Archive for January, 2009

Please buy, Madame, child vendor selling clay whistles in Hoi An, Vietnam, December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

My oldest daughter, Dee, made 48 brownies this morning for a bake sale today. She and two other seventh-graders are doing a “pay it forward” class assignment, whereby they identify a worthy need and then do good works to support the cause.

Dee and her classmates decided to raise money for a global non-profit called Invisible Children. The group was created in the spring of 2003 when…

…three young filmmakers traveled to Africa in search of a story. What started out as a filmmaking adventure transformed into much more when these boys from Southern California discovered a tragedy that disgusted and inspired them, a tragedy where children are both the weapons and the victims.

After returning to the States, they created the documentary “Invisible Children: Rough Cut,” a film that exposes the tragic realities of northern Uganda’s night commuters and child soldiers. The film was originally shown to friends and family, but has now been seen by millions of people.

The overwhelming response has been, “How can I help?” To answer this question, the non-profit Invisible Children, Inc. was created, giving compassionate individuals an effective way to respond to the situation.

Invisible Children has a singular mission: To use the power of stories to change lives around the world. There are many organizations that help children, some decades old, and I can only imagine it was tough for Dee and her two friends to choose a recipient for their project. Ths group appealed to them because of the medium (film), the young vibe to the organization, and its focus on schools and books for kids (many of whom been forced to grow up and participate in a tragic war) in Uganda.

There is so much poverty in this world. I have seen children in Delhi and Agra, India, little blind beggars and dirty-faced kids performing acrobatics down crowded walkways of trains—scenes and situations brought to light in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Vietnam, South Africa, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, and communities in my very own New Mexico—these are some of the places where I’ve seen children living without the most basic of needs met.

It’s easy—perhaps even at times a necessary coping mechanism—to become inured to the realities of the world, especially when we don’t see with our own eyes the suffering and pain. But it’s all around us.

Dee and her classmates also chose as recipient for their works a no-kill animal shelter whose primary focus is to rescue dogs and cats on “death row” (those about to be euthanized by animal control centers in the state). One of the girls working with Dee on this project volunteers at this shelter, which is supported entirely by donations from the community and adoption fees.

These are tough realities for these girls to be aware of, yet they’re learning that through their efforts, no matter how small or big, they can make a difference.

It begins with doing a favor for another person– without any expectation of being paid back.

This is their second bake sale this month. Their goal is to raise $150 per organization. Their first bake sale they earned $80, and within just minutes of setting up for their sale today, they’re earned about $15. They’ll probably have one or two more sales before the project is due. I hope they surpass their goal.

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Green JacketIn the current decade?

I did. Many times.

I wore it to dozens of work meetings. It’s not even vintage yet I thought it was stylish.

I used to wear a bright pink long-sleeved t-shirt underneath it. To pick up the threads of pink running throughout the fabric. Or a bright cyan one.

How subtle.

I tried it on today for the the first time since about the fall of 2004, when I wore the jacket almost every week. I thought it might go well with a yellow t-shirt I had on.

Guess where it looked like I was heading?

To a used car lot. And/or the circus. And/or a late 70s, early 80s retro party. And/or to O’Neil’s Pub to begin my shift as Lady Leprechaun.

close-up of green jacket fabric 

close-up of green jacket fabric

I don’t know why I held on to this for almost five years. I’m usually so good about pruning out old, out-of-style clothes.

Maybe I thought I might need it one St. Patrick’s Day. Or that the guy who once asked me where I got it so he could tell his wife to go get one, too? I must have thought he was sincere. (I’m so easily duped; he worked for me at the time.)

So, this is my good-bye to the green jacket. It’s added a spot of color to the blacks, browns, and grays in my closet.

The time has come for me and my inner high school sophomore to part ways. I’ll try not to be ashamed that it took so long for me to let you go.

Me in the green jacket one last time

POSTSCRIPT: Maybe I should have taken a straw poll before I decided that the jacket was hideous. Is it as bad as it seems to me?

-Related to post Death Of A Short Green Sweater.

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It’s kind of cool when someone you know gets recognized for a job well done, and someone we know has done something pretty darned impressive: stevo from Asian Ramblings has become a finalist in the 2009 Bloggies!

The Bloggies are to bloggers what Addys are to advertising folk and the Emmys are to TV-biz folk. More formally known as the Weblog Awards, they’ve been around for nine years, and the winner is chosen not by an academy of blogger hoity-toities but by you and me.

So check out stevo’s beautiful photo-blog. He is an expat teacher in China, married to a Chinese woman (mrs. stevo) and he documents everyday life with unusual and often striking photographs. In this way he gives his readers a sense of what it’s like to be one among literally millions in that dynamic and fascinating country.

Then, if you’re so inclined, vote for Asian Ramblings. It would be awesome to see a truly unpretentious guy win this prestigious award.

The other reason to do it is so you can vote for blogs in the other award categories, such as “Best Kept Secret.” (I’ll tell you which one I picked if you tell me which one you picked.) There are well-written, well-designed blogs that I never knew about before today.

So if you’re at all interested in what’s considered the best in this bizarre medium of “weblogs,” check out the finalists. You won’t be disappointed. But voting closes Mon, February 2, at 10p Eastern, so don’t delay.

Oh, and just a quick logistical note on finding the categories to vote for:

  1. Click on the Bloggie 2009 link
  2. On my browser, I had to move my bottom panel slider-arrow-thingmabob over to the left to find the voting panel.
  3. You’ll see “best asian weblog” as one of the early categories. It looks like this:


Congratulations stevo!!

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Chaco Bell, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Chaco Bell, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December
2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All
rights reserved.

It’s still the dead of Winter in Minnesota, and we’ve got the temperatures to prove it. How do you know it’s January in Minnesota?

  • it’s -8 when you get up in the morning (that’s on a good day, without wind chills)
  • running water (if you’ve got water at all) sputters and spits through sluggish, half-frozen pipes
  • water turned off from 10:30pm Friday to Noon the following Saturday, after you are greeted post-work by a broken water main that creates an ice skating rink on the street in front of your house. All we needed was Kristi Yamaguchi (did you know she was one of the first to be photographed by Annie Liebovitz for the ‘Milk Mustache’ campaign?).
  • the annual Art Shanty Projects kicks off on Medicine Lake
  • the U.S. Pond Hockey Association holds its annual tournament on frigid Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis (See the winners of  the nearly 1,600 pond hockey fanatics that participated in the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships of 2009)
  • close to 9,000 anglers gather on Gull Lake’s Hole in the Day Bay north of Brainerd for the World’s largest ice contest — the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza (from an aerial view, you could swear those were gopher holes!)

Meantime, life inside home and hearth goes on. The week before Winter Solstice, our middle-aged cat Chaco (named after the canyon in New Mexico, elevation: 6200 feet) became seriously ill; we got him into the vet on December 18th. By the weekend, he needed to go to emergency care for IV fluids, medication, and monitoring, then back to our clinic on Monday. So began the last 6 weeks of caring for a chronically ill cat.

