Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Remembering Aunt Ione

Orchid blooms can last a good while, but when the first one wilts and drops, its siblings drop soon afterward, as if in sympathy. So it seems with George's sister Linda, his Aunt Doris, and now his Aunt Ione. Or perhaps, somehow, his aunts were just hanging on, waiting to see Linda off first, before going to join her.

I only got to meet Aunt Ione once, and even that was but a glimpse of her. Advanced Alzheimers had already taken much of her mind away before I had a chance to meet her. I had known of her through George's fond memories. He'd always felt close to his mother's sister, and her husband Uncle Guy, and had even lived with them for a while when he attended Loma Linda University. So a couple of Christmases ago, on the long drive home from his parents, we made a detour to visit Aunt Ione. George's cousin Kathy, Ione's daughter, cautioned us not to expect too much. Kathy said that some days her mother recognized her, and some days she didn't. Some days she could be upbeat, while other days she could be sullen. With our expectations sufficiently adjusted, we truly lucked out and had a wonderful visit.

Aunt Ione recognized "Georgie" (as he is known in the family), and positively beamed to see him. Her great affection for him shone through in a big smile that not only lit up the room, but warmed it too. She chatted away jovially, asking about George, and warmly meeting me. Her social personality was apparent, and I could tell she was someone who loved people, and who earnestly meant it when she said she was delighted to meet you. She was inquisitive and enjoyed a little banter and good-natured teasing, which was charming. And she still demonstrated the inexorable motherly desire to see all young men get married off, as she cajoled us with variations on the "are you married? do you have a girlfriend?" theme. (We appreciated her good intentions, and saw no point in confusing her with honest answers to those questions.)

Within a few minutes, it was evident how much the Alzheimers had taken from her. She would ask us things she'd just asked a few moments ago as if for the first time. And many of her memories were lost or fuzzy. But it was also clear that pieces of her personality were still in her, and I feel that a got a real glimpse of the sweet wonderful woman that she was. The best part of our visit, a memory we'll always treasure, came as we were leaving. Amidst goodbyes, she said "I love you, Georgie" several times, and she turned to me and said "I don't really know you, but I think I could love you too."

Aunt Ione, I didn't really get to know you, but I'm sure I could love you too.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Shakespeare Quest

Blogging has been light lately, and one of the distractions has been planning a unique celebration taking place later this year. My friend Dennis and I are nearing the completion of a 15-year quest to see all of Shakespeare's plays. We don't know how unusual an achievement it is, but it is certainly unique in our acquaintance. I have created a web page that documents our quest, including a few FAQs and a complete chronology. We will be completing our quest in September in Stratford-upon-Avon. Our last missing play will be Troilus and Cressida. We used to speculate about what the last play would be, but we never would have guessed Troilus. We thought for sure one of the more obscure histories, like King John or Henry VIII. But no, we caught those years ago. Theatre, like life, defies augury. (Yes, that's an allusion.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

How 'bout them Apples?

The past several months, I've developed a routine of having apples for my afternoon snack. I'm not sure an apple a day keeps the doctor away completely, but it is a healthy snack, and the fiber is supposed to be good for cholesterol control. I had been doing Fuji apples, which are my husband's favorite, but I decided I should start experimenting around since there are so many varieties to choose from. And boy do they vary! The sweet and crisp Fuji is still near the top of my list, but I think my favorite may now be Braeburn which is also sweet and very crisp. (Especially for eating whole apples, the "bite" is an important aspect.) And the Granny Smith rounds out my top three, also crisp but with a distinctive tart flavor. It's a balanced tart, not a sour tart, and quite nice. Other decent apples include Gala, Pink Lady, and Red Delicious. The Gala is crisp but slightly less sweet than Fuji or Braeburn, and the Pink Lady is even less sweet than Gala, heading toward sour tart. The Red Delicious is sweet but softer, not as crisp. The Macintosh has a flavor most like apple juice (are they juicing apples, I wonder?), medium sweet, with a thick skin, and a medium soft consistency. Not high on my list. The Crispin was unusual. The initial bite is a loud snap, but then it's soft. The flavor was surprisingly pear-like (I'm thinking of Bartletts). Not bad. Apples at the bottom of my list are Pippin and Rome, both of which were bland, soft, and mealy. What are your favorite apples?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Remembering Aunt Doris

Photo of Aunt DorisThis week, my husband's Aunt Doris passed away at the age of 88. This loss feels very different than when we lost George's sister last month. While we are sad not to have Doris with us anymore, this was the completion of a long and good life. She had been losing her body to cancer the last couple of years, and as she herself would have told you, she was ready to go.

