Sunday, July 13, 2014

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Imagine that you are exiting the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Aiport in Mumbai, India when you see the words Beautiful Forever inscribed in bright yellow paint on tall block walls across the highway. What do you think might lie behind those walls? Can you envision stucco -covered homes with bright tropical flowers and palm trees surrounding sparkling swimming pools? Mumbai is, after all, the financial, commercial  and entertainment  center of India. Surely Beautiful Forever must be an elite residential development, don’t you think?

Now, just for kicks, google Annawadi, Mumbai, India. Are you as shocked as I was to see images of what lies behind the Beautiful Forever walls? If so, you really must read Katherine Boo’s National Book Award-winner, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Boo, an investigative journalist who as a reporter for the Washington Post won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for a series  about mistreatment of underprivileged mentally challenged residents in our nation’s capital city, has always chosen to report about disadvantage and poverty. She became interested in India, home to ‘one-third of the world’s poverty and one-fourth of the planet’s hunger,’ when she married an Indian man.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the true-life story of residents of the Annawadi slum in Mumbai. As the book opens we are introduced to Abdul Hussain, a 16-year old boy who supports his family of 10 by trading in trash. Abdul’s neighbor, a one-legged woman named Sita was seriously burned, and later would die, following the collapse of a communal wall between the two homes. Abdul is accused of her murder. As the book progresses we learn about the web of corruption throughout the Indian social, political, and judicial systems. Boo argues that the unpredictability of daily life grinds down individual promise and weak government proves better at nourishing corruption than caring for its people.

I have never been a big fan of expository writing, but I found  Beyond the Beautiful Forevers riveting.  It reads like a best-selling mystery novel yet is firmly grounded in fact. To learn the fate of Abdul and other Annawadi residents, you must read the book for yourselves. While I won my copy in an editor’s give away, you can purchase the book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local independent book seller; or borrow it from your local public library. You won’t be sorry you did

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A New Day

My eyes sprung open in the darkened room. I lay in the bed trying to decide if perhaps I might fall back asleep, but the numbers on the clock radio filled the room with a lime green glow and my mind began its predawn ritual of worry. Not wishing to wake my husband, I rolled from the bed, fumbled through the jumble on the bedside table to retrieve my glasses, phone and iPad, and quietly snuck from the bedroom to the sanctuary of the “new couch,” a couch we have had for thirty-seven years, certainly not the newest couch in the house, but indisputably the most comfortable. I piled the square pillows around me, building a nest to cradle my aching back and hips, and settled in to await the dawning of a new day.

My head pounded as if the infantry was marching through my house, raising a cloud of urine-tainted cat litter dust and releasing a flood of post-nasal drip down the back of my throat.  I heard the click of the thermostat and knew the AC soon would be blowing chilled air throughout the house. The door at the top of the stairs swung open and bare feet shuffled across the oak-grained floor.  Glancing up, I saw the ghostly image of my night-gowned sister illuminated  by the nightlight as she traveled to the bathroom and back to bed. The stairs began to creak and I knew my husband was half-awake and making his way to the recliner in the media room upstairs.  After much mumbling and grumbling and creaking of leather, he and the ancient black cat inherited from my mother following her death 14 years ago fell into sonorous sleep.

Slowly the dark sky began to turn a pale gray, the birds began to sing their greetings to the rising sun.  Cars traveled down the street, slowing as they approached the stop sign, accelerating as their drivers continued on their way to work.

And suddenly, the whine of the coffee grinder and the heady smell of Ruta Maya beans brewing . It’s another day in Texas. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Mystery Artist

My great-aunt Jessie was an adventurous soul. On one of her travels to France, she purchased a series of pen and ink sketches created by this artist. The drawings appear to be street scenes and were probably made in the early-ish 1900s. 

While it is difficult to see in this photo, painted on the wall of the building on the right are the words Caves St. Emilion. In hopes of learning a bit of the provenance of these sketches, I googled artists of St. Emilion and came across a website for the Little Gallery. I sent the proprietor of the gallery a compressed file of these images in hopes she would know something about the artist. Today, I received an email from Elena; and, alas, but not surprisingly, she did not recognize the artist's signature and, after consulting with a friend, does not think the pictures are of St. Emilion.

The sketches have all been "contained" within an area which appears to have been embossed in the thick paper on which the sketches are drawn. Only the signature and the characteristic small sketches are on the borders of the "mat."

The horse-drawn cart in this picture makes me think of a farmer bringing his produce to a town market day. 

This is my favorite of the three drawings. 

I doubt that these drawings are of any great monetary value, but I would like to know more about the
artist and his setting.  I have no idea where to continue my search for information.

Any ideas?

Monday, April 28, 2014


Two of my three children, all of whom now are well-adjusted, productive adults, were given a writing assignment in the final grading period of their high school senior years. They were required to create illustrated abecedariums that were reflective of their individual personalities. When they each gave me their completed manuscripts, my initial thought was what unique and wonderful mementos of their childhoods; but as my granddaughter, who is a  senior graduating from the same high school and has the same senior English teacher as her aunt, was perusing the books, I realized what a great tool this assignment had been to encourage these young people  about to embark on their adult life paths to reflect on  their strengths and weaknesses, fears and courage, hopes and dreams.

Twenty-six words, from a to z, distilling the very essence of your personality.  It's a challenge, don't you think? Could you do it? Would you want to try?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Things that Make Little Sense

A strong cold front is making its way through the Houston area, bringing  with it high winds and rain. Not surprisingly, the power went out. I know this because  my washer and dryer quit running, my slow-cooker shut off, my house got dark, my computer shut down; and best of all, my power company sent me an email to tell me my power was out.

Better yet, they sent me a second message to let me know my power was restored.

Isn't technology wonderful?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Rambling Thoughts on Religion and Civil Rights

Several years ago the Reverend Matt Tittle ran a blog, Keep the Faith, which was domiciled on the Houston Chronicle. Pastor Tittle moved from the Houston area and the blog was passed on to the minister (the Reverend Beth Ellen Cooper) of the Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands, but it was never quite the same for me. While I have been missing reading his points of view about life and religion, I recently learned that he has retired and is living in Austin, Texas. You can learn more about the Reverend Matt Tittle here --
I know that we raised our three children outside the confines of organized religion and that it was difficult for them growing up in the Bible Belt to be the "only" kids who were not devoted Christian-church goers. I apologize for that; and I want you to know that I am not trying to preach Unitarian-Universalism to you, just introducing you to a person who wrote with conviction on a subject which has been a touchy one for me throughout the years.
I think what was missing for them as they were growing up, and I know what is missing for me now, is that sense of "belonging" and community that comes from being a part of "religion." When I was a child, my family and I attended St. John's Lutheran Church every week; we sat in the same pew, we followed the liturgy and knew all the responses by heart. My brother, sister, and I were all baptized and confirmed by the same minister who had married our parents and instructed my father as he converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism (another story for another day). Even though I questioned the teachings of my church and Christianity from the time I was old enough to ask questions, I always knew I had a  "home" at St. John's. 

The summer that I turned 15 (1962), my mom, dad, and I moved from Sidney, Ohio to Macon, Georgia. The South was still deeply segregated; even Christ's faithful white believers did not worship with "coloreds." I knew no black families ever sat in the pews of Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church during the time we were members there; and it was there that my faith in organized religion was broken. During Sunday School one morning, the son of my Sunday School teacher announced that "no nigger had ever better try to integrate his church." I asked myself, "What would Jesus do if a family of blacks chose to worship in the Lutheran church?" I thought that at St. John's Lutheran Church in Sidney, Ohio that family would be welcomed, perhaps not with open arms, but welcomed; and although I knew the Deep South was deeply prejudiced, I was still naive enough to believe that no Lutheran Church would ever block a person of any color from worship. I told the boy, "That's not a very Christian attitude;" and he responded to me, "Well, you're nothing but a god-damned nigger lover." His father, the Sunday School teacher, let that statement pass as if it was the word of God. I told my mother about the incident, and she told the pastor. Basically he told us to live with it; this was the Deep South and he wasn't willing to rock that boat of social and religious injustice. My mother left that church, and I left THE church. 

Over the intervening years, I have lost and regained my faith, not in Christianity (I do not consider myself a Christian), but in a god who listens to my prayers and answers them in his/her own way, a personal sense of spirituality if you will. Yet I have not found my "religion," that feeling of community, and I sometimes miss the sense of peace and acceptance that comes with religion. Reverend Tittle helped fill that perceived void, almost but not quite.