On our last visit to Dr. Heidi, she checked his blood again, and after treating a massive infection with three prescriptions of antibiotics, it seems his numbers are up on the kidneys, yet his anemia remains below the norm. He tires easily, but is eating, drinking, sometimes playing. He’s gained 1.2 lbs. of the 2 lbs. he lost. But there’s that nagging anemia.

The problem with anemia in cats is that it’s hard to diagnose the origin; it can be anything, including chronic kidney disease. We’ve elected home treatment for another month to see if we can get his anemia under control. This means continuing antibiotics, vitamin paste, subcutaneous fluids every 2 or 3 days, prescription foods tailored for kidneys (rich in lean meat, low in fats and additives), and monitoring his habits and schedule.

Chaco -- Room To Heal, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Chaco — “Room To Heal”, Minneapolis,
Minnesota, December 2008, photo ©
2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights

Those of you who have cared for ill animals know the drill. It’s good to call on friends who’ve been through a “cat crisis” when you need to make hard financial and emotional decisions involving care for ill pets. It’s truly a miracle that Chaco is alive. Right before Christmas, our vet told us the staff was begging her to put him down. But she saw a few signs of hope in his numbers; otherwise, I would be doing a very different kind of post.

The bottom line with seriously ill pets, is that it’s a very personal decision you must make about how much money to spend (prepare to dip into your savings), what kind of long-term care you are willing to sustain, and if the animal’s quality of life can be maintained without pain and hardship on either side. Tough choices.

Liz and I take it a day at a time. And are happy for the time we have left with Chaco, whatever that may be. On March 22nd, he’ll be 13 years old. With Liz caring for him most of his life, he’s lived like a prince!

We’ve learned quite a bit about cat care over the last month. Perhaps others can benefit from what we’ve been through.


Creature Comforts – 10 Cat Care Tips

Below is a short list of Creature Comforts that have made our lives easier over the last 6 weeks of caring for a chronically ill cat. Some can be found around the house. Others take a little cash up front, but we found it helpful to stock up on items that make long-term medical care more bearable for both cats and humans.

We created a home base (see photo above) tucked away in the bedroom where we could monitor Chaco, and followed his movements closely during the first few weeks. Creating a space where he felt safe was important. We also set aside a centralized place in the kitchen for his food, meds, syringes, vitamins, and a high place to hang the Sub-Q bag. Below are other ideas and product brands, but experiment and find what works best for you.

Products and items we’ve found to be helpful during the critical first week:

  1. Complete For Cats, A Fresh Approach To Home, disposable litter box — portable, made with 100% biodegradable, recycled paper with a unique, patented material that will not leak, tear, or shred.
  2. ExquisiCat Scoop, hard clumping, easy scooping litter —  or Scoop Away Odor Control litter. Make clean-up as easy as you can; you’re going to be tired!
  3. Simply Out! 30 floor protection pads — extra thick, ultra absorbent, fragrance free, leak-proof. Treated to attract pets, controls odors, no leaks, guaranteed (pet training pads but work great when pets are sick).
  4. Old towels and rags, plastic tarp as a base — and sanitary wipes like Scott MoistWipes. You may go through a lot of these.
  5. Heating pad, water bottle, reflective heater — to keep everything warmed up and cozy!

Products and items we’ve found to be helpful over the long haul:

  1. Sub-Q fluids and fresh needles on hand, along with web links to videos on giving subcutaneous fluids — Videos can help augment the vet training you receive before bringing your pet home. We found that watching a few different videos gave us a better-rounded picture of the process, and details of ways to handle problems that cropped up along the way. (If you are needle phobic, Sub-Q is NOT for you. You may have to pay your vet to administer fluids.)
  2. Stash of prescription foods (wet & dry), medications, and droppers for water and meds — cats like food, meds, and Sub-Q fluids better at room temperature. Experiment with different prescription foods until you find a few your cat likes. Two of our cats will drink from a dropper (good to know when they don’t feel well enough to drink on their own).
  3. SmartyKat Kitty Canyon Pet Bed — all of our cats love this. It’s plush, deep, and flips inside-out for a quick style change! It’s also Eco-friendly, made of EcoRest fibers, using 8 recycled 1-liter soda bottles. In the beginning, when Chaco was having trouble walking, carrying him this way gave us more mobility.
  4. Collar with bell to track movements in the night — Liz had one of Chaco’s old collars around and we strapped it on so we could track where he was during the night.
  5. Keep a handwritten log of your cat’s progress, from beginning to end — you can’t keep all this in your head! We made up a grid with categories for Meds, Food, Sub-Q, Bathroom Habits. You’ll also want to keep your veterinary and emergency clinics’ numbers handy at home, in your cell phone, and in your wallet. We have made a lot of phone calls!

I know there are many who have done long-term care for aging or sick pets. If you’ve got any other cat or pet care tips, we’d love to hear them. Please feel free to add them to this post. And remember, cat care is stressful, so take advantage of all the winter sports the Great White North has to offer and get some exercise!

Miracle Cat, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Miracle Cat, Minneapolis, Minnesota,
December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by
QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Helpful Links:

-posted on red Ravine, Monday, January 26th, 2009

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What I know about Velveeta cheese is the color. More pale orange than most cheeses. The texture. A gelatinous blob, jiggles when you shake it. The taste, well, not so much uncooked as cooked.

One would be hard-pressed to get a slice of Velveeta, taken off the block, to melt in the mouth. It’d take a glass of milk, I bet, to wash it down, adhered as it would be to the roof of the mouth, like those tart molds I remember the dentist once made of my teeth. Or the body of Christ, embodied in a white round host, wedged at the top, the choking, almost suffocating from manipulating the tongue to dislodge it while the priest walked through the slow process of drinking the last of the blood of Christ and then wiping out the chalice with a green cloth that seemed too nice to treat as a washrag.

And I suppose it’s fitting that Velveeta would lead me to memories of teeth molds and Communion hosts. They were all wrapped up together in my mind, the days of Hogan’s Heroes and grilled cheese sandwiches with Shasta cola after school. Friday nights at the bowling alley with Mom and Dad, me tucked under a pinball machine watching tan cordury bell bottoms of teenage boys. Sundays spent sitting with bony knees in a pew wishing I didn’t have to eat a round wafer that tasted like paper but softer.

Things that melt in the mouth, or don’t, and why is it that Velveeta melts so well in a pan over heat? The mouth, isn’t it a constant 90+ degree oven?, but I guess the temperature just isn’t high enough to activate the wheys and milkfats to dance that swirling dance from solid to liquid. And what about biting into Velveeta? Already I can feel the film on my teeth, like washing globs of Elmer’s glue from one’s fingers.

