Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 is over today! Good riddance, I say!

2010 has ended with nearly record-breaking colds and snow and lived up, almost to the end, to its personality as a difficult and largely unpleasant year for nearly everyone I know and care for.

The good news, at least weather-wise, is that the forecast for January and February, as my husband informs me, calls for warmer than normal temperatures.

My wish is for a "life" forecast in the new year that is also happier and kinder for us all than it has been in 2010. May 2011 be gentler and more compassionate than its predecessor.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

¡Feliz Navidad!

This was the song that played on the car radio back in January 1988 when, deathly sick, I was driven by my then-boyfriend to the BWI airport with my mom, who had come to bring me back home. We boarded the plane that would take me back to live permanently in Puerto Rico for the first time since I'd left in 1978, a stint that lasted 13 years until, once more deathly ill, I left the island for Ohio in 2001. A year later, I had the life-saving surgery that gave me this second chance at life.

Thus, this song means a lot to me, not only because it's a Puerto Rican artist singing a happy song about Christmas but because I remember como si fuera ayer my white-knuckled anxiety at traveling in that condition (including the fear that my boyfriend's old car would break down on the BWI parkway on the way to the airport in a dark, chilly winter morning). The car made it to the airport, we made the flight, and the rest, as they say, is history and a much better one, at that.

Back then, the song gave me hope. And it still does so today. ¡Feliz Navidad!

Friday, December 24, 2010


I grew up listening to this lovely Villancico about Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve. I'm not a particularly religious person, but I love the idea of a night that anticipates individual and communal redemption.

¡Feliz Navidad!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter 2010

Although winter arrived roaring in these parts at the start of December, it officially began yesterday evening. The little downtown at my small college on the hill is adorned with cheery white lights to combat the frigid somberness that has descended over the landscape.

There is still a lot of beauty to be appreciated and to be found, like the glint of sunshine on freshly packed snow, which makes the little ice crystals look like a treasure of tiny glittering diamonds.

Or the familiar trail that takes on a more measured and circumspect personality, at the same time that it's more open since everything is available to the eyes.

Although 2010 has been a most difficult year and the saddest one of them all because of my father's death in July, I am appreciative of the good things this year has brought, especially the research leave that ends with it.

During this time, I have tried to conquer, and actually may have conquered, my propensity to continually put myself last after my work and have managed to get to the gym almost every single day ever since I returned from Puerto Rico on Dec. 6. That feels like an accomplishment because I've always managed to be very disciplined about my professional responsibilities but not so constant when it comes to doing things that are good for me.

I also took the time this semester to quilt again, rescuing my abuela's machine from oblivion and actually finishing a fall quilt hanging that now graces the guest room furnished with my abuela's antique bedroom set.

Also in personal terms (there has been much achieved that is work-related, too!), I set a weight loss goal of about 10 pounds and am only about 2 pounds shy of that, which is good considering that, starting with Thanksgiving, this is the season for overeating.

I've also kept, more or less well, to my new schedule of trying to go to bed early (before 11 p.m.) and getting up before 8 a.m. so I can make it to the gym early and have the whole day ahead of me to do what needs doing.

These small accomplishments, which do seem major to me after a pretty horrid spring and summer, do balance out, a little bit, this most challenging year. I won't be sad to see 2010 end in a little over a week. But I also can think of reasons to appreciate what this year has brought.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Navidad story

My recuerdos are mostly impressionistic rather than exact. Like the ghost of a memory I have of looking down a long flight of steps and of myself as a bald toddler wearing a red shirt, a nearly impossible and improbable recollection. My mom has said that memory may be of the stairs leading to the second-floor apartment my parents first lived in near my grandparents in Río Piedras, after we moved back to Puerto Rico from Boston, where I had been born a year or so before. But one Christmas memory I have is as vivid as a short film playing back in my mind’s eye.

I mostly don’t remember years or chronologies so I have little notion of how old I must have been in this Navidad, but I guess it had to be sometime before I was old enough to know, for sure, that there was no such person as Santa Claus. It was also before my parents decided that the best way to prevent us children from falling prey to the Christmas consumerism that was becoming the norm in the 1970s was to whisk us out of Puerto Rico each holiday season to such far away locations as the then-Soviet Union, Greece and Paris, among others. (Most of the trips were through low-cost educational tours for which my parents saved all year.) This one memory is of a Christmas still in the house behind the hospital, where I lived my entire childhood, until we moved to a newly built condominium shortly before I left for college a month or two short of my 17th birthday. It must date back to just about when I began to suspect that Santa Claus was really a pen name, so to speak, for my parents.

