year?" She said, "You're right, let me talk to my supervisor." So off she went, and Baby who was not supposed to become attached to this kitten, asked, "Can we buy these toys for her?"

The lovely PARL volunteer came back and told me the supervisor said they would take the kitten. Yay! Then she told me the kitten was on the small side and might have health issues living in close proximity to older cats. Much like when you take a newborn to the doctor's office, they segregate the newborn so she doesn't catch germs from the other patients. Having experienced this with my babies, I could totally relate. Then came the big question - would I be willing to foster the kitten for a week so she could gain a little weight and strengthen her immune system? Perhaps I should have told them I have four boys. Germ-wise, the kitten probably had a better chance with the older cats. But they loaded me up with food, litter and other accouterment and, the next thing I knew, I was headed home with a kitten I thought I wasn't keeping.

I called Bo to tell him my tale of woe and his response was, "I think we need to keep the cat."

Wait, what?

He told me that the morning before I took the kitten to the shelter, he had the feeling that we needed to keep her. But he thought that was a crazy idea because we just got done telling each other that we didn't want a pet. So he figured if there was any reason why the shelter couldn't take the kitten, he would take that as confirmation that we were supposed to keep her. He was not at all surprised when I brought her home.

So we sat the children down and let them know we were keeping her. Bo had the good idea to make the kids sign a contract acknowledging their responsibility in taking care of her. Then began the long process of deciding on a name for her. Thousands of names, many from beloved books, were debated.
"Mrs. Darcy?!? What kind of name is that for a cat?!?"
"How about Schroedinger?" "What?"
"We can't keep calling her Boromir! It's a girl!"

Eventually, Bo had to put a deadline in place. I would like to introduce you to our new family member Katniss.

No Grandma B, we're not shipping the cat to you.

I still think we should have named her Mailman Mike.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Part 10: Dreams of an international life as the wife of a diplomat did not turn out as planned. So Arlene returned to South Africa in July of 1994. South Africa, like Arlene, was in the process of momentous change, and faced a critical decision of where to go from here. The first democratically held elections took place April of 1994 electing Nelson Mandela, leader of the ANC, President of the new South Africa. While there was a new government full of hope and promise, there was a past that needed to be dealt with if South Africa was to move on in a peaceful manner. To address their past and the need to move on, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by Mandela and chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu. This commission was the first of its kind dedicated to acknowledging the past in a way that promoted forgiveness and reconciliation. Perpetrators of crimes during the apartheid era, both white and black were invited to give testimony of their actions. If they could show their actions were politically motivated, they would be granted amnesty for their crime, as long as they told the truth. In Bill Moyer's documentary "Facing the Truth", he explains that 90% of the crimes revealed at the TRC were during P.W. Botha's administration. Victims were also invited to give their testimony in the hopes that, once neglected and silenced, the world would now hear them. While generally considered a successful endeavor, what the TRC could not deal with was the consequences of keeping a large group of people economically oppressed, one of which was an increase in crime.

International Arrivals, Jan Smuts International Airport

    Having split all of our possessions between us in New York, my husband Ian and I separated the day we arrived back in South Africa. We literally got off the the plane and went in different directions in the terminal. Tensions were high as we greeted our respective families at the airport. While our families were sad about the situation, I was terrified. I didn't know what my future held for me now. I had been dating Ian since high school. Many people in our town considered us the golden couple for whom the future seemed set. Now my future seemed like a big unknown. I didn't know how any of it would play out.

    I knew in the short term I would be going to the comfort and safety of my mom's home. I also knew I wanted to get my master's degree in psychology. When I got my bachelor's degree in 1989, I was told to get some life experience before applying to the master's program. I think my time in New York as a diplomat's wife certainly qualified so I set about the task of applying to some universities and arranging interviews. Having this mission helped my transition from diplomatic wife to just Arlene again.

    The interview process turned out to be a lot of effort. The programs I applied for were quite competitive and I had to travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town, Grahamstown and Pietermartizburg for the interviews. In the end, I was accepted into two of the universities and I chose Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where I had done my undergraduate degree.

    As I mentioned previously, the school year in South Africa is from January to December, so once I learned I was accepted into Rhodes, I had a few months before I had to leave. Feeling a bit like I was in limbo land, I went back to New York for a few months, staying with friends and working part time in an art gallery.

College Girl

Grahamstown, Eastern Cape Province
    I arrived in Grahamstown in January 1995 and moved into their post graduate residences. There were six of us in the psychology master's program. In the first week of our program, we went on a wilderness retreat as a team building exercise. It was on the first day of that retreat that I received the papers finalizing my divorce. Sometimes when I look back, I wonder if Ian and I had gotten some kind of help at that time, if we went to counseling, if our marriage would have worked out, and how different my life might have been. Never the less, while my marriage and life in New York didn't work out the way I wanted it to, with the divorce papers in my hand I also felt free now to move on in my life. I changed my name back to Dickinson closing that chapter of my life and swore I would never change my name again.

    Grahamstown was quite a new environment for me. I had gone from being a diplomat's wife at the United Nations to a college girl in South Africa, from skirt suits to bellbottoms and sandals. Just like my years as an undergraduate, I spent my time doing my work. The six of us in the program would sometimes socialize on the weekends, but I mostly kept to my studies. My first year was spent in class, writing papers, researching or preparing for exams and tests.

    What was different this time was the atmosphere around the university. There were still midnight walks where people would sing "Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika", but things didn't seem as stressful. Under the apartheid government, it would be a frequent occurrence for a class to be canceled because the lecturer had been detained by the authorities, but now that didn't happen. Instead were the ongoing broadcasts of the Truth and Reconciliation committees.

    The TRC was a traveling committee. They went to many cities to hear the testimony of perpetrators and victims alike and all of the testimony was public. It was on the tv and radio and big news in South Africa at the time. I seemed to me a bizarre thing that was going on, where people seemed to be coming out of the woodwork, going in front of judges and explaining their life away in order to get freedom. There was a big conversation going on in the country about whether or not people should be granted amnesty just for telling the truth. There were times when I would sit down and actually listen to some of the testimony. I remember hearing people cry as they faced the perpetrators.

djimbe drum
   With my divorce behind me and being back at school, I felt like I was in this free mode. Towards the end of my first year, I started getting involved with the music and theater scene in Grahamstown, what we in South Africa called the bungee world (pronounced 'bun-ghee'). I learned to place the djimbe that year. Me and some others would gather on the weekends to watch dramas and dances performed by 'the movement society'. We would play drums by the fires on the beach. It was a great time.

Fort England Hospital
   The second year of the master's program involved internships. So for the first six months I interned at the Fort England Hospital. It was a psychiatric institution in Grahamstown, housed in one of those grand and glorious old buildings. It reminded me of that movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". My office was in the mens' unit, mostly catering to black Africans who could not speak English. I had to have an interpreter with me to help with the psychiatric evaluations. The institution handled a lot of syphilis cases because late stage syphilis caused dementia. I experienced a bit of culture clash at Fort England. For example, a lot of our patients, in addition their psychiatric problems, had AIDS. I handled a lot of AIDS education, and it was very difficult to get the patients to understand that they had an incurable disease. Many thought they could just go to their village witch doctor and get fixed. Towards the end of my time there, the administrators started to address some of the cultural differences that came up between patients and doctors. Village witch doctors were brought in to explain to us how they work as traditional healers. A lot of us just thought they needed an anti-psychotic.

    I finished my second year interning at the Rhodes University psychiatric clinic. This was a completely different environment. I was in a nice office and was able to actually conduct therapy sessions with students. This was a welcomed change from Fort Elizabeth.

    I finished my two year master's program, but still had to write my thesis, so for my third year I lectured in the department while I wrote my thesis. It was in the field of neuropsychology: Post-concussive Sequelae in Contact Sport. We got to do neuropsych evaluations on our national rugby and national cricket teams that year. It was all very exciting! Much of my literature section focused on American football, which was fascinating to me.

    Towards the end of my third year I met Richard. He came to my house with a mutual friend one day. We later found out he was in one of my classes. With the lectures being so large I didn't realize it. One thing led to another and after a while we were romantically involved. By November of my third year, I had finished my thesis and graduated from the University. Not having a particular plan in mind after I graduated, I decided to follow Richard back to Cape Town.

Cape Town

Cape Town, Western Cape Province
    Having finished an intensive three years of study, I went to Cape Town thinking that I would take some time off to relax and then maybe pursue setting up my own practice. I found some work waitressing and after a while, I started to think about traveling again, maybe to South America. A friend had just returned from Peru and it seemed like such an interesting destination. I thought I might backpack around the area for a few months. So I started to sell some of my stuff in preparation for going there. However, after four months in Cape Town, I found out I was pregnant. This changed all of our plans.

    I was surprised at the idea of being pregnant. I had sold a lot of my stuff in preparation for traveling so I really had nothing materially and very little direction for a future with a child. And Richard and I never really discussed the future. After all, I had been planning to travel to South America for six months or so. At first, Richard and I thought we would just stay in Cape Town, but then I got to a point where I looked at my surroundings and I thought to myself, I need to go home, I need to be near my parents and my sisters. Richard and I had no real career plans, not much in the way of possessions and here I was soon to have a baby. So I decided to go back home to Johannesburg to be near my family. Now Richard was a bit younger than me. I didn't know if he was ready for such an undertaking. Trying to be sensitive to what he thought his future would be like, I said to him, I'm going back to Johannesburg and if you don't want to come with me, I totally understand. But he said he'd come with me and so that's what we did. We moved to Johannesburg.


Johannesburg, Gauteng Province
    First we stayed for a bit with my sister, then we found a house of our own to rent. It was in that house we birthed our son, Yorke, in November of 1999. Things were difficult in Johannesburg. Richard found work with an event planning company while I stayed at home with our son. Richard would work all weekend setting up and taking down shows. We still didn't have much in the way of possessions. Richard would take our only car to work so I was at home with the baby. My mom and my sisters would visit, and we had a maid who came in a few days a week. Her name was Queenie and while she was employed as our maid, she was more like a mama. She really helped me out a lot. She would help me with washing Yorke's clothes and help me take care of him.

    After a while, I set up a room in the house where I could do some therapy sessions. I figured I could start taking in some freelance or contract work. I got my license and registrations to start practicing as a psychologist. Then I found out I was expecting another child.

    I marveled how things had changed. Not too long ago I was living in a penthouse apartment in New York City. Now we were struggling to make ends meet and expecting our second child. There were changes with Richard and I as well. When we first met, we partied a lot. We would go to dance parties at the beach and stay out until dawn. When Yorke was born, the parties stopped for me, but not necessarily for him. I wanted to be sensitive to that fact that he was younger than me so I didn't say anything when he would stay out all weekend. I wanted to be the understanding spouse, and the job he had was not really a family friendly one. Still, there were times when I was resentful.

    By the time our second son Alex was born, I had a small practice going. I would do psychiatric assessments for insurance companies on people who had motor vehicle accidents or brain injuries. I also worked for a company called Deloitte and Touche doing psychiatric assessments for their recruitment division.

Want to Work in Boston?

