Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The beautiful quiet

There is a certain beauty to the quiet of mornings, to the easy silence when the world slows down a little and, if you listen, you can hear the birds as they carry on their conversations and their debates.

This morning was such a morning, warm with the promise of springtime, and quiet in the tranquil murmur of the mid-morning hour when the rushing to work has ended and the rushing back home is a long way away.

In that quietest of quietudes, with only the birds calling to each other - the scolding kay-kay of the blue jays, the sweet coo-coo of the mourning doves, and the insistent chirp-chirp of the feisty sparrows - I felt whole, sharing with the dogs that most simple of pleasures, that most complicated of privileges: walking leisurely through our stilled and quieted neighborhood as the sun climbed lazily away from morning toward the busy zenith of noon.

Monday, February 26, 2007


OK, so let's dish.

(Friendly Disclaimer: If you're not into frivolous meaningless chisme, then you want to skip this post).

As one billion people all over the world already know, last night was Oscar Night. And while maybe a handful of people cared about what movie or actor got the Oscar (I was rooting for Eddie Murphy and was disappointed that he was passed over for Alan Arkin!), I'm really in it for the fashions.

There was a time when I'd make the effort to see all the nominated movies before Oscar Night. But, nowadays, who the heck has time to go to the movies anyway? I still haven't seen "The Departed" (although I'm glad the eighth time was the charm for Scorcese) and I'm not edging close enough to "Babel" to scratch it after both my parents had strong physical reactions (and not positive ones) to watching the film. And, do forgive me, but "Little Miss Sunshine" just doesn't appeal to me. Depressed, cranky people on a road trip with a too-cute-to-stomach little girl doesn't strike me as my type of humor, although I might give it a chance on DVD. (BTW, I love watching movies on DVD because I can fast forward any scenes that get too boring or too unfunny or too suspenseful.)

It's been a long time since I've seen a truly rock-the-house movie, and the gowns are simply more entertaining and interesting to dish about anyway. Thus, getting back to dishing, didn't Penélope Cruz just steal the show with her stunning pink silk organza and tulle cloud of a gown? She was a vision of poise and elegance. I was so proud! And what was it with Ellen DeGeneres saying she was from Mexico?! She corrected herself quickly but I bet every single Latina watching thought: "Next she's going to say we all look alike!" Ellen probably confused the Spanish Penélope, who was clearly not amused with the verbal faux pas, with Salma Hayek, who I don't think was even there. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

But, let's be fair, Ellen did a great job. I normally dislike her rather sophomoric brand of comedy, but she was on a roll last night. She was goofy and funny and she was cool as a lechuga. Well done, indeed! And I liked the tuxedos they dressed her up in, especially the first red velvet one. Just a little hint of Liberace, but not totally overboard.

Another gorgeous dress was the one worn by Reese Witherspoon, another one of my favorite actors. She looked rather drawn and skinny in the dark layered gown, though. Probably a result of her divorce from that pretty boy what's-his-face. I always thought Reese and Joaquín Phoenix (who was born in Puerto Rico) should hook up after filming "Walk the Line." I mean, there's a real-man-looking guy for you!

I didn't like Nicole Kidman's snug red number. Towering over everyone, she rather looked like a blond Mortitia dressed up for Christmas. And I thought Helen Mirren looked a little washed up in her pale champagne-colored gown. And what was it with Meryl Streep?! Doesn't she have a stylist? And, if she does, she needs to fire him/her today. What was she thinking?! She gets nominated for playing a fashion diva in the guilty-pleasure romp "The Devil Wears Prada" and she goes to the Oscars in that odd trench-coat-looking dress with the askew necklace and the unkempt hair? She obviously doesn't have a drop of Latina blood in her.

Oh, and Jennifer López looked quite striking, too, in her jeweled Roman-looking number. And I liked her shorter hair style. But I don't know what Oscar de la Renta was thinking with that metallic bolero for Jennifer Hudson. Too Project Runway-looking, if you ask me.

OK, that's enough dishing for now. Never fear, I'm back to being the serious professor-in-the-making and hardworking scholar and devoted animal lover.

(But, in the interest of full disclosure, I'd never say no to a beautiful pale-pink Atelier Versace gown and a pair of sparkling Jimmy Choos if they ever came my way, legally. Even if I'd never have occasion to wear them.)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The first thaw

Tonight the dogs had their first satisfying walk in a month.

The warmer temperatures in the past two days have thawed the sheets of ice that lay on top of the grass, the sidewalks and the street, which had transformed everything into a large and perilous ice rink. The all-pervasive freeze made it impossible for the dogs to edge close to the light posts and sign posts and the hedges and the sides of trash cans where dogs leave their secret messages for each other.

During the freeze, Geni (short for Genevieve, like the French girl Madeleine's mutt dog) was particularly confused by all the sameness and the whiteness around her, uncharacteristically and un-demurely choosing to relieve herself right in the middle of the path we walked, rather than try to figure out where the erstwhile grass had been.

Rusty, for his part, was bored and befuddled by the lack of smells and textures and colors that he loves to dwell on, making our walks in warm weather more like stops during which he ponders the meaning of every blade of grass or limb of bush where another dog has peed.

That we had a walk at night at all was a thrill for the two transplanted Puerto Rican satos, whose telenovela story I'll tell in full some other night. Because of the Plutonian cold of the last month, and because my husband has been recovering from knee surgery, we gave up on walking them nightly as we always did. When we stopped the night walks, both of them were clearly disappointed but hopeful that it as a temporary interruption in their routine. As they realized that this was no passing change but rather a more permanent hiatus in their exercise schedule, they both started getting that big-eyed what-a-downer look that under-stimulated dogs tend to get.

Tonight, then, was quite the treat. They were both smelling and grunting and panting and rushing from bush to bush and post to post and trash can to trash can, updating every other dog to come on their own dearth of adventures for the past month and getting their paws all muddied and wet as they climbed on grassy banks and sidled over to the hedges that they had been unable to smell or mark for weeks.

Their delight, as often happens with the pure perfume-like distilled happiness of dogs, was contagious and it provided me with my first taste of the fun of spring to come.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Gentle souls

Mr. Robin is a gentle soul. Perhaps a little too gentle for the live-and-let-die world out there.

I crumble the suet that he loves into a large round dish (he's already gobbled up all the mealy worms I had in the fridge) and while the cockroach-colored starlings and the wily squirrels waste no time in elbowing each other to get a piece of the butter-textured and bug-peppered chunks, Mr. Robin waits politely on the sidelines for his turn, which, of course, never comes before the suet is gone. The starlings and the squirrels don't hesitate to edge, peck or nip anyone out of their way to the suet but Mr. Robin refuses to sink so low.

That means I almost have a part-time job in shooing away the starlings, who intriguingly seem to know it's specifically them that I'm objecting to. They're the only ones to fly away, not too far, but far enough to hope they've given me the idea that they're leaving. They must know they're unwelcome outcasts at the bird feeder. And while I'm generally an underdog kind of person, the bully starlings don't usually move me to compassion.

Mr. Robin, however, has me on pins and needles. Is he finding enough to eat (sure looks like it from his rather portly size)? Does he have enough fresh water? Will he be at the bird feeder tomorrow or will he, like so many of his cousins, give up the ghost to this most hateful of winters?

I'd like to teach Mr. Robin to be a little more assertive and less polite in his desire to make a good impression on everyone at the bird feeder. I'd like to tell him that while it's always laudable to be considerate of others, he must think of himself first.

In the bird world, as in our own, self-lessness can be a liability if there are others out there actively working to help you starve so that they can flourish.

Friday, February 23, 2007

¡Feliz cumpleaños, papi!

Yesterday, my dad turned 70. As I write the number, its weight becomes evident in its numeric representation. The long slide of the seven, with its little cover-against-bad-weather top and the roundness of the zero, evoking wisdom and wholeness.

My father was gifted with the deepest sensibility and also with a hilarious sense of humor. He delights in the tiny black and gray birds and the yellow-chested reinitas that come to the small bowl of water that he maintains in the balcony. The birds flock in small chattering groups to the bowl to drink as they gossip loudly with each other, or to take quick and messy baths in the hot days of the tropics.

My father is not a pet person but he's put up with his share of animals in 70 years. One time, many years ago, I was visiting Puerto Rico from Boston with my cat. My mom and I were talking in one of the back rooms of their home when my dad walked over, newspaper in hand as always, and announced: "The cat is going to fall off the balcony." He turned around and returned to his seat on that very same balcony, where he still spends most of his days, reading voraciously almost anything that's printed and about everything that's been written.

My mom and I thought he was joking, since he didn't seem alarmed and his tone was matter-of-fact, so I didn't pay much attention. A few minutes later, he returned to announce: "The cat fell off the balcony," in that same tone and attitude. My mom and I didn't believe him but we followed him this time to find that, in fact, my unfortunate cat Minushka had leaped off the fifth-floor balcony after a bird, fallen unruffled on all four legs onto the rooftop of the ground apartment, and happily continued her unauthorized explorations by getting into the balcony of an empty second-floor apartment. The rescue operation that ensued was worthy of a TV show. The expression, "The cat is going to fall off the balcony," is now a running joke in my family about my dad's sanguine attitude towards impending disaster.

My father, like nearly every Puerto Rican man of his time (and perhaps even now), was raised to be the perfect Male Chauvinist Pig. Yet he raised me, his eldest daughter, to be ambitious and to never take crap from or to feel myself inferior to a man. Still, he expected my mom to be the perfect housewife and had a lot of trouble understanding why she'd want to do anything else with her life. But he eventually saw the light, thanks to my mom's lioness-like determination and sainthood-worthy patience and their enduring affection and respect for each other. My mom followed her dream and became a renowned and respected historian, in her own right, who is a model of empowerment and strength for her daughters and her son.

My father likes to tell the story of how his daughters and wife gave him a birthday present once, a book titled "The Mind of a Male Chauvinist Pig." When he opened the book cover, the pages inside were blank. He laughs every time he tells that story.

My father has come such a long way in 70 years. He's undergone so many changes and he's had many and often incredible adventures. And he's devoted his entire life to our patria, Puerto Rico. But when all is said and done, he's also been a good father who has always loved and taken care of his family, even now when his children are in their 40s, desperdigados in voluntary exile in three separate states, and his original tribu has more than doubled to 11, including his six striking grandchildren, each with his or her own distinctive and loving personality.

For all this, and so much more, I'm truly thankful that my dad is now entering his 71st year.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Cruel winter

Today, during my daily morning walk with the dogs, a patch of reddish color buried in the snow caught my eye after the dogs went up to investigate it. To my dismay, I saw it was a robin, who likely succumbed last night unable to withstand the single-digit chill. He must have fallen from his perch on a nearby tree to perish in the snow.

I picked it up in one of the plastic bags I carry for dog poop disposal and brought it home with me, sobbing the entire way back, causing my poor dogs to look at me repeatedly with concern. I've buried it temporarily under a large mound of snow in front of my little statue of St. Francis of Assisi, and plan to give it a proper burial as soon as the ground can be broken.

There's no doubt that this has been the cruelest of winters in my memory. At least this robin's death will not go unnoticed or unmourned. If there is a certain kind of providence in the fall of sparrows, then the fall of a robin surely cannot be for naught.

P.S. On a happier note, Mr. Robin is ecstatic with his mealy worms, which he gobbles prodigiously fast, and with a bug-peppered suet I put out for him today, after I buried his cousin.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

To save a Robin

My husband often says that I care more about animals than people, and he's partially right. I care more about most animals than I do about some people.

His favorite example of my bias harks to a day when we were both watching the news and there was a story about a dog that nearly drowned and froze to death after trying to save his owner. The stupid teen aged kid had gone into a not-sufficiently-frozen pond against his parents' instructions and had fallen into a hole in the ice. The dog, trying to get him out, went after him and both had to be rescued, but the kid was pulled out first. When the rescuers finally dragged the dog out of the ice water, dripping, shivering and miserable, I wept.

"Don't you feel sorry for the kid who almost drowned?" my husband asked. "Not a bit," I said. "Look at all the trouble he got his dog into!"

Given what I'll admit is perhaps an almost fanatical love of animals, it's not surprising that while I won't be motivated to move out of the house on this dreary snow day to go to the gym or to do the errands I need to do for myself, I will be propelled into immediate action by the news that robins in Ohio are dying of hunger.

The story in the newspaper today said many robins stayed in Ohio this fall because of how mild it was but that they're now in big trouble because of this hell-froze-over cold. The report said the robins are dying of hunger (when they're not being flattened by idiotic drivers on Muirfield Drive) and recommended that people put out the food robins prefer to eat in order to help them survive.

The only problem is that what robins like most is: WORMS! LIVE WORMS! Eeewww!

Well, I swallowed my disgust (I'm a city girl, born and bred, so worms are not even part of my vocabulary) and rushed to the wild birds store to stock up on mealy worms, or whatever those things the robins like are called. I bought 500 in a plastic container and rushed back home to put some out for Mr. Robin, as I call the handsome, fat, orange-chested robin who hangs out at the heated bird bath my husband created using an old plastic bucket and an emergency light fixture.

Mr. Robin loves to drink from the warm water but his favorite pastime is actually to sit in the warm water, which is rather a kill joy for all the other birds who use it as a water source. Mr. Robin has tried to eat from the suet bars that hang from little green cages, but he's a ground-feeding bird so his spindly legs won't hold him long enough for him to peck at the suet.

Thus, Mr. Robin now has his own shallow dish of squiggly, squirmy, disgusting mealy worms. And he's absolutely delighted, which goes a long way (if not all the way) to help me forget the container of worms squirming, as we speak, in my refrigerator. Eeewww!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Frozen in place

You know those pictures of a beady-eyed Mastodon frozen in time, with its humongous yellowed tusks encased in a block of ice? That's what my car looked like two days ago, and I'm not speaking figuratively.

The night I decided to leave my car out of our crumbling garage to avoid having to struggle against its impossible-to-open garage door, that was the night that Ohio was hit by the blizzard and then freezing rain and then the below-zero temperatures brought by the harshest and most merciless of winds.

This frozen world of limbs that sparkle in the sunlight because they're attached to glass trees is an alien world, the landscape of a frozen moon that is almost impossible to walk or drive on, nevermind enjoy. It doesn't matter how long I've lived here, my being revolts against this scenery and wants to shriek at the winter sun for not doing its job. How can this sun be The Sun if it can't melt the hills of snow, break the dagger-pointed icicles or insinuate itself upon the neverending chill to warm our cold-wearied bones?

I really don't mind normal winters but I'm having trouble adjusting to the fact that some evil Artic sprite kidnapped winter and what we have instead is a changeling tundra of ice that has been castigating us for more than a week.

That's why February is my least favorite month (to put it kindly). Because it tends to bring with it the unkindest of cold weathers. Still, there's nothing much I can do except wait it out, especially since I'm among the blessed ones with a heated home and a roof over my head.

For now, I'll just repeat the Peanuts' rhyme against the rain and see if it works like a charm against this cold: "Winter, winter, go away, and come back some other day [actually, it's better if you just stay the heck away]!"

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


This morning, the tiny female sparrow was back at the feeder when I went out before dawn to put out the seed. I laughed until I cried with joy.

Amor de lejos

Valentine's Day was established for totally mercenary purposes. The whole pink-colored tale about the priest helping star-crossed lovers basically sugar coats what is in essence an often guilt-driven day of spending.

But it doesn't have to be about what things we get or give on this day. It's more about the loving we do for real and from afar.

My Valentine's Day started with a phone call from my 97-year-old abuela, who is nearly blind and deaf, but refuses to move into a home and walks through the darkened rooms of her large cement house by holding on to the walls, navigating with the help of her still prodigious memory. Like Ursula in García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, my grandmother is a force to be reckoned with, even as she nears a century of life, a lot of it spent in stubborn solitude after my abuelo died of cancer more than 30 years ago.

When my husband handed me the phone, she said: "Amor, amor, amor," in that high-pitched old abuela voice, warming my heart and giving me another taste of the unconditional and boundless love she has shown me throughout all of the years of my life.

She was on my list of special calls today, but she beat me to it, making sure she was the one to say amor first on this, the supposedly official holiday of love. She made me even more determined to pass it forward and I called my titi Bebi, whom I haven't talked to in too long a while.

She is my mother's aunt, sister to my abuela Hebe, who died some 20 years ago. When I was a small child, she and my tío José Enrique (the one of béisbol fame) took care of me countless times in their modest apartment in Santurce when my parents traveled or had other obligations. In my mind, I know their home by memory with its gray floor tiles, high ceilings and long double dark-wood doors, and the candle always burning at the end of the hallway in front of the lovely black-and-white picture of titi's dead sister, Edeligia.

Titi was delighted when I called her , miraculously remembering my name at the first try. She has this hilarious malady of calling us by the name of every other female member of the family before she remembers ours. Something that goes like this: "Ana Marie, Marielena, Roxanna, Norma..." and so on until she finally stumbles on our name.

After I answered all her questions about me and my husband, she started reminiscing about how I wouldn't eat the white rice she cooked, and how her sons, Papo and Eric, would tell on me while she was in the kitchen, scraping the delicious pegao from the caldero, a task she performed for decades at the same time each day. I don't remember ever refusing to eat white rice, which I absolutely crave, but I couldn't disagree with her when she said laughing: "You were always an ajentá," which loosely translates to mean that I was kind of willful.

