Three pictures from El Paso-Juarez

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A week after returning from our Thanksgiving holiday in El Paso, and I continue to be grateful for family harmony. In three days under my brother’s roof, there were no arguments or disagreements about the recent election. We are all in accord about the frightening state our country is in now. We are bound together for reasons beyond shared DNA. We all hate bigotry. Everyone in this two generational picture voted for justice.

On the day before Thanksgiving, our friend Rosy drove my sister and me to an orphanage in Juarez. Eighty-eight children, ages five to twenty-one, live there with little electricity and almost no heat. They share two bathrooms, one for the girls and one for the boys. There’s no refrigeration. They have two meals a day. On the day we were there, they ate macaroni and potatoes. All white. No greens or fruit. We gave them clothes and blankets and books and chocolates. (Yes, I know we should have given them kale and brussel sprouts.) They gave us abrazos. Here’s the picture.hugs

Thousands of people cross back and forth from El Paso to Juarez every day. My brother, a physician, sees patients in both cities. As far as he is concerned, they are one community.

Leaving Juarez, we looked back at the unattractive slabs of cement and fencing planted on the bank of the Rio Grande. Graffiti abounds. If you live thousands of miles from the border, you don’t know what a wall looks like. You don’t see this ugliness. You don’t know what a wall does to your community. I looked at that wall and thought, “Why?” Why spend billions of dollars on a wall when people (little children!) in both countries need food and shelter? Where is justice in this picture?wall

American Royalty: It’s Not What You Think

 

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KEHINDE WILEY The Two Sisters, 2012. Oil on linen.

 

I’m insecure about art. I don’t know enough to be an art snob. But I don’t want to be thought of as someone who doesn’t know kitsch when it’s staring at her. So I wasn’t sure what to think of Kehinde Wiley. His paintings are meant to startle, in his own words “go for the jugular.” His colors and patterns are bold. His subject’s postures and expressions are intense. His realistic paintings are larger than life.

When I saw his show at the Seattle Art Museum, I was captivated. His subjects, all people of color, gaze out at the viewer. “Look at me,” they demand. “Don’t accept what white society says about us.” They’re not screaming, but they’re not subtle either.

Wiley stops people he finds walking on city streets. He casts them in paintings derived from the great portraiture of the 15th through early 20th centuries. The originals, created by artists like Gainsborough, Singer Sargent, and Chassériau, depicted royalty, aristocrats, people of great power, wealth and prestige.

Most of his models are men. For his grouping “Economy of Grace,” Wiley focused on black women he had recruited in Harlem. He dresses his models in long flowing gowns by Givenchy. Their hair is styled in up-dos that suggest elaborate crowns. He positions them to mimic the poses of the originals. Maybe because of Wiley’s naturalistic style, they look better, more real, than the originals. They are self-possessed and regal, but at the same time, Wiley doesn’t hide their vulnerability and humanity.

For a moment in time, he takes his subjects out of the reality of their lives and elevates them from the ordinary to the majestic, from people with no power to people of nobility, from anonymous to celebrated. It’s not just the clothing, it’s their inner beauty that Wiley captures. We don’t normally think of his subjects as royalty. But in their newfound settings, on the imposing large-scale canvases, they command our respect and admiration.

Does changing the context of a person change the way we view them? How we treat them? We make assumptions about people by the way they look, the clothes they wear, their backgrounds. We take our preconceived notions and marginalize “the others” – be it people of color, or people from another country, or people with disabilities.

My daughter, Ariela, used a wheelchair. Her hands waved and her head bobbed. I know that people judged her by the way she looked, whatever they knew about disability forming their opinions. “Poor dear”, they’d say, giving her a narrative that wasn’t hers. We don’t normally think of people with disabilities as royalty, but that’s how she thought of herself.

I can’t dismiss Wiley’s work. He has too much to say about how we think of each other. He challenges our preconceptions about identity and art. With his reimagined light and landscapes, his subjects come alive and deserve our thoughtful attention.

Holiday in Old San Juan

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The banners say, “Lomito de los Vientos” (Hill of the Winds), and I wonder if this is something from Lord of the Rings.

“It’s a re-enactment of the nativity scene,” a guy in line tells me. He is holding his daughter’s hand. She’s about three or four. The nativity scene is hidden behind a faux stone wall that looks like it was leftover from an old movie set or maybe a high school play. A guard dressed as a Roman soldier with helmet, cape and breastplate stands at the entrance as people pass through the gate. Instead of a “mysterious light” to guide the magi, two search lights wave across the night sky. More lights illuminate three kings propped up on a hill overlooking the attraction. They must be ten or twelve feet tall. Hundreds of families wait to see the three kings. The line is several blocks long. While they wait, food stalls sell camarones and chorizos and mofongo and empanadilla. Latin music pumps its way across the street to the Capitol building.PRcapitol

From there, Gary and I walk into Old San Juan. It’s a few days before Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day – January 6). Christmas is not my holiday. But if it was and if I didn’t want it to end, Viejo San Juan is where I’d want to be. When people on the mainland are discarding their trees, Puerto Ricans are still in the midst of holiday celebrations. The public squares in Old San Juan are adorned with Christmas lights and nativity scenes and the Madonna and child. We are surrounded by music and dancing and street food and revelry. We are told this goes on for weeks.

We pass on the food stalls and fried food that calls my name and eat at a tablecloth restaurant. We tour Old San Juan after midnight. (We’re on California time, so it’s only 8 for us.) The night air is warm. People of all ages fill the streets, many with drinks in hand. Young couples kiss by the fountains. Parents push strollers. Babies sit upright, alert and wide-eyed from the stimuli. We leave Old Town around 2am. The central parking lot is still full, and the party isn’t over. The atmosphere is all joy, but I don’t know enough Spanish to eavesdrop.

