A Book a Day (Okay … days 3, 4, and 5) and a Sliver of Haiti’s past and present and Japenese Picture Brides

In Darkness I count my blessings.
ONE: I am alive. 
TWO: There is no two.

Haiti has always been one of those unknowable places to me. The only thing I’ve ever seen about it is tragedy, poverty, corruption, and violence. It’s virtually impossible to know a place, especially through the media.
My first book of the day is In Darkness by Nick Lake, an artful weaving of past and present, folklore and religion, superstition and belief, tragedy and hope.

Taken from the In Darkness Reading Guide

Shortly, an unforgettable 15-year-old protagonist, trapped in the ruins of a hospital after the Hatian earthquake of 2010, tells the story of how he became a slum-land gangster. His narrative is cut with another astonishing first-person tale, that of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the 18th-century slave who led Haiti to freedom from the French. The two are connected in deep and mysterious ways, but there is no guarantee that the story will end well.

I love reading books that teach me about history through the personal stories of the people who live it. These vignettes often tell more about a place than we can get in a documented “unbiased” history of a place. In Darkness is beautiful, heartbreaking, gut-churning, and, in the end, hopeful. And, as for Nick Lake, I tip my hat to the author who took the time to do exhaustive research to understand a place that is, on so many levels, incomprehensible.

My second book, too, gives us a sliver of history from the point of view of thousands of female immigrants: the Japanese picture brides. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka begins with hundreds of hopeful (terrified, resigned) Japanese girls who are getting ready to ship to the United States to meet their Japanese husbands. It takes us through their first nights with their husbands, the lies they were told, the loves they left behind, the unexpected loves they find in the States. We journey through their lives working in fields, as maids, working in restaurants. We live their heartbreaks when their children die, when these women are abused, beaten, spit upon and raped. We  live their struggles learning the language and adapting to a different culture, watching their children grow up to reject them and the past they so treasure. We are horrified by the way they’re treated, exploited, and thrown away by the whites, closed up in internment camps because of fear and ignorance.

A Japanese can live on a teaspoonful of rice a day. We were the best breed of worker they had ever hired in their lives …

We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.

What’s so phenomenal is this memoir is the memoir of thousands of lives —  snippets of experiences, unforgettable moments. It’s precise and unexpected. It’s a chorus of voices with hundreds of solos. It’s truly a phenomenal feat of storytelling. Ms. Otsuka  found a way to create layers of historical texture while honoring the thousands of experiences these women had.
I. Love. This. Book.Read it. Buy it for someone. And learn about the determination of thousands of women who struggled to survive their new world while holding onto the traditions of the old.

A Book a Day, Day 2 … Invisible Cities

Okay. So I’m the last person on the planet to read Italo Calvino. A friend lent me the book, and I was immediately entranced by the language, the crazy historical mixed with contemporary, the conversations (or non conversations) between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Plus, I really, REALLY like to say “Kublai Khan.”
Say it.
Pretty cool, huh?
Invisible Cities is magical. It’s like reading about nooks and crannies so personal in our own cities that, over the course of the book, I felt like some of Marco Polo’s cities and descriptions were of him holding a mirror to my own. And I really had to pay attention. It’s not a lazy read. It’s short and deceivingly “quick,” but it takes time. It’s almost meditative, like Marco Polo’s telling of the story to Kublai Khan. (See, got to write it again!). 
It’s lyrical. It’s philosophical. It’s scathing. It’s satirical. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a celebration. It’s the poetry of the unspoken in unexpected friendships … It’s Invisible Cities.

Dusting off the blog: Day 1: A Book A Day … Mrs. Dalloway

No excuses.
Others make time to blog. I haven’t. That said, I’m not going to NOT do my December book recommendations because what better gift is there than books?
Really, there’s no better gift.
So, I’m beginning December’s “a book a day” with a challenge:

Buy a book and/or give a book you’ve already read … many years ago.And here’s why.

I re-read Mrs. Dalloway a few weeks ago. Like any good English major, I read it in college, underlined the “important bits,” wrote the obligatory literary analysis, caught onto The Heart of Darkness reference (probably gave myself a pat on the back for it) … But I never actually read it until a month ago, and it is exquisite. It took me over a week to read it because whenever I’d slip into speed reader coma state, I’d miss something fantastic. So I read slowly. I paid attention. I watched Septimus’ madness grow and felt horrified when he killed himself. Helpless and disappointed and hopeful that he wouldn’t, though I knew he would. I loved the characterization of Mrs. Dalloway, Peter, Sally … a cast of characters fleshed out to be flawed, likeable, hateful people. Virginia Woolf took her time to create a moment in time, a snapshot to the human character.
I loved the slow, deliberate prose that is more like poetry. I loved the concise insights that are not at all removed from the realities we live today, filling up emptiness with things and frivolity. So many of us are like Mrs. Dalloway, as “Mrs. Dalloway is always giving parties to cover up the silence.” I paid attention.

Pay attention.

Read something you ripped through many years ago and be surprised when you really read.
In fact, this month I’m celebrating not only books but the way we read books; the way we live life. Pay attention or you might miss something exquisite like this:
As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame
Like. Wow. 

Get Uncomfortable, Be Kind, Speak Up, Make a Difference

This past week an autistic boy had bodily fluids dumped on him in a cruel joke and an NFL star was cut from his team because he was caught on tape beating his wife unconscious.

One thing about social networking is that we can all come together and become a kind of big brother — have collective outrage for the unjust, cruel, and wrong.
But what worries me is this:
Kids at this boys school knew what was going to happen, who was going to do this, and did nothing to stop it from happening. (And later didn’t come forward with the information about who did this). You ask me how I know … there’s no such thing as a secret in high school. Kids knew. Some probably felt uncomfortable about it. Some probably laughed it off.

The NFL knew about Rice’s behavior long ago and did nothing until it became public and had to react. You can bet  friends and family knew what was happening as well.

So, we’re back to the worst kind of perpetrator of any crime — silence.

We remain silent because  …

  • … it’s none of our business.
  • … we’re scared.
  • … he’s an amazing athlete, an asset to the team and sport.
  • … he was provoked. He’s under a lot of pressure.
  • … he’s worth a lot of money. I mean, he probably buys her anything she wants.
  • … boys will be boys. 
  • … what happens behind someone’s closed doors has nothing to do with us.
  • … it’s what all the kids are doing; it’s not really that big of a deal.
  • … nobody will listen to us anyway.
  • … we’ll look stupid or silly.
  • … he deserves it. 
  • … she was drunk, and she’s had sex with everyone else anyway.
  •  … she found the money (wallet, i-phone) just laying there, so who’s to say who it belongs to?
  • … if he passes him some cash, he won’t have to get a ticket and go to traffic court. And he’s a good guy.
  • … he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad luck.
  • … we don’t have time to deal with other people’s problems.
  • it’s comfortable

So now we’ve become arm-chair ethicists, looking for the familiar hashtag, trending topic. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and raise our voices in forums and feeds. It’s easy to have tens, hundreds, thousands of people share our same indignation.
It’s not easy, though, to be the single voice to stand up for a friend at school, to tell a teacher you’re worried about that kid who always has bruises on her arms, to confide in someone that you’ve seen the girl down the hall sleeping in the park, to tell your friends to stop trash-talking that girl, to help that kid who is being  terrorized every single day in tiny ways by the popular kids (it’s all in fun, right?), to say, “No.”  It takes courage to rely on the internal meter we have that tells us when something is wrong, then take action.
That second part is the key — take action. Do something about it.

We all mess up. But the times in my life I most regret are the times I remained in the shadows while someone else was getting hurt; the times I chose fear, pride, shame over what was the right thing to do; the times I sacrificed integrity to go with the flow, not cause waves, keep the status quo.
The times I forgot that kindness should be the meter for what’s right and wrong, not Facebook, hashtags and trends.

Every single day we see the way people treat one another. If you’re in middle school or high school, every single day you see that kid get bullied, you see the cyber shaming, you see the cruelty. And, more often than not, you remain silent.
I get that. It’s complicated. It’s uncomfortable. It’s safe.
Here’s my call to action. We can be a domino effect of good and what’s right, and we don’t need the backing of Twitter and trends. It’s simple. But oftentimes the simplest acts are the hardest. Try this:

If someone is hurting you, speak up.
If someone is hurting someone else, speak up.
If you are afraid, speak up.
If you have been bullied, beaten, abused … speak up.
If you see someone being bullied, beaten, or abused … speak up.
If someone is getting hazed, speak up. 
If someone is trash talking, slut shaming, or bad mouthing others, speak up.
Speak. Up.