She also recalled a picture of me that she took one day, when I was about four years old, and she'd curled my hair with gigantic pink rollers, something she loved to do (I think maybe I was sort of her play doll). I was hanging around the house in those oversized pink rollers and panties when she says I ran outside to play in the small patio, which they shared with the other residents in the building. Again, Papo and Eric told on me, yelling to her that I was outside in my underwear and rollers. She went after me and brought me inside with a scolding but I guess she couldn't resist and took that picture.

My abuela and my titi Bebi were the highlights of my Valentine's Day this year. Of course there was the nice dinner at home with my husband, and the love of always for my parents and for all those close to my heart.

But the icing on the cake was the getting and the giving of that amor de lejos that belongs to those who've loved us for as long as we have lived, and whom we will love for real and forever.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The blizzard

I'm pretty certain this word doesn't exist in English but, regardless, it sure is blizzarding out there.

A few minutes ago, the snow was dropping and blowing fiercely, like a rain of icicles. Now the flakes are fatter and flutter in the air, like dust balls floating in a ray of sunlight, stirred up by the lazy sweeping of a broom. There is no visible sun out there today, though, only the powder-sugared landscape that's being quickly swallowed by the snow.

The white does make colors stand out more brightly, though. The cardinal sparkles in his reddest of coats while the black-and-white junco's yellow beak seems to have a flame-like quality. The burly robin, whose orange chest contrasts fashionably with his dark-gray wings, has a black head that appears a velvet shade of blacker in the whiteness.

This harsh forbidding Arctic-ness is nothing like the warm February days I grew up with. Those were days of drought and sweat, days of a tropical sun that burns and sizzles and commands. The winter sun, when he's around, is mostly content with playing at shadows or sparkling faintly in the driven snow.

Still, although I'm far removed from those long-gone Caribbean days, this unremitting icy cover reminds me of the piragüas, the snow cones of my childhood, right before the piragüero shaved the block of ice a few times with his dark and calloused hands. He then poured his magically colored syrups, turning the small mountains of shaved ice in their flimsy paper cones into delicious, cool respites from the midday sun.

In these harsh winter lands, there are no piragüeros to create magic with their ice. In these harsh winter lands, the cardinals, the juncos, and the robins are the syrups that color the otherwise-utter icy whiteness of a blizzard day.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The fall of a sparrow

On the days I leave home to teach, I get up at 6 a.m. and before the sun peaks over the horizon I put out seed for the wild birds in our backyard.

On those dark and chilly mornings, there's recently been this tiny female sparrow who awaits me, up before any other bird stirs, eager to be the first to feast on the seed I put into the feeders each dawn. Every time, she startles me more than I startle her.

Hopping away from my clumsy half-awakened step at the spot where I put seed on the ground, or moving belatedly away from the ledge of the bird feeder, she doesn't seem scared of me. It's more like she's going through the motions of what a wild bird must do so I can get on with my business of putting the seeds out. I've wondered whether she is old or ill because she moves so unhurriedly and seems so unafraid.

Today, my husband found a dead female sparrow on the frozen ground under the bird feeder, one of the many sparrows we've found who didn't make it through this harshest of winters.

Shakespeare's Hamlet said: "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." I fervently hope so.

Kudos to Harvard

Well, it took a paltry 371 years but Harvard finally did it: they just appointed their first woman president since its founding in 1636. And the universe must be in balance now because she happens to be the founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which is what remains of Radcliffe College after it was merged into Harvard University in 1999.

Although I never much cared for the white Anglo-women focus of Radcliffe or of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I must applaud the selection of Drew Gilpin Faust (great name, too!), an Americanist historian, as president.

Last year, when Harvard began their search, they were smart enough to e-mail the alumni and ask for our suggestions on what to search for. I said it might be nice if Harvard joined the twenty-first century and appointed a woman.

I'm sure that my e-mail didn't mean a thing on this search, but I'm glad the pressure was enough on the powers-that-be that a woman was finally appointed, especially after her predecessor, former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, suggested that women were not the intellectual equals of men (at least not in math and science, to be more precise).

Today, kudos to Harvard. Let's hope President Faust steps up to the plate and hits it out of the park. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

Darwin and Jacob Marley's ghost

Remember Jacob Marley's ghost in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol? The business partner who visited Ebenezer Scrooge from the hereafter, clanging and dragging the endless heavy chains of his sins to announce the visit of the three spirits at the stroke of midnight?

Well, Darwin likes to play Jacob Marley.

Every night, around midnight, if he's not busy yowling in loneliness, re-enacting his rescue from the woodpile, Darwin picks up his very favorite toy and drags it clanging up the stairs, into our room, and onto the bed.

This toy is ancient. It's one of those long plastic wands that used to have a green fuzzy rabbit's-foot-looking thingy at the end with a little bell. Darwin took to that thing like sharks to bloodied water. It's so gummed and mangled and threadbare that you'd be sure it was trash by now, but not to Darwin.

He disdains the newer nicer-looking ones I've brought home, with pretty yellow fuzzy tips and bells or crimson-colored feathers and bells or multi-colored feathers and fuzzy thing and bells. Darwin can't be coaxed to play with those. So, I sew and re-sew the tattered toy and every night he does the Jacob Marley act.

The first thing you hear is his yowling. Then it's the cling, cling, cling, cling of the little bell as the toy bangs on each step of the stairs, and then you hear the scratching sound of him dragging the wand on the wood floor, and then the thump of his body on the bed and the toy finally comes to a rest and Darwin snuggles between my legs and the world is alright for him.

And if you throw the toy down the stairs you'll make his day and he'll bring it up as many times as you throw it down. Unlike Jacob Marley, Darwin is no harbinger of looming woes. He just wants to sleep with his toy close at hand to be ready for play and mischief as soon as either one of us stirs.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Darwinian Terror

This is about Darwin. No, not about the British guy who came up with the famed Theory of Evolution, but about the Ohio stray cat, who ensured his own survival by yowling loud enough to be found under a woodpile.