I believe that we may have failed our children by not showing them that our disassociation with organized religion was not a rejection of faith.  We all need that sense of community and commitment to some belief or another. I hope that they find it, and me too.

Reverend Tittle usually closed his entries with this benediction. I found it inspirational, I hope you do also:

For those who seek God, may God go with you.
For those who embrace life, may life return your affection.
For those who seek a right path, may a way be found, and the courage to take it.
Step by step. 

(Robert Mabry Doss).

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book Review -- These is My Words:The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901

After negotiating my first year of retirement and reentry into a more social life, last fall I decided to rejoin the local branch of the American Association of University Women, a group to which I had belonged about 20 years ago. The group offers a number of interest groups, including two different book clubs, both of which soon will be selecting reading lists for the summer and 2014-2015 membership year. As I was searching my shelves for books I might recommend, I came across this gem of a book, These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901, written by Nancy E. Parker, a book representing Arizona on my Fifty States in Fiction Challenge.

Written in epistolary form, These Is My Words is a fictionalized accounting of the life of Ms Parker's great-grandmother, Sarah Agnes Prine, the sole surviving daughter of foot-loose parents who as children had traveled along the Oregon Trail and then as adults migrated to the New Mexico Territories and began horse ranching. We meet Sarah at age 17 as she and her family are driving their herd of horses across the New Mexico desert to settle in the greener pastures of San Angelo, Texas. The trail ride is arduous; Sarah's younger brother Clover is snake-bit and dies, the wagon train is attacked by Apaches, villainous outlaws appear, and just as the party is nearing journey's end, a band of marauding Comanches steals their herd of horses. Sarah's father has a heart attack and dies, her mother has a nervous breakdown,  and Sarah and her brothers must make a plan to care for themselves and their mama for the rest of her days.

What does the Prine family do? They fill their wagons  with fruit and nut trees and make their way back across the New Mexico Territory to Arizona, this time as part of a wagon train escorted by Army troops under the leadership of Captain Jack Elliot, a fictional character loosely based on the author's own husband. The family eventually settles on the banks of Cienega Creek near the Army fort at Tucson where Sarah marries a man she has known from childhood. It is not a marriage of deep love or passion; and when her husband Jimmy dies, she is filled not so much with grief at his death, but with guilt that she cannot mourn his passing.  

Sarah Prine's father once taught her, "A nice girl never goes anywhere without a loaded gun and a big knife."  Had she not followed these paternal words of wisdom, we may never have been given the opportunity to read about this larger than life heroine of These Is My Words. She faced the travails of pioneer life with spunk and determination, saying "Well, honey, you might live over it, but you won't look like much."

Ah, but don't feel too sorry for Sarah.  These Is My Words is, after all is said and done, a love story, worthy of being passed from friend to friend to friend because, in the words of Sarah Prine, "Why any woman does that. A girl has got to get along."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Rice Krispy Treat

On Monday, he watched ten bears marching across the mustard yellow field,
one falling off the edge each time he crossed the boundary line.
He needed just one bear left to earn the favored Krispy treat,
but alas no bear was left standing.

On Wednesday, he watched ten bears marching across the mustard yellow field,
one falling off the edge each time he crossed the boundary line.
The blue line called him, enticing him to step beyond the pale,
but he stopped, with foot hovering .

The afternoon ended and the counting began.
One, two, three, four, five,
six, seven, eight bears had not fallen into the abyss.
The Krispy treat was won.

"I love you," he said,
for the very first time.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Pencils, Intestines, Testicles, Mammaries, and Ovaries, Oh My

So what did a gnawed pencil and chewed metal eraser band have to do with mammaries and ovaries you ask? I had three girls in my classroom that year.  One of them had developed a phobia about one of my classroom paraprofessionals who was rather well-endowed, if you get my drift. This particular young lady would glance at the assistant and then immediately cups her hands under her own small breasts and push them up. Just several weeks before, this assistant had been her favorite person in the classroom but  she would no longer go near her. This same child would not look at her own face in a mirror, but had begun to search the room for reflective surfaces where she could catch glimpses of her chest. So, with him (he of the "broken testicles) absent from the classroom, it seemed to be the perfect time for "The Girl Talk." We sat around the table and talked about how when we become teenagers our bodies change, we grow hair in private places, we begin to have funny feelings in our private parts and we begin to grow breasts and they might hurt sometimes or feel funny but it's not okay to touch them at school, we start having periods when blood will come from our bodies, but it's okay, it had happened to me and to my assistants and their own mothers and would happen to all of their girlfriends too, that growing up to be a woman is cool.

