Tuesday, December 23, 2008


It's the basis of most belief systems found throughout the world. It's what we sing about and pray for. Yet it's elusive still, as hard to hold on to as a whisper.
That's my wish for the New Year. For those fighting on foreign shores, peace. For all who lost their jobs and search for new ones, peace. For those who grieve, for the bitter and unhappy, for the hungry and cold, for the sick and the healthy, for those who have plenty and those who have little.

For all.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Memories of El Salvador

In 2005 I was invited to join a medical mission to El Salvador as their photojournalist. It was, without exaggeration, a life changing event.

Clinic was held in an abandoned hacienda in the rural region of El Paisnal; it was estimated that in five days the doctors treated over 10,000 patients. The medical team also received a lesson in Salvadoran politics -El Paisnal was the center of insurgency and rebellion during the long and bloody civil war of the 1970's and 80's, and patients suffered from deep depression and had lost many members of their families. A poor region in a poor country, El Paisnal was infused with a lingering sense of sadness accentuated by its notoriety; this was the parish of Father Rutilio Grande, an activist priest and ardent supporter for the poor who was murdered by the military less than five miles from the clinic site. His brutal murder so enraged his friend, Archbishop Romero, that the Archbishop became a leading activist for the poor. He, too, was assassinated by the military, in church while saying mass.

This Friday I will be exhibiting a few of my El Salvador photos in a small photography show in downtown Tucson. Among the photos will be the face of Father Grande, along with the faces of Salvadorans whose eyes reflect the sadness, determination and resilience of their beautiful, battered and proud country

Friday, November 21, 2008

Search for Lost Relatives

Recently went for a routine doctor's visit, and once again was reminded of the gaping holes in my family history. I'm asked the usual questions, about family history of such and such or this and that, and I always have to remind them that, on my mother's side, I have little family to give a history of. My mother, her three brothers and her parents came to this country just before Poland was invaded by Germany at the onset of World War II.

They were the Rand family of Stryj. They were Jewish. As far as we know, those 6 people were the only members of the Rand family of Stryj, Poland that survived the holocaust.

My cousins and I have discussed this, and it seems to be true. No one has ever met anyone else from that family; no cousins, second cousins, cousins once removed, great aunts or great uncles. My grandmother and grandfather, their three sons and one daughter, they were the only ones who made it. They are all deceased now, so we 8 cousins and our children, now we are it. We are the only descendants of the Rand family of Stryj, