Wednesday, December 12, 2012

EVEN IN THE EYES OF THE LORD

I can't remember the last time I went to church.   Or let me put it a another way.   I can't remember the last time I went to a church that was as different and exciting as the Church of God of Prophecy on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, where we attended gospel services last week.   

"Go out the main gate, turn right and head towards Cockburn Town," the Bahamian gardener at Club Med told us.  "Walk to the end of the airport runway, past the marina and you will see the church across the street from the oil depot."   


The hot morning sun beat down on us as Bruce and I walked out the gate and headed towards the airport where we'd flown in  the day before to spend a playful week with seven friends at Club Med Columbus Isle.    On previous trips we've stayed on the resort's property the entire time, but this year we decided to see what excursions were being offered, and our eyes lit up when we saw gospel service at Church of God of Prophecy, Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m.   Club Med wanted  twenty dollars per person to take us on their mini bus, but we decided to walk the three kilometers and put the twenty bucks in the collection plate instead.    








Cars honked their horns as they passed us on the dusty road during our 30 minute walk to the church.  It eventually dawned on us that the horn blowing was to tell us we were walking on the wrong side because in the Bahamas cars are driven on the left,  not the right.    Finally, we arrived at the white-steepled church.  There was only one car in the parking lot,  and no sign of gospel music or activity of any kind.    When we approached the entrance,  we saw a warning sign firmly telling us that no gum is allowed in church,  so we checked our pockets just to be sure we didn't have some Juicy Fruit accidentally hidden away.





Inside the church there were only a handful of parishioners and a few guests, like us, from Club Med.  Standing at the podium and shouting to an almost-empty church was a Black woman wearing a purple dress and wide-brimmed hat, condemning those who smoked weed in excess and cheated on their spouses, while the parishioners in the front row echoed her warnings with Praise the Lord and Amen, sister.  The alter was elaborately decorated with plastic pink and purple flowers, and I could see two electric keyboards, a full set of drums with a cymbal, and several microphones on the stage.  



It was the perfect setting for a concert by the Pointer Sisters, but the lady dressed in purple made sure there was no confusion.   We were definitely in church.   "Do not take a break from prayer, " she advised.  "True repentance offers a way to a new beginning."     

Slowly more Black Bahamians entered through the side doors and quietly sat in the pews.  Others who I presumed were the musicians took their places on the stage.  The church was beginning to fill up.  The woman in the purple dress stepped back and deferred to a broad-shouldered man wearing a gray suit and a pink polka dot designed tie.  He was the real deal.  She was the opening act.   With confidence the preacher stood tall at the podium and with a rich booming voice shouted,  "Welcome everyone to our Sunday gospel service, especially our good friends from Club Med."   Since most of the residents of Cockburn Town are employed by Club Med, the locals are very welcoming to the international visitors who rotate at the resort week after week.   


The Preacher

Before breaking into song, the preacher told us to activate our inner power, and then he began clapping his hands flamboyantly,  calling out, "Come everybody, clap your hands!  Shout aloud to God with joyful praise for the Lord most high is awesome.  He's the king of kings."   When the pastor began to sing,  I swear on a stack of bibles I saw a piece of gum in his mouth, which he quickly moved with his tongue and hid inside his cheek.   I nudged Bruce.  "The preacher's chewing gum," I whispered, and Bruce nodded and smiled in amusement.  




Backup Singers
This rapturous service (click to watch my video of the action) continued for another hour with almost non-stop singing and clapping of hands.   There was a middle-aged man (who also took his turn at preaching) playing the drums, and two people on keyboards that faced one another.   One was an older woman who played staccato style, and the other a pimply-faced teenage boy who looked nervous like this was his first time on stage.  Two back-up singers sharing a songbook stood off to the right.  The woman in the purple dress remained in the background playing the maracas.  Parishioners swayed back and forth with their arms around each other and wore big smiles on their beautiful faces.   All of the Bahamians were properly dressed for church.  A few wore hats but all were in their Sunday best -- colorful dresses neatly pressed, diaphanous scarves, and lots of bling.  The hairstyles ranged from stylish braids, top knots with grosgrain ribbon, and short coils wound tight.   Most of the men were in dark suits, white shirts and some wore ties.   Most of us Club Med folks were wearing shorts and sleeveless tees,  but no one seemed to mind our casual style.   They appeared happy to see us.  Perhaps they were hoping for a few converts. 



Sharing our pew were two women with a cluster of kids.  The little ones were clapping and dancing but struggling with the words to the music.  In front of me, but looking back, was a little girl, maybe three or four, who was more interested in making funny faces than watching the action on stage.  







Even though I'm skeptical about church in general,  I found myself clapping and singing Praise the Lord and Hallelujah just like all the other true believers.    The preacher and his backup singers hypnotically swayed from side to side with their eyes closed,  and the emotional power of the music was evident by the tears running down one of the performer's cheeks as she sang.   I was definitely caught up in the moment.  I looked over and smiled at Bruce who was swaying to the music and lip syncing the repetitive words.  

I looked at my watch.  It was now 1:00 p.m.,  and although the rapture was still going strong,  the native worshippers were getting a little restless.   As soon as the collection plate was passed around (and yes, I contributed my $20), the euphoria began to wind down.   At the door I greeted the preacher and told him how much I enjoyed his singing and thanked him for a beautiful service.  He shook my hand vigorously, and smiled like a celebrity when I asked if I could take his picture.  When he opened his mouth to say yes, that's when I saw the gum.   It took a lot of self-control on my part not to ask him about the gum,  but I guess some rules are meant to be broken, even in the eyes of the Lord.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A NOVEMBER GIRLFRIEND RIDE

There are many different kinds of bike rides.   There are solo rides for contemplation and renewal.  There are club rides with route sheets and a destination.  There are multiple day rides where your luggage is carried in a SAG vehicle, and you ride from inn to inn.  There are fundraiser rides for a notable cause that offer good food and excellent road support.  There are slower rides on flat terrain when you are just getting back in shape, and harder rides with hill repeats that aim to make you stronger.   I love them all, but especially when I do them with my girlfriends.  

   
Catching the 8:09 train



So last week I asked some of my girlfriends to join me on what I would describe as a ride that nurtured my soul and lightened my heart.   With our bicycles in tow, one girlfriend and I boarded the 8:09 train to San Francisco where we met two other friends who were saving us seats in the bike car.   They are much more savvy about taking their bikes on public transportation than I am, but this is my third or fourth time on the train, so I'm getting the hang of it finally. 
Bike Geek


The dedicated bike car was filled with an assortment of bikes -- road bikes, mountain bikes, recumbents and folding --  some caked in mud and others clean as a whistle.    I love being among young commuters, especially the techie types who roll on with their bikes  and plug in their electronic toys for a solitary commute.  An hour later the four of us arrived in the city and disembarked the train at Fourth and Townsend and headed out to the street to begin our ride.


It takes a focused rider to navigate the busy city streets, especially at rush hour when everyone is in a hurry and moving quickly in various directions.  There are drivers anxious to get through the yellow light before it turns red, and jaywalkers running to catch the bus.   As a cyclist it's important to keep your wits about you, look in all directions before crossing the street, and avoid tire-puncturing debris and nasty potholes that jar my fragile neck.    City noise drowned out my friend's voice as she called out directions from the front, so I followed the others and took up the rear.

Another good friend, who lives in Marin County, brought her bike over on the Larkspur Ferry and was waiting for us at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero where we stopped for coffee and looked at the map to see how we were going to ride to the Golden Gate Bridge.  
My Girlfriends

Loaded with sufficient caffeine, we headed north along the waterfront and tried to avoid the construction in preparation for the 2013 America's Cup.   Just past Fisherman's Wharf and after Aquatic Park, I shifted into low gear and pedaled slowly up a steep grade that eventually led us down to Fort Mason and along the Marina Green.




I'm always struck by how much detail one can observe while riding a bike that you don't see from a car.   Although I've driven by this spot many  times,  this was the first time I saw the Marina  Green Fitness Court,  an outdoor exercise platform where people were doing workouts normally reserved for an indoor gym.   


Along Chrissy Field, we came across a "baby brigade" with a dozen carriage-pushing mommies jogging toward us on the paved path. I couldn't get my camera out fast enough to take a picture, but instead shouted out, "You go, girls" at the top of my lungs and one of them shouted, "You go, girls," back at us.  We probably wouldn't have seen this maternal parade if we had been riding in a car.



At photo op at the Warming Hut






Golden Gate Bridge on a perfect day

A potty stop and a photo-op were well timed at the Warming Hut which has a gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Owned and operated by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, this cafe and bookstore provides hot drinks and baked goods for joggers, walkers, 




 bikers, and wind surfers, as well as books for people who want to know more about the ecology of the area.










Note directional signs on the walkway
Riding your bike across the Golden Gate Bridge is very exciting and a lot of fun, especially when you have perfect conditions like we had -- a bright blue sky,  only a little wind, very few pedestrians, and almost no tourists on rental bikes.   Collisions between walkers and cyclists have been known to happen, so the Bridge Authority has painted signs on the sidewalk designating where pedestrians are supposed to walk and cyclists are supposed to ride. 



No explanation needed

Another sign on the bridge really shocked me.  Since1937 when the bridge opened, approximately 1500 people have jumped to their deaths.  In an effort to reduce the number of tragedies, the Golden Gate Bridge Authority has put up signs along the walkway aimed at desperate individuals who think suicide is the only solution.



After navigating steep Alexander Avenue, we rode into the waterfront town of Sausalito with spectacular views of San Francisco across the bay.  Here again, biking enables you to observe little things, like small but highly visible signs in every block,  each written in a different language -- French, Italian, Spanish and German --  asking  people to use receptacles for disposing litter.     





snowy egret in the Marin marsh
My bike computer said we had ridden about15 miles when we left the main road and shifted to bike paths and trails that were just beginning to dry out from a high tide.   We stopped on a small wooden bridge and saw some rowers on one side and a snowy egret feeding in a tidal marsh on the other.



A tidal inlet off San Francisco Bay





The Blue & Gold Fleet
We rode another ten miles into Tiburon where we had lunch outside and marveled at how lucky we were to have such beautiful day for a November excursion.    With the ferry terminal right in town, we checked the schedule for our return to San Francisco, and then said goodbye to our Marin friend who had ten more miles to bike home.   

As a qualifying senior I paid $6.25 for a one-way ferry ticket to San Francisco via Angel Island where we picked up a bunch of noisy seventh graders returning from a field trip, and via Sausalito where a dozen or so tourists boarded with their rental bikes.  We were sure glad we didn't see them when we were riding on the bridge.  


A view of San Francisco from the Tiburon Ferry


When we docked at Fisherman's Wharf around 3:30 pm,  the sun was pretty low in the sky and traffic was coming at us again from all directions,  but I felt relaxed and calm knowing what to expect.   We hopped on our bikes and rode a couple of miles in heavy traffic to the station where we boarded the 4:19 train heading south.    