I don’t have qualms about eating Velveeta in sauces, dips, or casseroles. It was one of the foods of my youth, as familiar to me as potato chips or mayonnaise. Although I grew up with a natural bent for natural everything. Made my own granola out of raw oats and sesame seeds, honey and California sun-kissed raisins, when I was still a teen. Gravitated to halibut when given a choice for any selection on the long main-entree counter at Furr’s Cafeteria. Hated red meats for the veins and shunned eggs and chicken because Mom had enough of slaughtered birds and fertilized eggs when she was young, and when she was older she passed on her food aversions to us.

But I still ate processed food, still ate whatever I could find in the fridge after school, even when it was a box of aging Velveeta, the open end hardened and discolored, cracked and in need of amputation. Grilled cheese sandwiches were one of the few things I could make by myself, and I picked up Janet’s preference for cutting them diagonally and then dipping the end in a puddle of ketchup before biting off a piece.

I still love grilled cheese sandwiches dipped in ketchup, although I’m not a regular consumer of Velveeta nowadays. I like a sharp cheddar cheese and just this afternoon I made a green chile relleno casserole that I suppose could have been done with Velveeta, although I mixed yellow and white sharp cheddar. The cheeses melted a sort of deep amber, and being as how I’ve burned Velveeta in the crock pot, I know that even cheese that melts well over heat can turn brown if you let it get too hot.

-related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC — VELVEETA CHEESE

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Velveeta drizzled over broccoli, slathered over corn tortilla chips, melted inside a loaf of homemade bread with pimentos and mayo and peppers, an open-loaf dip. I don’t remember specific Velveeta recipes as a kid. But I remember liking Velveeta on open-faced toast. Comfort food. Like buttery mashed potatoes, real vanilla milk shakes, homemade pizzas, macaroni and cheese, baked beans. These are comfort foods. High calorie, low cost, always warm to the touch.

It’s the smearability of Velveeta that makes it a hit. The easy way you can take the blade of a stainless steel knife and spread the cheese over a slice of whole wheat without ripping or shredding the bread into little pieces that leave holes that drip down on to your lap or chin. Are you one of those people who prefers using a napkin bib? I know adults who do this at home, not in public. They are prone to drips and spatters; sometimes large-breasted women seem to catch food on their shelves. Privately we laugh about it. Publicly, that kind of clumsiness can lead to embarrassment.

I’ve been thinking about Nikki Giovanni, the way she is so comfortable in her own skin. She’s been to the school of hard knocks, does not care what others think of what she writes, or shares from the heart. Not overt scare tactics or stun-gun sentences that some writers use to wake their readers up. Instead, the honest rhetoric that shoots from the heart. That kind of honesty can shock people, leave them not knowing what to say. Or thinking, should she really have said that on public radio? It doesn’t matter. She is willing to bear the consequences of her honesty.

There’s a certain comfort level one needs to get to in order not to care what people think or how they will judge. There is a confidence in their writing, with their presence in the smaller pecking order of their personal families, and the larger pecking order, sometimes ruthless, that comprises the rest of the world. Is it okay to say you love Velveeta?

Childhood foods, guilty pleasures. Why have foods like that become the blunt of people’s jokes. Especially those who pride themselves on eating “healthy” or only “whole foods,” food snobs. People get to make choices about how they eat, just as they do about what they say or write. To judge others based on what they eat, I don’t think so. Keep the focus on my own bare cupboards.

I like Velveeta and cinnamon toast and Kool-Aid. I don’t really care who knows it. I made cinnamon toast just last week. It’s another comfort food. When I was a child there was a container filled with cinnamon, swirled in sugar, wound and stirred into a brown concoction ready to be shaken into the mouth of a melted butter gob on top of white Wonder bread. These days, I eat whole wheat because I like the taste better.

I become the most food conscious when I am trying to lose weight. It’s true, processed foods are high calorie, not good for the heart. And the fried foods that I love can be deadly. But you can eat anything if you watch the calories. Again, who am I to judge others? There is a woman at work that most know to be the town gossip. Anything you tell her will make the rounds. It’s common knowledge, something everyone accepts about her. I watch what I say. Yet I like her. She’s abrasive, direct, honest, loves Velveeta cheese and smokes a pack of cigarettes a day.

And whenever people want to know what’s going on in another part of the company, they always go to her to ferret out what she has heard. If you solicit information from the town gossip when it’s convenient for you, no need to judge her for the rest. All this, from a box of Velveeta cheese.

-related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC — VELVEETA CHEESE

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Ha Noi Opera House (one), detail of a portal at the Ha Noi Opera House in downtown Ha Noi, Vietnam, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

I know it’s only the third week in January, but today is feeling like a yellow kind of day. Maybe it’s the unusually warm temperatures we’ve been hitting here in the Rio Grande Valley (which actually cause us to grumble for the way the heat tricks the fruit trees into blooming and then wham, a hard freeze). It could be that gold-yellow dress the First Lady wore for the Presidential Inauguration. (Did you like it, by the way?) Maybe it’s the feeling of fresh starts.

Whatever it is, it’s here. The day is bright. I’m mellow yellow.

I have a yellow cashmere sweater that I recently rediscovered at the bottom of my sweater drawer. The other day I wore it over a yellow T-shirt I found at Target for $2.98. Can you believe it? $2.98! It was perfect for the sweater. I wore a (not real) gold chain, kind of heavy, and a more delicate (not real) gold choker with pearls, layered. I got lots of compliments that night. Yellow. Who would have known?

One time a co-worker walked by my cube. He peeked in on me and said, kind of surprised, “Wow, black is your color!” After that, any time I had a party to go to or something where I wanted to look good, I pulled out a black blouse and black slacks. After a while, I started to look like Johnny Cash. Stuck in Folsom prison. I love Johnny Cash and never tire of his music, but my look? It got stale.

Yellow’s a funny color. In architecture, it seems to be used more for home interiors—sunny kitchens, uneven walls sponged a Mexican sunflower—than for exteriors. The exception might be the antebellum Southern plantation home. Think Tara from Gone with the Wind.

The Opera House in downtown Ha Noi is a pale yellow, although under the bright Vietnamese sun, and given the size of the place, the yellow rises up from the pavement like a luminous ball (wall) of fire. Gracing the grounds of the Opera House is an outdoor café where you can sip iced Vietnamese milk coffee while sitting in bamboo and cloth chairs set under ramadas. It is, perhaps, the most civilized experience I’ve ever had.

Yellow has that effect. In spite of the fact that it’s a warm color, it calms and brightens at once. There is no agitation to yellow as there is with red. No melancholy that comes with the tranquility of blue. No, yellow is its own thing.

Fleeting, perhaps, in winter; enjoy it while it lasts.