Unless you ask or you venture out of the tourist areas of San Juan and its resorts, you wouldn’t know about Puerto Rico’s severe and devastating financial crisis. While we were there, PR defaulted for the second time on some of their debt payment. Will Congress come to the rescue?

Let’s hope that the Three Kings, and all the powers that be, bring renewed prosperity and restored financial stability to the island in the coming year.
Feliz Año Nuevo.

 

Hiking Hueco Tanks, Texas

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“Don’t put your hand in the holes. There could be a snake or tiny shrimp,” the guide says. “The holes in the rocks give this place its name. It’s Hueco and not Waco. Does anyone in the group know Spanish? The huecos can be as small as your hand or as big as a swimming pool.” You can tell he was a high school teacher.

starry eyes hueco (57)The guide says the pictograph is one thousand years old, give or take one hundred. “You can’t use carbon dating, because the paints are mineral based and not vegetable.”

I think twenty questions. Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?

The guide points to a rock with a pictograph of a starry-eyed face.

I think what brought stars to this person’s eyes? The night sky? The desert? A rattlesnack? In the New York Times, a model wears a bold “X” over one eye drawn with black eyeliner.

“Be careful,” the guide says. “Many plants have thorns. This one’s so sharp the fronds were used for spearheads.” I’m not sure if he said fronds, but that’s what he meant.

The guide tells us a long story that would benefit from editing. “Young Native American warriors, their horses stolen by Mexican troops, are trapped in the rocky canyon for days.”

I think this has something to do with guns.

“They manage to escape, but one warrior is wounded and left behind, hiding in a hueco. A lone wolf appears, licks the warrior’s wounds and protects him. He survives to tell this story.”

I think we all hide in our own huecos, waiting for a lone wolf to appear.

Another Reason to drive to Ashland, Oregon

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That’s not snow in the photo. That’s the Rogue River as it races its way through lava tubes into the gorge. The foam so thick, it looks like cream. I had an impulse to dip my hand in and scoop it up. I was warned to stay away from the edge. The rushing waters don’t stop.

Gary and I stood on the rocks mesmerized by the river cascading past us. We weaved in and out amongst the evergreens hugging the edge of the gorge. Some trees stand erect and others lean in to gaze at the river below. I couldn’t help but wonder how they took root and stayed planted in so little soil.

There are dozens of waterfalls in Southern Oregon, and we saw only one. Another reason to go back to Ashland.

When we returned home, I reserved our rooms for next year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Great Theater in Ashland, Oregon

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2015

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2015

I left the theater crying after “Sweat.” It wasn’t just the tragedy of the story. It was Lynn Nottage’s writing — at once brilliant, on-point, multi-layered, and funny. Her words moved me to tears.

The story takes place in a factory town during what Nottage calls “America’s de-industrialization.” When the characters are shut out of their plant, they lose their jobs. We watch as their lives and relationships change and collapse.

As you sit at your desk in San Francisco or in some other major city, you might be wondering how you could possibly relate to laid-off, lower middle class factory workers. Or, why you would care about two young guys talking back to their parole officer. You do care, because these characters are complicated and endearing. Nottage uses their story to tell us about loss (Haven’t we all experienced loss?) and to remind us about our interconnectedness.

“Sweat” premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). Nottage won a Pulitzer for “Ruined,” her drama about the brutalization of women during Africa’s civil wars. I expect as much, if not more, praise and accolades for “Sweat.” The show will travel to other cities, and I hope you see it. Here’s the trailer from OSF.

3 Reasons to drive 7 hours to Ashland, Oregon

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2015

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2015

“When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky…” I woke up to this song going ‘round and ‘round in my head this morning. Yesterday, it was, “I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” And the day before, “If I were a bell I’d go ding, dong, ding, dong, ding.” All because Gary and I just returned from Ashland, Oregon and a joyous performance of “Guys and Dolls.” I had to restrain myself from singing along with the actors. At the end of the show, I sang my way out of the theater. I could have imagined it, but I saw other people dancing. There’s nothing complicated about the guys or the dolls or the plot – just one upbeat song after another, strung together with funny one-liners and, of course, the love story. “Love is the thing that has nipped them.” The production we saw had the audience clapping and stomping their feet after each song.

(#1) You might be wondering why anyone would drive seven hours to see a regional theater perform a 65-year old musical. “Guys and Dolls” is part of this year’s playbill for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We always wanted to go but couldn’t leave Ariela. She would have enjoyed the plays but not the long drive. (More about the other two plays we saw in future posts.)

(#2) We stayed in a refurbished Italianate Victorian mansion built in 1883, located just a short walk to the theater. The McCall House spoiled us with gourmet breakfasts and yummy gluten-free (thank you) treats. The innkeeper was a fount of knowledge for all things Ashland and beyond. The inn and the town, with its boutiques, bookstores, galleries, and wine tasting rooms, took us to another time and place, or maybe we just stopped time long enough to appreciate the lush Rogue Valley.

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Crater Lake by H. Heydemann

(#3) One day, we drove another two hours to Crater Lake. There’s a reason Olympic Paints, and Pittsburgh Paints, and even Toyota all named a color “Crater Lake Blue.” But their paint boxes are nothing like the glorious hue of the lake, a lake so clear we could see the clouds reflected on the mirrored surface of the water. The stillness hypnotized us. We spoke in whispers so not to break the spell. “I dreamed last night I got on a boat to heaven.”