Wednesday, December 15, 2010


It's been cold lately in Brooklyn. And in the 100 year old creaking apartment building I live in that's means the start up of a "difficult" steam heat system. Which means moments of sauna like blasts from the pipes, alternating with cool, and withholding radiators. All of us who live here are in a constant state of negotiations -- with these radiators, the windows, our fellow apartment dwellers, the super (poor Nick!) and building manager, who is always on vacation. And lately, I've added my medicine cabinet, in an attempt to quell all the cold symptoms I've developed.

The best advice I've received for this tiresome cold -- which everyone it seems has just come through or informs me that "yeah, it's going around" -- comes from Luba, a new friend, of sorts. I met Luba, while walking my dogs -- Violet and Princess Jo -- in Prospect Park the other day. I'm pretty sure that Luba comes from some part of the former Soviet Union because of the exercises she was performing when I saw her which reminded me of old films I"ve seen about Communist Youth Movement. (Luba could have been a child during the 50's) They're very energetic, what we used to call calisthenics and seem to require a lot of grunting, audible breathing, and occasionally spitting. Luba's style conflicted with my t'ai chi and on this first day we were together, sharing one of the park's rustic wooden platforms (which overlooks the most private, even exotic section of the 'lull water,' a stream engineered by the Olmstead crew a hundred fifty + years ago) I wasn't sure I ever wanted to be in the same vicinity as this heaving, stretching, bending woman again.

But on another day, a few weeks later, when approaching this same platform, there she was (I groaned to myself) doing toe touches -- 95 or so a minute -- and as I came near, she beamed. I coughed. My Russian friend frowned and without any of the social niceties of "hello" or anything, offered advice, and I have to confess, it was the most charming advice I've yet received for this problem. It involved mashing a large quantity of garlic. Her English is still a work in progress. I had to interpret. "You take the garlic and oil. Then you jump (mix?) with the oil. And then you compress, she said haltingly -- on your chest, and sleep. Sleep the whole night." Luba nodded. "You breathe it in (she demonstrated, sniffing deeply while grimacing and smiling simultaneously) and in the morning, you see, you feel great."

Luba also advises breathing in warm salt water through one nostril and expelling it through the other. "Start with water the same temperature as your body and then the next time, use cooler, room temperature."

I'm positive that both of these would keep me "innoculated" against these regular, dry heat colds. As soon as I get the courage to test them.

And then Luba returned to twisting from the waist, elbows held high, leaning over the railing occasionally to spit. I settled into my slow, far less strenuous I Chuan exercises. I think Luba inwardly was wondering why I bother.

And for all of this, I love Prospect Park, and can't see living anywhere that wouldn't let me get to it in less than a ten minute walk.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Alan's Birthday Party

This past Sunday we celebrated Alan's birthday (as you may know if you read the post from the previous week) And an interesting time was had by all.

Just the facts ma'am. Al and I picked Alan up at his group home in Rockland County 11 ish Sunday morning. It had been a while, I'm chagrined to say, since I'd visited my brother, and a very long time since I"d come by on a Sunday morning. For whatever reason, I didn't recognize a single staff member. I was guessing turnover, though. Turnover is high at every level. I'm pretty sure that the hourly wage barely tops the minimum. The service-providing organizations have long lobbied the state for pay increases, and I've signed many a letter. Now that the State is cutting back ruthlessly on every front, there's no hope that working at a group home for the developmentally disabled will provide a living wage. Even Alan's service coordinator, who oversees more than 300 cases, works a second job. So, the folks on duty didn't know who I was, and opened the door a bit reluctantly.

This was going to be a short one and I'm off on a tirade about the pay scale for direct care staff. I will master the blogger's haiku one of these days. But not tonight...We asked that Alan be dressed for the cool weather we were about to take him out into. Another peeve. How they dress my brother. They dress him as though he were a child, or an invalid. On this point, I'm all in favor of treating him like the 60 year old man that he had just become! He knows how to put his arms in the coat sleeves, and if given instructions, can probably zip himself up. Never happens. They coddle him, bundling him into his winter jacket, taking one arm and inserting it into the sleeve, then the other, then zipping up the front, straightening the coat for five minutes, and finally pulling his wool cap over his ears. I can't bear it.

But I'm his sister, not his parent, and I reminded myself of that when I brought him to the car (not by the hand!) And once in, as promised, I got the CD player powered up. We had time only for Thelonoius, a beautiful old album that I've listened to, without complaint, on and off for months. No, for over a year now. I can't take it out of the player. Alan, who doesn't speak, or rather only speaks in his own private language of sounds, grunts, squeals, and occasionally alarming shouts and bellows grew silent. He frowned a bit, and sucked his cheeks in, as Sweet and Lovely gave way to Crepescule with Nellie. What was he concentrating on, I wondered and I think I began to frown a bit, wondering.

We reached our destination, The Hudson House, a wonderful eatery on Main Street in Nyack (Henry Hudson, no kidding, is the proprietor), and an extra two thumbs up because they didn't bat an eye at the awkward man whose head angles off in a direction opposite to his body and his feet at another angle still, pulling me into the dining room with a very firm grasp. They seated us at a corner table that was very nicely tucked away.

And then, Alan's noises grew in volume and increased in frequency and I thought sure that heads would start to turn. And it crossed my mind that we should eat and run, or maybe just run. But they didn't turn -- the heads. Alan's service coordinator was there, completely cool, and my cousin and his wife arrived and sat down and took stock each in their own way, but very quietly. Cousin Stanley I think was working to ignore the noisy man in our midst, chatting Al up about work. Donna, Stan's wife, smiled quietly and started to ask questions.

Donna, who has worked over the years with kids with all kinds of developmental and emotional problems was thinking that there had to be a solution. While I was getting myself into a bit of a dither, she was thinking hard. It seemed to all click for her when I mentioned what a nice drive we'd had coming over, listening to Monk on the CD player and how calm Alan seemed. She said, as though she'd had a week to think it over, that she would play the recorder for him. And she was apologetic about not having an alto recorder, but only a soprano, and before I could question her on any of it, she's pulls her coat on and is out the door. Five minutes later, D is sitting across the table, playing some delightful Renaissance melody (Donna is part of an amateur renaissance musical group)

Alan began to sway with a huge motion in time to this incredibly sweet music and most gratifyingly, his noises becamse single deep notes punctuating the concert, few and far between.

I realize that after writing last week about Wolfgang Fasser, this saintly music therapist in Italy, who was profiled lovingly in the film, In the Garden of Sounds, that life did imitate life. Donna had picked up the idea that music can reach and communicate with people who don't have speech, people like Alan. We had (by we, my family and even to some extent his current caregivers) written my brother off. 'You can't communicate with him' was and really still is the message. But D showed the same wisdom as Wolfgang Fasser. Donna was heroic at the Hudson House that Sunday morning, for which I feel so much ----- awe. And gratitude.

We all joked a bit. Was the dining room delighted with the concert? It was both old and very avant garde, I mused, not really caring too much what they thought, and watching as Alan, swaying, sounding off occasionally polished off a plate of chicken salad in record time, tossing a good portion down his shirt. And the Tellemann played on.

(tanleyS inormed me that one of the people dining that morning came over to our table to thank us for the music)

p.s. If you'd like to learn more about Alan's story, you can check out the website about the film I made about him, and us.

Friday, November 19, 2010


When my father was dying, and in a state of semi - cogency, that is to say, he spoke in surreal sentences that had very little sense of who he was in the here and now, but which had everything to do with the truth, said, when I asked about Alan, "Alan is everywhere."

If you'd known my father you'd have been amazed at that pronouncement. Throughout his life, he denied Alan's existence. He would be at an event, like an award ceremony, called the Alan Richard Hamovitch award ceremony, and wouldn't say that yes, he knew Alan. (!) I was at his side when this happened and was stunned by the silence on this very important person in his life.

Alan was his son -- and my only sibling. And Alan is what used to be called profoundly retarded. I'm honestly not sure what the PC expression for Alan's "problem" is. Intellectually challenged? A man with autism? A man with developmental disabilities (no, that's not used any more)

I don't mind if someone were to call him retarded. It really is a case of a rose smelling as sweet It don't matter. Alan's disabilities trump any concern of mine for what he's called. Alan is incapable of speaking, understanding anything abstract, holding a job, having a relationship, counting change....

