Sunday, September 30, 2012

Not Even, the band: Talented Toledo Trinity

Last night I went with Elissa and her friends to Sodbuster’s Bar, a neighborhood pub right across the street, to hear her high school friend Mike McQuire’s band, called Not Even.  I had my doubts, since I haven’t been in a pub for a long time, the band started when I'm usually getting ready for bed, and I was feeling my age.  But Elissa was encouraging; it’s a short walk and there was a brilliant full moon in a clear night sky.  It turned out to be a fun late evening.    

Not Even bills itself as a party rock cover band from Toledo, Ohio 
(  It has three talented artists, a trinity, not an even number, but not odd either.  They are fantastic:  Mike on bass; John on guitar; Rob on drums and vocals.  They are talented and creative, serious and fun,  some of the best musicians I've heard live in a long time.  The band has a great diverse playlist, too, from classic rock to dance rock and country rock, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Journey, Van Halen, Cheap Trick, Stevie Wonder.  I wasn’t familiar with all the songs, but all the music made you want to dance and sing along.  I was happy to meet Mike’s mom, Connie, and we both moved to the music--were moved by the music--even at our advanced ages. As the band says on its website: “Any age group, any crowd, will know and love our music.”  And we all did.   Music, the universal language. 

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine I learned to go along, never to turn down an invitation, to try new things, push myself beyond my comfort zone.   It's how I integrated into my Russian-speaking village in far-eastern Ukraine; discovered fantastic talent; made connections; learned the needs of the community and how to get things done. 

It felt somewhat like that last night, close to home, not even in Ukraine. And you know what? It was terrific!  I've learned it’s always a positive, exhilarating feeling to push beyond your comfort zone, to push the boundaries.  Not Even, the band, made it completely enjoyable!     

Friday, September 28, 2012

Elissa's thoughtful art

I love my daughter Elissa’s art work.  She does assemblages on paper, creative collages.  She uses cutouts from every magazine imaginable: car magazines, sports and fashion magazines, travel magazines.  She saves them all.  She cuts out words, phrases, sayings, and then adds photos, memorabilia, artifacts, seashells, any things she finds. She’s a collector.  She reminds me of Ukrainian or Mexican artists who use everyday objects to create something new, whether it’s tiling houses with bottle caps, using aluminum can tops for making purses, using pieces of glass, stones, tiles picked up on the road or the beach or anywhere for decorating furniture, using found objects to decorate photo frames, mirrors, table tops, dishes.  Elissa’s artworks are beautiful, sometimes serious, often humorous and fun, and always thoughtful.      

Food for Thought: Lecture Enthralls Senior Audience

Univeristy Center and a sample of the beautiful
 tiles featured on the Mediterranean buildings.
The tile below honors Bishop James Hoffman,
a wonderful man I worked with in 1970s on a
City-County family violence prevention board.  
I went to hear Dr. Gerry Bazer, political scientist and Dean Emeritus of Arts and Sciences at Owens Community College in Toledo, give a lecture on "All You Wanted to Know about Presidential Second Terms, But Were Afraid to Ask."  Good timing!

The lecture, at the Franciscan Center of Lourdes University, once a small college run by Franciscan nuns on their multifaceted campus, provided the opening salvo for the expanding college's 2012 Continuing Education program.  I was glad to be back on the beautiful campus, located not far from my home in Sylvania, and to walk about in the rain under my mom's antique orange and brown umbrella.  I hadn't been on the campus since the early 1980s. I left Toledo for DC in 1985, and didn't return until May 2011. Lots of memories flooded back as I strolled into the lecture hall.  

I'll be teaching about the Peace Corps in a few weeks so I was happy to be on the campus, meet other teachers, and  get to know potential students.  It was a full house, packed with mostly seniors and retired workers. The lecture was  informative, presented clearly and with humor. Dr. Bazer, mindful of his audience, asked good questions, and answered them.   How many presidents won second terms? Did their victory margins increase or decrease? Why did certain presidents lose? How successful were the presidents' second terms?

Needless to say, the members of the audience had something on their minds.  At times you could sense the questions.  Quiet anticipation.  The current election!  Would president Obama be elected to a second term or not? Would the lecture offer any clues?

It did.  Sixteen of our forty-three presidents (37%) won second terms; economic issues determined the election outcomes; and the second terms were often too short to accomplish much.  "You know, after two years a new round of presidential elections starts all over again," Bazer noted.  You can't do much in two years.

Still, those for Obama saw hope in the information. Those for his opponent did too!  Nothing like a balanced, well-rounded humanities lecture to get the juices flowing. A lively question and answer period! I basked in the warm feeling of  students, of seniors, wanting to learn. Critical thinkers.  Intellectual curiosity. Engaged citizens. Civic discourse.

I thanked Dr. Bazer for his lecture and told him how much I appreciated scholars who participated in public programs.  He smiled and informed me that he is a lecturer for the Ohio Humanities Councils' Speakers Bureau.  These scholars, often under siege at modern universities, are willing to share their expertise with the general public, and public audiences still hunger for knowledge.  Dr. Bazer's lecture provided lots of food for thought.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Community Spirit of Franciscan Sisters

SHS members visit Heritage Room
of Franciscan Sisters on Lourdes campus;
decorative features, tile, arabic lamp; top right,
Gaye Gindy & Sandy Gratop with
sister Rosamond (red dress/white jacket);
nd mingling. 
The Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio, are a remarkable group of women.  They built their first Mediterranean-style building on a beautiful plot of farmland and forest in Sylvania a few years after Mother Mary Angelica was called from Minnesota to Toledo in 1916.  They decorated everything they built with tiles, murals and art they themselves created.  They used imported lamps and furnishings from the Holy Land; brought in more nuns with special expertise in health, education, social work, and environment; had sculptors build beautiful statues of St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the order in the 12th century, one adorned with his beloved animals.  They created special places for the nuns to meditate and pray; two beautiful chapels, one a replica of the chapel of St. Francis of Assisi; lovely gardens; and a higher education institution, Lourdes College, all on the evolving and stunning campus.

Sister Rosamond talks about Heritage 
 Room focusing on the history and 
work of the Franciscan Sisters, 
on  Lourdes University campus. 
Photo, Sandy Gratop.
They continue to expand, growing the college into a fine University; buying and managing properties to house students and others; adding modern assisted-living homes for the elderly nuns and for people living in the area. They have a range of volunteer projects that they develop in partnership with other community groups and institutions, putting into action their mission of "embracing peace, serving the poor and marginalized, and showing reverence for human dignity and the gifts of all creation."

These nuns are not simply "old school."  They are contemporary, creative, energetic.  They understand leadership and marketing. They understand and are fully engaged in the world they live in and want to make it better for all people. They go nonstop.  They grasp new opportunities; welcome change; reach out.

Now they have created a "Heritage Room"  to preserve their own history, share it with others, and prepare for their 100-year anniversary in 2016.  Historian Gaye E. Gindy, co-author with Trini L. Wenninger of "Sylvania" (Images of America Series, Arcadia publishing), is helping the Sisters tell their story. 

SHS Members at the 
 Heritage Room. 
Photos: Sandy Gratop
Gaye told me she is now into the 1920 census to track the membership of the Sylvania Franciscan order and its parishioners.  "Very difficult," she said, "because most of the names are Polish and handwritten by the census taker, nearly impossible to decipher:"  Gaye's plowing ahead with her research and writing; the second volume of an 8-volume series about Sylvania and area history is due out soon.

About 20 members of the Sylvania Area Historical Society (SHS) gathered for a tour of the Heritage Room last week.  Sister Rosamond, a spry 60-something whose knowledge is vast and whose enthusiasm is contagious, gave a lively talk sprinkled with lots of her own memories and good humor.   The Heritage Room has artifacts, documents, memorabilia, photographs, and original art, all nicely exhibited, along with three large video screens, always running, focusing on the history of the Franciscan Sisters who built the order and made Lourdes University and the campus what it is today.

The Franciscan sisters are an integral part of the Sylvania community.  This community has a strong sense of place, many talented people, and involved citizens who care about its past, present and future.   It's a good place to be.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Bill Clinton's Journey

Bill Clinton in Haiti,
with George W. Bush,
yahoo photos.
"I am the captain of my soul."  Nelson Mandela

I once wrote a blog about my brother Loren and Nelson Mandela, seeing them as spiritual twins on the level of worldview and global perspective. I think I will add Bill Clinton to the mix and make a triad.

I'm aware this takes me out on a limb, but I'm thinking more spiritually than politically.  Beyond the arena of political conflict, on the terrain of democratic ideals and hope, life looks different.

Nelson Mandela, after serving 27 years in prison for his fight against apartheid,  returned to South Africa to finish what he had started. In 1994 he became South Africa's first black president. He served one term, then left politics to younger leaders.   Mandela united the global village in his struggle for freedom. And, thinking about the Middle East, transitions in the Arab world, and Christopher Stevens, he reminded us how long attaining freedom takes.

