Category Archives: Personal

9/11 Elegy

The ghostly Towers of Light, which appear every year on September 11, manifest the loss endured by New Yorkers and the nation.

The Twin Towers are not all that is missing but remembered. Lost are the almost 3,000 victims in the U.S. on 9/11; 5,000 American and coalition soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, tens or hundreds of thousands (estimates vary wildly) of Iraqis and Afghans killed violently since 9/11 by airstrikes, collapsed infrastructure, and the ISIS occupation.

We have lost the dubious pleasure of air travel, the ability that we took for granted to simply walk to the gate and board a plane after leaving our bags at the curb or the counter. We lost the freedom to walk into many buildings without being scanned and searched. The New Year’s Eve celebrants in Times Square must undergo screening and rub shoulders with hundreds of armed police. How festive is that?

In one respect there is a gain— the multiplication of victims. They are the loved ones of the slain who suffer their loss.

Was killing Bin Laden and exacting vengeance on his co-religionists really worth the spilling of so much blood, the draining of national treasure and the transformation of everyday American life? We are still debating the answer.

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Palermo Journal: Life is sweet

Sicilians are famous for their desserts; they have a greater variety than the other Italian regions. They owe this distinction to the Arabs, who ruled Sicily for over 200 years and greatly influenced the island’s culture, cuisine and agriculture. Among the many foods and plants the Arabs introduced are citrus fruits, almonds, cinnamon, apricots, pistachio, pomegranates, sugar cane and watermelon, all of which feature prominently in Sicilian desserts.

So the signs were unmistakable. From our first breakfast in Palermo, we knew we were in Sicily. On a table laden with pastries there was a plate with empty cannoli shells and a bowl with creamy ricotta filling— Palermanitan DIY. In Sicily, cannoli are not pre-filled, because the shell gets soggy. (N.B. English speakers: “cannoli” is plural. One cannolo, two cannoli.)

We stepped out of the hotel into a land of cannoli, granita and ice cream.

IMG_3525I love cannoli and it was too early (for us) to have ice cream, so my eyes gravitated immediately to a store named Cannolissimo. They sell mostly cannoli, and they make them to order from a counter the width of the doorway and the store itself.

Custom cannoli

First, choose the shell: two kinds of plain or lined with chocolate or two other flavors. Next the filling: ricotta or ice cream, each with six flavors. What would you like sprinkled on top? You have seven choices.

We discovered ice cream heaven on our first night. Cappadonia had opened just two weeks before. The ice cream was the best we’ve ever eaten. The chocolate was to die for and the cantaloupe sorbet could have stood in for the melon with prosciutto.

Antonio Cappadonia

Antonio Cappadonia is the proprietor. The staff calls him “Maestro,” and so he is. He explained to us his process for making chocolate ice cream using only organic ingredients. Antonio insisted we taste his sorbet, which he makes only with fresh fruit that he himself selects, only when it is in season.

Tiziana and D’Amico

Il D’Amico and Chris with their new friend

Cappadonia is evidently an expert in human relations as well. It took months for him to put together his “team,” the out-going, gregarious and affectionate staff that serves the ice cream. They befriended us, kissing us when we arrived and again when we left.

No evening thereafter was complete for the team or for us without an ice cream fix  and warm hugs on all sides. Italians, especially in the South, open themselves to strangers, but I think they must not like strangers, because they rapidly transform them into friends.

Granita completes the trio of the most popular street sweets. You tell the vendor what flavor you like, and he pours flavored syrup over shaved ice. Granita is reputedly very refreshing in the heat, but it is too sweet for my taste.

Legend surrounds the invention of ice cream. Marco Polo may have brought it from China in the 13th century, though the emperors of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) are believed to have been the first to eat “a frozen milk-like confection.” Italians are always players in the fanciful (or not) history of ice cream.

Some believe it was invented in Sicily and taken to France by Catherine de Medici when she married King Henry II. Others attribute it to a Sicilian in the 17th century who opened the first café in Paris and there introduced gelato, the Italian version of sorbet, to the French public.

The Arabs, who ruled Sicily from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, drank an icy refreshment flavored with fruit juices. They called it sharabt, which later became sorbetto in Italian and sherbet in English.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that sorbet as we know it evolved with the addition of sugar. A Neapolitan is said to have written the first recipe for sorbetto. He also added milk to it, creating the first real ice cream.

Suffice to say that ice cream is so loved that everyone wants credit for introducing it to the world.

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Elegy for Main Beach

Makeshift floats in the festive parade, the red wagons and strollers laden with blankets, coolers, picnic baskets and the occasional toddler wound their way from far-flung parking spots to the beckoning beach. In 2003, temporary crutches made it rough going for me, but nothing could keep me from East Hampton’s Main Beach on the Fourth of July. Ever since I can remember, I had gloried in the fireworks, lying back on the sand, gazing at the night sky exploding with color.