Darwin has been with us for five years, after I mistakenly thought that bringing a kitten for Magellan to play with would be a good thing for her. As my husband points out, I'd already made the same mistake more than two decades before when I got Lawrence to keep Nube company. I sure didn't learn from that mistake. Nube had nothing but contempt for Lawrence for their entire eighteen years together, and Magellan feels no less for Darwin. And I can totally see Magellan's side.

For one, Darwin is a terror. Unless he's asleep, he's always (and I use the word with statistical accuracy) looking for ways to get in trouble. He's such a menace that my husband has apologized to the spirit of Pita, a stray who adopted us in Puerto Rico, for having thought that he (not the as-yet-unborn Darwin) was the most pain-in-the-ass (thus Pita's name) cat ever.

We noticed Pita one night when we were in our backyard covered-porch in Guaynabo, where we'd hung a hammock and where we liked to spend many evenings, enjoying the cool breeze, the smell of the lime tree, and the intermittent songs of the coquís, the tiny Puerto Rican tree frogs that serenade each other with a sound like its name: co-quí, co-quí, co-quí. But the tranquil evening was interrupted by a cat's loud and repeated meowing coming from the neighbor's roof. Many subsequent evenings were equally interrupted by the homely gray tabby, who looked like every other stray cat in the neighborhood, and whom we couldn't get rid of. Eventually, the cat ventured down and decided to adopt us so we fed him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Pita loved to hunt mice, large dragon-tailed lizards and the little green lagartijos or anoles that constitute the bulk of the fauna of the island. He loved to bring us the half-eaten bodies and deposit them on the floor in front of the kitchen door, beaming with self-satisfaction. But because Pita enjoyed the one thing we would not abide: hunting and eating the birds, we packed him up in a box one day. My husband strapped the box to his motorcycle and took it about a mile or so away to the animal shelter. He paid $10 and left him in the hopes that Pita would be adopted. No such luck.

A week later, as we were enjoying our newly quieted evenings in the back porch, we heard Pita meowing from the neighbor's roof. Well, as you may imagine, a cat that escapes the pound and travels for miles to find us couldn't be sent back, so Pita stayed for good. We had him neutered and fed him regularly and he lived a good life as an outside cat, who enjoyed getting in the hammock and hanging his head from its edge. Pita never wanted to come inside and actually clawed his way out through a window screen the one time he was in the house recovering from a nasty fight wound. He died several years later, poisoned by some unknown and hopefully damned-to-hell hand, but not before he'd crawled back to our house to die in the backyard he loved so much.

Darwin makes Pita look like a nene de teta. And we can see how he was found under a pile of wood because after we go to bed every night, near midnight or so, Darwin likes to yowl until we call his name and remind him he's not alone. He yowls loud enough to wake the dead and anyone trying to sleep within a few miles of this house. I'm sure all who walk by our house feel sorry for the poor kid who keeps getting yelled at because all anyone ever hears from us is our continual and exasperated cries of: DAAARWIIIIN!

Recently, I've noticed how Darwin is in cahoots with Geni, the stray female dog we brought from Puerto Rico. We keep her treats in sealed plastic containers on top of the microwave cart and his new sport is batting them off the cart onto the floor so she can gorge herself. That's how she got to eat a whole bag of the pricey duck treats I buy for Rusty, our male Puerto Rican sato, who can't have regular treats because he has a skin allergy to certain proteins. You know what they say about there not being anything more expensive than a free dog? Well, it's true.

Darwin loves Geni. He likes to go into the back mud room, where she has her bed, and rub himself against her. I once caught him standing on his hind legs and swatting her with his paws on the face, as if practising his boxing skills. I believe Darwin thinks Geni is his own personal toy. She takes it like a female and looks up at me with eyes that ask me why on earth we ever let Darwin into the house.

When we adopted Darwin from a rescue organization, the woman who came to do the house visit, before the adoption was finalized, told us that he was a very anxious cat. "You'll have to be vigilant about the dogs because he's very nervous around them," she said, adding that Darwin (then known as Piper) also seemed to be inordinately hungry all the time. Bingo on that one, for sure. But she was totally wrong about his anxiety with dogs. Darwin is outright reckless and cannot seem to get it into his head that Rusty, a 50-plus-pound Lab mix, could kill him with a single bite or a shake.

I'm the one with the perpetual anxiety of coming home to find parts of Darwin strewn all over the walls and floor. We've had to train Rusty to control his ornery temper with Darwin and not kill him for the cat's continual trespasses, such as trying to take the dog's treats from him, or trying to paw at Rusty's sensitive ears, or trying to ride Rusty like a horse, or any number of moronic daredevil stunts Darwin likes to attempt.

With his repeated suicidal forays into Rusty territory, Darwin --who never answered to the name Piper but took to being Darwin right away -- seems to be a living contradiction of his namesake's theory about survival of the fittest. Still, with his big yellow eyes, his salt-and-pepper coloring, his outgoing personality and his eternal readiness for play, Darwin is a big favorite among our family and friends, especially our nieces and nephews and our friends' children. He's never too tired or too dignified or too beautiful (like Magellan) to embark on any silliness required of chasing after his favorite feather-tipped toys or his fake mouse.

His latest favorite thing, to Magellan's utter disdain, is to pick up his little mouse in his mouth and to edge surreptitiously up to wherever Magellan is posing like an Egyptian goddess. Darwin then pretends that Magellan wants to take his mouse away. He growls and hisses, surely imagining himself as a lion who just caught an antelope but must fight another lion for the prey. He repeats this game until Magellan, disgusted, moves away and finds a place to hide from Darwin.

I have to agree with Magellan that Darwin does not provide much evidence for the evolution of the cat species. But I also have to say that in oh so many years and after oh so many cats, I've never lived with a funnier and more fun cat than Darwin.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Racing white

"Race must be taken out of admissions in higher education." That's the latest rallying cry of the mostly white Anglo opponents of Affirmative Action, who have held statewide referenda to ban universities from "considering race" in their admissions process.

