Monday, January 24, 2011

He Is My Brother

He is the CEO of his own company
a respected businessman, a mover, a shaker
Familiar with airports all over the world, 
A problem solver, a forward thinker.

But more than all of that, he is my brother.

Do you remember how we made our own game of chess?
A cardboard carefully lined into equal squares
Horses and castles drawn on pieces of paper we cut
Queens and kings and bishops in black and in white 

He is a consultant to kings and princes,
An expert witness to give congress fright
Magazine covers graced by his handsome face
Evening news reporters in awe of his insight

But more than all of that, he is my brother.

Do you remember how we made a phone?
With paper cups and a piece of string pulled tight
We ran it across from your bed to mine
And what was it that we talked about all night?

He is a writer, a poet renowned
A weaver of words in our mother tongue
He speaks of the land, the mountains and trees
The beauty of his words brings a flow of tears
I read each poem a thousand and one times
and then I read them again to sway with the rhymes

Because you know more than anything, he is my brother.

Do you remember playing in the streets?
Hiding in our rooms, at times happy and at times sad
All that we endured, all that made us strong
Do you remember the good days and the bad?

A global citizen, he comes and he goes
To schools and libraries, he lends a helping hand
He builds up villages and cultivates the land
By just his presence, softens peoples' woes

Why does my heart swell with pride and with love
Because  as you know quite well by now
More than anything,  he is my brother.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Only To The Next Tree

In the summers we went to the village where the streets, not only in song, but literally had no name.   
I loved the village.  The sky was bigger, the stars were brighter, and the air less stuffy and hot than the city.  In the evenings, when we went for a walk up and down the main street, we needed a light sweater which we draped over our shoulders.  I had cousins who lived there year round, who would be waiting for us to arrive after nine months of separation and the reunions were always fun.  One of my cousins told me recently that she used to go wait in front of our house just in case we came that day.

Many of the village families owned fruit orchards, mainly apples, but plums, apricots, berries and some vineyards too.  My great aunt liked to take me along with her to pick the best table grapes for family dinners.  Her long white hair braided into a bun and covered with a scarf, she'd put on her boots, grab a basket and we'd walk the 20 minutes to the vineyard.  She was a different person there among her other family.  She walked slowly, touching her precious vines, cutting off branches she found useless, cradling a bunch of grapes in her palm as if to judge their sweetness by their weight.  She'd teach me their names and what foods they went with best.  These are called "bride's fingers", she'd say putting a bunch of 2 inch long, golden grapes in her basket.  They were my favorites.  

One of the highlights of the summer for me was apple picking.  It was a well planned and organized event. The timing had to be coordinated with relatives and neighbors so they could help each other.  Everyone went.  All the ladders available were taken and all capable hands put to work. There was lots of playful banter and singing from the top of the trees.  Young people fell in love in those orchards and the uncles made fun of them, singing "I lost my heart under the apple tree".  The older ladies were responsible for the food and all kinds of delicacies were spread out for lunch.  We ate and then took a siesta in the shade of the trees before we continued to pick those apples ever so carefully, not to leave fingerprints on them, and arrange them gently in wooden crates.

The crates were loaded on small trucks that went around to all the apple pickers that day and helped carry their harvest to huge trucks waiting up the dirt road.  Some of the men would get impatient and start carrying the crates themselves maybe to show off their strong muscles to the ladies.  

One day, I decided I was strong enough to help but mostly I wanted to follow cousin Jack around; at 15, he was 4 years older than me and way too cool.  So I  lifted a crate, thought it was light enough, I could  do this, and followed the men.  At first, I showed determination and courage, but after several minutes, that narrow dirt path got longer and longer.  Angry red marks burned on my arms, my knees wobbled and some moisture appeared in my eyes.  Cousin Jack turned around and looked at me dragging behind and waited.  When I got to him, he suggested I wait right there, he would sprint to the truck, drop his crate off and come back for mine.  But I was too embarrassed, the men would laugh at me on their way back and that's when he said it:  See that next tree ahead of us?  We'll just walk to that tree.  Don't look at the truck, only at that next tree.  So we walked together and when we reached that tree, Jack and I walked to the next one, and just like that, one tree at a time, we conquered that dirt path.  I loved my cousin Jack.

I never forgot that.  Many times over the years, a voice in my head whispered, only to the next tree, darling.  I told the story to my growing sons enough times that they would say, yes mom, we know, only to the next tree.  Funny thing is I saw cousin Jack at a wedding a few months ago and he had no recollection of it.  He thanked me for the story though and said it will come in handy for him too on days he struggles with the dirt paths in this life.

* The photo is not mine.  I found it on the internet. Don't know whom to give credit.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How I got my faith in humanity (or maybe just Macy's) back

The other day the husband informed me that he had no pants to wear.  Now this would have been just a common, matter of fact statement if he had not used "the tone" with it.  You know, the tone that tells you that the rain, snow, and even the floods all over the planet are your fault.  That kind of tone.  Also, the traffic, the neighbor's dog barking, the dry bread rolls at California Pizza, the drunk dude that approached us in the park - my fault.  While I'm at it, I might as well take responsibility for the problems in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Anyway, you get the idea.

I thought of teaching him a lesson and ignoring his hidden plea for help, but I worried that the poor man might die of hypothermia without his corduroys.  So off to the local Macy's I went.  I found the desired pants, but not in his size.  After a 20 minute wait for my turn, the saleslady checked her computer and confirmed that unfortunately the store did not have what I needed.  Being an experienced shopper, I asked if she could check if other stores in the area had them.  She was not too happy but obliged.  Good news, there were several stores in New York, Chicago, Minnesota and Washington DC which still were not sold out of the olive green and black ones, she announced.  That's great! I rejoiced,  could you call and order a few for me?  She looked at me as if I had asked her to fly to Mars for corduroy pants.  This was something every sales clerk had offered me in the past; after all, they want to sell the merchandise, don't they?  All I can do is print out a list of the stores and you can call them yourself, she offered.  As I walked away with the list in my hand, she added, and you'll have to pay shipping!  Thank you for your help, I said with that tone of sarcasm I use with the husband to counteract his accusatory one, you know the one.

Back home, I chose the one store I was quite familiar with,  Herald Square Macy's in New York City.  I knew what was going to happen next, so I made myself coffee, got some cookies,  Harry Potter book 5, sat in my favorite chair, put my feet up and called the number.  I was good at this game. Only five rings and  a human voice.
-Welcome to Herald Square Macy's.  For store hours and location, press 1; for credit card inquiries, press 2; for in-store departments, press 3....
- For cosmetics, press 1; for accessories, press 2; for children's clothes, press 3; for women, press 4; for men, press 5...
~ 5!
- For hosiery, press 1; for ties press 2; for suits, press 3; for brand names press 4....
-For Polo, press1...

The phone rang for at least 20 rings.  You might as well pick it up, I said, because I'm not hanging up.  Finally a young female voice, Macy's polo, may I help you?
I started telling her what I needed.  Pleated or flat front? Pleated, he's from the previous century. Colors, size, how many.  And then, Can you hold a minute?

Sure I can hold.  Sip of coffee, bite of cookie, Oh my God!  Mrs. Figg is a Squib? And dementors on Harry's street?

Hello?  Yes I found them, but have to put you on hold again because I have a customer waiting.
Sure, I'll be here.

Owls, owls, owls.  Owls everywhere!

Hello? Name, address, telephone and credit card information.  Can you hold please?  Repeat your address please? Can you hold again please, I'm sorry.
Sure, I'll be here.
Hello? I'm sorry but it's not accepting the zip code.
Oh, no 2 at the end, just 5 numbers, not 6.
Ok, can you hold please? Hello?  Oh no, I just hung up on this other lady and there are 2 people waiting here, I'm sorry, can you repeat the phone number please?  Voice is getting a bit distressed now.
What's you name?
Listen Lynn, don't worry, you're doing an incredible job all by yourself there.
Yes, I'm alone here.
Listen, My husband doesn't have any pants, and he's very cold, and it's his birthday (I thought I'll throw that in for good measure), I'm willing to wait; it's better than flying to New York, because Michigan is out of corduroy pants.  So do what you have to do there and get back to me.  Just don't drop my call, Lynn, ok?
Ok. Please hold.