Well, how do I know, if he doesn't speak? Truth is, I don't. I've been uneasy this past many years, wondering how much he might understand if someone were to talk with him, take him to places he loves, play him music that calms him down and makes a smile play on his face. Uneasy because he lives in a place that doesn't give him the things he loves to do. But then, I can't be too hard on them. I don't ask often enough, I don't think, 'what should I be doing this weekend?' I'm really ashamed to say that I don't visit him nearly enough.

So this Sunday, I'm going to treat him to everything I know that delights him, because it's his birthday. I've never celebrated his birthday with him. On Alan's 60th, I'm doing all of it. Inviting some cousins, his Service Coordinator, without whom I don't know what I'd do, Al, of course, and we're going out for brunch at a swanky restaurant in downtown Nyack. We're going to play Motown and the Beatles and Sam Cooke on our way over. (I know he's my brother when I notice him grow quiet and give these musicians his rapt attention.) And then we're going to pig out. Another way I know we're related? Alan loves to eat out. I mean, he gets so overjoyed, he will sometimes refuse to leave a place. Really! I once had to call for help. What's wrong, they said at his house. We're at an Indian restaurant, we're done eating, and he won't get up. It was like calling 911. We'll be right over, they said.

The noises Alan makes aren't those that you hear in an English sentence. They're made with different parts of the throat and mouth. And they're rich, they have timber. As well as clicks and smacks, and a fabulous range within a matter of a second. It can be startling if you're not expecting it, which is why we hardly ever -- no never -- took Alan out to eat when he was growing up. And I have to be honest, I'm a little uneasy. This is a really nice place. I don't think these glissandos of excitement will be ignored, which is what I want. The best place for ignoring Alan is Starbucks. I wanted to kiss the woman at the table next to ours when she sat down, drank her drink, and pulled out school work. You are amazing! I wanted to shout. I should be hardened, but I tense up, when people turn around in their chairs to look at us. I hate the feelings I assume they're experiencing -- like pity, or even support. Just. Don't. Look. (this is partly my problem. I know)

Saw a film at the Margaret Mead Film Festival last Sunday called "In the Garden of Sounds," about an artist, a sound artist, named Wolfgang Fasser, who devotes himself to people like my brother. Using instruments that he made or designed, as well as recorded forest sounds and bird calls, that he's gathered on his tromps into the countryside (he's completely blind, btw), he transforms the lives of these boys and girls -- none of whom, except one, has the ability to speak. These kids adore Wolfgang.

I think Alan would love Wolfgang too, who like Alan, is supremely gentle, and kind, and unlike almost anyone I know, is incredibly full of playfulness. He's devised a massage table of sorts, that's strung like a harp (underneath) and a wall of different sized cymbals. HIs art is play, his play is art. It's what we all aspire to, I suppose. Allen Ginsberg said, re making art, "why do it if it isn't fun?"

My one main sadness is that the people who work now with Alan don't look hard for what they could do to give Alan fun. They're earnest, they're competent, they take great care that he doesn't do anything that might endanger his safety -- and in my HO, they suffocate him. They -- his staff, his team -- look at me like I'm the Mad Woman from Brooklyn when I harp on this, the need for "fun" or something of interest to do, but I can't imagine anything more important.

So, for his birthday, I'm maybe going to have someone make a very long, one-stringed instrument, that will vibrate into a single deep rich basso profundo note. Or maybe a huge brass cymbal, that we'll hang on the rec room wall. (rec room used very loosely). Or a collection of CDs. Not sure yet.

Will try to have the presence of mind to record this birthday. But Alan may be singing, and I hope that I'll be laughing and I might forget.

For more images of Alan, you can visit the website devoted to the film I made about him, and us.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

an unusual birthday present

Sometimes I think about giving an assignment to a roomful of compliant, eager and creative writing students. Funny thing is, I don't teach writing, and never did. And though I write, and am even dabbling in fiction now (for children -- and boy is that hard) I'm not a writer. But these thoughts of providing an assignment, and oh, 'you have two weeks in which to complete it' have been arising. Go figure.

This week's assignment? The best birthday present you ever received.

My birthday rolled around (fortunately) this past Thursday. I share a bday with Julia Roberts and the Statue of Liberty, and my cousin Eric, and I'm sure a few million other people.

This one, though, the thing I was delighted to receive was an unlimited supply of horse manure. Horse shit you ask? You wanted horse shit? Well, not specifically. Other things -- like a free day of plowing, or a perimeter fence for an acre -- would have been equally satisfying. I speak, as you may know, if you've read back a few posts, about the garden I'm assisting, or more accurately, fretting constantly about, down in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Myself, along with three others, who are natives (I am not, which is a bit of a problem. I'm in in NYC, which is very far indeed from Southern Louisiana in more ways than one) started it, back now two years ago. Mr. Lynn Dean, a wealthy and very big-hearted man, leased us the land at no cost, for ten renewable years. August, our master gardener, called excitedly. The owner of a small group of race horses (race horses? In St. B? I've learned to love St. Bernard, but more for its generous, gregarious, gentle, well, not always gentle, people who are NOT the race-horse set, I assure you) wants to help the garden, and is willing to truck over as much manure as we need. His voice over the phone was urgent, excited, delighted. But the horse farm owner was a bit concerned about dropping off a truckload of manure right next to the Cornerstone Church, a former trade school in a tin shed, which sits on the corner of this acre. She wanted the Pastor's phone number so she could give him a heads up right before delivery.

I worry about the pastor, and the neighbors. Will they be as excited as August and me about this gift? Anyway, like Scarlet O'Hara, decided to worry about it later. I caught the fever. Horse manure! An unlimited supply. Free! It didn't come right on my birthday, but the conversation occurred a few days before and you know -- birthdays are really a cloud around the date. Al jokes plaintively that my birthdays go on for about a month, though this isn't so.

A load of horse manure is one of the things we need to get going on this little patch of green, what is destined to be an organic semi-urban farm down there, nestled between St. Bernard and Plaqueminnes Parish, just South of the Lower 9th and New Orleans. It's hard by the Mississippi, and when you look up -- I imagine this scene -- from weeding a patch of beans, you'll see the turrets of big cargo ships slowly gliding down or up river.

The skies down there are quite beautiful. So you'll also see the billowing clouds in a field of pale blue. Above the turrets. The earth is dark and dense (Mississippi mud pie wasn't named idly) and nutritionally very poor. So once we spread the manure, we need to plow it under and turn over the soil, and crumble it a little, integrating the fertilizer. August has told me all this. I confess, I am a farming neophyte. I've grown a patch of beans, cukes, tomatoes, like everyone else, but really in the most unprofessional way. I marvel at cumcumbers' agressiveness, how they leap their boundaires and march towards the carrots. But how to control bugs, thwart voles, irrigate in the dry dry months of this past summer -- I really don't know.

Back to St. Bernard. We received a gift of organic seeds from our friend, Lorna, who moved from Tennesse to help a variety of neighborhoods begin to farm, or garden, on top of straw bales. Post BP oil spill, post Katrina, she figured, people would be needing good cheap food. Anyway, they, the straw bales never arrived, as they were supposed to, from the Midwest. The promise of donated shipping never materialized. But Lorna left us dozens of packets of seeds. Everything we'll need for at least a year. I guess that's another wonderful present. Thanks, Lorna!

So, that's the assignment for this week. What has been your best BDay present?

p.s. My resolve to post here every week, with pictures, interesting musings, has been broken as you can see. I'm deep into editing Mama Sue's Garden and anyone who has edited anything will know that it doesn't leave much head space for much else. Kathryn and I are plowing ahead - pun unintended! - step by step through a recent moment in the history of three individuals, one of them August, and the others, Mama Sue and Lettie Lee. These two projects are intertwined though. I fervently hope that the film gets an audience. It has been at least three years of my life so far. But then, that its fortunes will fertilize the garden.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

visiting Thich Nhat Hanh's Monastery

I didn't mean to segue into a film review, after only a sentence about the Blue Cliff Monastery, so at a moment when I should be transcribing tapes for an editing session, I'm returning here, for a very brief second post.

A week ago, exactly, I went there -- out of need. I confess. NYC housing woes, which can be bitter, necessitated I find a place where I could be anonymous where the atmosphere would be right for getting out of my head.