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Mr. President, pen and ink on graph paper, based on a photo
in Mother Jones, doodle © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Elizabeth Alexander shared her poem, Praise song for the day.
Reverend Joseph Lowery offered his benediction.

What words do you have for the 44th president of the United States?
Share your poems, blessings, hopes, wishes, advice.

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Tickets, mural outside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Tickets, mural outside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, all photos © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

A few weeks ago, our monthly Poetry Group read the work of Elizabeth Alexander, the poet selected to read at the inauguration of Barack Obama. When we sat down to dinner the next day after work, Liz announced, “I took a half day off Tuesday. Want to go to the Riverview for the inauguration?”  It took a few seconds to sink in. Then, with no hesitation, I said, “Yes, let’s do it. I’ll ask for time off, too.”

Elizabeth Alexander, a 46-year-old professor of African American Studies at Yale, and author of five books of poetry, will be only the 4th poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Robert Frost was the very first during President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. When it came time to read, Frost, blinded by the sun, could not see his notes and quickly moved to Plan B. He recited from memory another poem from his prolific body of work.

Maya Angelou read for President Bill Clinton’s first Inauguration in 1993. And for President Clinton’s second, he chose Miller Williams in 1997. It’s been a long 12 years since a poet has had the honor of reading at an inauguration. It’s important to notice this detail; it’s a strong indicator that the Arts matter to the upcoming administration.

I was moved by the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander. She was only a one year old on August 28th, 1963 when her father, a civil rights advisor to President Johnson, and her mother, Adele, brought her to the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. On January 20th, 2009, she will read at the swearing-in of the first African American U.S. president.

I am obviously profoundly honored and thrilled. Not only to have a chance to have some small part of this extraordinary moment in American history……This incoming president of ours has shown in every act that words matter, that words carry meaning, that words carry power, that words are the medium with which we communicate across difference and that words have tremendous possibilities, and those possibilities are not empty.

Elizabeth Alexander from the Washington Post article, Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry

Riverview Marquee, outside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Time Moves On, inside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Under The Marquee, outside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

We’ll hope to have free tickets and front row seats to the Riverview Theater’s screening of the inauguration (you can also watch it free at the downtown Minneapolis Central Library). The Riverview doors open at 9:30am CST with the viewing lasting until around 1pm. And on the wide Riverview screen, behind the original late 1940’s vintage curtains:

11:30am EST — If you have tickets to the Inauguration ceremony, you must have passed through security by this time.

  • Call to Order and Welcoming Remarks: Senator Dianne Feinstein
  • Invocation: Dr. Rick Warren
  • Aretha Franklin will sing
  • Vice President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office
  • Music composed by John Williams and performed by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill.

12:00 Noon EST — As specified by the U.S. Constitution (20th Amendment), presidential terms of office begin and end at 12:00 noon on January 20.

  •  Barack Obama will take the oath of office, which is this simple, 35-word, statement: I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

12:05pm EST (approx) — President Barack Obama will give his inaugural address, speaking to the nation and world, for the first time, as President of the United States, followed by:

  • Poem: Elizabeth Alexander
  • Benediction: The Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery
  • The National Anthem: The United States Navy Band “Sea Chanters”


It’s been almost two years since Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States in front of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois. For those who supported and voted for him, it’s the end of a long journey through a couple of grueling years of Presidential politics. For those who did not, it is a time-honored moment in our country’s history, and on the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, one you will not want to pass up.

I can’t think of a better way to honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than to take time off of work on Tuesday to listen to Barack Hussein Obama II be sworn in as our 44th President. That we will be graced with a moment of poetry falling on the listening ears of millions of people across the world, offers the promise of poetic justice — another chance to keep the magic of poetry alive.

In that moment, really I am the vessel for the poem. It’s not about the poet at that moment, it’s about the poem.

— Elizabeth Alexander from the NPR interview, Poet Calls Writing Inaugural Poem A ‘Challenge’

Longfellow, mural outside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Green, mural outside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.3 Lights, mural outside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Reflecting, inside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Poems were meant to be read out loud. That’s part of the joy of hearing others read live in a poetry group. Mende Vocabulary is one of the poems beautifully read by one member at our last poetry group and can be found, along with The Last Quatrain, and other poems, in Elizabeth Alexander’s piece, The Negro Digs Up Her Past: ‘‘Amistad’.”

The essay explores historical poetry and fiction through such works as Robert Hayden’s Middle Passage (which he first published in 1943 and continued to publish in revision as late as 1962), Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Arthur Schomburg’s 1925 essay The Negro Digs Up His Past.

Mende Vocabulary

by Elizabeth Alexander

my father
our father
your father
my mother
my book
his house
one ship
two men
all men
good man
bad man
white man
black man

I eat
he eats
we eat
they sleep
I see God
did I say it right?
we sleep
I make
he makes
they have eaten

this book is mine
that book is his
this book is ours
I am your friend

The Last Quatrain

by Elizabeth Alexander

and where now
and what now
the black white space


If we contemplate the Amistad as a ship without mothers, the utter absence of mothers in a violently formed society; if we wonder what people dreamed in their captivity, we might begin to understand what they lost, what it took to build themselves up again, and what it might take to move forward.

It is the unique potential of poetry to be able to locate and activate what is in the imagination. Art takes us to knowing that may have no other way of being found, and that is one of the very things we need in order to move more intelligently forward. 

— Elizabeth Alexander

– poems and final quote from an essay by Elizabeth Alexander on historical poetry and fiction, The Negro Digs Up Her Past: ‘‘Amistad’’ from The South Atlantic Quarterly 104:3, Summer 2005. Copyright©2005 by Duke University Press.


To read more about Elizabeth Alexander, Amistad, poetry, and the upcoming inauguration schedule, below are links to the resources used in this essay:


Presidential Inauguration at the Riverview Theater – Riverview’s page on their screening of the inauguration, Tuesday (Jan 20th): 10:30AM CST
Inauguration Day 2009 Schedule of Activities and Events — details and times for 2009 Inaugural Events, along with an hours, minutes, seconds countdown
Words on the Inauguration at the Poet’s Website, Elizabeth Alexander – “Words matter. Language matters. We live in and express ourselves with language, and that is how we communicate and move through the world in community.”


Inaugural Poet Part Of History – Again – part of the Road To The Inauguration Series on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric
The Inaugural Poet: Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry – article in the Washington Post by Michael E. Ruanein, Thursday, December 18, 2008
Poet Calls Writing Inaugural Poem A ‘Challenge’ — listen to the NPR interview with Elizabeth Alexander, December 18th, 2008
Weaving Words For The Inaugural Poem — listen to NPR Host Scott Simon ask Elizabeth Alexander for a sneak peek, January 17th, 2009


The Negro Digs Up Her Past: ‘‘Amistad’’ by Elizabeth Alexander The South Atlantic Quarterly 104:3, Summer 2005. Copyright©2005 by Duke University Press. — document from the author’s website, an excellent essay on the significance of historical poetry and fiction
The Amistad Comes to Life! — lesson planning article at Education World on teaching the story of The Amistad across all grades, a curriculum to bring life to the story of the revolt on the Amistad in the early 1800’s. Great links, one to the historic sites on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
The Mende Language – a few word translations from the Mende language at Education World, part of the curriculum for the complete story of the Amistad (link above) and the role Josiah Gibbs, a language professor at Yale University in New Haven, played in finding a translator for the Africans so their side of the story could be told.

