Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Signs of spring

The tiny green buds sprouting today all over what only yesterday were brown sad dessicated trees.

The color of sunlight bursting through the decreasing patches of muddy brown as the radiant and well-named Gold Finches shed their drab winter coat.

The cream-and-yolk-yellow daffodils, with their Wordsworth-giddy heads erupting from their tall green stalks, like daytime fireworks.

The birds singing with operatic gusto, as if they hadn't had the chance to exercise their vocal cords in a long long time.

The dogs walking with their goofy faces in full display, wacky grins spread wide, tongues hanging out, and fish-eyes bulging, anticipating all they will discover in their daily detective work.

The opened windows, inviting the cool breeze that ushers out the stale smells of a house closed onto itself too long and delivers the perfume of life emerging, unstoppable and new.

The spring peepers, Ohio cousins of the diminutive too-cute-to-be-true coquí, rehearsing their hymns, like the devoted chorus of an outdoor church.

My husband and I, sitting outside in our small deck until the light is too low to read and the mosquitoes (the truest, if least appealing, sign of spring) are out for blood.

How not to love the spring when it arrives so willingly, with such self-confidence and desire to please?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Second chances

Yesterday, I turned five years old. And while you may think I'm speaking metaphorically, I'm actually being quite literal.

Five years ago yesterday I had the life-saving surgery that altered the course of my history after 15 years of wrestling with a disease that wouldn't let go and almost killed me. My father often reminds me of how I cheated death, and I know he's entirely right about that. That's why I never call her name in vain, no vaya a ser that she's hanging around these parts and remembers I'm one of the ones she didn't get when she intended.

I also know how truly Dracula speaks when he tells Jonathan Harker that there are worse things than death.

That's why, in this second chance at life I was given, I pay attention to and relish almost every minute I am given to breathe without pain and to shine with the fulgor of a faraway star that burns brightly against the cielo of my soul.

Long-time journalist Leroy Severs has a blog on NPR (and a weekly podcast) titled My Cancer in which he shares his on-going struggle to beat "the monster," as he calls it. I heard one of his recent podcasts in which he said that you can't go through a life-altering disease, like cancer, without leaving your old life behind and creating a new one, with brand-new attitudes and expectations.

I used to believe that was true, since that certainly has been my case, although my disease wasn't cancer. But I unfortunately know people who've gone through terrible illnesses and have not changed their old ways and have failed to learn much about how seismic a change a chronic and possibly recurring disease (as mine also is) should be.

Grappling with and succeeding against illness (even if momentarily) is life's way of giving us a chance to learn to "suck the marrow," or chuparse el hueso, as we'd say back home, of every day you get that's not marred by overwhelming pain and suffering. (BTW, I thought the phrase in English was my own translation of our saying related to sucking the very last bits of a juicy pork chop, but I actually found it sometime ago in reading Thoreau!).

I am blessed because I learned the lesson. Every day for me is a gift from God and I try to treat it with the reverence it deserves.

No longer will days fly by me, unnoticed and untraveled, because I'm in too much of a hurry to be or to do or to get or to please. No longer will days conclude without my feeling I have lived them to the fullest I could within each day's list of possibilities and challenges.

Five years ago yesterday, the Heavens saw it fit to give me, a wretched mortal, a second chance at living a better life. By God, I renew my pledge each day, such a second chance cannot and shall not be wasted.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Los Nuyores

I can understand why Puerto Ricans migrating to New York City called this place Los Nuyores, in plural. The city is so vast and so majestic that only a plural rightly describes its scope and its feel.

In many ways, New York feels like another kind of "home" to me. When we were children, we visited often and we would walk all over the city, whose grid-like layout - so much more logical than Boston's cow-ploughed streets - I never did learn.

But I did learn to fully appreciate its city-ness, its buildings that reach for the blue sky and the sun that streams unevenly through the corridors of avenues and streets, illuminating some structures while keeping others in shadow. It was here that I learned to love the faraway sound of horns honking and police officers whistling and emergency vehicles wailing in the distance. Those sounds, oddly enough, mean "home" to me.

