Monday, March 30, 2009

Our Girl

After going some time without dealing with loss in my family, we have been dealt another blow this week; Sally was put to sleep today in Roanoke. Sally was a package deal with Josh, as I met her when I met him 11 years ago and that dog became one of the most meaningful beings to me. She was a crazy mix with the nose of a German Shepard, the color of a black lab, and the lean body from a breed that was not clear to us.
She ran like the devil and logged miles and miles through the years as she accompanied us on runs up on Mill mountain and mountain bike rides with Josh.
She had her weaknesses, yes, but we loved her despite them of course. Even in her older years she could not help herself from jumping up upon guests as they entered our house, but collected herself moments later and fell back asleep near the dining room table. My heart would sink if we crossed paths with deer in the woods. She ran after every single one she encountered in her life and to our knowledge, never succeeded in "catching" one. There was a spell when we had a neighbor who owned at least 10 cats, one was named Princess. Sally was tormented by those cats on a daily basis, huffing and puffing as she peered out our windows at them. One day she nearly caught Princess and Josh and I had to bear the brunt of our neighbor's anger about this matter.
Sally was a finicky eater, but had a real weakness for butter. There were countless occasions where we accidentally left the butter on the dining table only to find an empty plate and a guilty looking dog.
Sally had her quirks too. We used to get a kick out of yelling, "Sally! Fly! Get it" and she always proceeded to bark like crazy and yap at the air until she caught the bugger. She was a swimmer, but never learned to dive. She never really liked to be cuddled all that much, but got agitated when Josh and I hugged and left her out. Despite her size she could jump so high in the air to catch a flying frisbee.

She was just such a good dog. I am trying my best to stay sane in a foreign land and city today, apart from Josh, miles from those I love in Minnesota, and missing those whom I love(d) in Virginia.

May you find your deer in heaven Sally, and I wish you all the sticks of butter that you desire.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Clockwise from left: George, Diana, Lois, Lucinda, and John (my dad)

My grandpa passed away this morning and I have been trying to think of how to convey who he was, and why he was so important to me. I decided that I wanted to post a creative writing piece I completed a few years ago. I am sad, indeed. But I am also hopeful that he is rejoicing where he is now and can be reunited with my grandmother Lois. This notion comforts me immensely.

Dying lilacs drooped over the edge of a bubbly green glass vase. The leather couch was blanketed in stacks of papers: The Chronicle, Consumer Reports, Time, Star Tribune. On the dining room table dozens of letters and documents were stacked, resembling a small city of skyscrapers. A square lot of space remained clear for dining. I began to scan the rest of the room, trying to get a sense of how he spent his time. A blue ceramic mug rested upon a folded napkin. His Tilley hat was perched on the counter next to a calendar depicting a pretty Lake Superior sunset. He loves that hat, I thought to myself.

The fact that my grandfather was living alone was still hard to get used to. For sixty years he shared his life with Lois, my grandma. They spent a majority of those years in a brick and stucco house on a beautiful tree lined street in Minneapolis. I lived with them during their last year in the house, sleeping in the room my sisters and I had stayed in as children during visits. It was during that year that my grandparents realized they had grown too small for the house they were living in; they made a new home within a senior community of apartments. Lois passed away not long after their move.

"What have you written this week, grandpa?" I asked.
He sat for a moment. I knew I had to give him time. Slowly he pulled himself up from the recliner and left the room. I looked over at the Minneapolis skyline through his front window and tried to imagine the people working inside those massive buildings. Did my grandpa sit and picture the same thing? Was he content with his quiet life, while business raged and horns honked beyond the walls of his apartment?

Slowly, he returned from his office and handed me a single sheet of paper, his hand shaking. He then walked over to his worn leather reclining chair and allowed all of his weight to sink into it. His hand began to tap and he stared straight ahead. The story was about his first bicycle, the "biggest, heaviest Schwinn he could find." He wrote about riding it down a gravel road called Sagamore Hill. The last half of the story turned its focus to me, and about how I had bicycled across Europe and Peru. It made me gush with happiness, the fact he had noted me over other memories from his whole big long life.
"Grandpa, that was an excellent story," I said.
He asked me if I caught the part about about myself. I told him yes.
"You know, I almost studied art?" he asked.
I nodded enthusiastically. Of course I knew. He always told me so.

