Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Kennedy Boys

Tonight we've been watching tributes to Ted Kennedy, much about his reputation in the senate, his sterling work as a senator. And talk of his brothers who died so early. As they say one never forgets where one was.

I was in Yugoslavia - the old Peoples' Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia - in November, 1963. I had just got back to Belgrade from a long trip, on the 22nd. My friend Nada and her family lived right in the center. Their flat was very cosy; the big tiled stove had been lit and Nada was hemming a skirt, ready for a party on Saturday. But in a few hours we heard that Kennedy had been shot and everything came to a halt.

Saturday was a national day of mourning. All entertainment was banned: only solemn music on the television and radio. The mother of Nada's friend cancelled the party. The American reading room was not far away and we saw people gathering in silence outside in the cold, some in tears, some taking flowers inside. In the trams that passed we saw Belgraders sitting stone faced and silent. People were crying in the street. And Nada cried. Nada who had survived the German occupation of Belgrade, everything, who always vowed she would never cry. But she said, chin up, she was crying because she was angry. And she said what many Yugoslavs were saying then: "There is too much violence in America!"

I was in Yugoslavia five years later, this time teaching down in Kosovo, southern Serbia, much to the dismay of my Belgrade friends for whom Kosovo was the wild west. A wild west full of Albanian moslems. I was in my little lector's flat, getting ready for class when three of my fourth year students came to the door. One of them, Mark, was crying. This was something I'd never seen. Kosovo was called the wild west for a reason. This was where the blood feud still existed, where every self-respecting Albanian male was supposed to own a gun or at least a knife. The other two students asked if they could all come in for a moment, apologising. Mark, they explained, just wanted to pay his respects. They were both moslem but Mark was from a catholic Albanian tribe; you could tell that from his name. And Mark, they told me, had just heard that Robert Kennedy had been killed.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Health USA: No country for young men

I am from England.

Until I came to America I didn't know what a financial burden the body could be.

Now I'm much older I can relax. Contrary to the idea that America is a land dedicated to youth is the fact that it looks after the old. Reach the gently sloping uplands of Medicare and you can quietly graze away.

I used to joke that one should spend one's youth in the West, specifically the States and then go East, to Turkey, to China - where reverence for youth gives way to reverence for age. But increasingly, as we are told, more money is spent on the last six months of life in the States, than any other time. Reverence indeed.

It seems America is obsessed with the first six months of life in the womb, and the last six months in bed. The first six months of life coming from zero to the last six months, going to zero.

In between, it's business as usual because your body is big business.

Ask your doctor. Tell your doctor. Ask your doctor. Tell your doctor.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why Don't We Do It In The Road?

My Woodstock moment came on Easter Saturday 1958. I'd heard about the "Ban the Bomb"march on the BBC. Organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it had started from Trafalgar Square on Good Friday and was headed for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment outside Aldermaston, a village on the other side of Reading, my home town.

I had come out to see it go by, standing in the cold by our bus stop on the London Road. A few neighbors had come out too. It was late afternoon, already getting on for dusk. And then we saw them coming down the hill, not many, a few hundred, their flags and banners drooping in the rain. The snow that had fallen on Good Friday had turned to classic, cold, English rain. It was the coldest Easter in living memory.

My heart was thumping hard, not just because of the banners, the raised voices and ragged chanting but the fact that they were all walking in the road. I was thinking what will happen when a bus comes down the hill, behind them, one of the big double decker Thames Valley buses. As we so often say now: it was a simpler time. People did not walk in the road. On Friday and Saturday nights when the pubs closed at ten thirty then a few unruly, lower-class citizens might lurch along the gutters but that was it. The first march for nuclear disarmament in 1958 was the first time the British had taken to the streets since the hunger marches of the thirties, when the starving Welsh miners marched on London.