Coffee and cookies are gone by now, but Harry's having a nervous breakdown for being kept in the dark for so long.

Hello? Ok credit card information.  The pants are 40% off..
Will you be using Macy's card?  You get another 15% off if you do.
No shipping because Michigan is out of them.
Really!  Wow, Lynn, we're doing extremely well here.
So you'll get these by Tuesday.  I hope your husband has a happy birthday.
Thank you Lynn.  Thank you for being so nice and patient.  You are a super saleslady.
Thank you Mrs A. Sorry for putting you on hold so much.

Mission accomplished.  As a bonus, faith in humanity restored.

Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Number of holds: 126
Total savings: 40% + 15% + no shipping
Coffee: 1 huge mug
Cookies: 3 small ish.
Chapters read: 4
Surprising husband with pants on Tuesday: priceless!

This effort is dedicated to Lynn, superior saleslady at men's Polo department at Herald Square Macy's, New York, NY

Friday, January 7, 2011

Why do I like the "homeless to job offers" story

There was a man named Ted Williams who had a golden speaking voice.  He got into drugs and alcohol; he fell upon hard times and became homeless.  Then one day he was discovered for his voice and offered many jobs.  He got a haircut and new clothes and was reunited with his mother.
National and international news covered his story.  You tubes popped up and went viral.  People tweeted and re-tweeted about him.  Humanity rejoiced for him and his luck and newfound success.

But then came the analysis.  Tweets, blogs and opinions emerged.  Was he the only man on the planet who had a golden speaking voice?  For God's sake we don't even know if he can sing and obviously he doesn't even shave. Besides, it's not like he has a talent  that will cure cancer or clean the oil spills.  How many other homeless people, maybe even more talented than Ted, are still in the streets?  Don't they deserve a second chance?  It's not like all of a sudden the economic situation was reversed because one man found a job.  We're still in dire times, people.  And what does this say about human compassion?  How many people passed this guy by without offering a hand?  How many of us pass by homeless people sitting in the corners of buildings, sour our faces at their filthy, disgusting appearances, turn our heads and speed by?  Now that this man is out of those conditions, it's fine for us to show compassion and be moved by this heartwarming story? And so on ....  the voices expressed their opinions.

I ask myself why do I find this story heartwarming?  Am I naive or worse, a hypocrite?

The man was down and out.  He could have stayed there for the rest of his miserable life. But something shifted, he transcended his lot.  He was not discovered lying in his tent drinking beer, reciting radio commercials.  No, he made a sign and stood on busy roadsides trying to get attention.  Once he had overcome his addictions, he wanted better and worked for it the only way he knew how.  He took the first step and hoped for the best.  I like that.

Somehow, everything aligned that he was noticed, he was picked up, his voice made it on you tubes and news outlets and job offers came his way.  In this digital age, word gets out faster and spreads further and this is an example of how it can be beneficial on such a small, one person level.  I am sure some of the coverage was for increasing viewership purposes, but still, it helped Ted.  It's good to see something other than what celebrity is in drug rehab get this kind of attention.  I like that.

What I like most is the sense of hope in this story.  It happened for Ted.  First, he woke up and made a sign, then her got lucky.  It can happen to others too even if it is one at a time.

Ted not only had lost his job, succumbed to drugs and become homeless, but he also had deserted his wife and children. "Maybe Williams can redeem himself personally as well as professionally.  Maybe he can be there for his grandchildren in ways he could not for his kids."*

Now we don't know what will happen of 53 year old Ted.  His 90 year old mother has asked him not to disappoint her by going with the wrong crowd and getting in trouble.  I say better late than never.  Take her advice, Ted, and don't waste your second chance.