I asked him about the farm he grew up on, and about living in Brazil and Japan. About his career as a political science professor for over forty years. I asked him because I wanted him to talk. No matter how drawn out it was, I needed to know him. My grandma had been the talker. When it came time for my grandpa to contribute, it was usually because he had been prompted by her, George, why don't you tell us about ___ ?. He'd nod and allow himself to be taken back in time to remember. A fire crackled away in the fireplace. Old Dutch ruffled potato chips floated in a white china bowl beside a container of French Onion dip. The adults were sipping on Manhattans. And then ever so briefly my grandfather told his story, before Lois chimed in to add embellishments.

His hand began to tap against the chair again.
"Hungry?" he asked.

In the elevator on the way down to the dining hall I looked at the activity sheet posted.
"Grandpa, are you going to go to hear the Chimeleski Band play?"
He shook his head, no. The elevator stopped and a teeny elderly woman got on.
"Look at that beautiful suntan!" she exclaimed as she gave me a good look over.
I looked down, embarrassed, and replied that it probably wasn't good for me to get so much sun.
"Heavens no. You look very healthy."
Her name was Maxine

The tables were robed in vinyl cloths; each one had been bestowed a pink carnation. The evening's meal was an equal balance of meat, potatoes, vegetables and bread. Across the way, a regular dining resident, Dr. Swanson was speaking politics. He spoke loudly to those who were fortunate to be his dining guests that evening. I squeezed lemon on my broiled walleye and toppled a tower of carrots with my fork. The servings were meager and it made me think of how my grandpa had always been the server for dinners at their old house. He used to sit at the head of the table and dish out mounds of mashed potatoes, villages of green beans, and some kind of meat. And after all of this he and my grandma never failed to encourage us to have second helpings.

We were quiet during most of dinner. It was hard for my grandpa to hear over Dr. Swanson, so I focused my attention on the food, looking up to smile across the way periodically, and then back down to the walleye. As the volume seemed to lower at the table next to us I ventured a question.
"Did you take the Lexus out today grandpa?"
A slight smile appeared and he nodded yes. He loved cars and often joked about taking his "run" around the lake in his vehicle. It was the first black car he had owned, for Lois didn't like the color black. Not long after my grandmother's death my grandpa bought the car and a day later he had a bad fall. He said Lois was punishing him.

"What are you going to do tonight grandpa?" I asked.
He shrugged as he sliced into the strawberry shortcake that had just arrived.
"Oh... I think I will watch the game." he said after a long silence.
"The Twins?" I asked.
He nodded. Of course.
The strawberries tasted good. I ate the dessert deliberately and tried to keep time with my grandpa so that we finished at the same time. We got up from the table, I went over to hold his arm. Walking past other tables, my grandpa raised his hand, hello and nodded acknowledgment to his acquaintances. It made me so glad he had new friends.

It was time for me to leave. Four long months would pass before seeing him again, as I lived a thousand miles away.
He walked with me out the front doors and into the courtyard, stopping to check his mailbox on the way. Water churned in a nearby fountain and a man sat filling out the crossword puzzle in the daily paper.
"What are you driving today? he asked.
I pointed across the street and told him it was my mom's Audi.
He nodded his approval.
Hugging him, I told him I would write, that I missed him, and that I loved him.
I crossed the street to the car. Turning back, I waved to him, and he returned the goodbye. I got into the car and looked back again. He was slowly walking back into his small world on Bryant Avenue. My throat began to feel like it was closing and I started to cry as I wondered why loving someone was so good and so hard at the same time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Taco Time

We could not let my folks leave México without having the authentic Mexican taco experience, thus we all walked over to a nearby stand last night to fill our bellies. Options at stands in Guadalajara usually range from pastor (pork), chorizo (sausage), lengua (tongue) and cabeza (head). The predominant meat at our table was pastor and though it was tempting, we had to resist the lengua and cabeza. Tacos in México are tiny; the tortillas are usually handmade from corn instead of flour and are about the size of a Mason jar lid. They come with meat, cilantro and onions, nada mas. The average serving is 4-5 a piece at around 65 cents per taco, resulting in a 14$ bill for our dinner for four (including sodas).
My parents flew back up north today, and it was hard as it's always been to say goodbye. While I enjoy traveling and living in new places, the negative side to this is missing family and friends. It makes the time I do get to spend with them all the sweeter.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