I believe Bill Clinton is following in Mandela's footsteps.  For many this may be a stretch; sure Clinton has a way to go.   But I have watched him deal with dishonor and move on.  I have watched him work with George W. Bush and former political foes to alleviate world poverty, assist African nations improve their economic future, devote time and money to Haiti to recover from man-made and natural disasters.  His work transcends politics.

After his own mistakes of the past and after the efforts of many to take advantage of them in the most politically motivated hate campaign I ever witnessed, pursued by elected officials in the US Congress whose own honor was sullied, the height of hypocrisy, I saw a man pick himself up, face his shame, and move on to become a better person.   He could have become a bitter man and spun to the margins of political life, stayed in the shadows of activism, but instead he threw himself into the fray.  He defined his purpose in life, against the odds.  Like Nelson Mandela.

My brother Loren once asked me:  "How many people could spend almost 30 years of their life in jail, for the crime of fighting for human freedom, and emerge with forgiveness in their hearts?"  I couldn't answer that.  I think I would have been enraged.

Now I ask: how many of us could be skewered the way Bill Clinton was in the 90s, so harshly, publicly, really inhumanely I thought, and emerge to talk about love not hate, cooperation not conflict, working together not working against each other?

There's something admirable about Bill Clinton's journey.  He's the captain of his soul.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Change is Slow:: Remembering Chris Stevens

“The reality is the Middle East is going to be turbulent for the foreseeable future and beyond that,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official in the Bush administration. “It’s going to present the United States with any number of difficult choices. It’s also going to be frustrating, because in most instances our interests are likely to be greater than our influence.”  (Peter Baker and Mark Lander, “U.S. Is Preparing for a Long Siege of Arab Unrest,” NYT, 15 Sept. 2012.)

“The fall of dictatorships does not guarantee the creation of free societies.  There is often a period in which we witness the legacy of tyranny.  The Arab uprisings have overthrown tyrants in Egypt and Libya, but the populations and lawmakers have yet to grasp that democracy is not only about free elections but creating free societies.”  (Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, “Arab Spring nations don’t yet grasp Freedom of dissent, 14 September 2012.)
It’s good to be reminded that change is slow,that Arab societies “are on a journey” to find alternatives to intolerant and tyrannical regimes
“It’s hard for younger Arabs born into freedom to understand how individual liberty works in real life,” scholar Ed Husain tells us. They don’t understand that religious freedom and the freedom of expression go together in our American system of democracy, where even heresy and blasphemy are tolerated. 
They grew up under dictatorship and think government controls its citizens,that a film for instance, can't be produced without government approval.  So they hold the U.S. government responsible "for the tacky and distasteful film produced by a right-wing Mulsimphobe," Husain argues.   
The majority of Muslims abhor the violence.  They seek the peaceful essence of their faith.  
Ed Husain tells the story of a Bedouin Arab who desecrated the sacred mosque of the prophet Mohammed in Medina. The prophet cleansed the mosque himself and forbade anyone from reprimanding or attacking the man.This is the way of the prophet Mohammed.  “Where is the spirit of mildness, forgiveness and compassion amid Islamist activists today?” Husain asks.
Slain ambassador Christopher Stevens knew where it was: in the hearts and souls of the majority of Muslims. It fed his love of the Arab world, its language and traditions.  "He plunged into Arab social life...allowed himself to be governed by its habits, proprieties and slower pace...traded personal risk for personal contact," wrote Steven Erlanger in a thoughtful New York Times article (15 September 2012). 

He had high hopes for Libya and other Muslim countries. He shared the dreams of the many. That's why I think we have to keep his hopes alive,to honor his memory.  We have to continue to believe in the process of history and social change in the tradition of Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  They never gave up.  Look how long it took us to destroy slavery. Hundreds of years.  
A more tolerant, democratic society will emerge overtime in the Arab Spring nations.  But as Husain and other scholars remind us, it surely will take time, patience, understanding, and a measured, informed and thoughtful U.S. foreign policy.  

In a Washington Post editorial (19 September 2012), Mustafa A.G. Abushagur,newly elected prime minister of Libya,remembers Chris Stevens as "a dear friend of mine who played a key role in helping to liberate Libya from the oppressive regime of Moammar Kaddafi....Libya is a moderate, tolerant country that does not condone violence as a form of expression....What I ask of America is do not lose faith in Libya...If we move forward with...the same optimism and courage that Chris Stevens embodied throughout his service in Libya,there are no obstacles we cannot overcome." 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hey you victims out there, who are you voting for?