I only got to meet Doris a couple of years ago, when she moved down to Los Angeles from Redding (in northern California) to live near her son Mike. We had her over to dinner at our house, and she was immediately likeable, warm and easy to talk to, and very down to earth. George had been reluctant to come out to his family, apprehensive of the reaction from the conservative Seventh Day Adventist family and the gossip of a small home town. He'd been out to his family for many years now, but this evening was probably the first time he'd ever really talked about it with his aunt. Any apprehension about Aunt Doris was quickly put to rest, as she was clearly unwavering in her affection for George and warmly welcomed me. "You do what makes you happy, that's what's important to me," was her attitude. "And don't you worry about what other people say. Besides, as long as I'm around, they'll be wagging their tongues about me as much as you." She turned to me with a glint and a smile, and asked, "Did George ever tell you about my scandal? I know a thing or two about being a black sheep. Let me tell you my story."

She proceeded to tell how late in life after her husband had passed away, she shocked the family by marrying a man who was not only a generation her senior, but also happened to be the widower of Doris' late aunt! He wasn't a blood relation, but still many eyebrows were raised when she married her own uncle. She said she knew what she was doing (as well as what she was getting into marrying a much older man), and that it was a good thing to do. They had both always been fond of each other, they had both already raised families, and they knew they would enjoy each other's companionship for the rest of his life. She said that in retrospect, her second marriage was a happy as she had hoped for, and she got the added joy of becoming a surrogate mother to her second husband's children. When she told us to "do what you know is good and what makes you happy, and don't worry about what other people say", it was because she lived it herself.

Doris was not able to visit our home again, as cancer soon began to take her eyes and lungs. But her nursing home was not far from our church, and we would often stop in to visit her on Sabbath afternoons. The thing that amazed me the most about Doris was her spunk. She was always cheerful, and never uttered a bitter or complaining word, despite having plenty of cause for complaint or bitterness. (In her last year, she had lost both her eyes, and most of her mobility.) Not that she was blithely optimistic about her condition. She was fully aware of her condition and would tell you quite straightforwardly if you asked. But I just don't think she saw any point in complaining about things that couldn't be changed, and she had no time for dwelling on the negative. She preferred to chat about what her family and friends were up to, and what she'd heard on her radio talk shows, and small good things in her day-to-day. Every time we left her, I was always glad we had visited, and not just "I've done a good deed" glad. I genuinely enjoyed her company, and admired her spirit.

I wish she could have been spared the deterioration and discomfort of the last couple of years. I wish I would have met her sooner. But she wouldn't dwell on things that can't be helped, and neither should I. She lived a long life and a good life, and she exited with great grace. I am grateful I knew her, and I will remember her with admiration and affection.

Monday, March 13, 2006

ARTS: Swan Lake

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake is playing at the Ahmanson for a limited 2-week engagement. My husband and I had both seen it when it was here nearly ten years ago, and were eager to see it again. It is a masterpiece of modern ballet, with Bourne's bold, racy re-imagining of the story supercharging the classic with modern sex appeal. No dainty and delicate tutu'd swans in this lake. Instead the swans are all men, bare-chested and with feathery leggings, with a faintly menacing air, and exuding avian testosterone. In this story, Prince Siegfried falls in love with a swan-prince, not a swan-princess. The classic story is further twisted with the addition of Siegfried's mother, the Queen, for whom Siegfried finds he has more than filial feelings of love. Von Rothbart (the evil wizard in the classic story) is here a manipulative Press Secretary for the royal family, who has his hands full with the Prince's unmannerly tart of a girlfriend. In the many-scene first act, this poor screwed-up prince is serially frustrated between the women who reject him and the women he rejects. He ends the act beaten up in a bar fight, but it clears his dance card for the beautiful single-scene second act, which is just him and the swans. The interaction between Siegfried and the flock of swans slowly evolves into a more intimate engagement between the human prince and the swan prince, as they fall in love. The third act is a royal ball, made exciting by the appearance of Von Rothbart's son, the doppelganger of the swan-prince, a Casanova-like character who flirts shamelessly with every woman there, including the Queen. The Prince freaks out in a doubly jealous passion at seeing his mother being seduced by his swan-prince's double, and as the act closes, guns are drawn, and the tarty girlfriend gets killed in the crossfire. Act IV has two scenes, first with the Prince being treated in a psych ward, and the second back in the Prince's bedroom, where the swans reappear, and the flock turns against the lover princes.