Circles Within Circles, 1950s lamp at the Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Casting Light, vintage 1950s lamp at the Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Circles Within Circles, Casting Light 1950’s lamp at the Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, all photos © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

-posted on red Ravine, Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 19th, 2009, day before the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama

-with gratitude to Teri who took the leap and started our Poetry Group over a year ago, has provided strong leadership, and helps Keep Poetry Alive!

-related to posts: Out With The Old, In With The Old (Recycled Fashion Goes To Washington, DC), If You Can’t Say Something Nice…, Why It Won’t Matter To You That I’m Voting For Obama, The Politics Of Primary Season 2008 (A Presidential Primer)

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The other day I was craving one of my favorite holiday appetizers: chile con queso (recipe provided at the end of this post). I went to the grocery store in search of the main ingredient, Kraft Velveeta®. Up and down the cheese aisle I went, looking among the cheddars and Colbys.

I found the Kraft slices close to bologna (although no Velveeta loaf). I searched the string cheese, the kosher dills (the kind that need to be refrigerated), the lunch meats. Back and forth I went, past the cream cheeses, sour creams, and French dips. No where could I find the big boxes of Velveeta.

And so I did the only thing I could do. I sent a text message to my sister.

I cant find velveeta at albertsons

Look by the box macaroni and cheeses area

Box macaroni and cheese?? Don’t they keep Velveeta with the other cheeses, in the refrigerated section?

I started toward the pasta and as I wheeled around the corner, there they were. Boxes and boxes of Velveeta, stacked at the end of the aisle like cases of water bottles. I picked one up, turned it over in my hands. What exactly is Velveeta anyway??


Growing up in our house, there was almost always a loaf of Velveeta in process. We kept it in its original box, the open end swaddled as tightly as possible to keep the remaining cheese from drying out. In addition to using it for chile con queso, we always made grilled cheese sandwiches out of the stuff. It melted so well!

In fact, according to the SQUIDOO Food & Cooking blog post Velveeta…Unwrapped, this is the whole reason Velveeta exists.

Simply put, Velveeta melts nicely. I don’t think anyone outside of Kraft knows exactly why, but several possibilities have been suggested. Among them, differences in protein structure, oil content, and a Velveeta block’s own desire to please.

Velveeta seemed to be a central figure in a growing trend of households using processed foods. Shake ‘n Bake, SpaghettiOs, Spam, Hamburger Helper, Rice-a-roni—all made occasional appearances in our house. (Dad especially liked fried Spam sandwiches.) Given that our usual fare was beans and chile, enchiladas, tacos, and tortillas, I kind of liked opening the refrigerator and seeing that loaf of orangeish congealed cheese. It made me feel more like everyone else.

According to the Kraft Velveeta official history site, Kraft introduced Velveeta in 1928, “after several years of research on the nutritive value of whey—a by-product of cheese making.” In 1950, the one-pound “loaf” was introduced to the market, and in 1962, the distinctive oval logo that is still used today. A reduced-calorie “light” version of the cheese came out in 1991, and in 2006, Pepper Jack flavor hit the stores.

Velveeta Unwrapped explains that Velveeta is a “pasteurized processed cheese food.” Pasteurized process cheese foods contain one or more cheeses (which have to make up at least 51% of the total weight), with added dry milk, whey solids, or anhydrous milkfat. The mixture is heated with an emulsifier such as sodium or potassium phosphate. Color and flavoring are added, and then it’s poured into molds to congeal.
Mmmm. Tasty.


And the thing is, it is tasty. It’s creamy and gooey. Slightly sweet. Cheesy, yes, but life would be missing something if Velveeta didn’t exist.

Which is why Velveeta is our Writing Topic.

Think about a time when you remembered Velveeta cheese, um, food. Maybe it wasn’t a specific instance with the cheese, um, food itself, but rather, a time. When life was simpler, processed foods were few and far between, and the idea of a cheese that melted was kind of magical.

Then write for 15 minutes. No stopping, no crossing out. Just write.

A few other helpful links

  • Velveeta Unwrapped is an excellent source on Velveeta. Make sure to see the definitions for “cheese food,” “cheese spread,” and “cheese product,” along with a Flickr Velveeta Cheese Gallery and a recipe for Velveeta Fudge. Also check out the poll that lets readers say whether they lose just a smidge of respect for a person who is discovered to eat Velveeta.
  • 1950s foods: For foods and brands that were popular in the 1950s
  • 1960s foods
  • 1970s foods

Chile con Queso

This recipe comes from my Aunt Erma. It’s a little more involved than another approach, which is to throw a loaf of Velveeta and a jar of salsa into a crock pot and let it all melt. I prefer Aunt Erma’s queso.

You’ll need:

  • A pad of butter
  • One or two diced onions
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • A small can of hot chile or jalapeños
  • A small can of peeled tomatoes
  • A large can of evaporated milk, unsweetened
  • A pound of Velveeta

Melt the butter on medium heat in a sauce pan, add the onions and garlic, cook for a couple of minutes. Add the chile, tomatoes, and Velveeta. You’ll want to cut the cheese into small pieces so that it melts more easily. Add the evaporated milk.

As the cheese melts, stir the ingredients together. The mixture might be soupy at first, but don’t worry—it will thicken as it cools. Don’t let the mixture boil or the cheese might curdle. If making in a crock pot, make sure you keep it on low.

Once the Velveeta is melted and the ingredients blended, the chile con queso is ready. Serve in bowls as a hot dip with tortilla chips. You can also use it to make nachos.

This recipe makes enough for a large party.

(Oh, and if you’re a Velveeta snob, try this version of the recipe: Hold-the-Velveeta Queso.)

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Santa Fe designer Nancy Judd and her recycled “trashion” (trash fashion) are headed to Washington, DC, to Saturday’s Green Inaugural Ball honoring President-elect Barack Obama. Judd, a former Recycling Coordinator at the City Different’s Solid Waste Department and current owner of Recycle Runway, has expanded her gorgeous line of “Dumpster coutre” to include pieces inspired by Obama campaign throwaways.

The Wall Street Journal featured Judd on the front page of its January 13th issue, for having caught the eye of organizers of the $500-a-ticket all-organic pre-Inaugural celebration, which is expected to draw 1,000 environmentalists. Models will display Judd’s garments on platforms in the main lobby area.