As a special treat while my folks are in town we all headed to see a soccer game. Guadalajara has three professional teams; Chivas, Atlas, and Tecos. Of the three, the most popular is Chivas. Atlas is the underdog, while Tecos is the under, underdog. Last night it was Atlas against Tecos. The stadium was largely weighted toward Atlas, with a steady drum beat and singing throughout the match cheering on the team. We were surrounded by Atlas fans, so I had to be somewhat casual about my cheers for Tecos (I picked them as my favorite because, of course they are the under underdogs). The players were smooth and fast on both teams and minutes ticked away without a goal from either side, despite the fact the ball was near the Tecos goalie 85 percent of the time. After 90 minutes of play the game ended 0-0. I was sure it was headed into overtime, because certainly someone had to win. But I, the person who picked up the soccer ball while in the goal with the goalie during a game we were playing last week, have much to learn about this sport. A tie can be had, no matter how much it disappoints the fans. And though it is a just way to end a match for both sides, I could not help thinking a win would have been sweeter, especially for my new favorite team.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Livin' it Up

A progression of shots from outer space of the Grand Mayan

For the past week I have had the opposite experience of last. My parents flew into Puerto Vallerta for reprieve from Minnesota winter- and to see us of course. Puerto Vallerta is roughly 4 hours from Guadalajara and Josh and I bused over the Sierra mountains and down to the bit greener coast. Our final destination was the Grand Mayan Resort in Nuevo Vallerta, and grand it is. The entry to the hotel is dark, with an incredibly high ceiling with six enormous Mayan figures made out of metal, which tower over a "sacrificial pool." There are candles throughout and there is low music playing with a heavy bass drum beat. All of the doors at the entry level are made of glass and slide open very futuristic-like as you approach them. There is water everywhere, beginning with little streams that surround the hotel, along with pool after pool, linked to one another by "riverways."
Mayan water slide

Surrounding all of the pools is the "lazy river," a swimming pool river which wraps around all of the interior swimming pools. One can grab a tube and pop in this river and let its currents do the work.

At times the waves turn on in this river, which really makes for a fun ride. And then of course, there is the ocean. Beyond the sea of pools is the actual sea where there are good sized-waves for body-surfing.

Our suite seems more like someone's ultra-hip apartment than a hotel.

We have spent our days enjoying the space and exploring Puerto Vallerta, as well as up the coast to Punta Mita and San Francisco. In another day we will be heading back to Guadalajara so my folks can spend a bit of time in the city.

The day after we arrived it was my dad's 60th birthday. Below follow photos from the evening.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Trying to Make a Difference

What a week. This is going to be a whopper of a posting with an overview of my time working with fourteen students and three teachers from North Cross School in a small pueblo called San Jose Villanueva in El Salvador. We were working for the organization Epilogos, run by a sweet couple from New Hampshire, Mike and Susie Jenkins. Each day we had a separate service project to carry out in and around the the small town. Below follows more detail on each project.

Day One
David, Nick, Morgan (sophomore boys at NCS) and I met Carlos Antonio and his mother Maria Luisa and his son Carlos. They are the proud new owners of a house perched on a hillside with trees growing every kind of fruit you could imagine; zapote, mandarins, bananas, mangoes, jocotes. We tried the zapote, which was the size of an avocado with a light brown outer shell, and the inside was the color of papaya with a beautiful slender dark pit. The fruit itself tasted like a cooked sweet potato. We also tried olives picked right from the tree, which left the strangest immediate bitter sensation in my mouth.
The construction of Carlos' house was funded by the Rotary Club. It is a simple structure with an outdoor space for a kitchen and two bedrooms. Our job was to convert the house from gray to shades of blue. Both Carlos' fervently helped us and Marie Luisa waltzed from room to room humming- she was so happy for her new home. At one point Tim (the head of North Cross School) and Ig (Tim's great friend from New Hampshire who has helped make Epilogos run as well as it has) stopped by to bring Carlos junior a frisbee and we all gave it a toss for a while. It was the most satisfying day, as we finished our project and were able to experience seeing the beneficiaries of the project so full of happiness and gratitude.