    By now, with my practice going and Richard working, we were doing a bit better financially. We had moved from Benoni to a pretty house in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Then one day, my sister told me she saw a newspaper advertisement that Rhodes University was looking for lecturers. I had wanted to get back to lecturing so I thought I'd check it out. She told me there was a whole spread on the left side of the Sunday Times. I opened up the paper, saw the Rhodes advertisement and on the opposite side of the page was a small ad that said, "Want to work in Boston?" Immediately my interest was peaked.

    I remember at dinner one night, asking Richard how would he feel about us moving to the United States and me working there? He was right on it. I countered that we might have to get married to take advantage of the opportunity and he said simply, we can do that.

    As impulsive as it sounds, it was not a quick decision. I had been increasingly concerned with safety in South Africa. Despite a historic new government that was democratically elected, there still seemed to be so much corruption and the economy was bad, but most importantly, the crime rate was so high I didn't feel safe.

electrified fence surrounding a retirement community
    Previously in Grahamstown, my house had been broken into twice with all of my stuff taken. In Johannesburg, you would hear stories of car jackings where the thief would force you out of your car and take it. Once they realized there were children in the back seat, they would dump the kids by the side of the road and hopefully someone would find them. The whole situation made me a nervous wreck. At night, Richard would be gone and I'd be home with two small children with all the windows and doors locked. Like a lot of houses, ours had an electric fence around the property. Unlike a lot of houses, our fence didn't work properly which only heightened my fears. We also had an interior security gate that locked off the bedroom areas so if someone broke into our house at night so they couldn't get to the sleeping areas. All this made me very anxious. I admit I had a fantasy of working and studying psychology in the United States, but when I told my family about moving to the US, my number one reason for moving was really safety.

    So I applied for the position. I remember going to the interview with the recruiter at a hotel. I had brought my youngest with me because he was still nursing. Halfway through the interview, Alex started crying and I interrupted the interview to nurse him. Despite this interruption, I was offered a position. A few people tried to tell me that it was too good to be true, but I was down for the adventure so I accepted the position at South Bay Mental Health in Attleboro, Massachusetts.

    It took us about a year after I was accepted to get ready for the move. We had a lot of loose ends to tie up. During this year, my sister got pregnant, and my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Quite a few times I considered pulling the plug on the whole project. It was a hard decision to make. I have to take my hat off to my family because no matter what they thought, in the end, they were always supportive of what I wanted to do.

    Then the 9/11 attacks occurred. Just like everyone else in the world, I can remember where I was at that exact moment. The attacks were all over the news in South Africa because many South Africans were living in New York City or had travelled there. I remember following the events closely because I had lived there. I made calls to people I knew in New York and found out a friend of ours from Rhodes University was killed at the World Trade Center. What I remember most of all was the feeling that for the first time, that the world really seemed like an incredibly, unsafe place because if the United States could be hit like that, anyone was vulnerable.

    It took us from March to November to get our affairs in order and make preparations to move. In addition to the planning and packing, Richard and I got married. He would not have been able to come to the US with me and the boys if we didn't so we went ahead and made things official. He had talked about marriage a few times in the past but this job offer in the US pushed the issue to the front. So in December of 2001, we got married at Rustler's Valley, where we had spent a lot of time with our friends dancing until sunrise. Forgoing the traditional big white dress I had the first time, I was married in a reddish-purplish sari.

    Even with all that time to prepare, on the day we were supposed to fly to the US, we were still packing. We were so stressed out with all the preparations. Then we got a phone call from South African Airways saying our flight was delayed for three days. It was like a gift from heaven. We were able to finish packing, celebrate Yorke's birthday with my family and then fly out.

    With my first trip to North Carolina on my AFS exchange year, I was bubbling with excitement to go. On my second trip to New York City as a newlywed, I was bubbling with excitement at the adventures ahead. Yet somehow, this time was different. I had a lot of conflict inside. I remember Richard and I discussing that we would try this for five years, just five years and then we could come back. And the recruiter told us I could make around $40,000 per year which I thought would be enough to allow us to come back every year to visit. Even my mom said she would come visit us in the US too. So everything seemed to be fine. But unlike my other trips to the US, this time, I remember a voice in my head saying, don't go, don't go.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Source of Our Sorrow

I think I have discovered the source of our generational angst. It's not the current political climate or the poor economy. It's a little secret from our collective past.

It's the use of the hot dog as a legitimate ingredient in an entree recipe.

I have previously alerted you to the fact that hot dogs are not a legitimate recipe ingredient. There is no improving a hot dog. I don't mean that they are so wonderful they cannot get any better. I mean they are kid fodder, something people eat at ballparks. To think them capable of higher epicurean levels is to deny reality and here is our delimma. I think each one of us subconsciously struggles with an inner conflict between the reality of the hot dog's place in the culinary universe and recipes like this:


 Which recipe you ask? Upper right hand corner, dear.

"What's for dinner, Mom?"
"Guided Missiles."
"Oh Mom, you must really love us!"
Read the recipe! It calls for sculpting the hot dog tip!! You do not love your children unless you are willing to sculpt hot dogs for them!!!

But wait, there's more.

An entire page of hot dog recipes!! "Florentine Franks"?!? I'm pretty sure whatever they are eating in Florence, Italy, it doesn't include hot dogs. Or how about the recipe above it? Nutty Franks. Hot dogs with chunky peanut butter. No, really. And just in case you haven't spontaneously combusted at that thought, the recipe says, "Pass pickle relish if desired." You, however, won't be able to do this because your guests have already run shrieking from the table.

Here's another fun one (warning: may be inappropriate for very young children)

What? What's that you say? You want a better picture?

That which has been seen cannot be unseen

I was about to slam on this recipe but you know what? Now that I see the tomato wedges, everything is better. I mean, everything is better when you include a veggie, right? Right? NO! There is no  salvation through lame crudites!

But here's the grand-daddy of them all.

Sculpted hot dog? Check. Lame veggies? Check. Added bonus of being a Weight Watchers Budget Best Bet? Oh, yeah.

Have you called your therapist yet? The very idea that there were some people who had to eat these recipes for dinner is enough to make me weep.

Thank goodness in the past ten years we have learned to overcome the use of hot dogs in recipes. Now we're into real culinary treats like this:

Avocado, mango and scallion suspended in a mint, lime and jalapeno aspic.


Saturday, September 08, 2012

My Bucket List

1. See Cirque de Soleil Beatles show in Las Vegas

When I was in my 20's, my dear friend MaryEllen asked me to go to a Cirque du Soleil show. She said it was like a circus, but for grown-ups. I don't particularly care for the circus, but I thought I'd humor her and go. Boy howdy, was I impressed. I spent the entire evening poking Bo and saying, "Wow! Did you see that?!?" I think I also spent the next two months apologizing for doubting her taste. That is, until we went to the Star Trek convention.
All that to say that I love Cirque, and if I get a chance to see another performance, it would be really cool to see the Beatles one in Vegas.

2. Live in an old Victorian home for two years
I love old homes. I think they have a lot of character. It so depresses me to see these developments where every other house is the same design. And when you look at the back of the house, it's a blank wall with windows punched through out of obligation.
I have a story to tell...
So I really like where I live in Providence. There are some lovely old homes, big beautiful grand houses. However, as I have found out with my own body, being old can have it's disadvantages. Like poor wiring, bad heating systems...I'm talking about the house, not me. Still, I'd love to spend some time in a cavernous old Victorian, I just don't want the long term financial headache of one.

3. Travel to Europe
My father worked for an airline so my family used to be able to travel on the cheap. I once went to England for $54. Of course, I had to fly through Tokyo, but I was young and had a lot of time on my hands. I did put some serious thought into what possible career I could have with an airline just to get the travel benefits, but ended up in Architecture. Anyway, I'd love to go back to Europe and see all the sights and eat all the food.
It's veal cutlet, Dan. VEAL!

4. Go cross country in an RV
Many of my faithful minions readers already know of my deep and abiding love for road trips, especially RV road trips. There's nothing like seeing large parts of the country from the road, iced coffee in one hand, beef jerky in the other (hey, I don't harsh your dreams, lay off mine). I love seeing the scenery changes from forested mountains to miles of plains. To go from one side of this great land to the other would be awesome.
An RV for me and all my kids

5. Run a 5K marathon
It's not so much that I want to run a marathon but this represents to me a certain level of physical fitness. Also it's a concrete goal versus saying something like, "I want to be fit." I also think my family could deal with this goal of physical fitness a lot better than me dancing like Beyonce.

6. Publish a book
I'm not sure why I want to do this, but this is one goal I'm actually almost done with. I'm not talking like Scribner & Sons publishing. More like Lulu publishing. I'm sure glad I live in an age I can do that.

7. See my kids married
I think this is something all parents want. I am totally looking forward to celebrating with friends and family the day my kids marry their love and start a family of their own. And my girls will wear Vera Wang, not Pnina Tornay. And no Chicken Dance. I will dance like Beyonce if I hear Chicken Dance.
Really, Pnina? Really?

8. See my grandkids
I love sniffing the downy head of new born babies, but the neighbors get all jittery on me when I constantly show up at their homes after a new baby arrives. I bring a casserole, so I don't get what the big deal is. I also think my kids will make excellent parents. Not because of something I've done. I'm not that egotistical. I think my kids will be good parents inspite of my failings. But I want them to have lots of babies so I can sniff their baby soft heads, cuddle and kiss on them and then return them to their parents when their diapers get poopy.
you almost sniffed your screen, didn't you?

9. Drive a Mini Cooper
I currently drive a 12 passenger Ford Van. It maneuvers as well as a water buffalo, and looks about as sexy as one. So I want to drive something small, energetic and stylish.
not sexy
10. Learn to speak Japanese
This is kind of a Holy Grail in my life. I would have loved to been able to speak to my grandmother in her own language, but I never got off my arse to do the work of learning another language. Also, I have to do this if I hope to achieve Number 11 and not stay at all those gaijin hotels.

11. Go to Japan
It's a beautiful and fascinating country and it's part of my heritage. The last time I went was in 1996 when it was just Bo and I. We had a great time seeing all the castles and temples and eating all the food. I'd love to be able to go again with the kids when they're older and not so whiney about food choices.
A hot bowl of traditional Sapporo ramen and all will be right with the world

12. Vacation in Hawaii
I've heard it's like paradise so I want to see for myself. Then I could say that I've been to paradise but I've never been to me.

13. Travel in Ireland.
When I was in college, I went to Dublin with little money, little time and a traveling companion who wouldn't shut up. I remember walking through a residential neighborhood and when we got to the end of the street, we were on a lush green hill overlooking the Irish Sea. I wanted to ring the door bell of each house and ask, "Do you have any idea of how beautiful this is?!?" So I'd like to go back with more money, more time and my best friend, Bo Hunkmeister, who knows when to shut up and take in the beauty of a moment.

14. Travel to South Africa.
I'm currently in the process of writing about my friend's experience moving between the US and South Africa. The two countries have similar histories and struggle mightily with race issues, but in different ways. Over the two years I've been doing these interviews and research, my curiosity has grown. Also it's beautiful country. I want to see this:

So what's on your bucket list?