Showing her stuff in the nation’s capital is a big step for a woman who used to put on a furry blue costume and sweat her way through parades as Carlos Coyote, Santa Fe’s recycling mascot.”

Using campaign paraphernalia she rescued from a dumpster outside an Obama campaign office, Judd has developed an elegant line of Obama-wear, so far consisting of these three pieces (photos were provided by Judd and are used with her permission):

Obamanos Coat

This man’s coat is made from Obama campaign paper door hangers that have been lacquered and stitched together. (Look closely and you can see lots of little smiling Obamas and Bidens.) It took Judd 200 hours to cut, paste, and sew the coat.

Judd tailored the coat to Obama’s measurements, which she found online. She is hoping he will stop by the event and try on the coat. She even managed to hinge the sleeves to give him a measure of mobility: “He can’t wave, but he can shake a hand.”

Maybe the mental image of that dress made from glass might make people think twice before they throw out a bottle next time.

~Jenna Mack, co-producer of the Green Inaugural Ball (from WSJ)

Obama Dress, Santa Fe designer Nancy Judd modeling a dress she made out of plastic Obama yard signs, photo © 2009 by Nancy Judd, Recycle Runway
Obama Cocktail Dress

Judd is shown here modeling an old-new take on the ubiquitious “little black dress,” this one made from plastic yard signs. She has no training in fashion, nor does she know how to sketch. She gets ideas from old paper dolls.

Her pieces are conceived as wearable sculpture and she doesn’t sell any of them. They are educational tools to help illustrate the problems facing our environment and to raise awareness.

You can’t be didactic or shaming or all gloom-and-doom…so you sneak in the back door.

~Judd, on how to talk to others about sustainability (from WSJ)


Voter Swing Coat

This stylish suit is woven from strips of voter-registration posters.

For Judd, making dazzling garments to hit home a serious message about the earth is a labor of love. For the past two years, she has been living off of savings and a small business loan. She won’t be making money from the Green Inaugural Ball, either, although she is selling tote bags made from recycled campaign posters to cover trip expenses.

The children were amazed to see that something so beautiful could be created out of something we would normally throw away.

~Pat Bluett, assistant director of a Boys & Girls Club (from WSJ)

I’m relieved to know that some of the printed materials—door hangers and brochures that so many volunteers handed out during the campaign—have been “re-purposed” into such gorgeous pieces. (How she managed to cut the plastic yards signs, I can’t figure out. Those things are indestructuable—don’t ask me how I know.)

More than that, I am proud of this talented New Mexico designer for making it to Washington, DC and to an audience of prominent and influential environmental leaders. She’s created a unique and fabulous way to get across a vital message to people young and old—and people in power ought to see her work.

Speaking of people in power, would you say hello to Obama for me, Nancy? Just give him a big hug on my behalf as you’re helping him try on the Obamanos Coat. Thanks.

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For Christmas I got the 2009 Page-A-Day Book Lover’s Calendar, which features a different book each day. Guess which author turned up on the page for Wednesday, January 14?

Isabel Allende and her book Inés of My Soul.

I’ve never read that book, but based on the Page-A-Day write-up, it is a passionate love story that takes place in 16th Century Spain and Latin America—a sort of hot and spicy romance set in rich historical times. Which, I suppose, is why the title for the page is CHILE CON CARNE.

Chile with meat.

Chile con carne, January 14th page from the Page-A-Day 2009 Book Lover's Calendar, featuring Isabel Allende

Or, I suppose it could have just been a play on the word Chile, being that Isabel Allende is de Chile and that Doña Inés, protagonist of the featured book, ends up in Chile with Don Pedro.

No matter what the origin of Book-A-Day’s title is, I thought I’d provide my mother’s Chile con Carne recipe here. That way you can make a pot of steaming green chile stew to savor along with the heat of Doña Inés and Isabel Allende.

Chile con Carne

You’ll need:

  • A pound of pork
  • Tablespoon of olive oil
  • Tablespoon of flour
  • Two cloves of garlic
  • A large yellow (Spanish) onion
  • Five or six red or yellow potatoes, peeled
  • Four or so roasted, peeled, and deseeded chile pods
  • A package of frozen corn
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Chile con Carne, otherwise known ’round these parts as Green Chile Stew, is best made in a crock pot so that the flavors can simmer all day long and the meat becomes very tender.

First cut the pork into small chunks. (You can also use beef or chicken, but Mom always makes it with pork.) Brown the pork in oil in a large pan on the stove, along with a couple of cloves of chopped garlic and a whole chopped yellow onion. In the mean time, have your crock pot heating up.

After the meat is brown, add about a tablespoon of flour for thickening. (If you want a gluten-free version, use soy or rice flour.) Then add about four cups of water to the meat, and once the water starts boiling, put the whole thing into the crock pot.

Let the meat cook all afternoon, and about two hours before you’re going to serve the stew, add in the potatoes, peeled and chopped. (I like to cut mine into medium-sized pieces, not too small and not too big.) Also add the chopped green chiles, and 3/4 of the package of frozen corn. You may need to add more water.

Season with salt and pepper. Simmer on low for another two hours, and it’s ready to go.

NOTE: You can add fresh chopped tomatoes or any other vegetables, but the stew is wonderful with just the few simple ingredients above.

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Moon Webs, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2009, photo © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Moon Webs, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2009, photo © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

one rises, one sets
Moon cradled in snow branches
Sun births a new day

Cradled In Ash, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2009, photo © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Cradled In Ash, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2009, photo © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

click! snaps the shutter
fingers frozen to the bone
nose running away

Wolf Moon, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2009, photo © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Wolf Moon, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2009, photo © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Wolf Moon howls at me
survival of the warmest
she wins every time

Note:  Woke up to -18 degree temperatures in our zip code (-32 wind chills) and saw this through the window at sunrise. What a magnificent sight. I had to step out in my soft new PJ’s (thanks Mom!) and take a few shots. Right after that, I donned all my winter mummy-wear and spent 1 1/2 hours shoveling the two feet of snow blocking our long, hilly driveway. We are in the January deep freeze, traditionally the coldest weeks of the year.

I love winter in Minnesota. It makes me feel alive. And the Wolf Moon is the brightest I’ve seen in months. You can read more about why in the Comment links from our readers in this post about a celestial ménage à trois . (Thanks diddy and R3. I knew I’d fit that phrase in somewhere!)

-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, January 13th, 2008

-related to posts:  winter haiku trilogy, PRACTICE – Wolf Moon – 10min, haiku (one-a-day)

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In a cultural moment when we are hearing nothing but bad news, we have reassuring evidence that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable.

~Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

Good news from the National Endowment for the Arts. According to a report it released today, “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,” fiction reading increased for adults for the first time after a quarter-century of decline.

A New York Times article about the report stated that for the first time since 1982, which is when the US Census Bureau started collecting data on public participation in the arts,

…the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen.