You can call a hotline. You can talk to a teacher, a counselor, a friend. You can talk to a parent, a family member, a friend’s parent. You can talk to a librarian. You can talk to that kid that’s hurting and say, “Hey. Are you okay?” Look her in the eyes. Let her know she matters.
You can choose kindness.
You can make a difference.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Cyber Bully Hotline: 1-800-420-1479
School Violence Hotline: 1-866-748-7047  
Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE
Domestic Abuse Helpline: 1-888-743-5754

My Back-To-School Wish(es) for You

You’ve either already begun or are just about to begin.Some of you might feel like a hamster, just spinning wheels in this maddening machine of sameness — like life is some kind of stage, and everyone’s  stuck playing the same parts — and your part is one of those sucky ones, or you feel like an understudy, a sidekick, or somebody just forgot to ask you to join the play. And then the days pass by in some kind of time warp where everything feels eternal.

So I wish I were a genie to give you all these wishes, the ones I wish for you for today (and every day):

1. I wish you a true friend. You don’t need a thousand followers on Instagram. One true friend is more than most can say they have. Being a true friend takes love, courage, loyalty, forgiveness … so much wonderful in one word.

2. I wish you a place where you can eat lunch, whether it’s at a cafeteria table with friends, in the library, in your favorite math teacher’s class — someplace where you don’t have to keep your guard up. Someplace where you can exhale.

3. I wish you kindness. I hope you receive it and give it. Be kind. Not just NICE but kind. Because the world, your school, is full of meanness and bullies, and, for lack of a better term, ass hats. You don’t need to add to that. Be someone’s rainbow. Smile at that kid down the hall whose locker always gets jammed. You know the kid whose bangs flop in his eyes, the one just hoping that nobody will notice he’s there. Notice him. Smile at him. Be kind.

4. I wish you strength. It’s not easy living through Suckville every day. And some days, I’m sure, you feel like you won’t make it. You will. It will get better. It really will get better. It gets better, I promise.Did I mention it gets better?

5. I wish you grit. Grit?? You are not a test score. Tests don’t score kindness, integrity, courage, artistic ability, athletic ability, grit. Yep. Grit. The singular most important characteristic of success is grit. If you stick to it, work your tail off, believe, and work and work and work, you will succeed. Don’t judge success by arbitrary numbers (the number of a test score, the time in a race, the number you have in a bank account later on). Success is on-going, a process, and it has to do with grit. Just loving what you’re doing and working hard is to succeed.

6. I wish you perspective. You are not a category of person; neither are any of your peers. You are so so much more than a silly label or number. You are not a jock, Emo, hipster, geek, gamer … That’s just a silly box others put you in to make sure they can find a place you fit. You are beautiful. You are the reason someone smiles today, and if you aren’t, become that reason. You are the reason somebody believes that the day will not be as awful as before. You are a gift.

6. I wish you laughter. Have a sense of humor about yourself, your mistakes, and laugh first, laugh loud. And when you want to cry, cry. Cry hard. Then laugh again.

7. I wish you respect. Respect yourself. Respect your body. Respect your peers and teachers, the bus driver, the janitors, the administration, the librarian … YOURSELF. Respect yourself. Respect YOURSELF YOUR BODY YOURSELF YOUR BODY. You’ve got one life (and if believe in reincarnation, fine, so you’re reincarnated one day as a firefly. Who knows?), so treat your body with love and respect and demand that others do the same. And if someone doesn’t, tell someone you trust. It’s not your fault if someone hurts you. You deserve beauty and kindness and respect. It is your HUMAN RIGHT. Tell someone when that basic human right has been violated. So #speakloudly. Use your voice to demand respect.

8. I wish you forgiveness. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. We all do things we’re horrified by. Nobody is perfect. But we can forgive. We can learn. We can be better and learn to make decisions based on kindness and integrity.