When my husband and I first moved to the Ohio suburbs, I had trouble acclimating to the utter silence of the nights. When a few years ago we moved to a small city near the capital, I knew it was a good decision for many reasons, but one of them included that I could hear the distant roar of the cars sailing through the expressway and the faint wail of the sirens in the nighttime. Those, to me, are the sounds of the city.

This morning, my "tree" friend and I took a nice walk on a sunny cool spring day on Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center and back to where we're staying. I was a little kid again, pointing at the Cathedral and ooing and aahing over every interesting thing I saw on the way. I probably annoyed my very patient and kind friend but she didn't let on at all.

I wanted to kick myself for failing to listen to the sage advice of Dr. S, who said I should bring my little digital camera with me to NYC. I didn't and I regret it because there's thousands of pictures that went untaken even if they remain in my mind's eye as vivid prints of the city's uniqueness. The next time the camera comes with me, for sure.

Last night, I had dinner at Sueños in Chelsea - which I highly recommend since the food was exquisite - with another group of women friends (some brand new to that evening). Although the night concluded with the unexpected illness of one of the new fascinating women I had met, up until that moment we were all delighting in the company of smart, hardworking women with lots of interesting things to say and share.

Tomorrow, it's back home to Ohio. But for today, I'm drinking in Los Nuyores like there was no tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

La puerta y el altar

This gated foyer in Viejo San Juan, with its bright green walls, white wood door and black rejas, boasts a little altar to the Virgin Mary with a tile rendition, a carved santo and a large white candle.

A site of private prayers made public to catch the eye and hearts of passers-by.

Making bread

For the first time in weeks, I'm sitting here with nothing pressing to do (well, except for making bread for my husband) and I'm relishing the moment.

There's been so many things pending in the past few months that it seems like I've always had something in the back of my mind that had to be completed or accomplished or read or written or sent or received. Not that there aren't things that need to get done anymore, but the bulk of what was up in the air is now settled on firm ground and now it's all a matter of waiting (something I'm not particularly good at, but oh well).

For a few minutes longer, I'm going to sit here and enjoy that feeling of not having to make sure something gets done before I go downstairs, plug in the bread maker (I used to be a purist and kneaded my bread but the bread maker is so much faster), and have a warm and nice-smelling loaf of bread ready in a hour.

My husband is a bread-ophile so there's always bread in the house, whether made by me or store bought. Personally, there's no bread I love more than a piece of the crusty steaming Pan de Pepín baguette I buy every time I visit Puerto Rico. I know my own bread isn't even remotely that good, but it will do.

I really like making bread (even if I don't get to knead it) because there's something primordial, primeval and human about it. I feel connected to the women of centuries before me who made bread and to those who still make bread today.

And there's something about bread and about my Catholic background that invests the bread-making and bread-having with a symbolic meaning that makes it significant and weighty. I feel so pleased and proud every time the yeast comes alive, as it should, and the bread rises and hardens and browns to perfection.

My bread is simple but solid and nourishing and its warmth and freshness is a welcome respite from overly processed and additive-laden alternatives. It's not artisanal or fancy or special, but it will do.

Even though my bread is a "fast bread," according to the bread maker's setting, it's not rushed and it doesn't skip any steps. I'm thinking bread is the perfect segue back into the routine of life after pausing for a long-in-coming and surprising moment of nothing-to-do-ness.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Galería de fotos

If you go to Viejo San Juan, pay special attention to the balconies. They're often a sight for sore eyes.

The windows are pretty cool, too.

As are the doors, with their beautifully crafted rejas and the tiles on the stairwells and floors.

This is the door to one very small and very rectangular casita in Viejo San Juan.

This is a painting of Don Pedro Albizu Campos, the Nationalist Party leader who spent most of his life behind bars where he was finally secretly radiated to death.

The blue cobblestones in the Old City are gorgeous. José Campeche has a painting that shows when they were first laid down in the eighteenth century.

A view of El Morro, San Juan's fortress and erstwhile prison with its signature garitas. It is said the chilly dungeons are haunted...

At least the spirits resting in the National Cemetery have a great view of the azure Atlantic.