So I fled to the Blue Cliff Monastery last Sunday, hoping that a roomful of shaved, cool heads, simply meditating, or simply being, or being simply, would help to calm my own overheated brain. They were there, as I'd imagind! Speaking in heavily accented English, this group of robed monastery leaders was calm, devoted, purposeful, un-neurotic, and seemingly un-troubled. There were young monks too, maybe 10 years old, but as seemingly calm as the rest.

I see that deep mauve I described whenever I think of them -- as all the monks were swathed in long layers of mauve. And as I'd hoped they would be, deep beneath the mauve robes and ritual, chimes and schedule, they were caring. The last came through the minute I walked into this very spacious empty hall. The first words I heard were from Thich N Hanh himself (on CD) In halting, accented phrases, that I at first had to strain to make out, they seemed to be mind reading. In other words, they hit their mark.

"If you're angry towards someone

[yes?! I'm listening]

that's not good for you! It's not good for them! It's not healthy! His voice was emphatic. Though I had just raced through the doors, a good half hour late, I was caught up in what he was saying, as though I'd run into an invisible net.


You should start thinking about lighter, more joyful things.


So I did try. I recall it was much easier said than done. But slowly, like lifting a very heavy box, I tried to shift, just a little, my thinking onto more 'joyful things.' I can't begin to remember what these thoughts were, or if I was even the tiniest bit successful.

We were given a snack after this lengthy talk, which I had begun to focus on almost exclusively having run out of the apartment at 7, with little to eat, and raced up the thruway, trying to access googlemap on my smart phone. I don't think snack thoughts counted as "happy thoughts" though. Then, the most charming part of the day -- our calm, organized caring leaders handed out little yellow song books and we stood in a circle in the crisp fall air and all sang. This is what we sang.
I like the flowers I love the daffodils I like the mountains I love the rolling hills I like the fireside When the lights are high  bom di ada, bom di ada, bom di ada, bom bom di ada, bom di ada, bom di ada, bom  I like the flowers I love the daffodils I like the mountains I love the rolling hills I like the fireside When the lights are low
Picture four or so demure and organized, super-competent Vietnamese monks -- along with us, a divers group of visitors -- getting into "bom diada, bom di ada, bom diada , bom...

Friday, October 15, 2010

I went to a monastery

I went to Thich Nhat Hanh's monastery last weekend and was uplifted by the simplicity of the monks in their long mauve robes -- whoever picked the color of their robes is to be commended. But the spirit doesn't move me to comment on it all today. (Though simplicity and Being Here Now? Heartily recommend them.)

Don't want to write about this Monastery though becuz. The dreaded New Yorker's curse -- housing woes -- has befallen us, and until we see our way through it, I will be a curmudgeonly New Yorker -- grumpy, mindlessly eating, doing all the self-defeating things one does when the world isn't going the way you're sure it should. Can't say that mindlessly eating is all that bad, though....

But I can recommend a wonderful wonderful documentary, which is just making its way into the theaters nationwide (in the U.S), having finished its New York run, literally, last night. I suffered a parking ticket in order to get to the last screening of said run. The film is Budrus, about a non-violent protest by a Palestinian village (Budrus) against the punishing route of the dividing wall. (You know, the tall security wall Israel is constructing, which in many cases is encroaching on Palestinian farms? This process no matter how you look at it makes no sense. What purpose is there in cutting into land, appropriating it, when there's literally no reason to? No settlers were going to land there, no bases set up. It looked like nothing other than a land grab I'm afraid. And I'm not a flaming radical, just in favor of basic human rights. OK, here goes. I wasn't going to post at all today, and here I am discussing my views on the Middle East? Keeping a blog is a lot like life. Ya never know.

My idea of a protest for Middle East sanity is to set up a lemonade stand, raising quarters to send to Palestinians who aren't getting their day in court to secure a housing permit. I would like to see children raise money for their lawyers the same way they have been admirably raising money for the refugess of Darfur. Raising $100 in quarters and sending a check in an envelope to some reputable non-profit organization. This matter is a civil rights matter -- I mean, it's really very basic. Simply allowing someone to use their own land the way they choose. Talk about housing woes. I have no business comparing our situation with that of the palestinians, I know. Here I am with our mortgage paid on a leafy block of Brooklyn. But, that said. (Just kidding. I sound like a Daily Show skit) But why won't the friggin' co-op board grant us their approval!??? We're just like the Palestinians on the West Bank --

But the film. Back to the incredible film. Budrus was shot by multiple people -- anyone, actually who happened to be there as the bulldozers roared in and soldiers with guns appeared, and smoke grenades were flung about and a small agricultural village was gradually occupied, anyone who and had a camera, a cell phone, whatever and started recording the events that transpired, pitched in to tell the story that became this film. So, this included the residents of Budrus -- women too which when you see the film, you'll see why this was such a big deal. The women went out to face the Israeli soldiers FIRST, and that was very key. And it included a host of international supporters, and Israeli soldiers who shot video and turned it over to the filmmakers, and Israeli citizens sympathetic to the townspeople of Budrus, of course Palestinians, Hamas folk professing nonviolence and even :-) the film crew of Budrus

It's a Gandhian story of civil rights prevailing. It's lions lying down with lambs like you wouldn't believe. David vs. Goliath retold. It's a must see!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Notes from the Ground

As promised, notes from a trip out to Patchogue on Saturday, organized by our local "chapter" of OFA, Organizing For America. If that sounds so unexciting, so "establishment" so - - and you're saying instead, what's next - - now that Obama's in, and by the way, not all that great. If you're thinking that, really, get over it. OFA, Obama's people, are doing god's work. If you were to ask me, what's the most important thing a citizen of the USA could be doing right now, at this very minute, I'd say ' canvassing for the progressive candidate in your vicinity.' I say this knowing full well what a pain it is doing this -- walking up to doors of strangers, wondering whether there'll be an old man in an undershirt, or a woman screaming, attempting to get a restraining order on her "old man," a police car idling at the curb. Or a German woman whose husband was a veteran.... (We came across all three) It's a little nerve wracking, I"ll be the first to admit it. I can't go up to someone I don't know at a party of a friend, so wandering around a neighborhood I've never been to, 50 miles from home, that predictably votes Republican, makes you swallow hard.

But it is what's necessary. Really really necessary if you want to keep the House and Senate in at least moderate hands. If you want to keep the incumbants in and give right wing opponents a real run for their money, so that they know who their constituents REALLY are.

So we disembarked at Patchogue, and were given our candidate's buttons and (literally) our marching orders. We split up, each small group of two or three to a volunteer local driver. Our driver had a talking GPS so we didn't get too lost, as we tooled through the suburban streets out to Mastic Beach, a neighborhood of mostly converted beach houses (we were a spit away from the ocean, but no, we couldn't go canvass there. Those homes were mostly second homes.)
So we were making our way confidently, more or less. Until we were let off, when I felt very "lost," looking up at the flag of the tea-party -- a large yellow banner with a 'Don't Tread on Me' inscription -- flying on a high pole below the colonial flag, i.e. thirteen stars in a circle. Oh boy. Where am I? The GPS lady didn't warn me about this. Our list skipped over this house, stopping at about every fifth house on Alder, and leading us, in a kind of scavenger hunt, to a series of small, and middle-sized homes -- some terribly derelict, overgrown yards and some clipped painted and polished. I wished that dogs could vote, because most of the time they were the only ones home.

Al is the shmoozer. We'd been told on our last canvassing trip -- which was for Obama in '08, down to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. -- that all those graphs and charts, statistics and prognoses you'd been dutifully studying? Throw them out. People vote on character, not programs. My guess is that if I looked inward, I'd find out that it was true of me too. I swooned for Obama after reading Dreams for My Father. If you remember, there was not a single word in there about his plans to give every American health care. But I tended to forget that fact and maybe out of nervousness would launch into a little spiel about the fact that Tim Bishop had voted for the Stimulus Bill (millions of jobs, well a couple hundred thousand? But whose fault was that?! Had Obama been given the money he actually wanted... At least I didn't say a word about any of this. Many people seemed to be completely befuddled. In this case it wasn't the economy stupid) I'd add brightly 'and Bishop voted for the Health Care Bill!' which most likely was shooting my candidate in the foot. Al knew not to go there. Forget about the Health Care Bill. When the elderly unshaved man in the undershirt opened the door to say he was watching The Public Enemy an old James Cagney movie, Al was in his element. Ten minutes later, the two of them were still talking like old geezers, now at a little table on the porch, while Mr. Undershirt was filling out his voter registration form. By the time he was done, he looked up and said, the health care thing. I don't understand why people are against it. (whew)

Al went beyond dedicated. While a woman in all stages of dishevelment was ranting to a police officer, she took a breath to inform us that she couldn't talk, she was trying to deal with a problem with her "old man." Can I leave some literature for you, Al said hopefully. She shot him a please-don't-hang-around-here-a-second-longer look. Al carefully folded the pages of the literature so they'd fit behind her screen door.

A young African American woman, trying desparately to keep her toddler from galloping down the middle of the street brightened visibly when we told her that Bishop voted for all of Obama's programs. Inbetween racing after Junior and admonishing her older child, who wasn't holding onto his young brother very tightly, she flashed a smile when she heard the date of the election. November 2nd? That's the day after my birthday!

Below you'll read the message that was in my 'mailbox' this morning, from Jeanne, our 'Organizing for America' organizer. We're going to take her up on her request for at least one more day of canvassing. We want to give our new ally a nice birthday present.

Dear Friends,
Thank you again for coming out on to canvass on Saturday. Together with our Long Island colleagues, we knocked on a total of 748 doors, talked to 208 voters, and found 110 who were positive about voting for Bishop. As we discussed on the train, the real issue in this race is going to be turnout. Bishop is looking good among registered voters, but his numbers are precarious when you look only at likely voters. The advantage of getting canvassers out every weekend is that we get people to feel personally engaged (and obligated -- statistically, people are more likely to turn out to vote if they've told another person they would).

So with that in mind, I hope you'll be able to come out again on one of the upcoming canvassing trips. We're trying to get as many people as possible canvassing this coming weekend, the 16th and 17th, because the LIRR is undergoing major construction on the weekend of the 23rd/24th, so we may not be able to get many people out that weekend. And of course, we'll be making a big push on the final four days, Oct. 30-Nov. 2.

Hope to see you again soon!

Friday, October 1, 2010


. Someone once wrote that the way to make life more interesting is to "turn" from your routine as you went through your day. "Turn." Why that word I wonder? I don't know. But by 'turn,' he meant something as simple as taking a new route home from work or to and from the store or walking the dog. I thought, as I read this, 'this is the secret to life? ya gotta be kidding' But what he was getting at was that you'd see new things, you wouldn't be traveling on automatic pilot. And that this was important. Crazy thing is, he was right. Or at least it felt right last Friday. In the early evening, as I was lurching downtown on the 'F' train, I thought about calling Al (significant other) and asking if he'd like to see a movie that was playing uptown. Since you can't use your cell on the subway, I had to get out at the next stop to make a call the old fashioned way, and that stop happened to be Delancy Street, the heart of the Lower East Side, and the region of New York City that implies to anyone who's been to New York, and "turned" from the usual tourist sites, or read certain novels, the old, Turn -of -the -Twentieth Century, ethnic, Italian and Jewish (in particular) immigrant experience. I'm not sure why they picked Delancey to be decorated in original, and enormous mosaics, devoted to the sea no less, when so many of the other subway stops are grimy, even filthy, with loose or missing tiles, but somehow it happened. Ahh, I've done a little digging, literally as I was writing this. The entire collection -- on the downtown side -- is called "Shad Crossing" and it was completed by artist Ming Fay in 2004. And it's not an odd choice of theme after all. It does relate to the immigrant destination that this area used to be, as shad fish swim upstream in the spring, and so represent the tens of thousands of immigrants who travelled the ocean back 100 years or so, to make New York City their new home. I guess using a pay phone was another moment of "turning." As I dropped a quarter into the phone, I was already feeling as though I'd entered a time warp, I was already enjoying myself. And although Al had no interest in getting into the train and travelling a half hour to the theater, as soon as I hung up, I went up to the wave of tiny blues and aquas, grays, greens, whites you see here, and examined it for its minute, and incredible detail.
It was a good as a movie.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lunch with Mary McHugh

This week, it's Mary, my dear and truly wondrous friend, Mary. It's hard not to mention that she had her 80th birthday a couple of years ago. That's NOT what makes her wondrous. But maybe you can't escape that insignificant fact, in light of the fact that every week Mary takes herself off to the Bryant Park Grill -- after reading great literature into a tape recorder for the blind, -- for a splendiferous lunch. Following which she takes a whirl on the the old restored Bryant Park Carousel. Every week! Mary has made numerous little "performance" videos -- one about her experimentation with hats (she wore a coquettish black hat with a veil to her gynecologist some years back just to see what he would say. As you'd expect, he didn't say a thing.) And does millions of tap dancing performances which she posts on Youtube (type in Mary McHugh). Mary has great legs. Mary is also a writer, and whenever we get together she's effusing about her latest idea or telling me about the upcoming publication of one of her books of Mary (hilarious) advice. They're small books that could literally fit in your pocket with titles like Eat This! 365 Reasons to Stop Dieting or, my favorite, How Not to be a Little Old Lady.

I joined Mary for lunch last week (she had come from reading Camus -- in French -- into the tape recorder) and after the usual light chatting that you do when you meet up with a friend you haven't seen in many months, we got down to a hard kernel of common personal truth, that at the moment took my breath away.

Mary and I (and millions of others) share being "Special Siblings," which is also the title of one of Mary's books. Special siblings refers to having a sibling with an 'intellectual disability,' what used to be called a developmental disability, and before that, terms which are no longer considered politically correct. (no comment) Mary's light blue eyes fixed on me and she said, in a voice that is so light, almost frothy -- 'the really bad thing was that we had to be good. I was so good!' 'Yes!' I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart. Amazingly, that was the worst part of it all. It's still a problem, of course. Mary and I also shared the common fate of having had our siblings institutionalized. Perhaps that's why being "good" in ways that are so hard to describe and name, even to ourselves, may have stood out for us as the central problem, while kids today who have "special sibs" deal with much more concrete difficulties, or, anyway, different problems.

(If my parents could read this, they'd laugh hysterically. I think they thought I was plenty bad. And I probably was) But Mary and I knew what we meant. It was a moment of perfect understanding about a core part of ourselves. I didn't hear a thing other than Mary, or see anything other than her face. It was that kind of moment. So time stood still for a split second and then we went on with lunch. Mary chatted with all the servers, and everyone else who worked at the restaurant. She knew them all by name, and knew what book, or album, or trip they were working on. And then we shared a dessert and polished it all off with a ride on the carousel.

until next time,
Without Apology, a film I made about my brother

Saturday, September 18, 2010



Today I spent the better part of the day in the Kerhonkson Synagogue, an adorable, toaster-shaped shul, in the Catskill Mountains, about 100 miles North of New York City, and as some of the readers of this may know, it was because today was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement -- prayer, seeking and offering forgiveness. I find it's really hard to locate and identify my own "sins," (a word I"m not too comfortable with, so take it with a grain of salt) though like everyone, I'm always pretty good at identifying the sins that have been comitted against me. So I've usually spent Yom Kippur dispensing forgiveness, and not being too clear on where and from whom I should be beseeching it. If I got upset, and had a bit of a fit, well, it was for good reason! I wonder -- is an outburst always something to regret? If you seek forgiveness for something you did, does that always mean you shouldn't have done it? How do you know when you transgress? I have a feeling it happens in large and small ways a few times a day. If I only had a really good mirror I know I'd see how I'm hypersensitive, alternating with control freakishness. Small things throw me and I overreact. I see cross-eyed when Al doesn't take his shoes off as soon as he comes through the door. I'm a mess. I know.

A childhood acquaintance, Meg Charlop, who died in a flukey bicycle accident this year, was on my mind often during the week. I stood for her over and over, every time Kaddish was being recited. An extraordinary person, someone you might call out-sized, someone who embraced life and people like noone else I've ever known had a line that seems to be governing me lately -- "It's better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission."

But the rabbi today didn't get into the fine points, looking for the possibility of purposeful transgression, and that was fine. You get the feeling that the day is not about parsing the word "forgive." But after hours, over a wonderful break fast meal prepared by a friend, my friend wonders, like me, "Forgive. What does that mean?!" How are you supposed to feel after you've forgiven someone? Al, in reply, quoted Robert F. Kennedy. "Forgive your enemies but never forget their names." But Rabbie Mallen, in the Kerhonkson Synagogue, admonishes us to not just "forget" about an act you regret, but to do something about it. To CHANGE. aarghhh. He looks around the small historical room, inviting personal confessions. No way. I feel like a cat caught under the sheets (panic stricken) when someone makes that suggestion. Change. It's great advice, and I'm sure what all those prayers and stories are getting at, especially Isaiah who blows my mind every year, but ... What would that mean for me? Probably get a grip on my temper for starters. (though it seems God has quite a temper) Then there's really going for it.