Wooo-hooo! People are reading again.

Fiction accounts for the new growth in adult readers (unfortunately, reading of poetry and drama specifically has continued to decline) and online book reading has gone up (something I personally can’t get into). Also up is reading among younger adults (ages 18-24) and Hispanics. ¡Viva!

Mr. Gioia attributed the increase in part to programs the NEA has underwritten, such as the “Big Read,” which is a library partnership to encourage communities to champion particular books, like The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

He also attributed the increase to things like Oprah Winfrey’s book club and the phenomenon of young adult fiction like Harry Potter or the Twilight Series. (I read the first five Harry Potter books out loud to my daughters and then got hooked and had to finish up the last two on my own.)

Not to put too much of the credit on our shoulders, but I think blogs that encourage reading (see our post “Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read” as one of many examples, and “The World According To Mr. Schminda (et al.)” for a list of about 100 must-read classics) have also played a small but vital role. Just peruse some of the links on our blogroll and you’ll see several fellow bloggers reviewing classic works of fiction or otherwise touting books and reading. And these are just a handful of the thousands of literary-minded blogs that have cropped up over the past couple of years.

I know I’m doing my part in countering the dumbing down of America. Right now, I’m reading the first Stephenie Meyers book in the Twilight series outloud to my youngest (one could argue it’s not exactly high literature nor age-appropriate for a nine-year-old, but hey, it took us more than three months to finish The Hobbit last year, and already in four nights we’re one-fourth of the way through Twilight).

Then on my own, I’m reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. (And yes, it is hard to switch between a 17-year-old in Forks, Oregon Washington who’s falling in love with a vampire versus a pair of Jewish escapists/cartoonists in 1930s Prague and Brooklyn.)

What about you? What book or books are you reading in this new year, and have you consumed more fiction of late than in the past? If so, what has compelled you read more?

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Isabel Allende, a portion of the book cover from Allende’s memoir Paula, (colors manipulated), photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Yesterday all day I thought about author Isabel Allende. In 2008 I read two memoirs from the large collection of fiction and creative non-fiction that she’s written: The Sum of Our Days—published last year—and Paula (1995). I hadn’t read any of her works in the almost twenty years since I devoured and loved her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1985).

The reason Allende was on my mind yesterday, January 8, was because that is the date each year that she starts a new book. That was the date back in 1981 when she received a phone call from someone in her native Chile saying that her grandfather, Tata, was dying. She was living in exile in Venezuela—her uncle and Chilean president Salvador Allende had been assassinated years earlier—and she summoned the ghost of her grandmother to help her beloved Tata.

I decided to write him one last time, to tell him he could go in peace because I would never forget him and planned to bequeath his memory to my children and my children’s children. To prove it, I began the letter with an anecdote about my great-aunt Rosa, my grandfather’s first sweetheart, a young girl of almost supernatural beauty who had died in mysterious circumstances shortly before they were to marry, poisoned either by error or malice, and whose soft sepia-tone photograph always sat on the piano in Tata’s house, smiling with unalterable beauty.

~Isabel Allende, from Part Two of her book Paula

That letter became an obsession for Allende, who was 40 years old at the time, married and with two children. After a 12-hour shift at her day job, she returned home at dark, ate dinner with the family, and then sat in front of a portable typewriter and wrote until overcome by exhaustion. The writing came effortlessly, “because my clairvoyant grandmother was dictating to me.”

The letter to her grandfather had become a novel, although Allende could not bring herself to admit it. She had spent her career up to then working as a journalist, writing screenplays and short stories—

…on the periphery of literature…without daring to confess my true calling. I would have to publish three novels translated into several languages before I put down ‘writer’ as my profession when I filled out a form.

She carried the papers with her in a canvas bag, and when the bag became heavy and she had 500 pages “whited out so many times with correction fluid that some were stiff as cardboard,” she knew she was almost finished. In two days, after several earlier tries, she wrote the ten pages of epilogue.

That first novel became an international sensation, a dense epic about the Trueba family, written in the genre of magical realism that characterized the works of so many Latin American novelists—think Gabriel García Márquez and the Buendía family of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was living in Spain when The House of the Spirits came out but didn’t read it until I returned to the U.S. and began studying about Latin America in a Masters degree program. The writing was fluid and floral, the sentences long and paragraphs thick. There were so many details and people and places that it was like making my way through a labyrinth, but I read it day in and day out, perhaps over two or three weeks, often re-reading sections I felt I hadn’t absorbed fully the first time.

Why it took me all these years to pick up another Allende book, I can only say that there was so much literary terrain to make up that I was overwhelmed to the point of paralysis as to who to read next. Allende wrote sixteen books after her debut novel, and each time I saw a review or otherwise heard news of a new title being published, it would register that I should take up with her again.


When an exuberant neighbor kept me in the parking lot of the post office for almost an hour this past summer gushing about Allende’s new memoir, The Sum of Our Days, which he’d checked out of the local library, I had no recourse but to take it on as my next book to read. In fact, he said he would place it on hold in my name the moment he returned it to the library, so soon the calls started coming that my book was waiting for me.

The writing in that memoir was so powerful, so magnetic, that it didn’t take me long to finish the book. The Sum of Our Days picks up with Allende’s life after the tragic death of her daughter, Paula. It tells the story of her “tribe”—her son and his wife who leaves him to be with a woman, her mother and step-father, her new husband who gives her a reason to finally let down her guard and allow herself to be cared for and loved.

The book gave me reason to immediately want to read the memoir Paula, which told the story of Allende’s daughter and the mysterious illness that took her young life (she was about 30 years old when she died). But it also tells the story of Allende’s own intriguing life, her family in Chile and the coup that forced her out, her first marriage and several careers. Allende’s pain was evident in that book, as was the strength it must have taken to be alive to her daughter’s death.

Allende is a writer’s writer, the kind of powerful force who inspires other writers. The two memoirs I read taught me as much about writing as any workshop or books about writing ever have. I want to go back and read everything else she’s written.

I want to know what emerges from January 8, 2009; I can be certain she has started a new story, a new book, just as I can be certain that the sun rose and set yesterday.

I began Of Love and Shadows on January 8, 1983, because that day had brought me luck with The House of the Spirits, thus initiating a tradition I honor to this day and don’t dare change; I always write the first line of my books on that date. When the time comes, I try to be alone and silent for several hours; I need a lot of time to rid my mind of the noise outside and to cleanse my memory of life’s confusion. I light candles to summon the muses and guardian spirits, I place flowers on my desk to intimidate tedium and the complete works of Pablo Neruda beneath the computer with the hope they will inspire me by osmosis—if computers can be infected with a virus, there’s no reason they should be refreshed by a breath of poetry. In secret ceremony, I prepare my mind and soul to receive the first sentence in a trance, so the door may open slightly and allow me to peer through the hazy outlines of the story waiting for me. 