What a wonderful adventure (27 miles and 950 ft. of cumulative climbing), perfected by outstanding weather, beautiful scenery, and, of course, my girlfriends who made this a very special day.  








Tuesday, November 13, 2012

SNORKELING WITH WHALE SHARKS




"Hey, Pami," Bruce called out to me as he was leafing through a Wilderness Travel brochure about a trip to the Philippines, "What do you think of this?"  He continued reading out loud.  "Pristine beaches, soaring limestone cliffs, miles of spectacular coral reefs and opportunities to swim with whale sharks."     Whale sharks?"  I questioned.  "Won't that be dangerous?"   The first part of the trip's description brought back vivid memories of beautiful white sandy beaches when we visited the Maldives, and I won't forget the jaw-dropping sunsets from sailing in  the Caribbean.  However,  swimming with whale sharks was another step closer to the edge, which was happening more often with adventure trips to tribal Ethiopia, exotic Papua New Guinea, and the endangered Arctic in the not too distant past.   After realizing that this could be a very special trip,  I said,  "O.K. I'll be a good sport and take another look."    

Six months later we packed a few clothes, our wetsuits, fins, snorkels and masks, and with seven adventure-seeking friends, we flew to the Philippines to spend two weeks in Palawan,  a stunning archipelago in the heart of the Indo-Pacific Coral Triangle, which is the most biologically diverse marine region in the world.   

The Philippines (Palawan is in the lower left quadrant above Malaysia)


After a rest day in Manila, we flew to Luzon Island to visit the fishing village of Donsol, which is often called the "Whale Shark Capital of the World" since it has the largest number of recorded sightings of whale sharks anywhere on our planet.  Known locally as buntanding, whale sharks are the world's largest living fish, and while they are rarely seen in groups, they come to the Bay of Donsol in the spring and congregate in the shallow coastal waters to feed on plankton.


Pam and Bruce all suited up


Spotting for Whale Sharks

Swimming with whale sharks is definitely a unique experience of a lifetime, but I admit that initially I was not sure I'd have the courage to do it.   Snorkeling with playful sea lions in the Galapagos sounded intimidating too, but after a few minutes in the water,   I became so involved with them that whatever fear I had seemed quickly to disappear.   The whale shark expedition was similar in that once I jumped in the water, there was no fear , but this experience was different because it required good swimming skills to keep up with the fast moving whale sharks, and a strong body to pull oneself back in the banca (Filipino outrigger) many times in the course of the day.  

Banca Boat

Our local Filipino guide gave us minimal instructions:  "Sit on the edge of the banca, so when we spot whale sharks, you can jump right in and we will guide you to them.  Don't worry.  We call them gentle giants.  They won't even know you are in the water.   They are here to feed on plankton, not on you."  





Waiting to hear "Let's Go"

We perched ourselves on the side of the boat with our masks tight to our faces, snorkels in our mouths and legs dangling off the side.   We waited for the guide's verbal signal.  After a few minutes and without any warning,  one of the guides hollered "Let's Go."   Without wasting a second, we bolted into the water, flailing our arms and legs, not knowing exactly what to do or where to swim.  I felt one of the guides grab my arm and pull me through the water.  I moved my legs as fast as I could, and suddenly there was a huge whale shark coming straight toward me.   She was  really big, about 35-40 feet long.  Within seconds I was swimming right above her head.  



I could see her beady eyes located on the sides of her head, and her very large oval-shaped mouth was open,  so she could scoop up the plankton as she swam.  I started swimming very fast, in order to stay with her.   My excitement measured off the charts.  My heart felt like it was beating out of my chest, and I was very winded, but I wasn't scared.  I  kicked my legs as hard as I could until I was over her dorsal fin and within a minute she was gone.  It was over.  A much faster swimmer than I,  she disappeared beneath me. 






Three of us popped our heads out of the water, removed our  snorkels and yelled  "Did you see her?  Did you see her?" as if any of us could have missed her.  I reached for the boat's rope ladder, took off my fins and struggled to pull myself up into the Banca.   Everyone was "high fiving" each other and anxious to get back in the water.  

While the boat quietly motored to another part of the bay, we renewed our positions on the boat's edge and waited for the signal that more whale sharks were in our vicinity. For the next few hours we were in and out of the water at least four or five times.  The procedure was the same.  We would dangle our legs over the edge  and wait for the call  before we jumped in.  Soon we were in the water following whale sharks again.  I only saw one at a time, but was close enough to observe their grace and the beauty of their dark gray bodies with white checkerboard spots.  We never felt nervous or scared -- only the exhilaration and thrill of a once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with the largest fish in the ocean, whale sharks.  



All photos by our masterful guide, Lee Goldman









Sunday, November 4, 2012

NOSTALGIA




My year book picture 1961
A few months ago while rummaging through some boxes labeled "Pam's mementos",  I came across a tattered address book that dated back to my life in the 1960s and 70s, when I was marrying my first husband,  moving out West for graduate school,  making new friends in California and staying in touch with old ones in New England.






My bridal attendants in 1963


Flipping through the dog-eared pages and reading the faded names I had written in pencil brought back warm memories of a very different life I once lived.   One name jumped out at me from the page.  It was a guy named Russ whom I'd been friends with more than fifty years ago, but after my divorce in the early 80s, we completely lost touch.  He had been a high school buddy of my ex-husband,  and I guess I figured he would take sides after we split up.   I began to think about all the fun times we'd had as teenagers in the 60s,  and suddenly I found myself missing him and the times back then when we were both goof offs trying to act grown up.   He worked construction in the summer and skied his ass off on Canon Mountain in the winter. 