The Iglesia de San José, bombarded by the Americans in May 1898, is being restored to its former glory. I used to attend Sunday services at the church many years ago.

The delicate and flashy trinitarias are my very favorite Caribbean flower.

A great idea.

The view of the Atlantic from the Hostería del Mar, a favorite inn and restaurant.

Puerto Rican fruits and vegetables in the middle of the busy city of Hato Rey.

Friday, March 16, 2007

An embarassment of robins

Well, not quite. But this morning, as I resumed my early walks with the dogs, I counted at least six robins happily pecking at the thawed and sprouting ground.

The dogs were in their element, doing their usual sniffing and pulling and grunting and marking (Geni has taken to imitating Rusty and trying to lift one of her hind legs to pee, which considering her girth is a pretty humorous scene to witness). And I was in my element despite that fact that, in crossing the Atlantic, I returned to be in about 40 degrees less of warmth and sunshine than when I was in Puerto Rico.

But, for me, the best part of traveling is returning to my own home and to my daily routines. At heart, I'm not much of a traveler although I've come to appreciate the quiet and focused time afforded by airplanes for reading.

In fact, I pretty much hate traveling not because I'm afraid of flying but because I dislike the whole process of getting in and out and of being on airplanes. I wish we had advanced to Star Trek levels of technologies where I could just use a transponder (or whatever that thing was called) and yell: "Beam me to [wherever I'm going], Scottie!"

It's possible, I've considered, that the pretty amazing amounts of traveling we did as kids has contributed to my otherwise inexplicable general antipathy for traveling. Before I turned 16, I had been to the former U.S.S.R. (where we ate and drank every possible concoction imaginable made of apples and where the sun was out for about four hours in winter), to Colombia and Venezuela, to Mexico, to Paris and London, and to Greece and Egypt, in addition to many trips to the States.

In their efforts to combat the increasing materialism bred by an Americanized Christmas in Puerto Rico (after we'd started asking for toys by brand names), my parents decreed when I was about 10 years old that we'd spend the holidays in December traveling so we could experience the world. They pooled their middle-class earnings and we mostly went on the cheapest educational tours they could find.

The trip to London was particularly memorable because they played the Abba song "Fernando," over and over in the restaurant. To this day, we can all recite the song verbatim. We arrived during the Boxing Day holidays when nothing was open and there were no cabs. We walked for miles around the entire city and ate in a fish-and-chips place owned by Indians, but we didn't get to tour Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, or any of the other famous tourist attractions everyone talks about when they've been there. My next trip to London, whenever that might be, will be a quite the pleasant surprise since all I remember is Madam Tussaud's wax museum (which was great fun) and Shakespeare's town (where I had the best butter bread ever!).

I guess all that world traveling at an early age contributed to making me quite a committed homebody, to my wanderlust husband's continual dismay. Of course I enjoy traveling to be with my loved ones and to visit (some) new places. But, in the end, I'm happy to be back home so that I can take long walk with my old doggies and start looking out for Mr. Robin once more.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

En mi Viejo San Juan

En mi Viejo San Juan is the melancholy song I always hear in my mind's ear when I visit the centuries-old city with its blue cobblestoned streets, its box-like mint-green, canary-yellow and sunset-orange row houses and its famous Spanish-style balconies with cascading trinitarias in every shade of magenta, violet and white.

Una tarde partí hacia extraña nación pues lo quizo el destino, pero mi corazón se quedó frente al mar, en mi Viejo San Juan...

(One afternoon I left toward a strange nation because fate willed it so, but my heart stayed behind, looking at the sea, in my Viejo San Juan...)

Old San Juan, in gringo parlance, is always a delight to my senses. It is a tiny bustling city with thousands of people from all over the world moving to and fro, like busy busy bees entering and leaving the hive. The anachronistic cars have trouble navigating the pencil-narrow streets that were never meant for anything wider than a horse.

And there are multitudes of hungry pigeons everywhere. But the ones I like best are those who prefer to perch atop the iron statue of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León, whose outstretched arm signals toward the Isla Grande (as the Spaniards called the larger island viewed from the islet of San Juan), which he came to settle and colonize. Those pigeons, in what I like to think is a kind of political statement, have fun pooping all over Ponce de León's likeness.

Today mi Viejo San Juan had quite the gift in store for us. My mom wanted me to accompany her to see the newly opened Galería Nacional (national, as in Puerto Rican) at the old Convento de los Dominicos that used to house the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. The yellow and white building, erected in the sixteeth century, is an architectural jewel with a large interior courtyard and perfectly harmonized arches that frame its squarish two-floored structure.

Inside, the treasures left us speechless. Some of the most famous paintings by the Puerto Rican masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth century - José Campeche and Francisco Oller - and of the twentieth as well - Myrna Báez and Lorenzo Homar - are arranged in a flawlessly conceived gallery where the perfect lighting breathes life into the paintings, keeping those of us who are there to see them spellbound and enthralled.

Another wonderful part of the experience was that most of the attendants in the gallery were young people, beaming with pride, one of them boasting a bigote de patriota worthy of the nineteenth century. And, typical of Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean peoples (which never ceases to amaze and move me), they treated us like we were their long-lost cousins, finally found.

Even the security guard started up a conversation, telling us her improbable story about a centuries-old ceiba she had heard about and gone searching for and found in the middle of a barrio in the city. "What impressed me most," she confessed, as the three of us observed with awe how the paintings of past centuries, with their bohíos and palm trees and flamboyanes, teemed with life, "was the immesurable wisdom of the tree."

How right she is, I thought. The truest measure of wisdom, whether in art or nature, is beauty. That so many here are working hard at conserving both is also the truest measure of hope.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Each time I return to Puerto Rico, where I grew up until I went off to college at age 16, and where I lived more recently for 13 consecutive years until 2001, I wonder if I did the right thing in leaving again (well, this last time, I had to leave for medical reasons because the treatment I needed wasn't available here).

Each time I return to Puerto Rico I feel like I'm home, basking in the warmth of the people and the culture and the beauty of the place, until the security guard in the building across from my parents blasts his salsa on the radio each Sunday morning for everyone to hear and no one can do a thing about it. The police won't come when they have bigger sharks to fry and the builders won't move a finger to please the people who protested construction of their ugly cement tower in what used to be the last remaining patch of wild greenery in this area, where, if you listened hard at nights, you could distinctly hear the sweet cuuu-cuuuu of the tiny múcaro. A pair of guaragüaos lived and nested here and were seen regularly catching a ride on the currents of warm air while screeching love songs at each other. Now, that is only a memory, and you can hardly hear the coquís serenading the night over the ruckus of the feral cats meowling and fighting each other to the death.

Each time I return to Puerto Rico I feel like I'm home, until I see the lonely stray dogs with their ribs showing or the spaced out addicts on the streets begging or hear about the public school teacher who has to wait each morning for the maintenance workers to clear his classroom of rat feces or hear the corrupt politicians fighting over nothing while the country crumbles into the sea. No wonder so many of our good and honest people pack up and leave even when just as many are determined to stay and make a difference in any way they can.

Why does it feel like it's impossible to change what 500 years of colonialism have produced when there's so many here who want things to be better and when this country is filled with the kindest, smartest, most committed, hardworking people I've known?

I don't have an answer to that. And, believe me, I'm under no misguided impression that living por allá is better because the so-called Americans (a term that really applies to the whole hemisphere, not only the U.S.) have their act together. A few minutes watching CNN (or, better yet, the international news channels) and anybody with sense ought to be disavowed of the impression that Americans, in general, are superior to us or to anyone else.

But I can't stop my heart from breaking each time I come here and I can't figure out why things seem to always stay the same or only to get worse. Every time I return to Puerto Rico I feel like I'm home, yet, truth be told, I'm also not so sad when it's time to go.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Story people

It happened to me again today when I accompanied my mom to the nearby supermercado to get a few things we needed at home. The older woman approached me and, unbidden and uninvited, started telling me her life story.