Thousands of people were converging toward the sand, passing me and my group of friends and family as I labored forward. Then one couple spotted me. They stopped, saying, “You need this more than we do,” insisting I ride in their kids’ red wagon. I clambered aboard, slightly embarrassed but grateful for the lift. The other adults shouldered the picnic gear that I had displaced and took turns pulling me along. And so we continued, wending our way, laughing and joking with friendly strangers— teens, toddlers, parents and grandparents, all in high spirits and filled with anticipation.

I usually eschew crowds, but the convivial throng at that annual celebration was suffused with bonhomie, a shared feeling of community that bound us together. At the beach, we gingerly threaded a path through the clusters of beach chairs and blankets until we could claim a patch of sand. All around us families were spreading their blankets. Picnic baskets opened, disgorging bowls of potato and chicken salads, bags of sandwiches, grilled chicken, guacamole and no end of other goodies. Sodas popped and drinks poured. Boisterous children barely contained their excitement. Crowning their heads and circling their necks, glow sticks began to fluoresce as the day faded into twilight.

Night fell gradually, and the crowd ate the last of the brownies and cookies and the cakes with red, white and blue icing. Flashlights began to sparkle sporadically.

At last it was nine o’clock, and all eyes turned eastward, caught by the first soaring rockets. They burst in midair, showering fire and ice. We settled back, dazzled by the red glare and starbursts that morphed into hearts and atoms of gold and blue and green. Humongous umbrellas and giant jellyfish commandeered the night sky, eclipsing the stars until they decayed, trailing sparks that fizzled and sank into the ocean.

When the show came to its inevitable end, we gathered our detritus, packed the leftovers and reluctantly left the beach. Though traffic choked the local roads and made for a seemingly endless crawl, it couldn’t spoil the good feeling. It didn’t stop us from returning year after year.

But that was long ago … What the traffic couldn’t do, the piping plovers did. I don’t begrudge the little birds their right to nest on the beach. I am a conservationist and I believe we should protect endangered species and not drive them to extinction. But it’s been 12 years, and I resent the little critters who have appropriated so much of the public domain and deprived us of a tradition that had lasted 90 years.

Even more, I bristle at the appropriation of the flag by the Alt Right. The “patriots” who want to take their country back— Back to where? To when? To the time when native Americans were fighting to save their homeland from European invaders? Or later, when the descendants of those Europeans enslaved the people they captured on another continent? The patriotic pride of “E pluribus unum”— out of many peoples, one nation— that we took for granted is now problematic, because the “pluribus” are being imprisoned and deported, their mosques and synagogues bombed and defaced.

I do hope the piping plovers proliferate and I dream of the day when the sharp divisions that now divide us dissolve. Then Main Beach will open to everyone and the fireworks will again dazzle at the twilight’s last gleaming.

Though I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain … the memory of time gone by.

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Customer Service with a smile

We all know what it’s like to be frustrated, speaking very slowly and clearly to someone with only a rudimentary mastery of English, only to realize that you aren’t going to get the help you needed in the first place. And that’s only after listening to a pitch or instructions you don’t need or annoying music, and then punching buttons on a phone menu, one after another, only to end up being told (by a robot) to go to the website for answers to a problem not covered by the menu.

[Tip: I have found a shortcut that often works: either I speak either gibberish or rapid-fire insulting comments like, “Of course you don’t understand. You’re a machine! I want to speak to a human being!” etc. Or “Representative. Agent.” over and over. After a few robotic responses (“I’m sorry, I don’t understand”) I usually am redirected to a person who may or may not have the resources to answer my query.]

How delightful it was this afternoon to have my call immediately answered by a real person, one who spoke flawlessly and understood the problem after I described it just once. She appeared to be genuinely friendly, because I could tell (as one always can) that she was smiling on the other end.

This is an unabashed plug for sureflap.com, the maker of the Surefeed Microchip Pet Feeder. The device is ingenious and effective: it allows only one, specific, microchipped pet to eat from it, closes when that pet withdraws and refuses to open for any other animal. (Very handy when one pet is on a special diet and the other one wolfs down everything in sight). After 14 months of continuous use, however, it began to fail until a few weeks later it stopped working altogether. The device is very expensive for a pet feeder, and I expected it to last much longer. Ergo, the phone call to the number posted on the Sureflap website.

And here’s the kicker: not only was the representative responsive and friendly, she verified that I was a customer, via Amazon, and immediately ordered another to be delivered to me. That’s service the way it should be!

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California mourning

Grandma’s last weeks were painful, for her and for those who loved her. She wasn’t my grandmother, so I can say that I was relieved when she died. A good person shouldn’t have to suffer as she did. Loving, kind and generous, Patty was universally loved.

She welcomed us into her life only a few, short years ago, including us in her warm embrace. Although she and the family were in California, we crossed the country to honor her and offer comfort and solace to the family of which we’d become a part.

All funerals are sad. The ones I remember most were also deeply satisfying, because of the shared love that bonded the mourners, even those who were meeting for the first time.

Grandma was 95, and she led a good life. She was Roman Catholic, so I steeled myself for the ritual that has always alienated me, despite my having been born into the faith. Only a year ago I wrote about the Catholic funeral mass of my brother-in-law. The church was overflowing with stricken friends and relatives who were unprepared for his sudden death. Yet the priest seemed to be playing his part by rote, spouting the same platitudes with the same indifference that were no more than a part of his job description.