Hopper comes to mind. Hopper -- a volunteer with HOPE Project -- who I met in Violet, St. Bernard, La. did an amazing thing out of personal regret. A construction manager who worked for an insurance company, Hopper (aka Nate) was sent to New Orleans as an insurance adjuster, which is to say, he was told to pay out as little for damages as he could. That was his job. So for about a year, he turned down one desparate homeowner after another until he couldn't do it any more, and indeed felt pretty damn awful about what he'd been doing. And so he took a "vow of poverty," moving his home from somewhere like Wyoming, down to a gutted house in a devastated section of the New Orleans environs, and deciding that for a year he wouldn't earn any money or do any other work but help New Orleanians rebuild -- all on his own dime, except for the cost of materials.

Project HOPE (Helping Other People with Everything) was an ever-changing cast of 10 or so characters, devoted to rebuilding homes. They had as little of their own infrastructure as possible and seemed to enjoy all that came with that -- the anarchy, and even the dirt. When I met them they had just moved from the floor of a gutted church to an empty shell of a donated house. Since it didn't have running water or electricity, they camped out essentially, cooking all their meals late at night (a typical dinner was served close to midnight) over a camp fire, and capturing rainwater for essentials. Boy, those dinners. They weren't just hot dogs and hamburgers. Hopper rolled out his own tortillas, and spiced the chile filling to perfection. Somehow there were always cases of beer on hand, and other intoxicants. And during the day, Hopper and his co-Saint, Mike, managed crews of green volunteers, kids who'd never held a hammer, turning them in a week's time into competent sheetrock hangers, painters, roofers, even electrical line stringers. Maybe a half dozen homes were rebuilt over the course of a year. And the incredibly grateful homeowners, who might to this day, still be waiting for their Road Home money, served up meals and crawfish boils, medicinal plants, hot showers.

Hopper and I ran into each other three weeks ago. Actually, Hopper called me on my cell, on a hunch I'd be there, on the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I screamed when I heard his voice on the other end. Yes, I am here!!!

We met up the next day, on an overcast afternoon, and I showed him the acre where a few of us hope to start a community garden, named by Mama Sue, Garden of HOPE (yup). Mama Sue joined us and we all drove over to this example of a gazebo that Sue envisions claiming the center, the heart, of the garden. Can we build something like it? As soon as we walked into the space, which you need to enter on a walkway that crosses over a pond, Hopper paced the interior, eyeballed the height, made a few suggestions and said without hesitation he'd build it -- at no charge.

So that's Hopper. Redeemed.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

l'shana tova

I spoke to this seagull yesterday. Not at great length, but in a friendly way, and in a low voice so as not to frighten him. (I've decided, for no ornithological reason, that it was a he) I've found this with birds, and with small reptiles. They're interested in me. They cock their heads and we make eye contact, and they're able to hold it for an unnerving amount of time. Mr. Seagull in fact held my gaze for about five minutes, while I prattled on about something or other (I tried to be reassuring - and also honest about my ability to feed it anything.)

Yesterday was the day I decided to visit my mother, who died New Year's eve 1992, as a result of a cardiac surgeon's slip. This doctor admitted it to my father and me a few days after my mother's surgery (yes, incredible) But I don't want to dwell on that awful revelation, and confession, both of which should never have happened, but on how I find my mother at the beach on Rosh HaShanah. I skipped services at this nurturing, permissive, disciplined, sometimes unconventional, free-thinking and often irreverant house of worship I've joined, Kolot Chayeinu, a tiny bit guilt-ridden. I told a fellow member who asked whether I was coming to the second day of RH services nothing about my plans.

I decided yesterday, after a many year break, to partake in the family ritual that my mother had established for us. A bit of background on my mother, Mitzi, as everyone called her, or Amitia, her given name or Shulamit Bathsheba Berger, her Hebrew name, whose initials (SBB) are etched on a gold ring I've worn for more than thirty years: A non-God fearing, but Jewish-identified, somewhat self-hating Jew, with good reason perhaps in her case due to her father, a domineering rabbi she seemed to loathe. She told me more than once, her voice shaking, about the rituals that were observed to the 'T' in their home, such as plunging all the silverware in the flower pots in the week before Passover while her father, who gave her not a second's worth of religious education, and who could hurl a plate of prunes across the dining room, indulged in lobster sandwiches on his paid holiday from his congregation down in Long Beach, Long Island, hundreds of unseen miles from his home in Montreal. My mother cooked a ham for her first Passover meal. (I often wondered what my father, who was far more conventional, must have thought when the glazed ham -- and I'm sure it was perfectly cooked and irresistible -- reached the table. Actually he probably wasn't as chagrined as you might think. Probably did NOT think he'd made a big mistake in marrying my mother. He told me about how, when a teenager, he'd "tested" God by playing ball one Saturday in lieu of attending synagogue and when nothing at all happened to him, it made him think. But I know he scratched his head in misery when he came home one day and found my mother painting the piano blue. )

So, with nothing but venom in her heart for all things to do with religious observance, every year my mother, father and I drove out to Jones Beach for Rosh HaShanah, walked the boardwalk, or sometimes right along the shore and we all agreed that God dwelt here. It was usually a bit cool, and we'd buy clam chowder and find a picnic table in the sun.

There's no doubt about it, he - God -- does dwell at Jones Beach. It is a perfect choice of a place for a non-observant Jew. Yesterday, which was the first day of the year I'd made it to the beach at all, I found the scene nothing short of mesmerising. Because the cool, constantly changing colors, the endless stretch of sand, the horizon that confounds water and sky screams -- the infinite, the source of everything, the beginning of time.

I tried to think weighty thoughts like these. But I became quickly aware of thinking, which I didn't want to be doing. I wanted to be feeling, and remembering. And luckily, these thoughts didn't stick. They slid away when I began to talk to the birds I came across as I walked in my bare feet "down the beach." Which is something my mother would have done. She spoke endearingly to to all kinds of creatures, as though she were their mother. 'You poor thing!' she might have said to the miniscule sandpiper that was hopping along on one leg. I did it too, not out of a sense of modelling my mom's ways -- I think that would have been somehow a bit sappy -- but out of a sense that it was what the occasion called for. I spoke to this little bird. And I was, I'm pretty sure, terrifying the one-legged sandpiper and myself, I felt suddenly overwhelmed. I felt connected to my mother like no other thought or photograph or scrap of her writing might have done. 'How come you have only one leg? What happened to you? But look how well you're doing!' This small amazing bird, which was part of a swarm of sandpipers that flowed in and out with the waves, to snack on the grubby life that was left exposed by their retreat, kept up with her swarm remarkably well. Then suddenly, she let the other leg drop. She actually had two legs!

When I finally sat down on a towel I'd brought, and watched the sky turn dark and the sea turn to slate, and caught the alien eye of the seagull and began to ask the bird what it wanted, and to assure it I had nothing for it...I felt content. Content and completely at peace.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

5 years later

Happened to be down in NOLA (New Orleans La) this past weekend, not becuz it was the 5th anniversary, but because Lorna Donaldson, that straw bale maven, was arriving in NOLA and I needed to gather a little bit of pick up footage. The timing seemed to meld with our personal missions perfectly.. Only after I booked my flight did I realize...good lord. Five years to the day. And the TV was , excuse me, flooded with mini and maxi documentaries, all of which I watched. I'm afraid nothing totally lit my jets. No, not even Spike Lee's If God willing an da Creek Don't Rise. Harrowing scenes, and the pain Lee found was painted in living color, and it was terrible to watch but there was something else I wanted to see and exactly what that is, I don't know.

Lorna has been loaned a double shot gun, which is a house design that has an unfortunate connotation, but refers to the possibility (ONLY please, the connotation, but good god, not the reality though it sometimes is) -- of firing a shotgun and having the bullet sail cleanly through the front and back doors, passing through the living room, a bedroom, another bedroom the kitchen a wash room -- every room in the long narrow house. In New York, we call them railroad apartments. The function of the shotgun design is to allow fan stirred breezes to cool things down. And they do. Beautifully. In the mornings of my four day stay, I threw open the inner solid doors, front and back, kept the wrought iron gates latched, turned on all four fans, and did my I Chuan exercises, and it was exhilerating to feel the breezes whipping through the house. Traditionally, the shotguns in the Lower 9th ward didn't have doors (according to mama sue) and the hard wood floors have mostly become linoleum.