"My mom has a corn on her left foot that's bleeding, so I'm going to buy her this pair of open sandals," she said, looking me straight in the eyes as if I'd known her forever, as if I'd come to the supermarket with her and not my mom. "Do you think that's a good idea?"

I nodded and mumbled something about her being very nice to take care of her mother, and I opened a fashion magazine and quickly started leafing through the pages, not really paying much attention to what I was seeing, but hoping my interlocutor would desist in her intention to make me a part of her world.

When we left, my mom commented: "Your face must tell people that they can talk to you. People don't do that to me."

I groaned because it's true. Throughout my entire life in Puerto Rico, total strangers have felt at ease in making me privy to their innermost thoughts and their most private affairs. Perhaps it's sad to say, but after more than two decades in waspy gringolandia, I've certainly become de-Puerto Rican-nized in many ways and my general lack of appreciation for that "gift" is certainly one of them.

But since I'll probably always be much too bien educada to make such lack of appreciation evident, these invitations to invade someone else's privacy likely will just keep happening.

In the meantime, what I've come to understand is that we, as Puerto Ricans, are a story people. We are made up of stories and we create ourselves from our stories so it's through stories that we communicate and make connections with each other, whether such ties are desired or not.

When I was at the Atlanta airport waiting for my flight to Puerto Rico, my Red Sox baseball cap pulled low over my eyes and intently pretending to read a bible-thick book, I was at ease to eavesdrop on the many conversations going on around me, among the Puerto Ricans waiting along with me.

I heard stories of deceit and loss, about a husband who had cheated his wife with his high-school sweetheart, "who is now so much fatter and uglier than me," said the woman to her friend with glee. Stories of war and death, about the Puerto Ricans fighting in Iraq who have no decent equipment and can't even vote for the president who sends them to fight. "I had to buy my cousin a bullet-proof vest and some good shoes," said the man to his friend. "This war is like Vietnam, there's no way to win it."

I smiled to myself, at the oracle-like certainty with which the man spoke, at the dark humor in the woman's secret vengeance: that the other-woman that split her marriage had turned out to be homelier than she imagined. I smiled because these were all stories of people coming together and clashing and loving and hating and trying to work things out and laughing and grieving and trying to make sense of the world around them.

I smile to myself as I write this because I realize that I also am a story woman, made up of stories and creating myself out of stories.

Perhaps, I conclude, it is a gift after all that so many stories come to me, unbidden and uninvited, but expected. Perhaps, I conclude, in another life and another time, I was the story teller to whom the stories came, unbidden and uninvited, to be told and disseminated.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Caribbean winds

I don't exaggerate when I say this feels like another world. One in which the gritty red sands of the Sahara and the dark ashes of a faraway volcano ride the powerful east-driven winds that cross the Atlantic and coat the bluest-blue skies of my island with a deep pink-edged bruma, like a fog in summer.

Not the gossamer-ghost fog of the northern climes but a fog that's more like a thin curtain woven of gray ashes and red sands. A bruma that brings with it, if you listen hard, the bellows of camels and the slithering sounds of flowing lava.

The winds here are as mythical as the light. Starting with Juracán, the Taíno god of storms, through the devastating god-strength hurricanes that have hit the island and affected, or even determined, some of its centuries-old history.

I remember two hurricanes that are part of my own (not-as-old) history here: Hugo and Georges. When Hugo hit Puerto Rico in 1989, I was recovering from an illness that devastated me to the point where I had to learn to walk and run and even drive again, from scratch. A similar thing happened to Puerto Rico after Hugo.

When the hurricane arrived, I remember how we momentarily came out of our hiding place in the back of the house to see the glass windows in the kitchen oscillate and ondulate within their frames, as the alchemist wind turned them back to their pre-solid state when they were made of liquid fire. I remember how the wind itself was so thick and so deep and so strong that it tried to bully its way through the building by pushing the parked cars back and taking the shape of a wave that had wrested itself free from the sea to wreak destruction on land.

People who've heard tornadoes always say they sound like a train. I don't remember any specific sound that the hurricanes made, except for the explosion of the kitchen window as it gave in to the rising barometric pressure and burst into a million little pieces. I do remember the wind howling outside the windows and how we wanted desperately for the banshee to subside, not knowing whether that was the true end of the hurricane or only its deceptively calm eye, whose siren-song respite actually promises a stronger whipping from the other side of the monster.