Hey all you victims out there, dependent on government handouts, you 47% of Americans, who are you voting for?  That's almost half of all Americans, according to Obama’s opponent Mitt Romney. 

Hey, it’s “not a president’s job to worry about these people.”  So you are unemployed, uninsured, underpaid, working and still struggling to make ends meet, a member of the shrinking middle class.  Stop whining.  Go home and help your stupid, lazy, shiftless selves.   

Hey little people, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Like those victims of floods after a hurricane hit Louisiana again:  "Go home and call 211."  Like my daughter who works as a graphic designer for a community newspaper, a job she loves.  She works more than 40 hours/week, makes less than $10/hour (more like $5 factoring in all her overtime), has no health insurance, has a second job.  Just like most working Americans.  Like my granddaughter, who works as a supervisor at a nursing home; she's on-call at all hours of the day and weekends, responds when needed, has a 5 year old son, pays $400 a month for pre-school and after-school babysitting. She does some modeling on the side, to earn extra money.  She abhors welfare.  And then there’s lazy, irresponsible me, living on Social Security income like millions of other senior women, seeing the cost of everything go up and any increases in our “handouts” (which we earned throughout our working lives) eaten up by increases in the cost of health care.  I’m not complaining.  We are blessed.   

But the belief that almost half of all Americans are irresponsible victims dependent on government handouts, held with conviction by someone who is running for president, is hard to swallow.  So are politicized comments about foreign policy after an American ambassador is murdered.  Four American citizens murdered abroad, for God's sake, and the first thing out of your mouth is a political statement! 

“This is a reprehensible act, and all Americans should come together in mourning and in solidarity at this difficult time.”  Did Mitt Romney say this? No. As a citizen, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, as a senior, I’m offended at Romney’s remarks, at the lack of compassion.   

When a reporter asked Romney, after his “victims” remarks in Florida, if such statements represented his “core convictions,” he got mad and stormed out. Good lord.

I told myself I wasn’t going to blog about this political campaign; I held back. I have dear friends who are Republicans and support Romney and Ryan.  It’s okay.  It’s America.   

But Romney’s ongoing outrageous responses and “off the cuff” comments, thoughtless and hurtful, reveal a man who doesn’t care about most Americans, doesn’t care about cooperation and community, doesn’t understand our complex world and global relationships.  

Romney's core values are those of Bain’s current president, who tells us to thank our lucky stars for the wealthiest one-percent of Americans because they keep us going and they deserve whatever tax breaks and other welfare benefits they get from the government.That includes large corporations, banks, oil companies, too.   Government help for the rich is okay; the rest of us can...well we are just irresponsible people.  

How can you become president of all Americans when you've disdainfully dismissed half the nation, as one pundit put it.

Hey you victims out there, who are you going to vote for? 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Peace Corps Way: The Best Countervailing Force in the World

The Peace Corps way: It’s the best countervailing force in a turbulent world, especially now in the Middle East and in Muslim countries across continents. 

What is the Peace Corps way?  This is what I remember, after two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine (2009-11).

You arrive a stranger, a total stranger, and you integrate slowly into the community you are serving.  You get to know it, learn the language (as best you can) and how to communicate;  relish the geography, the landscapes, the buildings and architecture, the neighborhoods, the parks, the rivers, nature. 

You get to know the people, one by one, day by day, starting with your host families or your working partners, your counterparts.  You meet at crowded offices in old buildings, at their homes, at restaurants, at  nine-story apartment complexes with elevators that don’t work, at shops, markets, schools, cultural, social and government centers. 

You have many cups of tea.  You listen, and listen some more.  You find out what people are thinking, what the community needs, what the key issues are.  People introduce you to their friends and your circle keeps expanding. 

You learn how to get from here to there, read the signs, walk and bike everywhere, and make many stops along the way, many stops on the street to chat.  You take your time.  You learn patience. 

You wait in line at the post office for a stamp, long lines, long waits, slow tellers, and you never complain. You smile and learn.  You never refuse an invitation, to tea, to dinner, to a social event, to your NGOs functions.  You share meals, laughter, and sorrow.  You allow yourself to be taken here and there and everywhere, even when you don’t understand what it’s about; you go and learn.  If you are in the dark most of the time, it’s okay.  You go with the flow, take life as it comes. 

You come to admire the strength of the people, to understand their traditions, their struggles, their hopes and dreams.  You do all you can to help the people achieve them.  You get translators, write grants, give talks, lead seminars, get computers, connect people and organizations, build new networks for the future. You mirror the can-do spirit of America, without making judgments, open to all ideas, all points of view. You model tolerance and acceptance.

You become a fixture in your community, even among people you do not know. For example, in the little village of Starobelsk, in far-eatern Lugansk oblast near the Russian border, I was “the Amerikanka.”  That Amerikanka is everywhere.  I saw the Amerikanka today.  She was at the post office.  She was at the market.  I saw her at the university.  She has an English Club at the Library.  She came to my store. She bought soda, not good for you. She looks thin.  She fell off her bike and broke her arm. 

Boy, everyone knew where I was and what I was doing! I got used to it.  I understood. I went from being only a curiosity, to being a member of the community.  It was hard to leave, hard to say goodbye.  

“Americans are not so bad afterall,” a librarian who had been cautious at first confided in me as I was leaving.   I will always remember, I said.  Я всегда буду помнить.

This is the way Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens served the country of Libya and wherever he was stationed in the Arab world.  The Peace Corps Way. 

The people remember. The president of Libya called him friend. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about it, eulogized it.  The journalists are reporting it. Commentators are praising it.  Middle East experts acknowledge it. 

Chris Stevens was the best friend the Arab world could have.  He understood the frustrations and the dreams, he spoke the language, he admired the religions, the traditions and cultures; he liked nothing better than meeting people on the streets, sharing conversations and meals, sharing people's problems and their hopes for a better life, and helping however he could to bring peaceful change for the majority of people.  He was the people's ambassador.   

It’s the Peace Corps way.  I think it’s the only way, in the long run, in spite of the challenges. I think Chris Stevens would agree. The arc of history is towards justice, Martin Luther King said.  It’s the long view.  It was Stevens' view.  It’s the Peace Corps view.  It will triumph in time.

Life After Peace Corps: From Hell to Hope, From Hope to Hell: Muslim Violence in Middle East Savagely Mutes Expectations

Life After Peace Corps: From Hell to Hope, From Hope to Hell: Muslim Violence in Middle East Savagely Mutes Expectations

Friday, September 14, 2012

From Hell to Hope, From Hope to Hell: Muslim Violence in Middle East Savagely Mutes Expectations

Peace protest in Libya offers condolences on the death of Ambasssador
Christopher Stevens; a sign RIP. THIS IS HOPE.  
(photos from HuffPost, 14 Sept. 2012). 
We cling to hope. It's precarious.  But we have no choice.  We have to hang on. 

In his autobiography, An Asperger Journey, my brother Loren tells the story of growing up with “a problem with no name,” and his lifelong effort to find answers on his own, a journey ”from hell to hope.” 

The murder of Chris Stevens and three diplomats in Libya by Muslim extremists, on the anniversary of 9/11, and the attacks on US embassies in Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere, appear to be taking us in the opposite direction, from hope to hell.   We are backsliding from the hope born during the “Arab Spring,” when the people rose up against dictators, to the hell of religious intolerance and religious violence. 

How well I remember the goodwill generated in the Arab world by the efforts of its people to overthrow oppressive dictatorships and build a better society for ordinary people.  I had just returned to my village in Ukraine from a trip to Egypt with my Peace Corps friend Jud.  We had walked the route of the protestors in Cairo, stood where tanks blocked the street near the Eqyptian Museum.

Most of us understood at the time that we were not talking about change to a US-style democracy, but change to some form of representative government of, by and for the people arising from the ashes of cruel dictatorships.  We hoped the changes would end poverty, the root of all discontent, provide jobs, food, security.  We knew it would take time, but we had such hope!

Sure, there were voices of caution then.  Would Muslim extremists take over these countries and bury them once again in a different form of totalitarian rule?  Would offshoots of the Taliban and Al Qaeda overwhelm the majority of moderate citizens who sought to unite their countries and promote religious and ethnic tolerance?  

Now I wonder. The death of Chris Stevens has muted our expectations. It's a devastating loss.  Here was an honorable man, a peacekeeper who loved the Arab world and devoted his life to improving the lives of its people, from his Peace Corps days in Morocco to his years with the foreign service and as ambassador.  I believe the Arab people returned the love. The extremists, a small handful of haters, took it away.  The terrorists now threaten the Arab Spring, the fragile governments of post-dictators, and the dream of peaceful resolution of age-old issues.   

What IS the film about that attacks Muhammad and Islam and incites such hate. Who produced it? Why?  The US government had nothing to do with it; it is not government-sanctioned.  It appears to be the work of an obscure California filmmaker with a grudge, produced in a country where freedom of speech is honored and officially-sanctioned censorship is relatively rare.    

On the other hand, while the film sounds reprehensible (I haven’t seen it. Has anyone?), so is the hysterical violence it has provoked.  Does any film justify murder? Does a movie, no matter how offensive its content, justify killing dedicated ambassadors and government workers? Why has this horrible film caused such outrage?  Why is anti-American anger “sweeping” across the Middle East, and Africa and Asia (Reuters report,Yahoo, 9/14).  “Sweeping!” 

One Middle East expert put it this way: "Frustration at the slow pace of change is mounting. The Arab Spring has not yet found a sense of direction."  Condaleeza Rice, former Secretary of State, noted that extremists have taken advantage of a movie to voice their ongoing rage, but the majority of Arabs do not condone such violence.   CNN and other reporters "on the ground" (and it looks really dangerous) talk about how little it takes to "trigger" such outrage.  It's an excuse to create chaos.  What's at stake, they report, is the relationship between the countries of the Arab World and the United States.  "The extremists have made their mark," said one on Wolf Blitzer's show.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton gave an eloquent reply to the tragic situation in a speech marking the end of Ramadan (Dana Hughes, “Secretary Clinton Delivers Powerful Religion Speech after Middle East Embassy Attacks,” ABC OTUS News, Yahoo, 14 Sept.2012). 
"I so strongly believe that the great religions of the world are stronger than any insults. They have withstood offense for centuries.  Refraining from violence, then, is not a sign of weakness in one's faith; it is absolutely the opposite, a sign that one's faith is unshakable."
"We can pledge that whenever one person speaks out in ignorance and bigotry, ten voices will answer," Clinton said forcefully. "They will answer resoundingly against the offense and the insult; answering ignorance with enlightenment; answering hatred with understanding; answering darkness with light."
      The path from hell to hope is not an easy one; it is the road less traveled. But Chris Stevens was on that road.  He had that faith. That’s what makes these events so sad, so disheartening. My faith wavers, but Hillary Clinton’s is strong.
"In times like these, it can be easy to despair that some differences are irreconcilable, some mountains too steep to climb; we will therefore never reach the level of understanding and peacefulness that we seek, and which I believe the great religions of the world call us to pursue....But that's not what I believe, and I don't think it's what you believe….Part of what makes our country so special is we keep trying. We keep working. We keep investing in our future."   
Clinton talked about “the outpouring of support the United States has received from the Muslim world.” She thanked the Libyan Ambassador, Ali Suleiman Aujali, who gave a heartfelt tribute to U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, whom he called his dear friend, killed in Benghazi on Tuesday.  
"I must tell you, Madam Secretary, and tell the American people, that Chris is a hero," said Aujali. "He loves Benghazi, he loves the people, he talks to them, he eats with them, and he [was] committed - and unfortunately lost his life because of this commitment" (Dana Hughes, ABC OTUS article).
Now the U.S. is taking a hard line.  The extremists have whipped  up chaos, just what they want.  The American people are whipped up too.  A military response is on the horizon.  Troops, ships, planes, marines are on the way. More violence is sure to come.  War is threatened.  How far will this go? Will there ever be peace and prosperity in the Middle East?  Can we keep the hope of the Arab Spring alive?       

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Toledo, Ohio, Rebirth From the Bottom Up

Toledo, Ohio, hard hit by the economic downtown but hanging on, is developing a sense of community and civic pride, thanks to citizens who are working from the bottom up.  Literally, the bottom up. A community garden. Artist and activist Rachel Richardson, the daughter of old friends who lived on Robinwood Avenue in the Old West End when our kids were little, is founder of Art Corner Toledo (ACT), a community garden project with many creative offshoots.

It all begins in the earth, and a fertile imagination.  ACT is bringing people together to plant seeds of change, nurture them, watch them grow.  This delicious mixture of art and activism is also providing food for the community and food for thought (see Julian Garcia, “A Boost of Murals: Art Corner Toledo turns activism into artistry in the Uptown District,” Toledo City Paper, August 22-September 4, 2012).    

ACT’s projects include a mural at Manos Community Garden, by artist Har Simrit-Singh, and Toledo Grows.  Another is the recently completed “Toledo Loves Love” mural (facebook/ACT  photo, above)  on the side of another old downtown/uptown building. The love mural was done by an artist named Mede who partnered with another artist called Mr. Taylor.  Turns out to be another delicious mixture, concocted by ACT. 