The stats say that only 25% of the residents of the Lower 9th have returned. Here are four shotguns I took pictures of. One (right) has been rebuilt to a faretheewell, including a sweet front yard flower garden. The house has been painted meticulously, but amazingly, AROUND, not effacing, the crude 'X' that the City inspectors drew in the days after the storm, noting three things -- at the top, the date, the initials of the inspector and in one space inside the intersecting lines whether any dead bodies had been found. Or dead or living animals. The owners of this house, as with many around the city of NO, have chosen to preserve the X and the hastily written code. No, we don't want to forget how it looked. That 'X' was the best bit of memorializing "art" I've seen.

So many have become overgrown with vines, the land and power of nature drawing them back into the dense Mississippi delta mud. The one at the top of the post I worried had been left to rot, but I'm hopeful still someone might adopt it. There's someone who cares, at least a little. A small business card with the owner's name is wedged into the brand spanking new chain link fence that has put up to guard against the crackheads who are causing mischief up and down the streets. I was -- strangely, I know -- tempted to jot the e-mail address down. I loved the way it was set back from the street, and boasted a second story. Imagine the breeze on that upper balcony. I'd keep the strangling vines.

The one Lorna and I stayed in (above) has been rebuilt, painted a sober New England gray, the 'X' covered over, for what seems to be an investment. In about four months, after which Lorna will mostly likely have left, paying tenants will live in them. But down the road, in the farther along the way future, when the fate of the Lower 9th has been decided, these shotguns might fetch a good price.

So, our lovely double Shotgun begs the question: What will happen when the city of NO decides enough is enough and the 50+ percent of these houses have to be razed? Who is going to lay claim to the land, the real estate of the Lower Ninth? That's what I haven't seen in the gut wrenching films that have chosen to revisit the Katrina disaster. The wailing continues in the poor districts, and among the poor in general. I know from Mama Sue how the debt to that storm will never be paid off. But now it's time to look into the board rooms, and back rooms. Have yet to see some fine journalism on that subject.

But for me, looking at the face of an aging Katrina meant looking at the clapboard shotgun houses. How are they looking five years later?

Monday, August 23, 2010

The main thing this week -- or the one I'm writing about -- is about August's computer. My plea for a donated laptop, so that August could be connected to the plans and ideas for the Garden of H.O.P.E. (Helping Other People with Everything) Being as I worry he's not connected with we planners and plotters and since we do most of our communicating on the internet, shouldn't he be able to read and "talk" back to us?

One lead and conversation leads to another, and after mentioning my wish for a donated computer to a friend I learn about Alan of Alans Affordable Computers and Repair. Alan is noted for his computer donation program. He donates computers to poor school children around the U.S., veterans groups, dozens of computers are sent to people living in Gaza. Alan loved the mission of our Garden down there in St. B.

Long story short. Two nights ago, one came in! in. Keys had been pulled out by the previous owner’s children, the screen is a little funky but very serviceable. It's def internet-worthy, Alan said. Ran down Saturday a.m. to get it. And sure enough – it works!

The great thing is I found a neighborhood cafe (on - line of course) called Kitchen Cafe, around THE CORNER from August's house (I couldn't believe this. There's not much in that part of the Parish and at first I could only find places with names like Latte Cafe up in Meraux and no way August was going to spring for a $3.-- cup of coffee in the "wrong" that is white part of town. (There's that crazy gap – racial gap I mean. It’s closing, in all the corners of the Parish, but there are folks who still feel that it hasn’t, and sometimes I think August fits into that group but I know I don’t know what the real story is. And to be sure there are some who wish that it isn’t) So yesterday, tooling around for the second time on the web, when I found the Kitchen Cafe, walking distance from where August lives on Guerra Drive, there was that feeling of aha! A new spot, whose owner, Selma (as in Selma, Alabama she told me) was in the process of hooking up her router. She has a high counter where people who just want a cup of coffee and to spend time on the internet can sit. And too, Selma is very interested in the Garden, or at least the affordable organic produce that is soon going to be available. I was pleased, talking to Selma, networking like this. Let’s hope things keep on keepin' on like this.

I leave Thursday for New Orleans and will be staying in a house in the Lower 9th that some very kind woman, a hydrologist, is loaning Lorna, our straw bale maven.

Will try to post something every day if I can figure out how to do it on my phone.

Many pieces still to be put in place, like how hundreds of straw bales are going to be transported from somewhere in the mid-west to New Orleans. Like how they will get from the train yard to the acre in Canaervon. Like who will unload them. Like finding the funds for a ton of compost and finding yet more funds for a nice fence. I insist that it not be chain link. Want those square holes and how wonderful if the posts could be round, to match the posts of our future gazebo.

Wish us luck and send money!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Straw Bale Gardening Here We Come!

Mama Sue has surfaced! Shot me an e-mail to say she's home, looking forward to seeing me. She's been moody. Hmph. That's a euphemism for somethin'

But this post is exclusively about The Garden of HOPE, a name which Sue gave our proposed garden, which she says stands for Helping Other People with Everything. This was a field of dreams for Mama Sue, August, Lettie Lee. Not a baseball diamond, a real garden, a community garden with different fantasies for each person. Mama Sue envisioned a "place of peace." With all her infirmities, she wasn't goin' to do no plantin' but what she wanted was to recreate a bit of the feeling she had as the neighborhood "mama," who kept a pond in her front yard full of minnows, small turtles, gold fish and what all, where kids would stop by, and in delight watch these specimans of small aquatic life. This is how she got the moniker -- Mama Sue. Hurricane K swept it all away. If she could sit in the Garden's gazebo which she envisions is surrounded by a small stream and four little bridges crossing into it, and tell stories to the kids who'd drop by...(the pic you see here is of a gazebo that sits in a pond in a park "upriver" in St. Bernard and this is the idea Sue has for our -- for her -- gazebo in the Garden of H. It's nautical with its round piling-like posts, and such a lovely bit of architecture, but convincing the hard-nosed gardener types who are involved with us that we need a gazebo at all is requiring all our skills of persuasion.)

August envisions a place where he would work the land, and teach the youth of Guerra Drive (August always shakes his head and smiles ruefully when he says "Guerra Drive.") Give 'em something' to do, he says. And we both know that if he could turn one kid on to growing and harvesting, he'd have accomplished something. The Garden of HOPE Is far from Guerra Drive. You need a car (bus lines were swept away by Hurricane K) but they'd get down there with help from a parent or August himself, and in time, the idea would "ketch on." and they could start small gardens on the empty lots all along Guerra Drive - which are abundant, little reminders of the houses that used to exist before Katrina. Thousands of cement slabs waiting to be torn up are all over St. Bernard. The pop. in St. B is down by about half.

Lettie Lee just likes the idea. She's got a black thumb she says -- all her house plants die promptly under her care -- but she's very civic minded and like August thinks that this might be good for the children of St. Bernard Parish.

But our green acre has in all honesty been going nowhere. I've envisioned what it would sound like if it were a sound effect which is like a car in the deep trenches of winter that grinds painfully and you know is not going to start up. Or a computer that whirs quietly and pitifully and won't boot up. I have to be honest, it warn't goin nowhere. We have exactly $400 in our bank account, nitrogen-poor soil that needs major amending, the promise of a free tractor, which has yet to materialize, and receding hopes.

Until Lorna Donaldson, a retired organic farmer from Tennessee got wind of our garden, our dreams for it, and swooped in like a fairy godmother to say she'd help us get the full acre planted this fall. Seeds to be donated by Baker Heirloom Seeds. Yes! Since, like all of us, she watched in disbelief as the BP spill ended most of this season's (we all know it might be much longer) fishing along the Gulf, she's thought long and hard about what can be done -- what she can do.