Almost a decade later, my husband and I watched as Hurricane Georges hit Puerto Rico in 1998, sitting in the darkness of the covered carport in our sturdy little cement-box house in Guaynabo. The darkness was so complete that we couldn't actually see any of the havoc unleashed in the streets outside but we could hear, which might be more terrifying, since we couldn't know what we were going to see when the light returned. For hours, we heard metal scraping against the road and nameless things being torn apart and tossed to and fro, like a happy cat playing with an unlucky mouse, by the wind.

Nobody sleeps on the night a hurricane hits. Those of us lucky enough to have a safe roof over our heads bide the time in darkness and listen to the transistor radio until the winds die down and the sun peeks through the dark clouds and we can assess the damage and move on. We were among the luckiest ones and we only lost the cover of our roof-top cistern, which flew like a frizbee into the yard of a nearby house, and a beloved ficus tree we had planted the year before. I wept bitterly over that loss because I had seen that ficus tree bloom and grow from a little twig on a pot into a gorgeous lush and leafy tree that Georges uprooted the way one would pull an ugly weed from the flower bed.

In 1998, after I had to leave my husband and home behind to go do my job, I swore I'd been in journalism long enough. The newspaper won an award for our post-hurricane coverage that year but the effort convinced me that I was done (finally and forever) with putting my job first. The drive to the newspaper early the day after the hurricane, as I made my way gingerly in my car through uncleared streets covered in debris while the winds still whipped by at almost 40 miles an hour, trying to avoid the profusion of electric posts that had fallen, like dominoes, one over the other with their electric lines snaked all over the roads, was absurdly risky.

The winds of Hurricane Georges not only shifted the history of Puerto Rico, they also shifted the history of my life. It was after that day that I decided to leave journalism to become a teacher. The next hurricane, I pledged, would see me among those who got to stay home.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Patria, son tantas cosas bellas

Yesterday, I crossed half of the still-frozen United States and later half of the mythical Atlantic in two separate iron birds, whose near-hubris ability to wrest from nature what humans were not vested with (the power of flight), will never cease to amaze me.

How exactly does a thousands-of-pounds-heavy airplane lift into the air and remain aloft? I try not to think about it too much when I'm actually in one, but I'm still a child-in-wonderment when it comes to knowing why it works.

Today, the tropical Puerto Rican sun streams in through the windows of my parents' home, making its beneficent presence known by warming and coloring in bright yellow everything it touches: my skin, the walls, the floors, the cement building and the glass windows that willingly reflect it, like the eternal flame of some ancient god that will not be forgotten.

Today, the miserable virus-induced cold that had ailed me for nearly a week in still-freezing Ohio is magically almost gone, as if all I needed was to set foot in my warm patria, the island that holds half of my life in its memory, the island that will never be forgotten, to feel and to be made whole again.

Ahhhh, my body sighs in contentment, this is what The Sun was meant to do. That other one, that meek and powerless sun of my life up North, cannot possibly be the same oversized star or have been worshipped as the same god. This Caribbean Sun tells me that I've stepped through some magical threshold into a totally different reality.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Oh, yes, you are!

Anglo comedian Michael Richards was seen on TV by the entire world going on a racist tirade after he was heckled during a stand-up comedy routine. Afterwards, his excuse was: "I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this."

More recently, former NBA player Tim Hardaway, an African American, said on the radio: "Well, you know, I hate gay people. . .I’m homophobic." In a later interview, Hardaway backpedaled, saying: "I don't hate gay people. I'm a good-hearted person. . . I respect people."

"I'm not that kind of person," seems to be the spin phrase of the moment, fitting any situation in which a public figure finds that he or she has exposed their true nature for the whole world to see. How can they possibly believe (and how can their publicists possibly convince them) that such an excuse is remotely appropriate or effective?

What makes that phrase particularly insidious is that it ascribes the racism or the homophobia or the sexism or [insert any other type of discriminatory action here] as an outburst that happens only when the person "isn't" him or herself.