Dayton's photo of White Mountains of New Hampshire
With nostalgia welling up inside me and feeling homesick for a life long past, I decided to see if I could locate Russ on Facebook.  My search was daunting.  There were so many people who had his same name.  Eventually I found his smiling face, and although he didn't have the same hair line I remembered, I was pretty sure it was him.  I took a leap of faith, clicked the "Friend" button and waited to see what would happen.   In a couple of hours he friended me back, astonished as much as I was to reconnect after all this time.  He was still married to wife number one and skiing like a mad man in the winter.  He would post status reports on Facebook from time to time, and people would make comments but not from anyone I knew.  Then someone with an unusual name I recognized made a comment.  I was pretty sure Dayton was the same fellow from the small mill town where my ex-husband grew up, and although I barely knew him back then, I sent a private message on Facebook that said, "Hey, do you remember me?"  The answer I got back was "Heck, yes," and that brief exchange was how I began to reconnect with my youth and my friends from my New Hampshire past.  


I'm the fourth from the left and Cynthia is second from the right
Dayton was living on Partridge Lake where I used to swim and waterski as a kid.  He had hiked all the White Mountain peaks and posted photos on Facebook of the Presidential Range.   He sent me the email address of a girl I used to pal around with, and soon Cynthia and I were emailing about life since junior high.   I was surprised I could still remember her parents' first names -- Percy and Edna.  Percy owned a brush handle factory just up the road from Perkins Motel where I lived.  In a two-hour phone call, Cynthia told me how she fell in love with one of her high school teachers, and after raising a bunch of kids, went back to college and now loves history and genealogy.  





Janet's yearbook photo 1961
 Cynthia reconnected me with Janet who had been my best friend from eighth grade all the way through high school and college.  We were inseparable.  An early memory that stays in my head is of the two of us lying on her bed listening to Marty Robbins sing  A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation and talking about boys in our class we had crushes on.   I'll never forget eating peanut butter and Velveeta cheese sandwiches and reading the juicy parts of  "Peyton Place" out loud to each other.   She talked me through a doomed relationship and helped me recover when I found out he was engaged to someone else.   I wiped her tears when a boy she always hoped to marry broke up with her.   She was a bridesmaid in my wedding.   Sadly,  we didn't see much of each other after that.  

 How do best friends lose touch with each other?  After I got married and I moved far away, she got married and moved away too, so we were no longer living in the same town.    Maybe we became so absorbed in our new lives that we forgot to look back.  Or maybe after we married, we made new couple friends and our old classmates got lost in transition and were left behind.     It seems to me that it wasn't easy to maintain long distance relationships back then.  We didn't have email or Facebook,  and the only phone calls we could afford were the obligatory calls to our parents.    I guess it really doesn't matter why we lost touch.  What really matters is that we have reconnected again.  

 I have read Janet's recent email three or four times and each read takes me back to a different time in my teens.    It is 1959.  She is trying to convince her older brother into driving us to Forest Lake Casino, a somewhat trashy dance hall where there was more drinking and making out in the backseat of cars than dancing under the stars.  "Bucky, please take us with you," she pleads,  but he had no interest in chauffeuring his little sister or her best friend even though he and I were flirting like crazy.  

In Janet's email she painstakingly detailed aspects of her life for the last fifty years -- a life different from mine but yet there are many similarities.  Like me she became single but not by choice.  She has children.  I have none.  We each struggled living by ourselves, but both found the love of our lives as a result.  She too has traveled the world and sees more adventure in her future as long as she is physically able.   Like me she is proud of her successful career and her ability to be financially independent.  Her love of reading fiction probably means she enjoys the same novels I do.    

The emotions that all of these memories have aroused in me underscores how important my childhood friends still are, and that I have strong bonds with them even though we haven't seen each other in more than fifty years.   For someone who never had children, I cherish and love my friends who are as precious to me as my family.  







Sunday, October 21, 2012

"SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN"


Today I saw for the second time a fascinating documentary film called Searching for Sugarman, and  I think there is a very good chance the film will be nominated for an Academy Award.


The story is about an American musician -- Rodriguez, a singer -- who recorded two albums in the 1970s while living and performing in two-bit clubs in Detroit, Michigan.  Both albums were flops, so Rodriguez returned to obscurity and continued working in blue collar jobs like heavy construction and building demolition.  In the meantime, bootlegged copies of his albums began circulating in apartheid-ridden South Africa, and over the next two decades Rodriguez became more famous in that country than Elvis Presley.  Despite his popularity, no one in South Africa knew who Rodriguez was or that he was even American.  It was generally believed in South Africa that Rodriguez had died by setting himself on fire during an onstage performance.  What made his music so popular was, like Bob Dylan in the '60s and '70s, Rodriguez's music had anti-establishment overtones, which gave young people in South Africa permission to question, demonstrate and eventually rebel against apartheid, a political system that supported crimes against humanity.

This movie may wind up as one of those poignant word-of-mouth blockbusters.  I feel that seeing the film with as little information as possible is a gift that I don't want to spoil by giving too much of the story away.

I hope you will search for this film in your local theaters and see it as soon as you can.   I can say without hesitation that you won't be disappointed.   It's one of the best films I've seen in a very long time. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

THE KITTIES KITTY

Did you know that an adult cat has 30 teeth?  Well, after spending a thousand dollars at the animal hospital,  my beautiful Tonkinese has only 24.  For almost an hour this morning I watched with fascination as the animal tech extracted three pre-molars that were infected and causing her pain, although, like most cats, she didn't give me any clues.  The other missing three?  Well, they were most likely vacuumed up from the rug or the floor some time in the distant past.