But since when has race not been a part of college and university admissions? Since when has the historically entrenched and long-standing privilege of Anglo whiteness not been a part of admissions into higher education?

No one held referenda to take race out of admissions when white Anglos were the only ones who could get into institutions of higher education. That changed only when African Americans and other ethnic minorities took a stand and forced the system to very slowly and painfully shift gears. Now that Affirmative Action has made it possible for more and more racial and ethnic minorities to make it into colleges and universities, race has become "a problem" in admissions.

By race, of course, they mean black, brown and almost-brown people. And by using race to apply only to those who are not white, they again naturalize and occlude the privileges that are part and parcel of Anglo whiteness in this country.

I am a proud product of Affirmative Action. I'm pretty sure that I got into Harvard and into my graduate program at Ohio State because I'm Puerto Rican. I'm pretty sure that without Affirmative Action, I wouldn't have made it into the Ivy League or into a highly competed master's and doctorate program because no one would've likely wanted to take a chance on me, what with my not being a native speaker of English, having attended a public high school, and having low standardized-test scores. I'm pretty sure that what makes me an attractive candidate as a professor is the fact that I am Latina, that I have a proven record in working with and for minorities in higher education, and that I teach Latin@ studies.

Granted, being a Puerto Rican may have helped me to get some doors opened just a crack. But the odds for my success in this country are hardly improved by the fact that I am Puerto Rican. All that I have achieved has been, as it is for most minorities in this country, at the cost of blood, sweat and tears and against some impressive odds. Still, I and so many of my minority colleagues and students, have to hear the same old crap sometimes from white Anglos:

"Of course you'll get into the program, you're [insert minority status here]. Minorities always get in."

"Of course you received an A in that class. You're the only [insert minority status here] in the class."

"As a [insert minority status here], you should be grateful for all you've received."

"As a [insert minority status here], you won't have any trouble getting hired. Minorities always get a job."

The racist message underlying such comments is that we're not good enough, and that we were never good enough to be where we are or to get where we're going on our own merit and effort. The racist message behind such comments is that if it weren't for the allowances made by the white Anglo-dominated system, we wouldn't get anywhere.

The truth, however, is that the white Anglo establishment hasn't given up anything to minorities that minorities didn't fight for with uña y diente. Thus, we as minorities do have to be grateful. But our gratefulness must go to those who, like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and thousands of other unsung heroes, black, brown and almost brown, daily stood and stand up to white Anglo privilege and force the system to change directions, one step at a time.

Critical race theorist Derrick Bell said recently that Martin Luther King's legacy is one that teaches us to root out evil wherever it might exist. The idea that race is only about the black, the brown, and the almost-brown is part of that evil that still must be vanquished. Race in this country began with white Anglos and when the privilege of whiteness is recognized as part and parcel of this country's race-based system of reward, then I'll certainly be all for taking race out of admissions to higher education.

Once white Anglo privilege is taken out of the equation, then the black, the brown and the almost-brown will finally have that often-vaunted but still elusive equal chance to succeed.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Essentially yours

The newspaper photograph must have been taken more than three, maybe four, decades ago when she was a child of five or so. She is sitting on the steps of what appears to be the Capitol in San Juan because of the large marble elephant-leg-looking columns that rise behind her.

She is dressed in a dainty white sleeveless girlie dress, with a billowy skirt and a matching purse and headband surely placed there by her mother in the vain attempts to hold down her unruly black hair. She has chubby arms and hands with pudgy fingers, and the hands are poised demurely, if uncharacteristically so, one on top of the other on her lap.

She is holding a Puerto Rican flag, which flaps in the wind to the right of her face and her expression is priceless. Her dark eyes, framed by dark eyebrows and lashes, are almost slits that turn a little downward at the corners, giving them a slightly Asiatic look (surely the result of one of the many bloods of which she is a product).

Her lips are closed tightly and pursed, her small nose is slightly flared, and the expression in her narrowed eyes clearly cautions the meddling photographer to stay a safe distance away or else. The caption reads "Young Commonwealth fan holds Puerto Rican flag." How she could've been a fan of the Commonwealth (a euphemism for colony) at age five escapes her now, but she sure doesn't look like the fan of anything (except her tightly held flag) in the picture.

She loves this old photograph because it captures so neatly who she is. So much has happened in her life since it was taken, but when she looks at that five-year-old, she still sees herself. She has always loved pretty dresses and she still can issue a sharp warning with her eyes, even if they're now occluded by the coke-bottle-thick lenses she must wear to correct her near-legal blindness.

But most of all she is a full-blooded Puerto Rican, a mix of African and European and perhaps even indigenous legacies. The one who weeps silently every time she listens to Marc Anthony's rendition of Preciosa or Rubén Blades' Patria or Fiel a la Vega's Boricua en la luna.

Some say this is a post-nationalist world where nationalities should not and do not matter, where the global citizen is the future. What she knows is that she comes from a long and illustrious line of Puerto Ricans, on both sides, who have dedicated their lives, in many different ways, to serving their country and their people. And even if she's afar, she's still trying to contribute something, somehow, someway, in her small, voluntary-exile way.

What she knows is that post-nationalist world or not, like in that photograph of old, she still carries her flag and her country in her heart.

Sólo le pido a Dios (excerpt) by León Gieco, translation mine.

Sólo le pido a Dios que el dolor no me sea indiferente.
I only ask of God that I am never indifferent to pain.
Que la reseca muerte no me encuentre
That desiccated death does not find me
Vacía y sola sin haber hecho lo suficiente
empty and alone without having done enough.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Spiking English - Take Two

I've definitely entered some kind of Linguistic Twilight Zone from which there seems to be no escape.

Today I call the below-mentioned cafe where I bought a loaf of white bread Thursday (the one of quesadilla fame) and a female voice answers.

"Hi, I'm calling to ask whether you have some of the white bread you had there last week?" I ask.