What do you think was the one thing they really wanted to know about all of this  -- will HE (of the broken testicles) have periods too?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Pencils, Intestines, and Testicles, Oh My

We knew as we watched him get off the bus that his day was already on that slippery downhill slope; his body was in constant motion, feet moonwalking, arms gyrating, lips moving as he belted out the words to Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Mania had a firm grip on his shirt collar and we were all in for a good shaking that day.

In my life skills classroom, Fridays were meant to be that day when we unwound from the rigors of the week. We spent the first hour of the day wrapping up unfinished business -- quick assessments of progress towards meeting IEP goals. That particular morning the students were expected to complete independent work at their workstations while awaiting their turn for spelling and dictation assessments at the computer. He balanced his chair on two legs, occasionally only one, complaining loudly, "Why do I have to do this stupid work?"  When it was his turn to work at the computer, he came bouncing over, sat down a moment then jumped up and spat something into a nearby wastebasket. I'd remember that event several hours later. Of the four students taking spelling tests that morning, he was the only one to spell each of his words correctly (hurray!) and the only one to type his dictation sentences with all the words run together iamafraidofthedark, iputmytoysaway, mydadsaidno, icancatchtheball, westandforthepledge, ialwaystrytodomybest, didyouaskforacookie, iateallmydinnerlastnight -- his mind was racing as fast as his body. I went to his desk to check the status of his independent work; and it was there I discovered THE PENCIL, gnawed into 2 pieces with the pink eraser scattered in crumbs across the floor. Aha, I thought; he was chewing a bit of eraser and spit it out, knowing that he would be in trouble. Destruction of work materials was one of the behaviors which earned him a ticket to the PASS room, a very structured, more restrictive environment than the life skills classroom; so, off he went.

It was about 2 hours later, as we sat in the cafeteria eating lunch, that a scary thought crossed my mind -- where was the silvery band that cupped the pink eraser to the end of the yellow pencil? I returned to the classroom and began to sift through the several wastebaskets scattered around the room. No, not in the basket by his desk, but YES, nestled in the wads of discarded tissue in the wastebasket near the computer was a small piece of crushed metal, molar stamped and crumbling. It was the band of metal that held that pink eraser to the yellow pencil. I carried the evidence to the PASS teacher and discussed with him my concerns that perhaps he had cut his mouth or swallowed some of the metal that would later irritate his intestines. The nurse came and examined his mouth and tongue; she collected the remnants of the chewed pencil and metal band, placing them in a small plastic bag and then left to call his mother. In the midst of singing, "So, You've Had a Bad Day," he stopped. A look of panic crossed his face and he whispered, "Can I go to the nurse? I have to know, did I break my testicles?"

Friday, March 14, 2014

In Memory of Jordan Elaine

People often ask me if I have grandchildren.  I'm never quite sure how to answer that question. You see, I do have grandchildren, six beautiful granddaughters, but only five are living. Do I tell them about Jordan, my very first grandchild,  who died nine short days after her birth,  or do I keep her hidden in my heart?

In a perfect world, Jordan would have turned twenty-three yesterday. Perhaps she would have celebrated her birthday at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, eating greasy fried food from the carnival midway and watching Maroon 5 in concert after the rodeo events were over.  Perhaps she would be planning her wedding to a man who loves her more than the sun in the sky, or cuddling her newborn child, or enjoying a myriad of other life events.

Instead, she lives  in my imagination as a toddler, squatted down to examine ants crawling up the sidewalk.  None of us ever held her in our arms until she fell asleep, never nuzzled our noses against her warm baby neck and smelled that sweet baby smell. We held her for the first time after she was gone.

Twenty-three years, and still my heart aches. Should I tell people I have 6 beautiful granddaughters, or should  I keep her hidden?

I love you still, sweet baby.