The wall is meant to promote marriage equality, and it does that and more.  Mede and Taylor took it to the next level: honoring the old and the new and the universal experience of love across boundaries.  

“The mural has really lit a fuse as other property owners in the Uptown District have requested murals for their buildings” (Garcia, City Paper).  More are coming, reports Garcia, including one by my photographer friend Robin Charney and  Lots to look forward to in downtown Toledo, and that’s 
saying something! 
Another new  mural, 3000 block of  Monroe St, by
artist Khalia Riley and others who work with ACT.
I love the representation of the community garden
and the bridge, and the colors. act facebook photo.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Viva our Italian Heritage!

My daughter Elissa and I took a road trip to Columbus to see my mom’s first cousin Bill Form, 95 going on 96, his wife Joan, both retired OSU professors, and cousin Fern King, who flew in from Etna, New Hampshire. It’s become a kind of annual family reunion.  Last year, in August, we took my mom’s sister, my Aunt Loretta, to visit with Bill and Joan.  The cousins, who hadn’t seen each other in years, were both 94 years old, going on 95. They were like kids. They hugged, reminisced, laughed, held hands. It was a memorable visit, all the more so because Aunt Loretta died nine months later, in May 2012.  Elissa and I remain overjoyed at the great new memories created during that visit. 

This time, on a day when the clouds rolled across the sky in unusual formations and the light washed across farmland like a Thomas Kinkaid painting, as Elissa put it, we had another wonderful reunion. We got a bit lost in Columbus, as usual, but the visit made up for any frustrations.

We had a beautiful lunch, prepared by cook extraordinaire Fern.  Classic Italian bean soup and tomato salad, and fresh figs with marzipan sprinkled with cinnamon for dessert.  We talked about Italian and Sicilian history, culture and cuisine.  We traced our heritage back to the Phoenicians.  We shared stories of Bill’s family, including his mom, who insisted on the importance of education, and his brother George, who at one time joined the Army Corps of Engineers Band and ended up in Panama (Bill showed us a historic photo).  "George didn't even play an instrument, but he wanted to be in the band so he learned the trumpet, in no time at all!"  Funny.  We remembered his cousin Michael who survived the Batan death march and three-years as a Japanese prisoner of war.  Hard to believe one could survive this experience.  Truly an amazing story. We remembered Bill's sister Nan Form King, Fern's mother, and her important nature conservation work in Hanover, New Hampshire.  Bill fondly remembers my grandfather Luchetti, a Roman, and my grandmother Julia, his aunt, his mom Mary's youngest sister.

We talked about Bill’s pioneering work in the field of Sociology, and also Joan's in gender studies.  Bill remembered how he made his way in the profession, starting with a dissertation at the University of Maryland under the famous but difficult C. Wright Mills, his important research and articles, his different teaching positions and how he became an honored professor at Ohio State University, retiring just a few years ago.  Most wonderful, we talked about his autobiographical project, volume 2, the ongoing story of his family that he hopes to complete soon.  It's Bill's great contribution to our family history, an enduring legacy.      

Will we be so aware and articulate at 95, so full of curiosity and love of learning? Will we remember how to play an instrument, be able and willing to share family stories, and even a list of great books, classic and contemporary, that we have just read? "This book on The Atlantic blew me away," Bill says in awe.  Will we still marvel at new knowledge and life’s lessons?

Bill, at 95 going on 96, is still teaching us.  Joan is too.  Elissa, Fern and I are the lucky beneficiaries. These fantastic relatives from "the greatest generation" are keeping our history and our hope alive.  Viva the Italian heritage of our ancestors who are part of the American dream, the courage of our immigrant grandparents, the moving journey of their sons and daughters!  

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Taking Nature On: "I imagine my day is coming."

Alaska wilderness, NASA photo. Frigid. Eerie. 
I was channel surfing one night and alighted upon a TV show about mountain men and surviving desolate winters in northern Alaska.  A genuine Alaskan mountain man, a police officer in search of a murderer, is flying a small plane over a sea of snow and ice-covered forests that go on for miles on end, visibility near zero, temperature -40, the whiteness and the stillness incredibly breathtaking but eerie.  It captured me.  The officer-adventurer has to stop now and then to unfreeze the blades of the plane, itself a daunting task in the bitter cold and utter isolation.  

He’s doing the impossible, it seems, in a hostile environment, alone, relying on his wits. “This may be the last remote place of wild America,” he says.  “This land is untouched, just the way I love it.” 

But how do you find a criminal in these rugged mountains, in this ice, in this weather?  “You take chances, every day.  I imagine my day is coming,” says the mountain ranger matter-of-factly.