The two masses were separated by a continent and an ocean and a spiritual distance equally vast. The priest in California moved among the mourners and spoke to them face-to-face, looking directly into their eyes. He was one of them. He welcomed the people he didn’t recognize, including those of other faiths. He respected them, entreating all to worship as they were accustomed. He was thoughtful and serious, but his sense of humor and his ease among strangers were evident too. He’d known Patty for years and worked with her for the Church. In his eulogy, delivered in an informal, almost chatty manner, he said that one of the three things he most appreciated about Patty was that she laughed at his jokes. “Nobody laughs at my jokes,” he said. “I have to tell my jokes in the bathroom to the priest I see in the mirror.” And he made all of us laugh, just as Patty had.

The priest opened my eyes to a fluid, adaptive Catholicism that can be truly catholic and responsive to the needs of different cultures. Women, including altar girls, took part in the service. A guitar accompanied the piano and the lyrics of the music scrolled on two large screens so that everyone could join in the singing.

Father Michael and Pope Francis are cut from the same cloth. I hope they and others like them will drag the Church into the 21st century.

Photo credit: The Village FuneralFrank Holl1872Leeds City Art Gallery

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The morning after

I didn’t realize how deeply I felt about a victory for Hillary till I found myself crying when I finally accepted that Hillary wasn’t going to make it. Like so many others, I was stunned. Literally dumbfounded. 

This is a huge amount to process. Every woman I meet is walking around dazed, zombie-like. It doesn’t sink in. It will take time to accept the unthinkable. We are truly in uncharted waters.

There is no question in my mind that if Hillary, with all she’s accomplished, were a man, she would easily have won. Women know this. Sexism was blatant when she competed with Obama eight years ago and now it’s back with a vengeance. The double standard applied in the 2016 presidential campaign boggles the mind. In what universe would a man with Hillary’s experience and accomplishments run neck and neck, let alone lose, to a challenger like Trump? Why was his record of fraud (Trump University), racial redlining in his housing projects, indiscriminate lies, sexual predation, etc. so easily swallowed while she was vilified for crimes she didn’t commit?

What will a Trump victory mean for women? For access to safe abortion when necessary? For indigent women’s access to contraception? What will it mean for the immigrants, especially Muslim and Latino?

It’s over now. It’s over for Hillary and for many of her contemporaries who fought so hard for civil and women’s rights and were finally closing in on the unattainable prize. That cohort may not live to see a woman in the White House.

We will have to move on. Rather than expend energy on speculation, it behooves us to continue to fight the good fight. Each of us has to find her own way to continue and contribute to the struggle.

A version of this is at Women’s Voices for Change:

Post-Election Opinion: ‘We Can’t Allow Ourselves to Be Daunted’

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Naples in Capri

Bay of Naples with Castel dell'Ovo and Vesuvius

Bay of Naples with Castel dell’Ovo backgrounded by Vesuvius

It’s August in Naples. This fascinating city is a little too hot for my taste, but the food is delicious as always and the traffic is a little lighter, as it is also in New York, because so many have fled the hot streets.

Traffic may be lighter in the city as locals decamp, seeking respite from the urban hustle and bustle, but the traffic has merely migrated with them. In Capri, backed-up cars with impatient drivers honk their horns to little avail. They jam narrow streets and lanes meant for a quieter and slower way of life, for pedestrians, mules and the occasional horse-drawn cart.

The striking change in scenery, however, is restorative, and a dip in the water close by, exhilarating — if you’re lucky enough to find a parking spot.

I wrote the rest of this post last February, after a death in the family drew us to Naples for an unexpected sojourn. I found it languishing in the drafts pile.

It was time to go home. Elvira came to the hotel to say good-bye. We had breakfast, enjoying each other’s company for the third time in four days, We hadn’t seen each other in years, but there are bonds that distance doesn’t daunt.

Castel dell'Ovo and its little port at Santa Lucia

Castel dell’Ovo and its little port in Santa Lucia

Elvira accompanied us part way to the airport. She left us at Santa Lucia, one of the most sublime and photographed spots in Naples. It the site of a tiny port nestled in the embrace of a 15th-century castle.

The taxi driver, jovial and outgoing, joined the party when the conversation turned to soccer, the Neapolitan passion. When asked which team he roots for, the driver was somewhat taken aback.”Napoli, of course.”

The entire city was ecstatic. Naples had scored a 5-1 victory in the last game, rising to first-place standing. There wasn’t a conversation that didn’t quickly turn to that fabulous game and the possibility of winning the championship. My husband volunteered that his team is Juve, nickname for Naples’s arch rival. “And I thought you were such a good guy,” said Luigi, the driver. “I never imagined that you could be Juventino.”

A little more back-and-forth, until Sal admitted he could never be anything but a fan of Napoli.

“Good thing. I was about to drop you off right here,” said Luigi. He regaled us with tales about his adventures as a taxi driver until we reached the airport.

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