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Difficult Day

I was a young mom who thought, by virtue of having gone to college, that I knew what to do with a newborn. Or at least could read a book and figure out how to do it right. Of course, the first few weeks of motherhood quickly cured me of that delusion. In one of my many calls to the hospital help line, I was told about a support group that met once a week at the hospital.

I showed up that first Tuesday morning and out of my insecurities judged some of the other moms I saw; she's got money, she's kind of earthy-crunchy, she's got a tattoo. What I did not know then, but would soon greatly appreciate, was the life line those moms were. We came from different backgrounds, but we bonded over the same desire: to be good moms, to do right by our children. We would meet every week and share our triumphs and our challenges. We would trade whatever knowledge and information we had found, encourage each other in what ever way we could. But the critical part of this group was not the tips, tricks or advice. It was the simple knowledge that we were not alone.

Most of our conversations might have seemed superficial to an outside observer, but what we were communicating to each other was that we were not alone in our struggles. We were telling each other there were other moms who were just as insecure, but just as eager to learn and grow. I'm sure the other ladies would agree that this group helped us be better moms to our children, and I think I became a better person.

Over time, we grew more confident in our abilities, our children grew up and some of us had more babies. As a result, we drifted apart from each other. I do not mourn this as a loss because I realize there are seasons in life. We are not always able to keep things the way we'd want it to be forever, and this is a good and necessary thing. This is important to note: just because that season has passed and my need to meet with these ladies waned, they are not any less significant to my life. I am grateful for those ladies who helped me through the first years of motherhood.

So it was with great sadness that I learned of the death of one of the moms. Heather was the one with the tattoo. While I thought this was odd at first, as I got to know Heather, I appreciated her outlook on life. She was witty, she was artistic, she was compassionate and kind. We got together a few times after the moms' group stopped meeting and I always enjoyed our conversations. What I didn't know was the emotional pain she endured that led her to take her own life.

This is what I struggle with. I am sad she's gone, that she suffered for so long and so greatly that she ended things this way. My heart grieves for her husband and her children faced with living without this most vibrant wife and mother. Yet I am frustrated as well. Because, like when I was a new mom, there are things I cannot grasp. I read this comment today: "Having the courage to endure childbirth is probably more courage than many, if not most, men have." Heather was that kind of brave. She traveled the world. She thought nothing of moving to a new house. If there was a new hobby or interest, she pursued it with gusto. Yet she despaired, and I cannot fathom a despair that would lead someone to turn that kind of courage towards ending their life. In doing so, she left behind three beautiful children and a husband who loved her so. They will sit shiva on Mother's Day.

The officiant at her memorial said that there are some things in life we will never understand, some knowledge that will never be ours to grasp. Though this frustrates and saddens me, I will accept this about you, Heather. But my deep, deep hope will remain that, somehow, you will know how much you are loved and how much you will be missed.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Adventures in Karaoke

I really didn't plan to spend my Friday night working a karaoke gig,

I'm a stay at home mom, not a DJ. On Friday nights, I put the kids to bed, watch a few episodes of 'Frasier' (the new 'Matlock') and it's lights out by 10:00 PM. But my friend 'Stina called me in a panic. The ride to her karaoke job fell through and she was in a pinch. So I agreed to drive her to the karaoke job, find a quiet corner and do some knitting until she was done. Easy money. At some point during the set up, she asked me, "How do you feel about being MC?"

Wait, what?

I feel like a fish out of water, a stranger in a strange land, that's what. But as we're setting up the equipment, she's quickly losing her voice. Really? This has to happen now? You can't run a DJ/karaoke party with no voice! C'mon, 'Stina, this isn't funny.

10:30 PM. The party was supposed to start at 11:00 PM but there's already people filling out song request slips. So we get our groove on early. I'm amazed there's so many people with the courage to do this.

The next thing I know I'm spinning "Fancy" by Reba McIntyre. I grab the mic. "Steve? Dude, you're up next with Blink 182! Give it up for Steve, yo!" Who's Blink 182 anyway? I look at 'Stina, "You totally owe me two iced lattes now!" I am made fully aware of my age by the fact I barely know any of the songs that are being requested.

It's 12:44 AM. Holy lateness, Batman! I should have been in bed for two hours by now, but these guys are just warming up. C'mon people! It's past my bedtime! A woman takes the mic. You're really not going to try Sinatra, are you? Really? The New Yorker in me dies a little bit. Kiki saves us with the next song. Kiki, you do Cher better than Cher! And without the Bob Mackey gown!

1:00 AM and there are 8 singers lined up. Don't you people quit?!? Hey you in the grey shirt! I spent the 80's listening to George Michael. Please don't ruin my memories. Next person is Mary. Girl, you sing like an angel! Come back up anytime. No, really. Because George Michael wants another turn and I don't think I can take it.

What is that over there? Interpretive dance for peace? Yes? I avert my eyes. The next contestant steps up. I see his selection and I ask 'Stina, "Does Dave realize this Alanis Morisette song is about a girl breaking up with her boyfriend?" 'Stina just smiles. Ok, Dave! Take it away!

1:30 AM. I start putting away the song catalogue books. I'm cutting off  the "performers" because they show no sign of slowing down and I'm dying here. Besides the gig is over at 2:00 AM and there's still 10 people left to go. Karaoke at 2:00 AM. Who does that? 'Stina's taking pictures of everything and posting it on Facebook for posterity.

'Stina sees me taking notes. I tell her it's for a possible blog post. The things I do for blog fodder. I'm starting to get punchy.

"Are you fussin' at me?" 'Stina says, "Yeah, I think you're tired, is what! Make sure that gets in your post."