If this sounds like a twisted tale of passion, jealousy, and Freudian psychological drama, it is all that. But this sordid story is told throughout with brilliant dancing. Even amidst the "busy" story-telling of the first act, there is some amazing choreography. The Prince being awakened and dressed by a swarm of attendants is a visual delight. And the ballet-within-the-ballet that occurs while the Queen is being thoroughly embarrassed by the Prince's classless girlfriend is a clever and hilarious parody of classical ballet. When the swans come out in the second act, one scarcely wants to blink as the flock flies and swims around the stage, and Siegfried and the Swan-Prince do a gorgeous pas de deux, alternating between romantic engagement and struggle for dominance. In the third act, the dance of ballroom dancers is strangely reminiscent of the movements of the swans, and when the young Von Rothbart works the room, the seduction is visual. Act IV Scene 1 in the psych ward is strangely reminiscent of the Prince getting dressed, and Scene 2 is a dark reflection of Act II, as the swans turn violent. The dance interaction between the two wounded princes is distressingly moving.

The sets and lighting provide the perfect compliment to the visual presentation. The sets were surreal and oversized, and reminded me of Jean Cocteau. (The sconces in the ballroom scene, giant hands holding torches, were right out of Beauty and The Beast.) When the Prince goes mental, a harsh low front-light projects giant shadows on the back wall, which the dancers exploit to dramatic effect.

I'd procrastinated getting the tickets until just last week, so we could only get the back of the mezzanine for the Saturday night performance. Those really aren't such bad seats after all for a ballet, where there's a lot of visual complexity that can be appreciated from a longer view. We brought a pair of field glasses to enjoy a few close-up looks, but I found I didn't want them much at all. It was definitely a show worth seeing again, from most any seat you can get.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Indochine Jackfruit Salad in Atwater Village

Glendale Blvd in Atwater Village in the last couple of years has really developed into a trendy little stretch with some neat new restaurants and shops (like Importante Gifts, full of exotic crafts from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where my husband had bought me a lovely colored soapstone heart for Valentine's Day). We had noticed the arrival of a restaurant called Indochine Vien that looked enticing, and today we checked it out. The regular menu offered the expected pho (rice noodle soups), rice dishes, and cha gio (egg rolls), and a less-often-found treat, banh xeo, a delicious crepe-like dish filled with bits of chicken and shrimp, and fresh Vietnamese greens (lettuce, mint, basil, and bean sprouts for crunch). But it was the two new special additions to the menu that really intrigued us. George tried the beef stew, chunks of beef simmered in a rich broth of tomatoes, lemongrass, and carrots, seasoned with chili and other spices (anice? clove?), and served over rice noodles. It came served in a big bowl, and a little dipping dish came on the side with some salt and pepper and a piece of lime, and another dish with the usual pho condiments (sprouts, mint, basil, lime, peppers). George said it was very good, and the spoonful of broth I tried was rich and flavorful. Me, I went for the jackfruit salad, since I'd never had jackfruit before (the untried item always having a strong magnetism for me). It was delicious. It seems the Vietnamese use jackfruit similar to how the Thai use green papaya in som tum salad, using the unripe fruit in small strips for texture as much as flavor. The strips were fibrous, and reminded me of tender bamboo shoots, or a bit like hearts of palm. There was a mellow palmy flavor in them, and there was also a sweet and tart flavor, a bit like pineapple (though it was hard to tell how much that came from the fruit itself or the light dressing, of lime-juice and sweet soy). Mixed in with this were strips of steamed chicken and pieces of steamed shrimp, shredded Vietnamese greens and carrots, caramelized shallots, lotus root, and crushed peanuts. With a nice cup of Vietnamese coffee, it was perfect. We'll definitely have to return to this place.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

God Save Nigeria from His Followers

I was dismayed and appalled to read on Andrew Sullivan's blog about recent events in Nigeria, and the reaction of the Anglican Primate there, Peter Akinola. It seems that as a horrible echo of the recent anti-cartoon turned anti-Danish turned anti-Western and anti-Christian violence, there has been an outbreak of violence in Nigeria with Muslims attacking Christians, and in reprisal, Christians attacking Muslims. It seems that over 100 people may have died in this pointless medieval exercise of rivaling fundamentalists. That was the part that dismayed me. The part that appalled me was the response of Archbishop Akinola, who said "may we at this stage remind our Muslim brothers that they do not have the monopoly of violence in this nation". Yes, that is a quote. Here we have the Archbishop of Nigeria threatening violent retaliation. It seems in Akinola's theology, the Christian thing to do is not to turn the other cheek, but to start beating ploughshares into swords.