Lorna is promoting an old, but little used method of growing called Straw Bale Gardening. Instead of soil, you use bales of hay (or straw), covered with a thin layer -- 1 - 2 inches -- of compost. You don't need to mess with soil, bugs are minimal, back aches are less severe because you're not bending down so far. And she will give us enough straw bales to cover the entire acre, and help raise the money for the compost and the fence (didn't have the heart to mention our need of a fence) and provide August a bit of training. But I don't think he'll need more than five minutes. I hope only that there's no disagreement about what our first crop should consist of. The dark greens of course -- collards, and what not, tomatoes, okra (gumbo ingredient) Someone who lives down in St. B told me that African women would stow okra seeds in their hair as they were being hauled away to slavery. So okra has to go in there.

Our plans are to meet in a week and a half, a week from Thursday -- all of us -- Mama Sue, August, Lettie Lee -- over a plate of red beans and rice somewhere in da Parish talking it all through with Lorna and get this ball rolling. Please -- no hitches please!

I'm looking forward to seeing my old friends. Plan on shooting an hour of August describing his boyhood when I have a feeling practically his only pleasure was simple gardening. A 9 year old boy enjoying nothing more than growing beans. August has told me stories about how it was the nuns in the orphanage where he grew up - in the 50's -- who taught him how to grow things. So much detail I've wanted to glean, but which he hasn't parted with. But I've learned that he raised chicks too and the nuns gave him baskets of eggs to take door to door. August has bemoaned (miserably) growing up in an orphanage. He's also told me that he'd be another lost soul if he hadn't. I'm very curious to see what he'll teach these boys on Guerra Drive to do.

A plea here. If you happen to have a laptop, notebook, iPad, netbook that is available to donate to the Garden of HOPE. Totally tax deductible. August is going to have to be in e-mail touch. Is going to have to receive materials from Lorna, and myself and be able to send us information far more easily than he's been able to with his very temperamental cell phone. His phone is frankly a pain in the ass. Thanks!

More info on the garden (and lots of other stuff) can be found on my website: along with a way to get in direct touch if you happen to have a laptop or $5,000 for a fence. Website still a little rough in places. Why I haven't mentioned it till now.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Family Reunion

Sometimes, as with the demonstration in behalf of the mosque being built in Brooklyn -- and I have to add an update on that soon because the ADL has really pissed me off -- things in my own life become front and center. Going back a couple o years to describe my live as a hapless videographer in a disaster zone which I've been attempting to do -- even that recedes into the settled past. And anyway, Mama Sue has not surfaced. She's back in Texas maybe, still comforting an ex-, whose wife recently died. And I can only wonder...has she reunited with Anthony? Is she dumping Lou? She's the subject of my film, the sole focus of my strange task, and it seems I should try to find out. Then, too, the lines dividing filmmaker and subject have tangled, and we have become (in a way) friends. But it's also possible she's dumping me. Maybe my camera and my eternal questions are one more part of the Katrina aftermath, and when she said at one point "I am remaking me" she hinted that she was going to decide that that included ultimately throwing over her chronicler (me).

But the last week I've been -- whew! -- engaged in a family reunion. A friend wrote in an email, 'Hope your reunion wasn't too stressful, as family gatherings can sometimes be (or maybe always are!).'

The night we were supposed to be watching a slide presentation of our geneaology, which stretches back only three generations before mine (born in the 50's) child of the WWII generation, and grandchild of immigrants from the shtetls), I was curled up under the covers, unable to face the crowd. Cousins gently knocked on the door and offered reasons to ignore the slights and join them down in the hotel dining room. If for no other reason than it would please our Aunt Sylvia -- our elder, at nearly 98. And our younger cousin, who has been washing and cleaning old photos by the hundreds, and wading bravely into geneaological software, was camped out at the side of the road in New Hampshire, similarly unable to face it all.

This was Day One of the family reunion. We, young geneaologist and myself, had been cajoling others to not forsake us, and to attend the presentation of photographs, videos and an extended diagram of our family tree, but as camped-out younger cousin noted, "not everyone is interested in our family history." So we had to plead, and by the end when younger cousin, our slaving over chemical trays cousin herself grew lightheaded, couldn't drive any farther and e-mailing from a library begged for our forgiveness, there I was, weeping. But what is a family reunion without weeping and the *star* freaking out on the roadside?

And then Aunt Evelyn cracked me up, when all was forgiven and we'd washed our faces and came to the table, threw the family geneaology up on the computer screen -- when she said with her trademark startling honesty -- it -- geneaology -- is "boring." And to be honest, it's not that interesting. The chart with little circles for female relatives and squares for males (or maybe it's the other way around) And names in tiny print stretching sideways so far, you have to scroll the page left or right to take them in, the page lurching haphazardly towards one wing or another. Who cares?! That I have second cousins in Akron, or that so and so married and has three children?

Until I learned that my grandmother's brother, Charlie, had scarlet fever at age 4, and became deaf and wound up in a Catholic (or Protestant) boarding school for the deaf (all this was in Montreal, back in the 20's) where he flourished, marrying Pansy, also deaf, and mute as well. We murmured when we learned that they remained Protestants, or Catholics -- out of gratitude we all assumed. Back then, people stared solemnly into the camera, as though they were sitting for an oil portrait, but not my great grandmother, Channa (changed to Anna by immigration). Her smile was crooked, wide, rich. From the gut. What/Who gave her that supremely contented smile? With her big floppy hat, and sun dresses in every shot, we all agreed she could have been part of the impressionist movement of painters. Widowed three times (though first husband is only a rumor. Who was he we murmured) she stood, like a pioneer woman, looking square into the camera, her daughter, granddaughter and occasionally great grand daughter in the shot with her. Young cousin geneaologist remarked repeatedly -- "the four matriarchs!" David Zvi, whose name matches that of a name on a list found in an on-line note, that of a tinker in the tiny shtetl, Pode Illoie, in Rumania, where we had the Rumanian spelling of our name -- Hahamovici -- moved to then-Palestine, and started a family line one of whom marrired into a line that changed their name to Gur. Gur? Like the name of the Hebrews you read about in the Bible?! Was that their idea? Were they Biblically-oriented immigrants? Why did they take on the name Gur? The Hahamys, the offspring of that fleeing resident of Pode Illoie struck out for a life in Palestine, while my grandparents, after a new tax on the Jews of Pode Illoie, scrambled for enough money for steerage to Canada. Pa (as my grandfather was called) sought to bring his sister Fagie over, and with his brother Louis received permission, even though she was not going to be a farmer, which as one document our geneaologist uncovered, was the sole skill sought after by Canadian Immigration. But if she were free of diseases, if she were literate, and if she would promise to work in their coffee and tea business...then she could come. And she did. Our Uncle Dave, who had remained silent whenever asked about his experiences in WWII, a "just war," he said, revealed his memories. When Uncle Dave, a self described Socialist, knew he was dying, he finally spoke about it, answering a dozen questions posed to him by our family historian. It was nearing 1 a.m. and a few of us read his words over each others' shoulders. He had ridden onto the beaches of Normandy two weeks after D-Day. (young cousin, the interlocutor) Q: 'What were you feeling then?' He replied, 'What was I -- a Jewish kid from Montreal -- doing here?' 'He must have other thoughts and feelings' I said aloud. 'That was a cover up for something more.' 'No, that was it!' the historian replied. 'That says it all.' We read, we pored over the pictures, discussed, argued and glanced at the spindly, many armed tree.

The past. It throws as much mystery at you as it provides information. But it's the mystery of it that gives you a kind of thrill. And there's a feeling of arriving at corroboration. History is real, it's true! Finding my place in the common history of the world has a sort of wonder in it and somehow -- it's strange how intense the feeling is -- it fills me with joy. And I feel literally connected. Those long skinny lines, taking left and right turns and dropping down and down like the thread of a spider, until there I am, a circle below a circle and a square. A square (or a circle) next to me, labelled Al. Some day maybe there'll be a descendant of my wing sitting on the floor around a coffee table with a bunch of cousins and someone will throw out a detail about their distant cousin, a generation or two above them on the "family tree." And that as yet unborn being will muse, "I think she was a filmmaker" Someone else as yet unborn: "Oh yeah?"

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

She's a Survivor

Back to Mama Sue. When I think of Mama Sue now, I see a rapidly aging woman, a woman growing old way before her time. With an eye out for "the Katrina story" I would always ask, was this -- your unravelling health -- or your marital, um, stew -- or your lack of work -- or... -- the result of Katrina or would you have been "miserable" anyway? Strange things to be asking. Looking back, not a necessary question at all.