Inspired by a television ad in which little blonde americanitos ingratiatingly left cookies and milk for Santa, I devised a plan to confirm my suspicions. I would leave similar treats on a plate with a note, asking Santa a question. If Santa didn’t answer, I would know it was because my parents were worried that I would be able to discern their handwriting, which would flush them out of hiding. And, if “he” did answer, then I would have no trouble recognizing my parents’ handwriting, which I knew well, and I would have concluded an investigation worthy of my long-time hero, Sherlock Holmes. (This was after I’d gone through all the closets of the house and looked under all the beds in all the rooms, trying to find the hidden cache of toys, and had found not a one.)

Having worked out all this in my head, I proceeded that Nochebuena to implement my ploy so I could prove to myself (and have demonstrable proof to show my parents and two younger siblings), that Santa Claus was just a big hoax. Satisfied of my ingenuity, I went to bed early, without the usual fuss, and didn’t wake until I heard my siblings’ screams of joy at what Santa had left. In years past, mind you, I had always gone to bed later than everyone else, staying up until the wee hours, seated cross-legged on the floor of the hallway outside the room I shared with my sister, reading. On Christmas Day, I usually also awakened before everyone else, climbing over the baby gate at the top of the stairs and stealthily walking into a living room filled with toys (I realize now that our Santa lists must have, indeed, been daunting for a pair of working parents).

There were two identical love seats, upholstered in olive green, and an uncomfortable Spanish-style chair, upholstered in red and held together with large leather belts, placed, like a throne, between the facing sofas. It was on that chair that my brother’s toys were arranged while my sister and I each got our toys placed on one of the sofas. On those earlier years when I was the first one awake, I sometimes took the opportunity to inspect my sister’s treasures and trade them for those, on my sofa, which I wasn’t so pleased by. She claims that this is why she got the same furry riding donkey two years in a row but I more clearly remember trading her some uninteresting baby doll clothes for a set of sparkly Barbie shoes.

This one morning, however, I wasn’t the first but the last one to arrive downstairs to bask in this so-called Santa’s generosity. Almost in awe, I approached the table where I had left the cookies and the milk and blinked twice, taking a sharp breath in, when I noticed that the cookies were gone (there were crumbs on the plate) and the milk had been gulped down almost greedily, as if by a thirsty man wearing a red winter suit while flying on a sled led by sweaty reindeer through the tropical night sky. I took the note with trembling hands and my eyes widened as I saw that Santa had answered my question. What shocked me, however, was that the handwriting was not at all like that of either one of my parents! I had been wrong!, I surmised in awe. The fat gringo in the tacky suit existed, after all.

While I don’t remember what it was that I asked Santa, or what it was that "he" answered, and I never found out who wrote back to me that night, the note was a magical present that I have never forgotten.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fire and snow

Last Sunday, my husband built the first fire of the season and we spent several hours just sitting in our cozy living room, enjoying the lovely warmth that it provided. Darwin, by far the smartest of our creatures at that moment, made the best decision by getting the closest, and, at one point, we realized that all five furry children had gathered around the fireplace to bask in its calorcito navideño.

There has been little, if any, calorcito around here weather wise for the past two weeks, basically the entirety of this month, when we've been buried under more and more inches of snow. At least today we got some sun even if the windchill was below zero and the temperatures refused to edge above the low 20s, which is 20 degrees colder than normal for this time of year in Ohio. There is more snow forecast for the start of the week while in Maine, where my sister in law lives, temperatures have been in the 50s. Anyone still pooh poohing climate change needs a new brain, that's for sure.

I'm now less than a month away from returning to the classroom and to full-time work and I'm actually looking forward to it. But before January rolls around bringing not just a new year but a new set of challenges and opportunities in spring semester, I will travel at month's end to spend a few days with my family in Maryland for our first such gathering without papi and then I will be in L.A. for a few days in January for the main conference in my discipline. For someone who simply hates to travel (I love getting to places but leaving my home and the actual taking of and being in planes I simply abhor), I'll have made three trips in two months and then I have two other trips pending one for February and another for March. Just thinking about all that flying makes me queasy.

Now that the semester is finally over my weeks will be less busy (even when I haven't been teaching I've found ways to keep myself occupied) since I won't have any meetings with students or colleagues. I'm especially looking forward to a visit from my good friend MC next week and then to a visit by my in-laws who'll be here before Christmas. On Christmas Day, weather permitting, I hope to get to the theaters to watch "The King's Speech," which has gotten a lot of buzz and has Colin Firth as the lead (the immortal Fitzwilliam Darcy in A&E's production of Pride and Prejudice).

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for my Nook, which I ordered yesterday (yes, I've gone over to the Other Side of e-book readers!) after figuring how much I would save just in the amount of books I purchase on a monthly basis, and after my husband gave me his blessing, noting that anything that kept him from having to lug heavy boxes of books was a good idea. I won't have that until next week but I do hope to get it in time for my travels so that I'm not the one lugging 4 or 5 heavy books plus several magazines in my backpack (And guess what e-book I'll buy first? Yes, you guessed it! Pride and Prejudice it is).

The weather doesn't cooperate so it's hard to get outside and do the things we love to do, like walk the dogs on the trails (we can't walk Chiquita any more because she doesn't do well in cold weather). The good side of that is that I'm making it a point to go to the gym every day (except this morning when I walked Lizzy in the biting cold). Today, Lizzy and Chiquita (who are not the best of friends or playmates) even shared the big chair where papi used to sit to read, and they snuggled up in their respective places to take their midday nap.

This cold spell may just be what we have to get used to for the next two and a half months that winter will be around so the dogs are a good inspiration for finding ways to make the best of what is sure to be the winter of our discontent.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Getting in the spirit

Yesterday was the last day of the semester, and even though I've been on leave, after returning from Puerto Rico on Monday, I had a busy week of meetings with students and colleagues either for work-related or celebratory reasons.

While I know, as some well-meaning friends noted, that I wasn't "supposed" to be doing any student-related work during this time, I've had a productive research leave so keeping in touch with my advisees and providing the help they need didn't "interrupt" anything I needed to get done during this time. And while I have vowed that I will be careful in safe-keeping my own time and well-being, I am guided by the principle that, in addition to being a good teacher, I also want to be a valuable role model and mentor in my students' lives, something I lacked when I was in college. If I can do what they need, without violating my vow to myself, I will.

Having a busy week didn't mean I wasn't able to pester my husband into getting the house decorated for Christmas, something that always makes me happy during this season. Even when we lived in the rather run-down junior faculty apartments of my small college on the hill, I decorated the tiny apartment and tried to make it cheery inside and out. But I think this year my husband did the best job ever and the house, lit up at dusk, looks picture perfect to me.

While there is much sadness in my heart that this is the first Christmas to be spent without my papi, I don't feel him entirely gone and I think that's a blessing. He may not be here physically but there isn't a day that I don't remember him and that gives me great comfort. And, at month's end, I'll travel to Maryland for a a couple of days to be with my entire family, as we keep the tradition my dad started in 1999 of getting together for Christmas the New Year's. That was when he thought the world might end as we knew it with the turn of the millennium (in terms of the chaos with computer clocks that so many people had predicted).

Ultimately, Christmas for me isn't about the presents or the parties (not that we have many of those around here) or the fat white guy in a tacky red suit that exploits the poor flying reindeer. It's about traditions and the birth of new possibilities and about re-examining our lives to make sure that we are being true to our beliefs (and I don't mean religious ones) and are leading an examined and purposeful life, one that, hopefully, moves outside and beyond ourselves in its purpose.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Last day in the tropics

Today, my last day in Puerto Rico, my mami and I went to the gym early and then returned home to change before we embarked on our planned day of a museum visit and a late lunch at one of our favorite restaurants.

After we made ourselves presentable, the first stop was to the nearby Starbucks, of course, where my never-varying order of a decaf latte with 3 Splendas (during their recent visit in Ohio, my nephew pointed out that this was a lot of sweetness since one Splenda is supposed to equal at least one teaspoon of sugar) tastes much better here in Puerto Rico than anywhere else where I've had one. I don't know if it's the coffee or the milk or the combination of both but even Starbucks' taste improves in my Caribbean island.

Then we moved on to the Museum of Puerto Rican Art (MAPR for its Spanish initials) to view the new exhibit on José Campeche, the 18th century painter, who was the first Puerto Rican painter of renown. His Dama a caballo, below, not only shows his skill as a portraitist and his attention to minute detail but also gives us a fascinating glimpse into what the clase pudiente (the moneyed class) in the walled city of San Juan, where he lived all of his life, looked like.

His paintings are breathtaking and a great reminder that Puerto Rico may be small as an island but it has produced gigantic talent, refuting my Harvard professor's claim that small countries could not produce anything worthy (he used to claim that Rubén Darío, who hailed from Nicaragua, proved that talent is completely unrelated to where the person is born, rather than considering the artist as an extension of his environment).

After the art museum, we went in search of a T-shirt for the Broadway show In the Heights, which we saw Saturday afternoon, and which, again, made me feel so proud to be a Puerto Rican. A complete re-writing, and a postcolonial writing back to West Side Story, there is no pathology in In the Heights but it's, instead, a celebration of the life of Latin@s in the diaspora, and of Puerto Rican identity outside of the island, in particular. While watching the show, and crying and laughing along its beautiful music, sets, acting, singing and choreography, I thought of how many in Puerto Rico often reject those Puerto Ricans born and raised in the States as "not Puerto Rican" enough, and of how this Tony award-winning musical laughs, loudly and convincingly, in the face of such provincial and small-minded beliefs. I can't wait for the film of the musical to be done so I can teach it alongside West Side Story as the Puerto Rican version (instead of the white version) of Puerto Rican-ness in New York.