* Read more:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The shoes: True Story


A few years ago, our son Michael and his close friend Micah decided to invite their two families to meet each other over dinner.  It was Parents' Weekend at Stanford University and we had spent the entire day taking classes specially presented to us parents.  It was a very exciting day; we learned about sleep disorders, solar systems and how they measure distances between stars, dolphin language, and biochemical principles or something like that.  It was great fun pretending to be college students again but a few hours after class I had forgotten most of the lectures, except maybe the sleep disorders one.  That had the most practical value for me at my age and I even bought the professor's book and had him autograph it. 

In the evening we all met in a downtown Palo Alto restaurant for a family style Chinese dinner.  Micah's family was very nice; they had two sons the same ages as ours, they had sent both of them to Stanford just like us and soon the eight of us were laughing and sharing food and drink like we had known each other for years.  We ate and drank tea, talked, laughed, ate more and drank more tea and all of a sudden it was time to leave.  

As we got up and said our goodbyes, I realized I'd better use the restroom,  I asked them to wait for me at the entrance and rushed to the dark hallway where I was told the restrooms were.  By this time my need was urgent and the restroom signs were not the normal, clear, Men and Women signs.  They were some sort of indistinguishable, androgynous looking abstract pictures which I'm sure might have had some entertaining value if one was just lingering by the doors, or even could make a good Jeopardy question.  But quite faded, in the dark and in my urgent state they were of absolutely no use to me.

I thought for a minute.  Logically, the ladies restroom should come first because ladies need it more and usually it's more of an emergency. Besides, there was more room in the front for a longer line, whereas the second one was crammed against the back wall.  So of course, the first door had to be the ladies room.

I walked in and right in front of me saw a stall with the door half open and ran to it, closed the door and sat on the toilet.  Ah.... relief.  Halfway through I had a sudden thought and stopped abruptly.  Why were there three sinks in this restroom but only one stall? I was sure I had seen two people washing their hands and a third unoccupied sink.   Hmm. Were those people washing their hands men or women?  Were they washing their hands?  My face flushed and my heart skipped a beat as gradually realization sank in that maybe, perhaps, there might be a small possibility that those were not sinks.  I still was not totally sure.  After all, I had convinced myself the ladies room should be first in the hallway. 

I rolled my eyes looking around the stall, barely breathing.  The toilet was unusually high for a woman, wasn't it?  My feet were touching the floor but barely.  Then I noticed the door.  It didn't reach all the way down to the floor or all the way up to the ceiling.  It looked more like a saloon swinging door in a Western movie, except it wasn't swinging.  I carefully bent down and peeked from under the door looking towards where the sinks were.  I saw two pairs of shoes standing there.  Oh for heaven's sake, those were men's shoes!

What to do, what to do?  First, don't panic.  The boys were outside and they'd come looking for me soon.  I hope they don't find me dead, or even worse, molested!  Wait, if I can see their shoes under the door, they'll be able to see my high heels!  So I bent my knees and lifted my feet high off the floor. Now I was safe, I could think.  Maybe when I hear water running outside, I'll finish what I had come in here for, and then get ready to run for my life as soon as the shoes walk out.  But what if new shoes walk in?

Sure enough, new shoes kept walking in.  Fancy shoes, sport shoes, flip flops, black shoes, brown shoes, even white shoes.  Not in February, man; dark flip flops were ok, but not white shoes. I waited for what it seemed like an eternity or maybe seven minutes.  The boys will start getting worried, I thought, it's a bit quiet now, let me look again.  No luck, a pair of shoes were still standing there.  But wait, they looked familiar, brown loafers, the little scratch on the side, about the right size... I knew those shoes!  Sigh of relief.  This was my chance, let me make a run for it.  I opened the saloon door and ran, as I grabbed the main door handle I heard my husband's shocked voice: Swanny, is that you? I didn't answer, just bolted out, walked calmly through the restaurant while looking for the Purell in my purse.

I hope for another such opportunity.  This time, I will just walk out with my head high, one hand on my hip, and say, Hi guys, how's it going?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Shall we have an espresso, mama?

Our embroidery

There is a small coffee shop in the middle of a department store.  Whenever mama and I passed by it, she would say, "Shall we have an espresso, hokiss*?"  And we would.  She'd save us a table in the corner and I would come with the coffee and perhaps a pastry. We'd share it, sometimes chatting, often quiet, just sitting there being together.
Mama had a tough life.  There were relocations, separation from her own family, wars, struggles, illnesses and deaths, but she always thought she was blessed.  She had her five children around her.  She had love.  My father was not an easy man.  He had his own ghosts that haunted him.  Thinking back, I wish I was there for him, I asked him more, I hugged him more... but that's another story.   Mama made it balance for us; she was the calm in the turmoil, she was the safe place to go when we were afraid.  I think she had a way of accepting whatever the day brought with calm dignity, something I'm only just learning.  I don't know why I don't remember any harsh or angry words from her.  She must have been mad at me sometimes, specially during my early college days...but there were none.  There were gentle talks, stories, and sometimes "the look", the "you should know better" look.  Oh mama, looking at me with your beautiful, blue eyes full of love and pride, I never wanted  to see disappointment in them.
She liked teaching with stories.  Either she made them up or she had read them somewhere. One that stands out was the princess who was always sulking because she thought her sisters were prettier.  The king sent her to the forest where she became very happy among the trees, animals, flowers and butterflies.  One day she saw her reflection in the stream and gasped because she looked so lovely. The ugly princess had become beautiful once she had learned to love, smile and feel joy.  Oh mama, I was that princess, wasn't I?  Even at ten, I knew I was the princess.  
I was quite needy there for a short period of time, feeling "different" from the blue eyed, golden haired sisters, so mama made me her baking assistant.  We made the most delicious pies and cakes - apple pie, walnut/raisin pie, chocolate cake and of course my brother's favorite lemon cake.  She let me stir the batter and, yes, even lick the wooden spoon.  Then we sang...
Mama was a music teacher before her children took over her life.  She knew songs in many different languages and sang them in her beautiful angelic voice.  Sometimes, my father would accompany her on the mandolin and we'd have a mini concert right there in the living room.  Years later when I met some of her brothers and her sister, I found out they all had beautiful voices, they all sang.  How she must have missed them...

Were you happy, mama, in those days when I was growing up?  Thinking of her days... she would be shopping for fresh produce from the street vendors, hanging laundry on the line on the roof, cooking the main meal for lunch, sewing with patterns from her favorite Burda magazine, visiting the neighbor ladies for some coffee and gossip perhaps, reading her precious Readers Digest, and then us... always us, feeding us, dressing us, waking us with a cup of Nescafe in her hands, bringing snacks in the wee hours when we were studying for exams, tucking us in.  On Sundays, there was church choir.  In the summers, there was canning and jelly making, and there were quiet hours of sitting together on the balcony in the village house, watching the stars and fireflies.

Mama was about 50 years old when I left home;  I had to go, it was safer for me to go, they loved me enough to let me go.  She didn't say much.  I was lying on the sofa when she came and sat next to me; she cradled my head in her lap and stroked my hair for a long time.  She might have been singing quietly. It felt like I was in a cocoon of love, warmth and pure goodness.  She let me know with her touch.  How I missed that touch later on when for months I didn't know if she was all right, if my family was all right.  But that's another story.

The November before she died, mama came to visit me and stayed the entire month.  That was her last gift to me.  We spent the days together doing what I used to do in those days.  She taught me new recipes; she taught me that a broken sugar bowl is not worth any anger.  "May you have long life instead", she said.   Now that my father was gone, she wanted to travel more around the country to visit her children. So we went shopping for suitcases and "outfits" as she called them.  Mama had style.  She must have sensed something in me, perhaps fear? Hesitation? Indecision?  "Do you want those little plates with  pretty pictures of fruits on them?  Can you afford them?" she asked.  "Well then, just buy them, you don't need permission" she whispered.  When did that happen mama?  She calmly stood her ground.  Looking my husband straight in the eye, she said, "My daughter likes this embroidery and she deserves to have it.  It'll take time to choose the colored threads, but we're going to do that now, no matter how late we are for dinner.  So please be patient".  And he was. Patient.  When did that happen, mama?  What you didn't do for yourself, you could do for me.  I was halfway done with that embroidery when she died, I finished it with my tears.
In the evenings, she sang songs to my sons, then we sat together, she with her knitting, I with my cross-stitch, and we talked.  That's when I got to know mama.  Of course I knew her as my mother all my life, but I got to know her as a friend, as a woman, as a human being.  Did you know she always wanted to be a doctor?  I found piles of health magazines by her bedside after her death, along with some poems and prayers. She told me about her youth, the courtship with father, the difficult years when her family left and she stayed behind as a newlywed.  It wasn't enough, mama, I have more questions, I wish we had more time to talk.  