Kiki, closed us out with Lee Ann Rimes. Dang, she's good. Wait? That's not the last one? Oh, for the love of all that's good, he wants to do AC/DC?!? The singer valiantly fights his way through a song 15 years older than he is.

2:00 AM. We're done! Oh, happy day! We're done! It took us two hours to set up, but five minutes to break it all down and get out of there.

4:00 AM. I'm home. I'm all out of snark. I never got to my knitting, but I'm safely home, in bed.

And I find myself wondering if the kids would like karaoke...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Back in the US of A

Part 9: For a girl who grew up strongly connected to her family and her roots, Arlene had a certain adventurousness that she couldn't deny. It first appeared when the AFS opportunity came up and again when her husband was offered a position in the US. Only this time, things were different going to America. South Africa was in the process of change, and change for the better; Mandela had been released, apartheid was dismantled and so there were no musicians singing about not playing Sun City. But all was not easy going in New York (after the fall of communism in the USSR, the movie villain of choice became South African). Never the less, Arlene expected great things upon her return to the US.

America. The first time I was in NYC was in 1985 at the end of my AFS year abroad. It was an amazing day; tons of sightseeing capped off with the Grucci's legendary Fourth of July fireworks display. I had fallen in love with New York and I told myself I was going to return to the US some day.

It was the summer of 1991 and I was excited to be back. I was excited to be married, to be married to a diplomat, and to be starting what promised to be an international adventure.

The first time I arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1985, I was taken to an AFS orientation program at C.W. Post campus on Long Island. For that week, the campus turned into a big international melting pot of Norwegians, Frenchmen and Swedes and we spent a few days learning about American culture and customs.

This time was different. Ian and I had to hit the ground running. Straight off the plane, we were met by our limousine driver and taken to our hotel; a nice one between Lexington and Park Avenue. We spent three months there while looking for an apartment and waiting for all of our stuff to arrive from South Africa.

Getting Settled

The apartment buildings we looked at were fancy with concierges and valets. They looked more like hotels. I could not believe my eyes. I mean, we didn't live in squalor in South Africa, but coming to New York was like coming to an island of opulence, and we didn’t pay for anything. As members of the diplomatic corp, everything we needed was purchased for us; furniture, crockery, cutlery, china. We even had a clothing allowance. And we had to buy good stuff. When we went shopping for porcelain, it had to be top quality, because when we had our dinners and cocktail parties, we were representing South Africa and South Africa wanted to look good. I was in awe of the daily amount of money that they spent on us, and we were junior diplomats.

We didn't have to look for a real estate agent ourselves because those big apartment buildings had rental agents, and as soon as the word went out, “there’s a diplomat looking for an apartment,” the agents contacted you to show you the building. Thankfully, we had our rent paid for us because I don't know how we could have afforded the $3,500 a month rent.

All the diplomats lived in very nice apartments. The Ambassador was driven around in a Lincoln Town car.  I remember feeling almost a sense of guilt because it was like we were living in a bubble. As South Africans, we put ourselves on the same level as all first world countries in terms of the opulence and the fanciness of every thing and I remember thinking, “This is crazy!” Was this representing the South Africa I knew? It seemed like the diplomats were representing an elite group and not the South Africa I knew. But I didn't complain.

At the UN

Working in and around the UN was like working in a different, very cosmopolitan world. It’s almost like it's not the United States.

It seemed to me that the whole South African diplomatic corp agenda was the agenda of the white regime, the National Party government. Part of Ian's job was public relations. I remember one of his tasks was lobbying other countries to replace the word "regime" with "government" in whatever documents and papers that referred to South Africa. The purpose of this was to gather credibility for the government under DeKlerk. So he had to lobby key countries to change words like "the apartheid regime" to "the apartheid government." Little things like that that meant a lot to the South African government.

Ours was an uphill battle. Though I felt like the relationship between the US and South Africa was better than it was when I was first here in 1985, there was still a sense of exclusion. For example, outside of the UN general assembly room, there was a hallway with larger-than-poster size black and white photographs of the unrest in South Africa, portraying the police in full gear, large protesting crowds, Nelson Mandela, poverty, etc. This hallway/exhibit was one of the stops on the UN tour that the public paid to take at that time. For the rest of us at the UN, it was a general walkway that delegates, spouses and other dignitaries passed through frequently. I never liked those pictures. Probably because it was just a harsh reality to face, but also because I felt it did not include pictures of the beautiful country I knew and loved. I thought it was a skewed portrayal; necessary perhaps, but it seemed like propaganda to me. Like my host family in North Carolina, people were always surprised to hear my stories of living a very 'normal' life in South Africa. The paintings and photos made it seem like all white South Africans were white supremacists, and this made me angry because the person portrayed on the wall did not represent me.

Election Day(s)

The freedom and ease with which Americans vote is completely taken for granted. After the release of Nelson Mandela, there were four years of talks between interested parties about what the new government would look like. As if having discussions between former enemies was not hard enough, they were sprinkled with violence by groups that felt left out and smaller parties interested in continuing the only thing they knew: armed struggle. As the author David Horowitz noted, "When you went into combat, it was only natural to put your trust in warriors who were prepared to be ruthless and brutal. But these characteristics of the revolutionary vanguard were not traits of good rulers, in whom judiciousness, moral scruple and caution would be obvious virtues. Yet how could the conquerors be persuaded to step down?"[1]

Given the enormity of the occasion and the number of candidates and voters involved, the elections were slated to take place over four days: April 26-29, 1994. There was mayhem in South Africa leading up to the voting. There was no registry of voters so the interim government had no idea how many people were eligible to vote. Millions lacked identity documents and many were illiterate or in areas so remote, they were unreachable by roads. Only 5 of the 28 campaigning parties had any electioneering experience. And there was to be more violence before "peace broke out." On April 24, a car bomb went off at the headquarters of the ANC and the PAC, two of the campaigning parties. Six more polling stations were bombed on that day and the next, including a bomb at Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg. But South Africans were determined and the vote took place. In those four days in April, black South Africans learned what whites knew: how to vote, and white South Africans learned what blacks knew: how to wait. Despite the confusion and the seemingly endless lines, an election was held, history was made, and the world rejoiced with South Africa.