What that phrase doesn't acknowledge or face up to or handle is the fact that we live in a pervasively racist, homophobic, sexist and [insert any other type of discriminatory action here] society and that until everybody owns up to that very fact, not much is going to change. Cherríe Moraga, a Latina lesbian feminist writer, warns us that it's the "enemy within" that we must come to terms with at the same time that we struggle against all other enemies of justice and equality out there.

Racist tirades are racist, whether the person meant them to be or not. That's why they're called racist tirades. Saying that you're not a racist after you've proven the contrary with your actions only makes you look like a hypocrite and a fool. Saying that you hate gay people (any kind of people not like you, for that matter) immediately takes you off the already short-list of good-hearted and respectful people, precisely because such people make it a point not to insult those who are not like themselves. That's the whole point of cultivating good-person-ness and respectfulness.

What Richards and Hardaway, and so many others forget, and what we need to remember always, is that old and never-failing axiom: Actions speak so much, much louder than words.

Trolls in the laundry

Where do lost socks go? I vividly remember the veritable cemetery of socks that my mom collected when I was a child. Mostly my father's, the socks were all blues and grays and blacks who'd lost their partner forever.

Right now, in my laundry room, I have one white and one black sock pining despairingly for their mates. I wish I could marry them and be done with it but the sock world is one in which there's no such thing as inter-color unions.

And while in my childhood home of five it was not surprising that socks would be spirited away by the trolls in the laundry, in my adult home of two it's a lot harder, especially since I really work hard at trying to keep the socks married forever.

But there must be trolls in my laundry, too. I'd like to think they use the socks as materials to fashion the little sails of the galactic ships in which they sail though the universe at night, wriggling themselves into laundry rooms through the dryer exhaust pipes to kidnap unsuspecting socks.

Instead, one or the other sock is probably caught (again) in the old aluminum laundry chute. Still, I like the galactic-ship-sail story better as an explanation for why socks go missing in the night without warning.

City wild

This morning, in my daily outing with the dogs, I took a longer walk than usual and when I turned into one of the less familiar streets I saw the Cooper's hawk that lives in our neighborhood lifting from the sidewalk, carrying what must have been a small mouse in its powerful claws, given the desperate squeaks I heard as it vanished into the trees. Poor mouse, I thought. Lucky hawk.

I find it fascinating that in a small city like ours we have such a variety of fauna. Truly, walking in my neighborhood or simply sitting in our dining room looking out onto the small deck and watching nature unfold is almost like a Discovery Channel program. I heard once on NPR that Central Park in New York City has tens of thousands of species. Obviously, we can't boast those numbers in our city but we've counted more than 20 different species of birds at our feeder, including the Cooper's hawk, which likes to hunt in our yard although I've never seen him catch anything.

Apart from the multitudes of hungry squirrels and the noisy conventions of birds, we also have several rabbits that in the spring actually wait for me in the mornings to put out the bird feed on the ground. We also have an opossum, which I call Lazarus, because the dog has attacked him three times and after convincing me without a shred of doubt that this time he's given up the ghost, Lazarus has literally risen from the dead (as opossums do) and disappeared obviously unscathed into his secret burrow.

I can see why they call it "playing opossum" and Lazarus should get an Oscar for his performance. Every time the dog has gotten to him, usually in the early morning hours when it's still pitch dark or in the late evening hours when he's not expecting the dogs to be out, Lazarus just lies there with gaping mouth open in a wide grimace of death, tongue hanging out, beady eyes fixed, with no visible signs of breathing or movement. "He's dead!" I despair each time, and each time my husband reminds me that this is what Lazarus is good at, that he will be fine. And each time my husband is right and when I come back an hour or so later, convinced that this time we'll have to dig a grave for him, he's vanished silently into the darkness.