9. I wish you happiness. Life, even though everybody tries to sell you this, isn’t a never-ending rainbow of joy. You know this. And you were sold a story, a fairy tale of eternal happiness, happily-ever-afters and more. But in all the muck, there are moments of pure happiness. I wish you have those. I wish you those moments of grace that stitch together how broken you may feel, moments that give you light.

10. I wish you love. I hope you love yourself, who you are and who you can be. Look in the mirror and see past the labels and the piles of crap people lay on you — the crap you lay on yourself. Fight through it, exhale, and remember how amazing you really are.

The best thing about these wishes, truly, is all of them can come true. It all begins with you. So, find a place where you’re safe, where you can be you, and remember it gets better. It really does. I promise.


Colombia versus Uruguay … 2 – 0
Game at 3:00 pm, partying ended around 3:00 in the morning. Sr. Vuvuzela inventor … you kinda suck!
Two goals by James … pure poetry (with amazing center by Cuadrado)
Uruguay played DIRTY … and Colombia is all class. Unbelievable how composed they are. And boy can they dance!
The game of A LIFETIME for Colombia on Friday against Brazil.

The new style!

Okay. I HAD to get my little USA cheer in there!

Celebrating in style!

Stranger love! Everybody takes pictures with everybody.

Colombia From the Hip … World Cup Game Two

Colombia versus The Ivory Coast 2 to 1
Phew. Really close one there.

Colombia in every form … hats, ponchos, obnoxious horns, flags …

The World Cup Version of “The Sorting Hat”

Almost game time at a club nearby.

So wouldn’t want to be these guys … Drunk soccer fans. Unpleasant. (Still smiling because it’s pre-game)

Good luck charm!

Okay. How many of these guys called in sick to work? On a Thursday afternoon.
Car pool lane!

Colombia IS passion …

A few weeks ago, everyone I knew was talking about the finals of the Conde Godo, biting nails and grinding teeth with every last serve of Santiago Giraldo.He’s ranked 37 in the ATP now … the highest ranked male Colombian in the history of tennis. (Isner’s ranked 11, but I’d venture lots of people in the US say, “Isner who?”)

Last week, every Colombian I know had their TVs on to watch the last leg of the Giro d’Italia … and I think pretty much all of us cried when the crowd started to sing the national anthem to celebrate Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran’s victories. (First and second place — a historic day for Colombian sports).

The next day, Colombia’s front pages were plastered with Falcao and how he’s not going to the world cup. (Tears were shed again). When he initially got hurt earlier this year, this youtube video went viral, loosely translated “God, I know there’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world, but please cure Falcao so he can make lots of goals.”

Today, in Amelia’s school, all classrooms will be showing the opening ceremonies of the World Cup in Brazil.
And now everybody’s waiting for Saturday morning. Work schedules are getting jiggled, changed around. Classes in institutes have been canceled. The entire country will be paralyzed for the 90 minutes of Colombia’s first world cup confrontation in 16 years. Yeah. It’s a BIG BIG DEAL since Colombia hasn’t gone to a World Cup since the era of Pibe Valderrama and  Faustino Asprilla (who later became known for his, um, sizable …nevermind. I think they had to use an Amazonian Bamboo Palm leaf for that cover shot.)

In fact, June 15th are presidential elections and pretty much everybody says that voter turnout and how Colombians vote will depend on the results of the Colombia/Greece game on the 14th. (A little twisted, but it’s the reality). There’s a story that during a national crises (I don’t remember which one) in the 1990s, some TV channels put on an old game between Colombia and Argentina, one in which Colombia won six to zero, to pacify the country. There’s a great film called Golpe de Estado based on this game and a guerilla/military group in the mountains that make peace to watch the game together. An absurd reality.

The point is, Colombians live, breathe, and adore their athletes.

There’s a tale (not fact checked) that when Lucho Herrera, one of Colombia’s most famous cyclists pre-Nairo/Rigoberto who won the Vuelta Espana in 1987, was kidnapped by the guerilla, there was such an outcry that the guerilla released him right away. It’s bad press to kidnap a national hero. (The magazine headline says: Lucho Herrera: Victory of a People) His victory in the Vuelta Espana was Colombia’s victory. His kidnapping was Colombia’s kidnapping.