I remember that day in April 1994 when we voted for South Africa's first democratically elected president. We stood in long lines to vote, and there was huge media coverage. We voted right at the consulate, on 38th Street. When we walked into the polling place there was the old South African flag, and when we walked out, there was our new flag. It was so symbolic, and the party that night was unbelievable.

The South African vote that day was very much supported by other African countries like Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Angola. I remember dignitaries from those countries present everywhere that day, and being part of the party afterwards. It was like a big celebration not just for South Africa the country, but for all of Southern Africa.

In July 1992, Mandela came to the UN and it was insane. Security people were everywhere. As the wife of a diplomat, I had a pass to go anywhere in the UN complex. So I was in the general assembly when Nelson Mandela and Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party spoke on the same day. Afterwards the consulate had a huge reception for Mandela. The moment was huge. I was so happy. The party was an interesting reflection of South Africa at the time. I mean, most of the South African delegates were white, but a lot of the black Africans at the party were from Nigeria, Ghana, and other African countries. I remember they were all in their native African dress. And they were ecstatic.

The Reality
Before we arrived in New York, I had plans for what I wanted to do in the US. As a diplomat's spouse, I wasn't allowed to work but I thought I would do some studying while I was here. Apparently, matriculating in a school wasn't allowed either.

It almost seemed like the men were here to be political and work but the wives were here merely to socialize. So most of what I did was socialize with the other wives. I thought what the men were doing was awesome. Especially leading up to the election, they did a lot building up in promoting the new government, and creating credibility. The South African Tourism Association was involved as well, promoting South Africa as a destination, "a world in one country", "the rainbow nation." But I was beginning to feel like just decoration.

So I decided to join the UN Local Expatriate Spouse Association (UNLESA) or what I called the UN wives' club.

The UN Wives' Club
Joining the wives' club was not as easy as I thought it would be. Remember the UN hallway I spoke of with the posters of South Africa? That's what the other wives thought I was, part of the "old regime" It was hard to get people to understand that I was just Arlene from South Africa, I wasn't from this crazy place portrayed in the news. However, some of the other black African spouses didn't want me to join because I was a white South African. I remember particularly a Sudanese lady who caused a big stink about my membership. It actually became an issue and I had to meet with the South African ambassador and explain what was going on. I had to advocate for myself and eventually I was made a member of the club.

I was happy to be part of the organization. Rather than just go to lunches and have parties, I was now able to do something significant. Among other things, the wives' club did some fundraisers for UNICEF. I remember one time we had a massive raffle where the first prize was actually two tickets to South Africa. The second prize was some hand painted piece of art, and third prize was a smaller piece. I won third prize. I still have the piece.

Unmet Expectations
The crazy part was, all this made me depressed.

On a typical morning, I'd get up, make Ian breakfast, and he would leave for work. I was then left in this unbelievably beautiful apartment; two bedrooms with big sliding doors, big floor to ceiling windows with a spectacular view of Manhattan's Upper East Side.

And I would lie on the couch and watch one talk show after the next; "Montel Williams" and "Live with Regis and Kathy Lee." At three o'clock in the afternoon I was still on the couch. I put on so much weight that year because I was eating M & M's like they were going out of fashion.

I didn't realize at the time that I was depressed. I just thought I was being lazy. Whatever was going on, one thing I knew was I was not happy because the truth was I didn't like the lifestyle. I thought it was fake. There was so much going on in the world at that time, so much going on in our own country, so many people who needed help and it seemed like most of these diplomatic spouses were only concerned with the quality of your porcelain or how you made your spinach salad. The other wives were into their art and their painting and shopping here and there, but I was 24 and I just couldn't relate to that at all.

To make things worse, very soon after our arrival in New York, Ian told me that he felt like he made a mistake in marrying me.

I was shocked. I really didn't know what to do. When we left South Africa, we were like the golden couple; young and with boundless potential. We had been together all through high school and college. At Rhodes, we had problems I should have noticed, but as a young girl, I didn't. It's always easy to see those things in hindsight, isn't it? With everyone pulling for us, I didn't want them to know that there was trouble in paradise.

When we were in Benoni, we were members of the church I grew up in, and we went regularly. Once we got to New York, we just stopped going to church. I wanted to go, but Ian didn’t. A couple of times I went down to the Times Square church with Pastor Wilkerson, the one who wrote “The Cross and the Switchblade.” I also went to the Brooklyn Tabernacle a couple of times. But for the most part, Ian and I weren’t plugged in spiritually. We weren’t going go church. When I look back, I see that as part of the problem.

Even being a part of the UN wives' club, I didn't really connect with the other UN spouses, and so I spent a lot of time on my own, exploring New York City. Eventually, I took a volunteer job proofreading and editing at an advertising agency run by two South African men. There was a man  there named Carl, an American proofreader. We started talking and eventually became friends. I confided in him. I think the mistake was that I started talking to him about everything that was going on between Ian and me.

After a couple of these deep conversations with Carl, I went back to Ian and I told him that I thought my conversations with Carl were not a good sign. I told Ian I wanted to recognize the trouble between us and figure out what to do. It was then he confided in me that he had begun an extramarital relationship six months after we arrived in New York.