To those of us who are gay and who follow church politics, Archbishop Akinola is infamous for his fundamentalist positions on sexual orientation, and for his advocacy of criminalizing homosexual acts and even pro-homosexual speech in Nigeria, as well as his active support for renegade Episcopal congregations in the US who share his views. But this latest, threatening violence for violence, is a whole new level of reprehensible. How, exactly, does this man have any Christian moral standing whatsoever? The contrast between this African Archbishop and his famous fellow Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, is literally like night and day. Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury) is surely a saint to continue communion with and to hope for a change of heart from Akinola, when any lesser mortal would surely have succumbed to the temptation to say "You want a schism? Good riddance, you so-called Christian who gives true Christians a bad name!" (But then that would be un-Christian.) Let us all pray to God/Allah to save Nigeria from His followers.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Stiffing the Piper and Calling the Tune Anyway

I've only just heard the news reports of the Supreme Court decision in Rumsfeld v. FAIR announced today (the military recruiting case), and haven't yet read the opinion, but will offer some reactions. I had written earlier that if I were a justice, I would rule in favor of Rumsfeld in this case, on principle and against my preference in the outcome. While the announced decision in favor of Rumsfeld is not a surprise to me, there were a couple of surprises related to it. First, that the decision of the Court was unanimous. Second, that the decision of the Court was not found in the "power of the purse". The Court went beyond "he who pays the piper calls the tune" to state that Congress could have directly compelled military recruiter access, without conditioning it on the acceptance of government funding, based on their constitutional power to "raise and support armies". I have to admit I hadn't been considering it that way, but I don't disagree. Certainly if Congress has the power to compel private citizens to serve in the military, then they have the power to compel private organizations to cooperate in recruiting efforts. Some are already arguing about whether this decision gives the government merely equal access to law school recruiting, or whether it actually gives preferential treatment. What such critics seem to be missing is that the government could legitimately compel preferential treatment. For example, as a matter of law, the government requires contractors doing business with them to give them the best price (i.e., it is illegal for any company to give a better deal to any other customer than they give to the government). This seems like similar "preferential" treatment to what is being demanded for the military recruiters. I would like to see law schools be free of this compulsion, but I reluctantly agree with the Court that it is a matter for Congress to decide. Meantime, let's protest the military's despicable discriminatory policy, and lobby our Congress to get it changed. That's the way forward.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

FILM: Mrs. Henderson Presents

This evening we saw Mrs. Henderson Presents (for which Dame Judi Dench is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar). The film tells a very entertaining story about a marvelously flambuoyant character who financed a musical review to keep up spirits in London during World War II. Mrs. Henderson is a very wealthy upper-class widow who says and does just about anything she wants and doesn't care what anyone thinks. On a whim, she buys an abandoned West End theatre, fixes it up, and hires theatrical producer Vivian Van Dam (Bob Hoskins) to launch a musical review. When the attendance starts to sag and they need to do something daring, Mrs. Henderson suggests "let's get rid of the clothes". Things become a bit more serious when the Germans start bombing London, but Mrs. Henderson insists that the show must go on. The story is unusual and engaging in its exploration of the prickly relationship between Mrs. Henderson and Van Dam, who are both intrigued and irritated by one another, but ultimately find a mutual respect. The performances of Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are both outstanding. Mrs. Henderson is completely frivolous and shameless, as only the extremely wealthy can be, but she has some hidden depth that the story reveals touching glimpses of, and we come to see how even someone of her position is not immune from the ravages of war. When the air raids come, there is a great sequence of cuts between vintage clips of the blitz and the audience and performers at the Windmill Theatre hesitantly and then valiantly continuing a performance interrupted by bomb blasts and power flickers. London's darkest hour, and the storied spirit of the Brits in facing it, is nicely portrayed here, and shows that during such times, entertainment is not a frivolous business and may even be a vital one. This film offers a healthy dose of laughter, seasoned with some touching and inspiring moments.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Liberty Savings Time

This year for my birthday, my husband gave me a very timely gift. (Pun intended.) I now have a beautiful new Skagen watch. My taste has long been for clean, simple, modern lines, and I have long admired Skagen. In light of recent events, I am happy to be supporting a Danish company. Just to be clear, this is not meant as an expression of hostility to Muslims. It is meant as an expression of support for a country that has been the victim of an unjust, over-broad, and hugely (and intentionally) overblown reaction to some offensive cartoons. It is meant as an expression of support for a people who have a history of bravely defending against injustice. And it is meant as an expression of support for a liberal way of life whose core values include freedom of speech.

As an example, consider "Pastor" Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, who attend the funerals of those who die of AIDS wielding big signs that say "God hates fags" and "Burn in Hell". I'd venture to say that the level of offense that I feel at this hateful man and his ilk is every bit on par with how devout Muslims may have felt about the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Yet much as I despise Phelps, I would never dream of putting out a death contract on him, and as much as I find his message reprehensible, I would never condone a government that censored his freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is for all of us, or it is for none of us. There is no in between.

Having said all that, let me now admire my new Skagen watch. What time is it? Ah, yes. My watch says it's time to have a bit more Havarti cheese and pop open another Carlsberg beer.