When Hincapie rode with Lance Armstrong in all seven of Armstrong’s Tour victories (yeah, yeah, I know) … I remember listening to the telecast one day and the sports reporters going mad, “There goes our countryman. Here comes Colombia, ripping  past the other riders. He’s the champion of this leg! The winner! BRAVO COLOMBIA!”
I turned to Cesar. “Isn’t he American?”
Cesar shrugged. “Not today.”
And not today was true. George Hincapie, born of Colombian parents, was Colombian the years he rode with Lance Armstrong. (Though, admittedly, nobody shouts to loud about his Colombian heritage anymore.)

This past year, Colombia had the only national team riding in the Giro d’Italia. Somebody told me (and, no, I haven’t fact checked any of this, either) that the team had made a pact that in every single mountain leg, one of their riders would do a breakaway. They’d rotate riders, practically kill themselves to make huge strides and distance between the Colombian rider and peloton, and, in turn, bring Colombia to the forefront of every television around the world — the Colombia we, who live here, love. AND their job was to make any Colombian look good, even those not riding with the national team. In other words, an entire team of Colombians was in the Giro to support other Colombians regardless of who they rode with (eg Nairo and Rigoberto).

This is insanely smart marketing of a country that hasn’t fared too well in the media.

Colombian athletes reciprocate the love. Santiago Giraldo, instead of signing his name on the camera after a winning match, often signs “I love you, Colombia.” The entire country held their breath when the first Colombian women reached Everest’s summit in 2007, and Ana Maria Giraldo unfurled the Colombian flag at the summit.

Colombian athletes often thank Colombia first. They have a deep-rooted feeling of nationalism and love for their country and how this country formed them. And it’s something I really love about Colombia. Everybody feels part of something great when a Colombian accomplishes great things.It’s a magical thing to feel an entire country vibrate with pride, stand behind a single athlete — something that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Maybe it’s because Colombians are tired of bad press. Maybe it’s because of the non-stop jokes about cocaine and Pablo Escobar and the lure of the white lines … really, it’s not original and not funny to laugh about someone else’s war. Every Colombian I know has suffered because of our drug habits in the US and Europe and around the world. Maybe it’s simply the passion of the Latino.

Nevertheless, people who never watched cycling before are experts. (Admittedly, the tradition of awesome Colombian cyclists goes back a long way). Taxi drivers, waiters, lifeguards, doctors, engineers, hell … even me … can talk, with a certain degree of knowledge balanced by lots of bullshit about  Falcao’s injury and physical therapy, Santiago Giraldo’s coach change, Nairo Quintana’s favorite breakfast cereal, Mariana Pajon’s (BMX world champion and gold medalist) lucky underwear. (Actually, I don’t really know if she has lucky underwear, but I bet it wouldn’t take long to find out.)

Colombians are involved and slightly obsessed about their international athletes. I didn’t understand it when I first arrived. I thought, “It’s just another game.” Part of that comes from coming from such a big country. We have many, many athletes that stand out, win medals. The closest I’ve seen in the States to this kind of fervent pride is regional — when Nevada rallied behind the San Francisco 49er quarterback Kapernick, a University of Nevada, Reno alumni and former football player.

But that’s just a speck of what an entire country experiences here. American football is a national sport — pretty small potatoes from a world view. Kapernick is a guy that nobody will know outside of that sport’s fanbase. What happens in Colombia is national pride for international sports achievements. It’s insanely beautiful to see an entire country, entire country celebrate the athletes that wear their flag in the world arena of sports and, in turn, see those athletes celebrate their country.

And now, the World Cup is here. And Colombia is ready to face the Titans. And while the soccer team battles in Brazil, an entire country will pretty much shut down. I’m bracing myself for national anxiety, celebrations, tears and hijo de putas. The entire country shouts, oohs, curses, and cries together. You don’t even have to be watching the game to know what’s going on. Listen to the country. They’ll tell you.

A bit obsessed. Yep. But it makes for a fantastic ride and emotional journey to follow, sweat, suffer, and celebrate.Plus, I get loads of cool vocabulary.