As the marchers got closer we could see their banners said all kinds of things: Unite Ireland! Independence for Cyprus! There were elaborate Trade Union banners, embroidered like something from a church among the anti-bomb and peace signs. Our little group by the bus stop were the only bystanders in sight so we got the full force of the column starting to chant: "Come and join us!"
And I did, the only one, heart thumping harder, like a village boy swept up by the soldiers to go fight for the King. Though afterwards I always liked to say modestly, yes, indeed, I had been on the first Aldermaston march, one of the pioneers, first of the few.. I usually didn't add that it was basically because we lived just round the corner from the London Road and I was home from college, on Easter break.

The reasons why I wanted to ban the bomb, fight the cold war and work for world peace were quite personal, even selfish. Some of my best friends were young Communist Party members. In 1956 I'd gone to Yugoslavia, just shy of eighteen and spent the summer in the Peoples' Socialist Republic with two pen pals, two school girls from Belgrade. I came back, glowing with the discovery that many young American students were to make when they volunteered to help harvest the sugar cane in revolutionary Cuba: sunburnt, handsome young party members made one think twice about the evils of communism.

Then almost before my summer Adriatic tan had faded, Russian tanks were grinding into Hungary to put down the Hungarian revolution and any idea of a warm and friendly communist was dead.

But here on the march a few months later, were people who I felt for the first time understood how complex things were and yet how full of possibilties life was. All you had to do was not bother what people thought, not care about being respectable. I'd been swept into a group of marchers who didn't care: a young doctor from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Behind us an older couple, Quakers. Two dark young men with the "Independence for Cyprus!" banner. A very serious man with a beard and maybe his students. They were all incredibly friendly and, even the English, totally uninhibited. We chanted Ban the Bomb! And Come and Join Us! all the way into Reading in the twilight facing the same little knots of dazed and disbelieving people watching us go by, that I'd just left.

Sunday morning I didn't wait for a bus; I walked into Reading and found the marchers, found my group, my Singhalese doctor, outside St Lawrence parish hall. We started off for Aldermaston, the village in the Thames Valley with its Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. Word came down the line when we reached the tall wire fences: march in silence. The place seemed huge. There were clusters of men in uniform behind the wire, with dogs and guns. It was the first time I'd seen guns in England.

And when I got home for the first time when I listened to the BBC, I knew things they did not or refused to acknowledge. We were not a few rowdy students, a group of naive housewives pushing prams fifty-two miles through the good old English rain. The next year the BBC could not dismiss the march. We were sixty-thousand leaving Trafalgar Square. There were bigger and better banners and ones proclaiming all the towns and cities represented and bigger and shinier badges with the CND logo.

But I wore my little one given to me on that first Easter Saturday, the international symbol of peace, the semaphore for N and D, which began life on drenched and drooping banners coming from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston on that first Easter march against the bomb.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Florida City Swap Meet

The Florida City Swap Meet is featured quite a bit in Orchid Territory. Aunt Charlotte's Extra Large mens' shirts come from there, second hand -a dollar a piece. And the dignified old Mexican ladies in charge of the Christmas Eve dinner make their appearance in a motley array of old T shirts that Aunt Charlotte always looks forward to. "It's something of a Christmas Eve tradition wondering what will turn up on their fronts." She was hoping for another Only-in-America zinger like the one a few years earlier: 'Coon Hunters For Christ.' But this time the swap meet sample was disappointing. There was a RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE on the lady who'd stayed up all night with the roasting pig but the other two doling out the rice and beans could only offer an almost brand new MIAMI DADE PARKS DEPARTMENT and a fading TOMMY HILFIGER. Nothing even from Harley Davidson or the military.

"Over the years," Charlotte says, "judging from the T shirts, a surprising number (of these ladies) seem to have served in the Marines."

The Florida City Swap Meet featured a lot in my life too. and T shirts were only the tip of the iceberg. When Martin and I came back from teaching in Yugoslavia, he was unemployed and I was pregnant. He'd warned me he'd rather starve in South Florida than go back to his college job in Ohio. (Note: It was the winters, Ohio! He's a Miami boy!)

We didn't starve, but for many years the Sunday morning Florida City Swap Meet was just about my sole resource, for clothes, furniture, plates, jewelry, knives, forks and spoons, beautiful bowls, often a little cracked, and things I hadn't realized I'd always wanted until I saw them sitting there in the early morning sun for not more than a dollar or two.

I still remember what I paid for almost everything - if I can't, then the vase, silk shirt, side table, and anything else, belong to a later time when our economic situation lacked the drama of the early years. At the start my budget ranged from 25 cents for T shirts to two or three dollars for something like a chair. Yes, it was that great a swap meet. (Though it was too good. It got to the point where I would show off my latest prize: "It only cost fifty cents!" and Martin, surrounded by teapots, old atlases, irresistably pretty plates in blue and white, sterling silver bowls only slightly tarnished, would plead: "I'll pay you a dollar to take it back!")

For twenty-five cents (we're talking the eighties here) I harvested all the T shirts, blouses, scarves I could ever need. And the best guy we regulars went to was Carlos. We called his spot Carlos's Boutique. Carlos was a shy young man who parked his old green van in the same place every week, putting down a plastic sheet and spilling out black trash bags of treasures. I got my first Ralph Lauren shirt there, an Hermes silk scarf - someone, the maid probably, had put it in a hot washing machine and the colors had run a bit. We all just got down and dug. But then one Sunday morning everything changed. Carlos had brought along some kind of a stand and a load of coat hangers and everything was hung up and 50 cents. In one awful moment he'd doubled his prices and a lot of the fun had gone out of it.

It was probably at Carlos's Boutique where I got my 'Alabama' T shirt. It was white and green and unlike most T shirts, fitted perfectly. I wore it till it died and from time to time, someone, usually a youngish woman, would stop me and say- "Hey! Wasn't that a great concert!" I had no idea about a concert but it was certainly a great shirt. And for a moment I'd be lost, oblivious as the old Mexican ladies as to what was written on my front.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Saying it with flowers

Motes Orchids has been awash in flowers, all our vandas and ascocendas that we're so proud to say bloom all the year round. But the problem is we've been closed for the summer and we wanted them to take the summer off too. But of course, they've been blooming their little hearts out.

We should have started to cut the buds off round about the end of June, but I only did just a few. It seems a little too coldblooded, murderous, like deliberately taking eggs out of a bird's nest, like Herod slaughtering the first born. And what if someone close to us- let alone one of the children (Ha!)- suddenly decided to get married? Flowers are what we have -beautiful, unique vandas and ascocendas, though we say so ourselves - born and bred on the property. That's what we would bring to a family wedding, not fine linen or rich relatives or distinguished grandparents.

But we would never ever want to get into the wedding business. It's fine to give flowers to friends for their weddings or hot dates ("No, not that big pink - she'll think I'm proposing!") as long as no rules are involved. Yes, we have orchids in many lovely colors but they are not coordinated with Macys or J C Penneys or bridal books. I list florists who do weddings right up there with elementary school teachers and emergency room nurses. I admire them from afar and wish them luck.

Only once did we get sucked into promising orchids for a wedding without our golden rule. I knew we were sunk when the bride's mother sent me a little square of taffeta with a note: "This is the color for the bridesmaids' dresses. For the bride two shades lighter. And there'll be twenty tables."

We prefer to keep our flower presentations casual. The new FPL guy usually gets a flower especially if the dogs have been extra noisy. The two from Best Buy who put in the new stove. If we didn't have at least one of the big purple sprays or a fragrant yellow to hand, the family would feel uneasy. Motes Orchids with no flowers? That's like a pub with no beer.

Judging the judge

I didn't get too excited or teary-eyed about Judge Sotomayor's ascendancy to the Supreme Court. It was the compelling, historic moment for all the older, white men of substance and power in the Senate, something to tell their grandchildren. That was the fun part. Sonya with her sexy, humorous, lived-in face, warm but quzzical, sitting there observing a gang of important men in a muddle. It was like watching the workers drive the bosses out and locking the gates- but ever so politely. For a woman of a certain age it was especially sweet. And now on to Danica winning the Five Hundred, a filly winning the Preakness with a female jockey and Mr. Florida going on to win Mr. America.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hurricane Season

Motes Orchids has closed for the summer but we're not going anywhere. We have orchids -a lot of them. Too many to be left with a neighbor. And hurricane season has been starting earlier each year.

So Martin scheduled his last speaking engagement out of state for the middle of June with the Tulsa Orchid Society. A great time was had by all and then as usual we took off in a rental car for a few days and discovered how wonderfully friendly Oklahomans are, and so worried for us, from Miami.

"Hurricanes!" The waitress in the diner in a little town had gasped, "I'd be so scared!" And she'd just been telling us about the couple of tornadoes that had hit just the last week, two roads over. No big deal. This lady had the big trees fall in her yard and then two days later-on the Thursday- another tornado came through and that was when the other tree hit the house.

We are used to hurricanes being plannned for, like finding a cheap fare on Orbitz. You tune in with the first announcement, a slight dust cloud forming off the coast of Africa. If you're really eager, you look for your hurricane chart conveniently provided by the local Walgreens and while you're still hunting round the TV for where you put it, those folk in Oklahoma, if they had managed to hear a tornado warning at that same time, would already have raced for the basement, clung to a tree, or crawled into a ditch.

And while we are being shown charts of the Caribbean and kept informed on the status of this cloud of dust far off in the Atlantic, surprised once more by how close Trinidad is to Venezuela, and what a long trip your neighbors from Trinidad have to take each time, and wow how close Cuba really is, so no wonder ...a day or two goes by. Meanwhile, often before your tropical depression even becomes a storm, let alone a future hurricane with a name, the poor people in tornado alley have already salvaged their remaining possessions and hopefully found the cat and are being looked after by the Red Cross.

If the tropical storm finally makes it to hurricane strength- seventy miles an hour - then, unlike us with our Orbitz travel plans, the itinerary can change. And every one can join in and play. OK, maybe headed straight over Cuba - once more, poor Cuba - but lucky for us. Or straight past and into the Gulf- Watch out Mexico! No, wait, maybe turning north, maybe us, this time -South Florida. Time to go for the baked beans, the batteries and the Chlorox! No, no -Now they're saying more east and north. Oh, Oh, North Carolina, your turn again!

Floridians can spend a whole night at a bar discussing this. Indeed, this can all go on for days. It's all very gentlemanly and leisurely. Does anyone ever have time even to name a tornado?

Maybe we just all get hardened to whatever happens in our own state. Most Californians I've met accept earthquakes but like the sturdy Oklahomans make faces over hurricanes. I hate the idea of earthquakes. Unless you live near a zoo and hear all the animals making a commotion- how do you know? And all my favorite plates are just propped up on my shelves. They get knocked off just by lizards. Californians must keep all their best stuff in a box.

Whenever there's an earthquake there's always a mellow, cool Californian on TV standing stoically in front of the sliding grocery shelves, amid the cans and packets, or crunching cheerfully through their living room over their broken plates and glasses:"Yeah! The bed shook. I just woke up- hey just a small tremor! No big deal!"

But I'd be wailing at the camera: "No warning! All my lovely stuff from the Florida City Swap Meet! Gone! We were never told!"

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

First Post by Internet Immigrant

There was a cyclamen in a pot, a vase of yellow roses, seven cards and then suddenly about fifty emails zoomed in to our Motes Orchids email account when I broke my hip in March. That's when I finally had to admit the internet is where it's at, even for Get Well messages. And at some point I had to come out from behind the orchids and face the computer and stop writing orchid names out by hand because I'm scared of the labelling machine.

The great divide now, I heard on the radio, is between technological inhabitants and technological immigrants. Between those younger among us and any random three year old, and those who've arrived late on the scene, coming down the gangplank, clutching their homespun bundles of pens and papers, folders and dictionaries, blinking at the shiny new world.

Actually, when it comes to computers, I've not even arrived at Ellis Island; I'm still well out at sea. But, like a classic immigrant Mum I rely on my son to translate. He speaks the language. Not only that, he excels-Bart writes for the Huffington Post-and with him holding my hand and only occasionally rolling his eyes, I am advancing into this wild and unknown territory like I did into the Balkans (Kosova Kosovo) and later, into the South Florida world of orchids. (Orchid Territory)