But Sue, though in her mid 50's, hobbles with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. And, as a result of Katrina, which she survived through a set of events, decisions, quick thinking, and as Sue would say, with the intervention of "God or the deity of your choice," she developed the nastiest of foot infections and had a few front teeth knocked out. But hair was gelled and she was wearing maybe a touch of mascara when she sat down opposite me to relate her Katrina tale, and I could see she'd been a "beauty." She loved to tell me about her straight chestnut hair so long she could sit on it.

When I moved down to Violet, three years ago, one of the first things I did was invite Sue over for dinner. Sue is now heavy, and due to the pain, she has a stiff kneed gait and she walks leaning forward slightly. After she made it to my door, my landlord called to ask if everything were OK. I don't know what he saw when he saw Sue come into my apartment, but whatever it was it worried him. As I poured the wine, which Sue couldn't drink with all the medication she took, but probably politely raised and lowered, she told me I was her only friend. Thankfully I didn't ask whether that was a Katrina problem. Anyway, I knew the answer.

Sue isn't good at chit chat. It seemed as thought she's cursed with -- the artist's curse maybe. The need to organize her thoughts wholly according to an inner light. Often it seemed she was (is. She is still very much alive! though I do worry about that constantly) musing so hard she'd forget she was in company. I'm painting a picture of a distracted genius. No, not that at all. Maybe Sue is an Outsider Artist. She planted her front garden with plastic flowers after the storm. "Nothing would grow," she said, "everything's dead." (hence the name of my film, mama sue's garden). The front garden was ablaze with bright pink and yellow flowers, and they were pretty! Not tacky at all. Mama Sue has a hearty laugh, she can be wicked, can get hopelessly tangled up in petty BS with a neighbor but who can't, was (is?) a great friend and companion to her daughter, April, who was finishing up her last year of high school. Anyone looking at the two of them, would see a couple in love.

A couple of weeks later, maybe less, I found a large brown envelope under my windshield wiper. Inside was Sue's memoir, 200+ pages of Sue's life. I got to it within a day, and could not put it down. Whether I knew Sue or not, I think I'd have read until dawn. It read like a potboiler, that is fiction, bodice ripping scenes included. Such as married to a dashing navy enlistee and living with him in his idyllic Hawaiin posting. Followed by infidelities and the mean and heart rending lows of husband number two, whose drug addiction and physical abuse never for a minute it seemed stopped her from loving him. To the next guy, Lou, who she hardly mentions at all.

And Katrina, which doesn't appear for a 100 pages, and then reads like a film starring Clint Eastwood, an early one, with so many moments when you think, this couldn't really happen. Like a CE movie, you know from the beginning that she makes it but all the way through you're on the edge of your seat.

Sue loves that she survived the storm on her rooftop. She told me more than once that she'd do it again. The first time she said that I think my jaw dropped. I don't understand people who climb Mt. Everest. But I'm beginning to get it. To know that you can survive the worst natural disaster with nothing but the intelligence of your muscles and quick wittedness. To confront it without -- nuthin.' Just you, as everything that had that ever held you up, let you sit, provided food and warmth, as all of it turns into an obstacle, an enemy even (as her refrigerator did when it floated towards the door and formed a blockade, as her roof did as it shredded between her fingers, while she was attempting to pull, climb, stretch and haul her body onto it) and everything you depended on vanishes one by one and then flies at you in 150 mile an hour winds "as though you had a bullseye painted on your back." Baking in the sun and as the days wore on, joined by two of her dogs, who'd chase away the rats. Other small animals, seeking high ground, were allowed to stay. At night she'd sleep in a pirogue which had floated by. "You sent me a boat God?" Survival of the elements. But surviving with faith, as Sue did, conversing the whole while with God or thedeityofyourchoice. It is something to be proud of. As my editor said the other day -- Sue was a heroine.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Hey Sue,

I had called you this morning and left a message, then two minutes ago, got a call back from Lou. learned from him that you left for TX this morning. Missed you by a hair! Damn!

2 things urgent. Want to send you the herbal hepatitis capsules. A box of them has just arrived and can get them in Saturday's mail.

Then -- got a call from August. He wants his copy of the contract y'all signed for the land. He wants to start tilling, as you suggested, but is afraid to go out there without that piece of paper. A black man in Canaervon kind of thing. Is sure he'd be arrested and jailed.

So, if you could tell your husband where that piece of paper is, and perhaps August could go pick it up? Is that possible? Or will the two of them be some kind of absurd unhappy about making direct contact. Perhaps Lettie can pick it up from your house and bring it to Aug. That would probably be the simplest

So - hoping you get back to me soon. And hoping you're doing OK! Been leaving messages for you, and got around 12 hours too late to calling.

Regards to Timmy and family.

much love,


The above a message sent to Sue about a week ago, after August got to thinking that if he went down to our lot, without a tractor, but just a hand tiller, or just to mess around, that more than likely he'd be arrested and jailed. And as though getting arrested and jailed for wandering around on a plot of empty land was predictable and by some stretch of logic, acceptable, he added that that kind of thing 'stays on your record.' August was more perturbed about his criminal record it seemed than getting arrested and jailed. I was ready to jump in right there and say, "oh come on." Though I wouldn't say 'you're being paranoid,' or that 'we're not in Jim Crow times any more. You have to give people credit for growing out of their old and base ignorant ways of thinking.'

Thankfully, I say instead, 'let me call Sue and see whether she can run you over the contract.' August was one of the signatories on the ten year lease for this luminous acre hard by the Mississippi levee in the village of Canaervon.

But, I learned the next morning Sue had left for Texas. She'd gone, without telling me, her chronicler, her personal memoirist, that she was going anywhere! Felt as though she owed me an explanation! How dare you move around the country without informing your filmmaker? Well, she had -- had left for Texas to be with her son for two weeks and whatever else she wasn't telling me. I had no way of reaching her, Sue's cell has long ago run out of minutes, so tried in vain by e-mail (see above) tho' haven't gotten an e-mail reply from Sue in weeks and this one is no different. Why do I feel so responsible for the success of this garden? for Sue? For August? That's a question for a shrink/guru, neither of which I have at the moment. Maybe only a filmmaker, who's got 100+ hours of footage on her cluttered study floor would understand. Finally made contact with Sue that evening by phone and was told that the contract was buried in a "black suitcase in my closet." She'd get Lou to find it.

Lou, Sue's husband, is not a paper kind of guy. He doesn't make out his own checks, you never see him with a book, newspaper or pencil, unless he's making a mark on a piece of lumber in preparation for cutting it with a power saw. Lou is very handy and his humanity is in his construction and repair projects. There's even a hint of whimsy in some of them. Lou built a floating chair after the storm waters of Katrina had subsided out of a lawn chair, somehow sticking the legs into two oblong pieces of styrofoam. This adorable contraption floated even with the weight of an average size St. Bernardian! Lou and Mama Sue called it their pontoon chair and Lou sat in it and paddled out into this newly existing body of water to retrieve a sunken trailer. The painted, polished and gleaming black trailer (not the kind you live in, but the kind you use to haul stuff) now sits in his driveway, pride written all over it. Lou still refers to black folk sometimes as "coloreds." Sue rolls her eyes.

Asking Lou to find the contract in the black suitcase in the closet in Sue's den and arrange to hand it over to August, who in turn thinks of Lou's kind with utmost wariness had me tied in knots. Should I instead ask Lettie Lee to pick the contract up and bring it over to August's place? But that would have been solidifying some old habits of thinking, wouldn't it? I wouldn't be helping to change a situation that damn well has to change if we're going to start farming a plot of land with a racially integrated team next to a somewhat racially integrated church in a white neighborhood and I wasn't going to be any part of the old way of doing things!

Katrina had some good effects. When I went that Spring of '07, less than two years after Katrina, with Lettie Lee to Easter Mass, I was surprised to see black and white people in dresses and suits heading together for the doorway of the church. When I asked Lettie about this she told me that there just weren't enough churches that had been able to rebuild for the old segregated patterns to continue. In other words Katrina had shoved black and white into the same church.

He was hesitant. 'August, you'll stick your hand out, take the piece of paper from Lou, say thank you and leave.' He laughed and asked for directions. The next day August was at Lou's house at noon, as Lou had asked him to be. When no one came to the door, August called. No answer. August went home. All of this was told me last night by Lou, who hadn't woken up until 4 pm that day, and didn't hear the doorbell.

p.s. Lou did the right thing -- two days later, he brought the contract over to August.