Indie, age 9

Indie, short for Indigo, is a platinum mink Tonkinese breed (a cross between Burmese and Siamese) with  aquamarine eyes, a thick coat of taupe-colored fur,  and a muscular build,  weighing in at a little over seven pounds.  She's the sweetest cat I've ever owned, although she can be quite demanding at times with a multi-meow vocabulary that says "Please feed me, I'm hungry" or "Love me, Love me, Love me."  Indie shares the many cat beds scattered throughout our house with her beloved litter mate, Sophie.  As they nuzzle and lick each other's faces and ears with unconditional love, I could sit and watch them for hours.


Tonks, as they are often called,  have been described as being very dog like, which,  for a true dog lover like me,  is a real gift.  It is not unusual for them to follow me around, whether I'm going up the stairs to grab my cell phone and then quickly coming down again to work in the kitchen or just walking from one room to another.   Very slowly they take the stairs one step at a time and then with gusto they race back down like they are heading for the finish line.   When we are having a dinner party, it's not a time for them to sleep.   Each cat selects the guest they think will love them the most, and once they have found a soft, comfy lap, they like to curl up and hang out.  Some times at the dinner table,  it is not unusual for one of them to jump up on the lap of an unsuspecting guest.  Often they are quickly shooed away, but we know of instances when no one has said, "there's a cat sitting on my lap."   If that someone is wearing light-colored clothing,  no one will ever suspect,  but if that someone is wearing a cat hair magnet color like black, then they are in for a hearty brushing with a sticky roller before they leave our house.


Bruce and Indie playing Spite & Malice 
When Bruce and I took Indie to the vet a few months ago,  we learned that she had a significant amount of dental plaque and one tooth that had to be removed.  We were a little taken aback when we heard the estimated price of $650-$850 and possibly higher, depending on the extent of the extractions.  In our case it was a lot higher.   Fortunately,  we already had $450 in a kitty that had accumulated after years of an almost- nightly card game that we always play for money, except when we are on vacation.   Bruce taught me Spite & Malice when we first got together, and although I was not much of a card player, it was easy to learn and interesting because it is a game of strategy and luck.   The essence of the double-solitaire-like game is for each player to get rid of his or her pile of 26 cards,  and the person who loses has to pay 25 cents for each remaining card in their riddance pile.  Some times the losses only amount to fifty cents a game or maybe a couple of dollars, but if you can't get rid of all 26 cards, then the loser has to put $6.50 in the kitty.  It doesn't sound like much each night,  but after years of playing and one of us paying a nightly fine, quite a few dollars have been squirreled away.   The first time we had over $100, Bruce and I wondered what we would do with the extra money.   "Let's use it for the opera," I suggested, "or perhaps a night at a B&B. "   "Naw",  my pragmatic husband replied, "Let's use the kitty to help pay for the kitties' medical expenses," and that's exactly what we've done.  This form of self insurance we call the Kitties Kitty.    

Adobe Animal Hospital is an amazing place in so many ways.  There are 24 veterinarians on staff and about 120 employees.   They have operating rooms for orthopedic and soft tissue problems, and several rooms dedicated for other types of surgeries and dental care, plus radiology, ultrasound and an ICU.  In addition to providing emergency and general services 24 hours a day, they have some of the most compassionate staff I have ever encountered.  As an example, they encourage the family of their patients to be with the animal during most procedures, including dental.  From their experience this helps put less stress on the animal and less stress on the family.   I've been told that there isn't another animal hospital that anyone knows of that encourages this.   For me it really was an education and gave me more insight into the skills and compassion animal health care professionals utilize in their daily work.   I stood along side the highly talented dental tech and watched her use the latest equipment and with her nimble hands make my little girl feel better and healthy again.    I can certainly understand why it's so expensive:  pre-surgery blood tests, anesthesia administered through intubation, heart rate and blood pressure monitoring, lubricants for her eyes that don't blink while she's under anesthesia,  and an x-ray before each extraction to determine whether there is a root surrounding the damaged tooth.  Prior to the procedure, they injected Indie with an analgesic so she would be ahead of the pain curve just a little bit.  In her case, they did a urinalysis because her kidney function, as noted in the blood test, was a tad high.  The results were negative but my veterinarian will monitor this on a regular basis.  After the delicate extractions, the dental tech cleaned Indie's remaining teeth with a high powered tool and finished by polishing with a gritty paste like my dental hygienist uses on me.    After she finished, Indie's teeth gleamed like tiny pearls.   

"Do you ever work on your own pet's teeth?" I asked the dental tech who was working under my veterinarian's indirect supervision.  In a sweet voice that was a little muffled by the surgical mask she was wearing, I heard her say,  "With Indie, I think of her and love her as if she were my own pet."  Wow!  Her heartfelt response gave me the comfort I required to know that my little girl was feeling double love on a day when she needed it the most.  

So, Indie is in our living room now and sleeping in her small carrying case with her devoted sister Sophie curled up by her side.  The metal case lined with soft fleece seems to provide some security, and thankfully doesn't remind her of how she travels to the animal hospital.  I hope she will forgive me over the next three or four days when I have to squirt some awful tasting medicines down her throat.  As unpleasant as these drugs may be, they are absolutely essential to alleviate her discomfort and to prevent infection in the days to come.   