I was devastated. Apparently, when I had been in Texas for ten days with my mom, something had started up between him and another woman. Even after she went back to South Africa, they still corresponded for awhile.

However, it was news of my relationship with Carl that got relayed to the South African Ambassador. Apparently I was considered a security threat because I was having an affair. I was called in to meet with the deputy Ambassador who wanted to question me about everything. I was terrified. None the less, I met with the deputy and I told him that no state secrets were being revealed and that my personal life was my own business. He was quite nice about the situation. He told me that he cared about Ian and me, and he wanted to see our marriage work.

Eventually though, Ian's family found out about our situation. His mother in particular, whom I never really got along with, was extremely angry. I think it was because she felt that Ian and I were splitting up because I was having an affair.

So as Ian's three year UN assignment was concluding, our marriage was failing. The last few months in New York felt like chaos. Actually, it was chaos. Not only did we have to pack up all of our belongings to go overseas again, but also simultaneously divide our stuff because once we got back to South Africa, we would be divorcing.

We flew back home and while our families were there to greet us, there was no fanfare like last time.  From the airport, Ian and I left in different cars and went to different places. And that is how my New York adventure ended.

1. Horowitz, David. Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997. p. 273.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

How Much is a Bo Hunkmeister Worth?

This article about how much a mom would make if she were paid made the rounds of Crackbook recently. I see these kind of articles every year or so. I’m not sure what the point is of these articles. Are we trying to validate moms? Is it a slow news day? Have the Kardashians not done anything outrageous lately? Oddly enough, I never see one about how much husbands/fathers are worth. So being the servant of the public good that I am, I took it upon myself to try and figure this out. Please be aware that I’m basing this article on Bo Hunkmeister and what he does around our house. In light of how fabulous he is, I would suggest a 20% reduction in the final salary for the average American Dad (excluding my own dad, of course)

Ok, let’s get started:

1. Driver
    When Bo’s at work, I drive the kids to where ever they need to go, but when Bo is home, he does all the driving and I pretend like I’m Miss Daisy. Why, I’d sit in the back sipping tea if it wasn’t for all those kids taking up the seats. Seeing as how he’s at work most of the time, I’ll use the Yahoo article number reduced by 50%.

2. Animal Control Officer
    As much as Bo and I try to keep a calm and peaceful household, periodically the cup doth runneth over. Every once in a while when things get a little too hairy here, and I get to my wit’s end, Bo takes charge and restores order. Additionally, as I explained before, one of my boys’ favorite pastimes is wrestling. Being the delicate flower that I am, I leave this activity to Bo as well. For these tasks, I’d use the phrase “Child Care Provider” but let’s be real here. With four young lively boys I think my term is more accurate. Given that one of them is still toilet training, I’m going to toss in an extra 20% hazard pay.

3. Therapist
    After a trying day, Ive been known to look at Bo and ask, “Are you the only other non-idiot besides me?” To this, he gently replies, “Tell me about your day, sweetie,” and then I vent on him like a F-15 fighter jet. After composing myself, we discuss things, he gets me to put the explosives away and life is good again. Or there are times when my children and I have lost the ability to speak the truth in love to each other. Bo is able to calm everyone down, get to the root of the problem and speak to everyone in ways we chose not to previously. I’d lend Bo out to the UN, but he’s got his hand full here at home.

4. Massage Therapist
    For fear of going into TMI territory, I’ll just leave this one short and sweet. I like frequent foot rubs and/or back rubs. Were I to purchase these services, not only would I have to put my coffee down and go some where, but I’d be out $37,000/year.

5. Accountant
    Running a family such as ours on one income is no small feat. In order to keep the Domestic Goddess in the lifestyle according to which she has become accustomed to, we have a budget. Making sure we stay on that budget is the kind but firm Bo Hunkmeister. He diligently tracks our spending, records our transactions, and balances the check-book so I have enough money for more books and Dunkin Donuts coffee food and clothing. Due to his efforts, we manage to make things work in a state where the governor is so hard pressed for cash, he wants to tax soda. Yes, soda. To pay a professional and, most likely, a less handsome man to do this accounting, would set me back about $60,000/year.

6. Handyman
    We own a house and have six kids so as you might guess, in addition to the typical homeowner maintenance like sinks exploding, things break frequently around here and when they do, we turn to Bo. I’ll cook, stitch or knit something together, but everything else lands on his work bench; broken furniture, broken toys, broken children, etc. With a mix of duct tape, gorilla glue and a few power tools, Bo repairs that which would have headed out to the junk heap (excluding the children, of course)

7. Stylist, Travel Agent, Errand Boy/Personal Assistant, Cheer-Leader, Cabana Boy
    Honestly, I don’t know how I got into art school. Maybe I was part of their affirmative action plan for Long Island mall chicks. But for the life of me, I am lacking in the fashion areas. I have frequently asked Bo to dress me as I’m at a loss for what to wear or what goes with what. 
   Then there are all those smaller but no less important things Bo does around here. He arranges the travel and accomodations when we take trips, he goes to the store to fetch things for me, he’s my biggest cheerleader when it comes to encouraging me in my various projects and I’ll leave the cabana boy part to your imagination. I’d google the salary for stylist/personal assistant/cabana boy, but I’m a bit scared at what hits I would get so I’ll just make up a number

So my grand total for what I’d have to pay someone to replace Bo should he run off and join “Stars on Ice” is $292,724. That’s really a lot more money than I’d make blogging here. Seeing as how I can’t earn the cash to pay Bo what he deserves, maybe I’ll make him one of these.