The Cooper's hawk is another personaje in the unfolding nature drama of our back yard. I know when he's around because all the birds vanish as if on cue and the squirrels hunch down, trying to meld into the landscape so he can't find them. Most of the time he'll be perched on a nearby tree, surveying his territory with telescopic eyes but sometimes he actually perches on our deck. The first time I saw him land on the deck the "thump" he made when he dropped onto the wood railing sounded like he was made of stone. I tried to shoo him away, using the same strategy I apply so successfully with the starlings, but he only fixed me with his yellow serpent-like eyes and dared me to come outside and get him off the deck in person. The nerve, I thought.

One of our concerns when we moved a few years ago from the suburbs near a large farm area into this small city was that we'd leave so much of that wild life behind. We were quickly disavowed of such fears, I have to say.

And I don't miss living in the suburbs one iota. I certainly don't miss the idiotic hunters firing into our backyards each hunting season in their pursuit of deer or looking out onto my back yard one Sunday morning to see a large dead deer hanging from a hook in a neighbor's shed as his small grandchild ogled it. I sort of can understand how hunting for food can be a necessity, especially when a deer can feed a family for a year. But hunting for sport or pleasure is something else altogether. And they call us savages, I thought, as I saw the decapitated deer swaying in the breeze.

At least in the city you don't have to put up with such grisly views. Still, my city-girl fears of the wild wild don't do much for my husband who's something of a country boy born and bred. When we went on an anniversary trip to Montana a few years ago, he wanted to hike and I went happily along (well, as happy as I can be hiking) until I saw a large rather alarming sign notifying hikers that this was grizzly country. An encounter with one of the famed and gorgeous bears, the sign warned in oversize letters, was not an impossibility. I'm going no further, I informed my husband, who wanted to press on in the hopes that we'd at least get a glimpse of a mountain goat or a magnificent elk or something large and alive other than the greenery. Uh, uh, I said, shaking my head. I may not know when I'm going to die, but I sure as heck know how I'm not going to die and that's eaten by a grizzly bear for lunch.

I make no apologies. I'm a city girl, born and bred, and I much rather prefer the city wild (both animal and human) to the fake wild of the suburbs or the wild wild of the woods and jungles. The wild wild I'd much rather watch on the Discovery Channel.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Elegy to the white squirrel

For months, there was a white squirrel that had moved into our yard and made our outside living spaces her own. White as first-fallen snow, with ruby-colored eyes surrounded by a rim of baby-pink, with light-catching fur and a bushy, always-twitching tail, the squirrel became a fixture of our daily landscape.

She (and we knew she was a "she" because a gray-squirrel "he" was often chasing and trying to mount her) would come every day to the front porch to eat the birdseed that falls to the ground and to the back deck to steal the food from the birds. In making us her own, she became "our" white squirrel. Not because we could ever own or tame her, but because we became invested in her well being and I made sure she always had plenty of water to drink and goodies to nibble at in that funny hurried way in which squirrels eat their food.

Today, as I took the dogs out for a late walk in the afternoon, I saw a white shape at the foot of the gigantic cottonwood tree in my neighbor's front yard. I stepped closer and to my dismay saw the white squirrel. She looked very peaceful with her small beady eyes closed, almost huddled against the foot of that humongous tree. It seems that death -- that hungriest and most unavoidable of all guaragüaos -- had found and taken her at the very moment when she had started climbing toward her nest.

Once, driving down a country road in Puerto Rico, I saw a red-tailed hawk sweep down from nowhere and catch a pigeon in mid air. That, I thought awed, is what sudden death must be. Hawk-like, sweeping down with fully extended claws and powerful silent wings flapping, taking what it comes for with unwavering and unfeeling accuracy, leaving a sad confetti of feathers floating in the space where its prey had been only a moment before. Who mourns the pigeon? I wondered. Is she or he missed back in the nest? Does someone, a passing bird perhaps, notify those who care or is it like it never happened?

Always, my heart breaks at the cruel callousness of death. This has been the saddest of winters.

Today, when my husband came home from work, he got the shovel and we buried our white squirrel. I commended her to God and we committed her to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We buried her right next to Mr. Robin's cousin.

Today, the white squirrel rests in a patch of ground where, fittingly, a tiny spray of white snowdrops had sprung from the freshly thawed, spring-ready and life-giving earth.