I love my little girls




Tuesday, October 2, 2012

CITY BIKES

When I stepped off the curb in the city center of Dresden,  I could see the way was clear because I was able to cross between cars that were stopped for a traffic light.   I thought I was perfectly safe.   What I didn't see was the cyclist bearing down on me and traveling at lightening speed in a bike lane between the curb and the stopped cars.  I didn't even notice him until I heard the sound of screeching brakes and saw the terrified expression on the cyclist's face.  We were nose to nose with  his bike twisted  and the front wheel turned up in the air like a pretzel.

"Oh, my God," I gasped in amazement,  shocked that I wasn't knocked down or worse yet, badly hurt or even killed.  "I'm so sorry, I didn't see you.  I wasn't looking for a bicycle. "    In Dresden, like most cities, a bicycle lane is equivalent to a car lane.  In other words,  pedestrians need to keep an eye out for bicycles in the same way you would look for cars.    The young German rider, speaking perfect English, apologized profusely as if it had been his fault and not mine.    

"Are you okay?" we asked each other, and while we were both okay, we were definitely shaken up.   Fortunately,  this cyclist was paying attention and obviously saw me in time to apply his brakes that thankfully were in excellent  condition.   We were really lucky.   Nevertheless, this terrifying incident was a very near miss, and I couldn't help but think about the elderly gentleman who died last year when a cyclist knocked him down in the middle of a San Francisco street.

During our vacation in France and Germany last month, I watched the locals (and maybe a few tourists) navigate back roads and city streets by bike.   I also saw some close calls similar to the one in which I was involved in Dresden.   Riding skills required to maneuver in crowded city conditions aren't ones I've mastered yet.  I would find it challenging to ride a heavy bike that is loaded down with groceries or maybe with a small dog sitting in a front wicker basket.   Exploring a new city by bicycle is not an option I would favor,  although I know this is preferred by some of my biking friends.  I have to admit I'm intimidated by city traffic and crowds of pedestrians on busy, narrow streets.   In some cities, like Montreal,  bike lanes have two way traffic with their own signals,  but those lanes are very crowded so I am sure collisions are common.    In Berlin I discovered that red painted sidewalks are for bicyclists not pedestrians.    One rainy evening I was surprised by the chutzpah of riders who were not wearing bright clothing nor a helmet.  A flashing light somewhere on the bicycle would have added to their visibility.   I even saw a few women wearing high heels and mini skirts as they pedaled by on wet city streets in the dark.





Transporting food by bicycle in Cuba
In India and Vietnam, I rode in a bicycle rickshaw and felt the same vulnerabilities, but I put my faith in the experienced drivers who wore rubber flip flops to pedal on uneven cobblestone streets.  Although I had to hold my breath at times,  I had confidence that they would be able to avoid the speeding scooters, especially in Hanoi and the tuk-tuks and holy cows in New Delhi.  On a bicycle tour in New Zealand,  there were a few times when I forgot to ride on the left and not swerve to the habitual right, especially when making a turn onto another street. 

Next week I will tour San Francisco by bike on what my girlfriends call "A ride of a thousand views."  Fortunately this is a city I know well, so will not have the same apprehensions  I would have if I were to ride my bike on city streets in other parts of the world.  Regardless,  I will keep my wits about me and my eyes peeled for pedestrians,  like the careless pedestrian I was in Dresden.   

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

PUTTING A HUMAN FACE ON THE TRAGEDY IN SYRIA



 About five or six years ago my husband's daughter was living and working in Rome and in a close relationship with a young Syrian man who was working and going to school there.  Neither of them spoke each other's native tongue, but it didn't matter because they were able to communicate well  in Italian and learn about each other's values, their hopes and their dreams.    Our daughter is Jewish.  The young man is a Suni Muslim.    Over time their relationship morphed from romantic to platonic, and today she still calls him one of her closest and dearest friends.   While she now lives in America,  he still lives in Rome.

 During the course of their Rome relationship, she traveled to Syria several times to learn more about his country and experience some of the Middle Eastern customs which were so different from hers.   She has always been drawn to people who come from different parts of the world.  She is eager to know them as individuals and not make judgments based on a person's ethnicity or the color of his or her skin.  Rather than emphasize people's differences, she prefers to find similarities to identify with and keep an open mind.    

One of her visits was a two month stay to immerse herself in Syrian life and try to learn the complicated Arabic language.    During this extended time, she saw a lot of her best friend's family,  whom she admired and enjoyed spending time with.     Like most Syrians, they place great value on family, tradition, duty, and most of all they are very, very proud.    Middle Eastern families are generally large and this family was no exception -- three and four generations living happily together under one crowded roof.   When our daughter visited there, they wrapped their arms around her and brought her into their fold, treating her as though she was one of their own, even though they knew she was an American Jew.  This Suni Muslim family knew there were huge differences between them, but like our daughter, they preferred to find similarities and keep an open mind. 


Fast forward five years.  It's September, 2012 and Syria is in the midst of a devastating civil war,  almost reaching genocidal proportions.   Under the repressive dictatorship of the Assad family regime, political tensions are the result of opposing views of the ruling Alawite minority and the Suni Muslim majority.   During the Arab Spring of 2011, pro-democracy protests in Syria began in early March.  Massive anti-government demonstrations quickly spread throughout the country and the Assad regime responded with violent attacks on civilians, slaughtering innocent men, women and children with a death toll reported by the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies at around 14,000 people.  The Houla and the al-Qubayr Massacre on June 7th killed over 200 civilians, many of them women and children who were executed by gunshots to the back of the head.    Eye witnesses testified that the Syrian Army and Assad's militias were responsible for these mass killings.   Every attempt to stop death and destruction, short of international military intervention, has failed.  After months of trying to negotiate peace, even a United Nations humanitarian committee headed by Kofi Anan admitted there was nothing they could do.   Rather than risk a life of torture or even death, tens of thousands of Syrians have fled their homeland and have gone to neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to live as refugees.