Carlos and Maria Luisa

Day Two
This second project was simple in details, and grueling in labor. There was a 200 yard gradual hill with a sand pile at the bottom and we had to get the sand to the top. Using a human chain we each covered about 30 or so yards passing bucket after bucket of sand up the hill. The sand was going to be used in the construction of a new house, and something that could have been accomplished in a few hours by a machine took us an entire day and then some. On this particular day I was so impressed with the strength and stamina of the students as we grew more and more tired- and dirty.

This is a boy who lives at the top of the hill. Water only reaches San Jose for a few hours every morning and many have to transport it from a public source. It is not potable.

Day Four
Our third project once again could have been carried out in hours by a machine, and took a group of twelve of us a whole day to complete. The goal was to dig the foundation for a kitchen at a school outside of San Jose Villanueva. The top soil was incredibly dense and it seemed as we began hacking at it with pick axes that cement had already been poured over the surface. We took turns picking and shoveling, ensuring that we were staying within the lines of the roughly 12 x 10 foot base. We then had to remove all of the dirt from the premises and carry it 50 feet up a hill to dump over the exposed roots of an old tree. The whole while curious children from the school kept coming over to watch the spectacle.

The work crew

David kept coming back to watch us

Nubia began helping us transport dirt

Day Five
This was a much more laid back day. A group of five of us stayed in San Jose while others traveled out to Por Venir (20 minutes away) to work on the construction of two latrines (one of which was for Carlos Antonio's new home). Over a month ago an artist from New York and a group of students began a two-block long mural with the help of students from San Jose Villanueva. The mural is nearly complete and Erin, Amy, Grace, Natalie and I stayed behind to help with finishing touches. The first day I arrived in San Jose while I was waiting on the rest of the group I also worked on this mural and became fast friends with the teenage boys who were spearheading the project; Carlos, Elias and Mauricio.

Jasmine and a burro

Carlos and Elias

Amy, Ms. Davies (Natalie), and Valeria

On our final day in the afternoon we rode in the work truck out to Los Naranjos, a small community very close to San Jose. This was the location where most of our work was carried out last year, and we wanted to head out to see how things had transformed. The most thrilling moment was visiting a house where some of us had created a foundation the previous year, and the woman who is living in the now completed home joyously hugged and thanked people in our group.
What is inspiring about this community is that they are working to make themselves self-sufficient and prosperous. They have ponds where they farm shrimp, a newly planted terrace garden is taking start, they have a corn mill, a water pump that was constructed by Engineers Without Borders. They have a school and large dirt soccer field and a small restaurant that serves the fish and shrimp from the nearby ponds.

Riding in the work truck

A man who lives in Los Naranjos (Alfredo) and the newly planted terraced garden

A mariñon fruit (which produce cashews, which you can see on top of the fruit)

David and young bananas

Alfredo showing us the beans that he grew

Alfredo and a Jocote tree

Mid-way through the week we spent a day in San Salvador visiting the residence of Oscar Romero and the group visited a neighboring hospice to sing to its patients. We also were fortunate to hear a lecture from Dean Brackley, a professor at University of Central America (UCA) who spoke to us about issues in El Salvador such as migration, politics and poverty. Some of the most stirring figures he noted included the fact 700 people leave El Salvador every day for Mexico and the United States as they have lost all hope in their home country. 40 percent of the people who live in the country make less than 2$ a day, and around 83 percent of the people are illiterate.
In great contrast, later that day we headed toward La Libertad, a coastal area where there is a beautiful restaurant and there are rustic cabañas nestled next to the Pacific ocean. We enjoyed the surf (which was strong! This is an infamous area for surfers) and tried out iguana, rabbit and a variety of sea foods for dinner.

Each evening we reflected on our experiences with Rose (something good from the day), Thorn (something bad from the day), and Elephant (something weird from the day). Students noted how they had been changed and how this trip was making them think more than they previously had about their values and what poverty looks and feels like. Some went so far as to say that this has inspired them to join the Peace Corps or work for social justice. One of the teachers noted how much they wished they had done something like this earlier in life, as it is hard to change one's direction once through with college and settled in with a job and family.

To end, a note about Mike and Susie. This couple began this organization seven years ago with no idea how many volunteers and donations would surface. They are special people, and yet are people just like you and I. They have recognized a need and are doing something about it. Throughout the week as we often felt discouraged by the amount of need that seemed to exist all around us we were reminded of the notion that you can't do everything, but you can't do nothing.
View from the convent where we were staying

Road construction coming very close to houses

Angie, Natalie and me