He takes off again into a frozen world of stealth and silence, sheltering evil, beckoning the brave who are unafraid of death.    

This Alaskan mountain man will find the murderer and live to tell the story, this time. The search is the most fascinating part of the mystery.  Like life itself.    

Another show in this series features a mountain man in Montana looking for a lost dog.  “Low on the chain of being” he says knowingly.   “We got the wolves, and lions and bears.”   But a lost dog?  Still, the mountain man flings himself into the jaws of the beast, as it were, the mystic mountains of Montana, tramps into the emptiness, the unknown.  The dog comes back, responding at last to the cry of a human voice, and the mountain man goes on to another adventure in the dangerous  wilderness.   

Why do I like these shows?   I think for the same reason I love the poet Mary Oliver.

The shows and the poet demonstrate different ways of taking nature in.  Of taking it on, really.  They help us understand the natural world, embrace it, accommodate it, challenge it, and learn from it.

In the end, we return to it, we become a part of nature.  And we are alone.  “I imagine my day is coming.”

I looked Up  by Mary Oliver (White Pine, 1994)
I looked up and there it was
Among the green branches of the pitchpines—

Thick bird,
A ruffle of fire trailing over the shoulders and down the back—

Color of copper, iron, bronze—
Lighting up the dark branches of the pine.

What misery to be afraid of death,
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.

When I made a little sound
it looked at me, then it looked past me.  

Then it rose, the wings enormous and opulent,
And, as I said, wreathed in fire.   

Monday, September 3, 2012

Destination: IKEA

Yesterday, Sunday 2 September 2012 (we can't believe it's September), my daughter Elissa and I took a road trip to Canton, Michigan, to visit Laura Kline, our favorite Russian language and literature professor and Elissa’s dear friend since high school days at Maumee Valley in Toledo, Ohio.  Laura, a great cook, prepared a super lunch: Russian potato salad, chicken salad, platters of cheese, salami and fresh tomatoes, and hearty, wholesome, gluton-free bread and crackers, topped off with a sweet peach cobbler. What a feast! "Healthy, too," we all agreed.  It reminded me of meals with my Ukrainian host moms and friends.

We had a wonderful far-ranging discussion, about politics, books and films; I learned more about Laura’s growing up, her experiences, and her decision to study Russian (she went to Georgetown in Washington, DC), a love affair she developed when her high school class went on a trip to Russia.  Laura is brilliant and funny, a quick thinker, analytic, open and tolerant, well-read, with a special interest in cookbooks, compassionate and beautiful.   I admire her devotion to literature and teaching, to her daughter and to Russian culture, and I was happy she shared some of her plans for the not-too-distant future when her daughter will be graduating from high school and going to college.

After our hearty, healthy lunch, we went for our planned adventure to IKEA, not far from where Laura lives, in the center of the Ann Arbor and Detroit markets, which are huge. IKEA stores always seem to be in country-like places, near far-suburban malls and college towns, but no matter where they are, they are popular shopping and even tourist destinations.  "The car lot can accommodate 1,000 cars and is always full," Laura said.  That was certainly the case this Sunday afternoon.  Actually, it’s the same with other IKEAs I’ve been to: a brand that’s a tourism destination, as well as a shopping destination for people within driving distance of a store,  which could be 80 miles or more.   

Like every IKEA (there are some 350 stores in 40 countries), IKEA Canton is a huge warehouse full of fantastically designed furniture, home décor, unique items for walls, floors,and ceilings, tons of model “rooms” with creative and colorful decorations and decorative features. "Welcome to a World of Ideas," its catalog tells us. Every item, from furniture to chairs and bookcases, is available in a box, ready to take home and assemble (no easy trick for some of us!).  

IKEA means modern Swedish or Nordic design, functional and sturdy, stylish but inexpensive.  I think that’s why it is also an international favorite. We heard languages from around the world and saw people from many different countries browsing and buying.  Some moms and dads were buying whole rooms of furniture for their new college freshmen. IKEA has it all.  Laura and Elissa thought many items were cheaper than those at Target’s, or Walmart’s, also popular stores for college freshman but maybe without the “modern” panache.  

So we walked through and around every department. We walked for miles.  We didn’t buy much, but we took note of the things we’d like to buy on our next trip. We have the catalog, which I’m pouring through now.  Elissa and I are looking  forward to our next road trip to Laura and IKEA in Canton, Michigan.   Who knows, we might even end up at an IKEA abroad one day.  

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