Because of our daughter's close relationship with this Syrian family, we followed the war and what was going on there in a much more personal and intimate way.   Every day we would ask her how they were and what she knew.   Her grief and sadness over what this family must be going through occupied the majority of her thoughts,  and she was extremely worried that  something awful might happen to them.   They had to flee their home and move to a safer section of Damascus and over time feared for their lives and looked for a way to safely leave the country.   We shared her anguish as we were reminded of Hitler's assassination of millions of Jews in World War II  and in my mind's eye, I could see my mother as a little girl leaving her bombed out village during the war in northern Greece.   

Desperate to help in whatever way she could,  our daughter asked her closest relatives if they would be willing to give some money to help this family escape.  It was a long shot, but she gave it a try.  Within hours of her plea, she received $400 from a few family members who wanted to do whatever they could even though they were Jewish and knew the political tensions.  When I learned of this admirable endeavor,  a lightbulb turned on.   Why not use my skills as a professional fundraiser and write a letter to sympathetic and compassionate people we know and ask if they wanted to get involved in this life-saving effort.   This is what I wrote: 



Dear Family and Friends:  

This may be one of the most important and urgent fundraising letters I have ever written because there is so much riding on it and there is so little time. 

We’ve all been hearing, almost daily, about the plight of Syrian civilians dying and displaced in the midst of a brutal civil war. While we may feel a real sense of sadness, this is a crisis in a faraway land that does not touch us personally. But it happens that I do have a personal connection with a Syrian family in desperate straits.

The best friend of my husband's daughter lives in Rome, but his family in Syria, whom she has visited there in peaceful times, has lost everything, fear for their lives, and are now desperate to leave.  Our daughter has written details about their situation in an e-mail that I have copied below.

When she told me about this desperate and life- threatening situation affecting her close friend’s immediate family, I was very saddened and extremely moved by their plight.  I felt that something should be done and I wanted to be a part of it.

After thinking about it for a while I said to her,  "Let's try and see if we can raise the money we need from our family and friends to help the family get out of Syria as soon as possible."

I am now coming to you in hopes that you will want to be part of this life-saving effort to help a displaced Syrian (Sunni Muslim) family in desperate need.  Every day in the news and on TV, we hear stories about and see photos of people being massacred in Syria and now we all have a chance to get involved on a very specific personal level.   Our daughter has raised $400 so far, but has a long way to go and funds are urgently needed because there's a very good chance that the airport in Damascus will be closed soon and it will be difficult for people to leave.

What follows is her letter describing the situation to you and the proposed plan for them to leave Syria.    If you are as moved as I am, please follow your heart and consider contributing to this humanitarian effort.   

Dear Friends of Pam and Dad,

As some of you know, one of the most important people in my life is trying desperately to get his family out of Syria to safety. His family is from a district in Damascus called “Qaboun”, and it is one of the most dangerous areas in Syria to be living at the moment. It has been bombed many times by the government because many protestors and anti-government fighters have been active in this area.  I have spent much time with this family in Syria (both over my winter vacation there before the fighting broke out, and my summer months there while I was studying at the University of Damascus), and the thought of this beautiful family (who took very good care of me during my stay there) in this situation with no money, little food, and serious danger is truly unimaginable and beyond disturbing. 


Over the past months, his family has had to leave their home and travel to other areas of of Damascus to avoid the fighting. Until now, they have been able to go back to their home in the periods when the fighting has died down. However, now that the situation is life threatening,  they have taken only a few personal belongings and have fled their zone for good.  Their goal is to flee Syria  and  take the entire family to Egypt where they know a family who will take them and where it is less expensive to live. I am trying to raise funds so that their son who lives in Rome can purchase airline tickets for his family.  His father ran out of money for the family a long time ago.   There are 12 members of the family,  ranging in age from 74 to two years of age, who are trying to leave.                             


The decision to try and take refuge in Egypt is because life there is considered inexpensive compared to other countries around them (and definitely cheaper than European countries) and because they will not have to worry about visas. They also have a place where they can stay upon their arrival (a friend has offered his house to the family). All of them now have valid passports and are just waiting to get tickets. 

Currently the family is in an area outside of Damascus (Quatanah, about 60 chilometres from Damascus) where there is no electricity, no internet, and very little phone service. Supermarkets everywhere are missing staple food items. Some of the supermarkets have even been completely destroyed. All of the information that I have about what is happening is coming through my best friend, who has been in constant touch with his brother and father up until now. 

In the family's district the other day, there was a public execution of 48 people who were suspected to be anti-government “terrorists”.  My friend's brother just told him that the pro-government militias are coming by in cars and tossing out dead bodies in the streets with knives still stuck in them in order to terrorize the people. There is no possible way for them to go back to that area, and at this point we are looking to help get them out of the country as quickly as possible before the airport closes. I have heard that the airport will not be open for very much longer. If we raise more money than the cost of the tickets, the family will use the money to survive in the first months of their stay in Egypt.