Once the T-shirt was secured, we went on to Aurorita's, the Mexican restaurant that was a tradition in my family when I was a kid and which has become a tradition for my sister's and brother's families when they visit Puerto Rico, and where my husband and I had our very first date. Unfortunately, the food wasn't anything to write home about but my mom and I had a nice time before calling it a day and returning home a little bit exhausted by all our small adventures.

Tomorrow, I emprendo camino back to Ohio, where it's currently "pouring" snow (to quote my disgusted husband) and where temperatures are in the low 20s at their best. While I certainly don't look forward to leaving my mom and my calorcito borincano for the nasty Ohio winter, I am looking forward to getting back to my own home in the diaspora. It may be far from this gloriously beautiful (if troubled) island, but it's my home now, nonetheless.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

In Puerto Rico

I've been in my beautiful patria since Thursday when I arrived to spend a few days with my mami before the holidays. It has been strange being here, at my parents' home, without my papi and his absence is felt keenly. But my mami has made changes in the apartment that make it welcoming and cozy, and which help her cope with her new life as a widow.

Yesterday, after spending part of the morning in Old San Juan, we went to our favorite inn by the beach and had fruit frappes, reminiscing about the many times the entire family spent at that beach and how we watched my nieces and nephews grow up chasing the tide and "jumping" the waves, always with my dad, who loved the sea and the beach until he became too sick and frail to enjoy it.

For the past few mornings, I've been able to peruse the newspapers, no longer all cut up by my dad, who used to get up very early to read and underline stories in four different newspapers and then he would clip them to file in voluminous file folders where he kept tract of the island's history as it unfolded (he was a political analyst so he saw this as his job). Now that I can read the papers whole, not in tatters as it used to be when I slept in and didn't get to them before my father's handy news clipping tool was put to use, I found several stories that I know I'd be discussing with him, if he was still here.

The first one is about a pro-commonwealth legislator, accused of domestic violence, who has been asked by the party president to step down but who refuses, stating that he has "committed no crime," even as his party begins the process to kick him out of the Legislature. While the legislator sticks to his guns and refuses to resign, there appears to be enough evidence to process him legally, something that should give him a clue that being publicly humiliated in court is never a good idea for a political career. But, perhaps, like many abusive men, he simply doesn't perceive what he allegedly did to his wife as a crime since there is a machista cultural code that still considers such behaviors as "normal," and not just in my culture.

The other story that struck me refers to the continued fallout of statements made by the pro-statehood Governor's Chief of Staff that he would "forcibly kick the students out" (los sacaría a patadas) of the public university, referring to students who are threatening another strike because the administration wants to impose an $800 fee on them. On an island where almost 70% of the population lives under the federal poverty line, that amount seems beyond ridiculous. On the other hand, the public university is now on probation by the accrediting institution and went through a prolonged strike earlier this year, which makes threats of another strike seem like the throwing out of the baby with the bath water, especially when it is rumored that the current administration wants to privatize the more than a century-old institution.

As if the situation wasn't incendiary enough, in comes the Chief of Staff to make ill-advised and violence-inducing comments and defends himself in today's paper as "having the right to call things as they are, without euphemisms (decir las cosas como son, sin eufemismos)" and to "give the alert, in my own way, directly and with truth as a guide and calling things by their names (dar la voz de alerta, de la manera en que yo soy, directo, con la verdad de frente y llamando las cosas por su nombre)." Since when is shooting first and asking questions later a smart move by or a virtue in a political official? I can't think of any Chief of Staff in the States (or anywhere else for that matter) who would keep the job if he went on a radio show and spoke off the cuff to say things that made the administration look bad. Didn't that much-hailed U.S. general in Iraq lose his job because he did a similar thing? Why would the Puerto Rico governor condone his Chief of Staff, arguing that the latter was just "frustrated" when he made the statements? Because of his position, the Chief of Staff should set the example of moderation and professionalism. But I guess that's not the standard that this administration is following, which begs the question of why do they expect more from the students when the norm they set is one of confrontation and violence?

Many years ago, when I was a newspaper editor and a reporter here, such happenings were the bread and butter of my life. Now, those years are far away but I can still feel the frustration that many of those who live here feel on a daily basis. Still, also on a daily basis I see and feel the promise of not only a gloriously beautiful country but of its beautiful, intelligent and committed youth, who, hopefully, will give us all a better future.