But we ran out of time, she had to go back home.  I took her to the airport.  Mama walked down the corridor to the plane, in her fashionable trench-coat,  with her colorful scarf around her neck. She stopped at the corner, turned around and waved to me, her arm in the air, her hand waving right, left, right in slow motion.... Then she was gone. Five weeks later she was really gone.

I have visions of mama's hands; brushing my hair, stroking my face, cleaning, cooking, offering food, knitting, praying, hitting her knees when father died, holding my sons, waving goodbye, folded neatly together in the coffin...  tired, soft, holy hands... I kiss her hands.

The pain was indescribable at first.  I collapsed at the foot of my bed, rocking back and forth, sobbing.  No!  This did not happen! No! Don't let them cut her!  No!  Mama? Mama!  Mamaaaaaa!!!  We went to Maryland to bury here next to my father. The skies were not happy, they were so angry they sent a blizzard, they cried No! with me... 
Now, fifteen years later, the pain is less severe, it's more of  a longing.  After all she's right here with me in my heart. Are you here, mama?  Do you see your grandsons?  Are you proud?  I wish we could talk now  from this new place that I am...

Sometimes, I pass by our coffee shop in the department store, I look at the corner, and there's mama sitting at our table smiling at me.  I smile back. Shall we have an espresso, hokiss, next time we meet?

*hokiss = term of endearment in the Armenian language.  Meaning "my soul"

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Little Girl

I remember the dress.  Her mother had made it for her; it was beautiful in a pretty blue.  I don't remember what the occasion was and I don't remember if she was happy or was asked to smile for the photographer.  The picture is blurry and faded just like my memory, but I recognize her eyes, her smile, her vibrant spirit.

For a long time I had forgotten her.  She had disappeared.  I'm sure she was calling my name from somewhere deep inside but I was too busy and somewhat deaf.  I was busy loving my sons with everything I had; busy losing my identity to the man I married and the role I was playing in life; busy getting hurt, developing a huge "pain body" inside created by feelings of neglect, abandonment, even nonexistence.  I felt numb inside.  I died.  Then things shifted, everything aligned in the universe to bring me back to consciousness, slowly, gradually, painfully.  It's still a process.

One morning I looked in the mirror and there she was staring at me with those huge brown eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks.  She didn't say a word but her eyes asked, why did you leave me behind? I hugged her and we cried together, then we laughed together.  I'll never leave you again, I promised.  I need  your innocence, joy, faith and sunlight with me always.  She has never left me since.

Today, we sang songs, we doodled, we laughed at the silly birds who forgot to fly south, and we sent my sons funny texts with smiley faces.  Tomorrow, well it hasn't happened yet but we might dance.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Here we go

First day of 2011 -
Alone but not lonely. Peaceful.
I spent a few minutes reflecting on 2010; It was a strange year, not too productive, a little restless, I think because of emergence of consciousness.  There were trips - New York, Washington DC, Toronto, Virginia, Chicago, New York again and again.  But there were trips to doctors' offices as well.

There was sadness and heartache, there were endings; but there was joy, music, dance, and there were beginnings and friends- old friends and new friends; people open enough that I could connect with them, even without ever meeting them.   There were tears, but not too many outbursts and a lot more giggles.  Overall, I think it was a transitional year, taking me closer to whatever it is which I seek.

Now, there is quiet, peace and chocolate ice cream.  Tomorrow, well tomorrow hasn't happened yet.