From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate you taking the time to read the above. I hope that we may be able to make a difference in this family's lives during this horrible time. The first available flight out as of today with enough seats for his family is September XXX 



The response to our letter was immediate and very generous.  We were incredulous when the checks immediately began to arrive in the mail.   One of our daughter's friends gave almost $2000.  Several gave $500 and many others made $200, $100 and $50 contributions.   In the meantime, we learned that the Syrian government would not let citizens fly out of Syria without a round trip ticket, so our costs went up substantially, but since we were still receiving generous contributions,  we were very optimistic that we could be successful.    Within five days we had sufficient funds to purchase twelve (round trip) tickets on Egypt Air from Damascus to Cairo.   We immediately booked 12 seats on the September XXX plane.  We put a 24-hour hold on the tickets until we could transfer the money to the son in Rome who would buy the tickets since it was best if Americans were not obviously involved.   Transferring the money turned out to be relatively easy, but paying for the tickets was complicated because there wasn't anyone we knew in Rome who had a credit card with enough credit to pay this whopping bill.  We were afraid to pay in cash because there was less of a paper trail,  and the seats might be sold a second time to another Syrian family who was willing to pay more money and by someone at the airlines who could be bribed.  And then we'd be out of luck.   Desperate to do something rather than do nothing, the  son in Rome took a huge leap of faith and bought the twelve tickets with cash.   After we heard this, we nervously crossed our fingers, prayed to whatever god would listen, and waited until September XXX.   

Of course, we were very worried that something terrible might happen to someone in the family in the week before September 6th.  As it turned out,  our fears were relevant because one afternoon while the parents were out on the street searching for food, they were caught in a heavy cross fire not far from where they were staying.  Somehow, by the grace of God, they managed to get themselves to safety without any serious repercussions other than being horribly frightened after going through this life-threatening ordeal.    

The day before their flight, the family returned to their real home to gather a few personal belongings and to sleep there that night,  as this location was much closer to the Damascus airport than the temporary place where they had been staying.  They knew it might be dangerous to go back to their real home because of all the fighting that had taken place in that area, but they took the risk hoping that being closer to the airport might mean avoiding military police who would ask too many questions and take up too much valuable time.  

It was hard for us to sleep that night.  With a nine hour time difference between California and Syria, my husband and I hoped we would hear some news when we woke up on September XXX. 

As soon as I opened my eyes, I ran to my home office, turned on my computer, and this is what I read:




Pam,
I am so happy...

They made it to the airport and are now ON THE PLANE.

The flight has yet to take off but they are all on it. Can't believe we all did it. !!!!!!

I will update you once family calls their son in Rome from Cairo. :)



When I read this, I felt such a huge relief and was so happy that I let out a Tarzan-like yell, but there was no time to shed any tears.  There were other anxious donors sitting by their computers also waiting to hear the news.  

When they logged on, this is what they read in an email letter from our daughter:



Dear All,

I wanted to let you all know right away the wonderful news that I heard from my best friend in Rome today. I can now confirm to you that we OFFICIALLY did it. His entire family made it to the airport today and left Damascus on Egypt Air. The flight has landed in Cairo and now this family can begin to settle into their new home.

Yesterday I read an article on reuters about refugees flowing into different parts of Europe. It featured the story of a Syrian couple who fled to Sweden. I wanted to share with you the end of the article because it really struck me:

"Everyone who comes here is losing something," said Antony Sawires, who reached Sweden with his family a month ago after leaving a house in Damascus and a job in the communications industry. "But we win the safety."


Though counting himself lucky after seeing two cars blow up before he left his home, he was still adjusting to life as a refugee: "I will never have the same lifestyle here," he said as he waited to be called forward to fill out more paperwork.


But his wife, who did not give her name as her eyes filled with tears, was quick to reassure him: "Home," she said, "Is where you feel safe."
-(from "Syrians fleeing war start to trickle into Europe" by Mia Shanley for Reuters)

And I think that is really such an insightful and true statement. We begin to feel at home in places that we feel safe, both physically and psychologically. What I find most beautiful about what you have all done is that you have given an opportunity to this family to have a home again. I will never forget what you have all done for my best friend and his family....
Thank you....


I am still amazed by what we were able to do in such a short amount of time.    We raised more than $7000 in one week and were able to dramatically change and may have even saved twelve people's lives.  I raised millions and millions of dollars during my professional career, but I don't remember having the same impact or level of satisfaction.  I'm not denouncing my work, but the opportunity to do something that has such an immediate and satisfying effect doesn't often come along when one is a retired fundraiser.   As one of my good friends and donors to the project so eloquently said,  "We couldn't save a nation, but we saved a family."

The Syrian family, now safe in Egypt, is overwhelmed with gratitude as is their son in Rome . The following letter that the son wrote and translated from Italian by our daughter says it all.


This message of mine is a message of thanks to all of you dear people…
Even if I put so much energy in finding the words of thanks and appreciation, I would say that I could never return your generous gesture, you who gave me back hope, and you the reason I achieved something that in the beginning seemed impossible.

With this good will of yours, you reinforced the idea that unity between people makes miracles happen and makes the achievement of difficult things possible....
This generosity shows the sense of humanity that you have inside yourselves.

My friends, I was amazed by your immediate response, and deeply moved  that you helped me without even having ever met me. 
This gesture of yours threw me into another dimension, making me believe that race, religion, nationality are not divisions. 

You confirmed that all of us are united by the word "humanity", and you enriched this word, and you materialized it into a reality.

I can imagine the smiles on the faces of my family members--especially the younger ones--knowing that they will be able to leave.

In the name of my family I thank you from the bottom of my heart. A special thank you to Pam and Bruce, and I will not forget the enormous work and energy that my beloved and best friend put in to this.

I love you all.

I hope one day that I will be able to do something as important for somebody else as you have done for me.

ROMA, Italy
August 30, 2012