"What are you saying? I can't understand you!" the female voice says, annoyed. "Are you asking about white gloves?"

"Bread! "Bread!" I yell into the phone, unbelieving.

"No," she answers abruptly.

"Thanks," I say without meaning it, and hang up.

I've had enough, though. Next time, I'm asking for an interpreter.

Béisbol has been very, very good to me

For some reason I can't remember, the phrase: "Béisbol has been very, very good to me," (intoned in a heavy Puerto Rican accent), has been a favorite of mine for years. And while I can't remember its specific genesis, the phrase is always uttered after a particularly lucky turn in my life, of which there have been many (although there have been plenty of the unlucky ones, too).

Maybe the phrase has been around this long because my dream as a little girl was to become a Major League baseball player. While my mom's dream was to become a ballerina, and I can vaguely recall my own pudgy self decked out in a pink leotard and tutu, trying unsuccessfully and rather grudgingly to look graceful as I attempted a demi plié, I really wanted to be like Johnny Bench or Tany Pérez or Joe Morgan. It's not that I wanted to be a man to play baseball. I wanted to be the girl-me and play baseball. However, standing at barely five feet tall, I was not fated for either the MLB or ballerina-type fame and fortune.

However, for my Tío José Enrique, who managed a Little League team, I was the perfect size to be his team's madrina, or godmother. Thus, he'd drag me to his games on weekends. I was dressed up to the nines in a white dress with lace-trimmed white socks, white patent leather shoes, and a white headband that my Titi Bebi said made me look "angelic." Once in the stadium, I'd stand there, squinting my eyes against the glare, baking in the sun as the Puerto Rico and U.S. anthems were played (not in that order), with the dust blowing everywhere as I cursed my girlie-ness, wanting instead to play like the boys and get a chance to hit the ball out of the park.

Some years later, I remember visiting some second cousins at their finca in Coamo and going to the yard to play the national (as in Puerto Rico) sport. I got the chance to pitch and I threw one ball so hard it got stuck in the cyclone fence that bounded their property. My cousin refused to let me pitch again after that, fearing, I'm sure, that the ball thrown that hard might hit one of us before the bat got to it. That was the end of my pitching career.

I finally did get my chance to play, though. In high school, my best friend Kathy was the team's catcher and I was the substitute who got to wear the cool-looking catcher's mask, rodilleras and mitt when she couldn't. I once even got to tag someone out at home plate, which was quite the thrill. While I hate fielding (after a ball made contact with my forehead when I was trying out for right fielder), I've always liked to bat. And I'm not half bad at it, either, although I've always had a minor problem. When I played in a law firm's co-ed softball league in Washington, D.C., many years later, I routinely got thrown out of the games by angry umpires for hurling the bat after I scored a hit. That's despite the many"clinics" I got from my sports-ologist brother, who did his very best to show me how to bat without killing someone in the process.

In the more sedate and even less physically nimble years of adulthood, the passion for playing baseball has been downgraded to watching the occasional game on television, especially when the oft-cursed Red Sox (I was born in Boston) or the impressive Puerto Rico teams play. Last year's emotion-packed Clásico Mundial de Béisbol made my baseball-loving heart pound again. When the nail-biting final game between Cuba and Puerto Rico wasn't broadcast on any cable station here in Ohio, my husband found it being broadcast in Cuba through his short-wave radio. I felt like I was back in the past when the radio was the way most baseball games were experienced. Listening to the roar of the crowd and the frenzy of the announcers was just as emocionante as watching would've been and just as heartbreaking when Cuba trounced Puerto Rico to take the pennant.

My husband says he doesn't understand why I watch baseball, since it almost always breaks my heart. Yesterday I signed up for what we called the "Spik Pack," a group of Latino channels offered by my cable company, just because it includes a sports channel that will actually broadcast the Serie del Caribe on the same night as the Super Bowl (talk about Latino buying power!). That's because last night, I planned to be among the millions of Latinos glued to my television not to watch football but to watch Puerto Rico play (and hopefully beat) the Dominican Republic. In Puerto Rico, my mom and dad did the same, as did my brother and his family in Mississippi. We had plans to call each other and rant and rave about something or another (just like my sister and I do when we keep track of how Miss Puerto Rico does in the Miss Universe Pageant). Alas, it was not to be.

La República started off with four runs on our best pitcher in the first inning and it was all an avalanche from there. I almost didn't mind that my newly purchased cable channel didn't work (and the company couldn't explain why) so that instead of baseball I had an Impressionist canvas being created on my TV screen by the little moving squares of color. That was soon followed by a totally blank screen. By the time cable came back late at night and I checked the game, the Dominicans were ahead 9-0 in the seventh and I found out this morning that they barrieron el piso with us, winning 12-0. I think it's poetic justice. Many Puerto Ricans are horridly racist toward Dominicans, using them as the butt of their ethnic jokes so they can feel superior to someone (weird when you consider that Puerto Ricans have been the butt of racist Anglo jokes for more than a century). Thus, the universe is slightly more balanced this morning after the Dominicans kicked our collective Puerto Rican ass.

Heartbreak or not, baseball will always be a part of me. I must say that the one clothing accessory I own that elicits the most comments by total strangers, especially men, is not my pair of gorgeous suede pink high-heel knee-high boots but my Boston Red Sox cap. Feeling some kind of odd kinship, men address me anywhere: the supermarket, the gas station, the post office, wherever I happen to be wearing my navy blue cap with the blazing red "B" (which a Guatemalan friend once reminded me also stands for Boricua). The truth is, though, that my affinity with the Red Sox is more platonic than committed so I don't really keep up at all with the team's never-ending tragedy.

That became painfully evident last year when a guy started up a conversation with me about the Red Sox's miseries, specifically the fact that our players tend to dump us and go play for our arch-enemies, the New York Yankees. I smiled reassuringly and said in an upbeat tone: "Well, at least we still have Johnny Damon." He couldn't believe his ears. "What are you talking about?! Johnny is nothing but a Judas, he went to the Yankees, too!" That's the last time I tried to make small talk about the Red Sox.