~Isabel Allende, from Part Two of her book Paula

A Few Resources

Isabel Allende at the Lensic Theater, Santa Fe, NM, September 24, 2008 (Lannan Foundation podcast)
Isabel Allende Tells Tales of Passion (TED.com video)
Questions & Answers from Isabel Allende (author’s website)


Isabel Allende press photo © 2008 by Lori Barra.

-Related to post Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read

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Da Nang Cathedral, built for French residents in 1923 and today
serves approximately 4,000 Catholics in the city, Da Nang, Vietnam,
December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

I went yesterday to get an adjustment after the holidays, and I heard Dr. L tell someone that patients help heal one another. That in the treatment room, which contained up to four of us lying on massage tables a couple of feet apart from one another, there was a sort of collective healing energy flowing from one person to the next.

Dr. L, the chiropractor, was saying this—or words to the effect—to a woman who had just left the treatment room. His words penetrated the altered state I tend to slip into the moment I settle face down on the table. I thought of the patient to my left, wondered if, like me, she was channelling all her energy into healing herself. I thought about how energy moved, uncontained, from this thing to that thing. How we were all connected whether we liked it or not.

It’s a fascinating concept, the notion of collective consciousness. I remember during both the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections receiving viral emails suggesting we all pray for our candidate to win. The idea was that our collective power could and would make a difference in the outcome.

That then reminded me of the Catholic ritual of praying the rosary whenever someone dies. How the prayers of the survivors, chanted in unison at a rosary mass, help send the deceased person’s soul to Heaven.

And so this morning when I read a New York Times article about a group of a hundred or so parishioners outside of Boston, Massachusetts, who had held vigil inside an empty Catholic Church 24/7 for over four years, I was struck by the theme of collective spirit. Collective intent. Which really translates into Faith.

In fact, that was the title of the article: “In Quiet Rebellion, Parishioners Keep Faith.” In October 2004, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston decided to close and sell dozens of churches in the area as a result of a shortage of priests, parishioners, and money. (The latter was exacerbated by a multimillion dollar settlement to victims of sexual abuse.) Parishioners at five of the churches slated for closure rebelled, setting up constant vigil in their empty churches.

The fact that parishioners from St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church were able to set up vigil is itself a testament to faith. The archdiocese changed the locks in 2004 but unintentionally left a fire door open. Since then parishioners not only keep vigil in shifts around the clock; they also conduct mass, hold rosary sessions, raise money, donate to charities, and open the church to people in need.

In the course of four years of maintaining a vigil church, this collection of parishioners has undergone a transformation. They talk of new opportunity, of the potential for lay people to be more involved in the Catholic Church, to play an active role and help offset the shortage of priests.

I cannot go back to the priest and the vestments and that, I always felt, prince-of-the-church approach. I’ll always be Catholic, but I may not be able to worship in the mainstream Catholic Church.

~Mary Dean, 61, St. Frances parishioner

The big question is, Can the hierarchy of the Catholic Church undergo its own transformation? Can the archbishop find a thread of faith inside the vigil churches that might provide answers to the problems that beleaguer the Church?

If spiritual health is one of the main pillars of a healthy human being, is there not goodness in collective healing, in people healing themselves and one another?

Da Nang from afar, view from my room (Da Nang Cathedral in the distance), December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Postscript: I started this post wanting to talk about the power of churches from a purely structural standpoint. How is it that a physical building could have such pull on individuals?

I spend hours out of any trip I take to somewhere new seeking out cathedrals, temples, and other sacred places. But what I’ve come to believe is, these places are only as sacred as the faith that sustains them. People make the place. They embue the walls and ceilings with spirituality. The NYT article I came across today hit home that point.

Above is the view from my hotel window in Da Nang, which I visited last month on a trip to Vietnam. I could see a pink steeple in the distance my first morning, and late that afternoon I went in search of the church. It was a Saturday, and there was a mass in progress—a huge funeral, it appeared, with parishioners spilling out into the entryway. I kept a respectful distance.

I think of the many faithful who have lost their places of worship. These are the places we go to be born, to live, to die, and to be born again. To lose one’s church is a profound thing.

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1958 Chevy Apache pick-up truck, December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

When I was 39 years old I let Jim know that for my 40th birthday I wanted an old truck. I wanted a truck that was about my same age. Something big, bulbous, and roomy. I wanted a truck that would remind me of my grandpa, who when he wasn’t riding a horse was bouncing up the dirt road in his old pick-up, on his way to the saloon.

I learned to drive in my sister’s VW bug when I was about 13, but I honed my skill in Dad’s 1971 Chevy pick-up when I was 16. Mom and Dad went on a long trip to Lake Powell that summer, and never suspecting that I’d attempt to drive a stick shift that didn’t even use first gear (except to pull a camper up a hill), they left the key behind. My friends and I went off-road, down ditch banks and in the rolling sand dunes of Albuquerque’s west mesa, in that pick-up. We got it stuck but were able to get a tow out of the hole I’d plowed into.

And so the one thing that called to me as my 40th year approached was a good ol’ truck. Jim eventually found one, although I believe it was not until after I’d turned 41. The find was worth the wait.

It had belonged to an old farmer from around these parts named Mr. Tenorio. Everyone knew Mr. Tenorio, and everyone knew his 1958 Chevy Apache pick-up with its original forest green paint.

For a couple of years I was in old-truck heaven. Manual steering, unwieldy stick shift, doors that only closed after slamming them with all your might several times. This baby required muscle. I remember once taking my friend Anne out for a spin. We rounded a corner and her door flew open. The truck didn’t have seat belts.

Jim and I used the pick-up two seasons in a row for selling apples, chile, and other produce at the local Growers Market. Our booth was one of the most festive; someone who was making a promotional video for our little village asked if she could film us, and I know the appeal was that 1958 Chevy Apache and the red and yellow apples and green chile all laid out in produce baskets in the truck’s bed.

Last week we sold dear Mr. Tenorio’s truck. For the past three or four years it has sat unused in our driveway, its green body rusting away bit by bit each day. I might have liked to hang on to it forever, but Jim and I are letting go of all the stuff we’ve accumulated over the years that we no longer truly need or want.

We sold the Apache to a young Chicano from a town south of here. I didn’t meet him, nor did I watch the truck pull out of the driveway. I was certain this was the right thing to do—we had no plans to fix up the truck to its former glory, and Jim got the feel that this guy did—yet…. I didn’t want to know exactly, down to the last tattoo, what the new owner looked like. And I didn’t want to have to say anything to him or to the Apache.

I said my goodbyes later. I noticed the pile of dead cottonwood leaves that had accumulated since fall between the truck and the juniper bushes. The driveway had a lot more room. The house seemed empty. Funny how something outside the house could make the whole thing look slightly vacant. Mr. Tenorio was gone.


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