Well, I never did become a Major League baseball player, and I never will hit a ball out of a brightly illuminated ballpark before a standing-room-only crowd. But I can't complain. In the end, béisbol has been very, very good to me.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Spiking English

"May I please have the shopper?" I asked the red-nosed, lanky-haired Anglo pharmacy cashier, pointing helpfully to the color-picture flyer containing the week's specials, lying right next to the cash register.

Instead of handing that over, she looked at me quizzically and picked up a black magic marker that was next to the shopper in question. "This isn't a Sharpie," she informed me, unhelpfully.

My Anglo husband says I'm too sensitive about these things, and perhaps he's right. But since I know I can properly enunciate the difference between shopper and Sharpie, I have to ask myself: What is it about my speech pattern that makes some Anglos confuse what I actually say with something I not only didn't say but couldn't possibly have said if I was actually trying to communicate?

Personally, I think it's my Spikness. My husband suggests that it may be because of my different word choices and my lack of a regional accent. He's a dear, isn't he? But I think it's my Spikness.

It happened most recently at the neighborhood cafe of the college where I currently teach. The cafe is known for making creatively tasty quesadillas practically every Thursday and I went to order takeout. "Can I have a quesadilla order to go, please?" I asked the young lanky-haired Anglo woman at the cash register. "I'm sorry, what?" she asked, as if I'd murmured my order or spoken to her in a Martian dialect. Granted, I pronounced quesadilla in Spanish so I guess I should have intoned: "QUEY-said-ylla" for her to understand. But, silly me, since the Spanish pronunciation hadn't stumped anyone before and since I thought the word would be recognizable to someone who works there, I went the Spik English route.

But no matter what I said, she wasn't understanding me. She asked for my name. I pronounced it slowly. She asked me to repeat it. I asked for the sweet potato quesadillas (after she'd figured out I didn't want the lunch ham sandwich special). She added an order of sweet potato fries (which I didn't even know they had!) to my bill. I was getting crankier by the slowly ticking minutos and had to exert superhero self-control not to demand a translator who understood Spik English so I could finally order my food and escape what began to feel like some forgotten level of hell.

This apparent mis-communication, I've noticed, also happens each time I come across a lanky-haired Anglo university colleague, who's as formally educated as I am. Every time I'm around her, without fail, and regardless of what I say, she turns to her Anglo friends and asks: "Did she just say [insert some really ridiculous, unintelligible thing]? I'm convinced that this is her passive-aggressive attempt to remind me and everyone else that I'm not one of them, that I'm a Spik, that I don't "speak" English because I actually only barely Spik English.

And, truth be told, I haven't always been proud of Spiking English. When I was a little girl, I remember how proudly I beamed when, after hearing me speak English, people cooed: "Why, you have no accent! How wonderful!" I remember flinching in shame when I heard the Puerto Rico Miss Universe contestant request a translator or mangle some simple phrase in English. I remember how smug I was when I got to college in the States and Anglos said: "You don't have an accent." An accent, I knew well, made you invisible and made people believe you were stupid and dismissable. Having no accent meant I would be understood, I would be taken seriously, even if I was a Spik.

How quickly did life here change that colonized attitude! I found out that with or without an accent, I was still a Spik. Soon, I began to cherish my "Other-Languageness," my Caribbean, Spanish-speaking Spikness. In latter years, when Anglos thought they were commending me by stating, "You speak English so well," I responded with almost venomous sweetness: "And I also speak Spanish, do you?"

My Spikness does get me into sometimes mortifying but always funny situations in the classroom, especially because I teach English. Yes, my native language is Spanish, and I teach English. Yes, I am a Puerto Rican and I teach American literature. No, I don't fit that preconceived notion that only native Anglo speakers get to teach the language in the native Anglo country. English stopped being the property of the British and the Anglo Americans when they colonized most of the world and spread their language to the rest of us. Spanish is a gorgeous language, as important as English for educated people to know in this increasingly globalized word, but I find English beautiful, too.

And while I've been Spiking English since I was four years old, I do mangle it now and then, sometimes unintentionally. I remember one of my first classes of English composition when I pointed to an image and said: "As you can see, such-and-such is in his horse." Now, I know the difference between in and on. But my bilingual brain likes to play games with me and will take away the right word in whatever language I'm speaking and want to use the one in the other language instead. My brain also likes to play musical chairs with my prepositions, calling up in when I need on, or playing hide-and-seek with the correct pronunciation of certain words.

After I had said "in his horse," I grimaced inwardly, dreading the summons from the President's office: "The parents called, they complained that you're teaching their kids English composition but you don't even know the difference between in and on?!" The students laughed and one student, the bravest, said: "He's on his horse." "Well," I said, recovering quickly. "He could be in his horse, spiritually..." And the students laughed hard and long and all was well and no parents complained and no President has summoned me, yet.

Years later, I still occasionally mispronounce words but I no longer mind and now it's just part of my teaching persona. The other day I mangled "synonym" so badly that the students laughed and I laughed with them. "You wait," I said, "keep a tally and by the end of the semester we'll see how many words I've destroyed or invented." One student made my day, saying: "That's cool. I don't know any Spanish myself."

Still, don't ask me to say "decolonization" unless you feel like guffawing. The most mortifying incident lately was when, after I had presented a paper at my discipline's most important conference, my advisor kindly mentioned: "We need to work on your pronunciation." Throughout the entire 20-minute talk I had mispronounced the word "epistle" as if I was saying: "EP-piss-sol." Blame it on second-language problems.

Spik and all, I am a hardass teacher who gets her students to see how we present ourselves rhetorically through our writing and that to be persuasive and effective the academic writing has to be as flawless and as purposeful as possible.

Although I can write English more than proficiently (sometimes better than some natives), the likelihood is that I will always Spik English. So I guess I'll always have to explain myself to some Anglo, even when I'm actually speaking English.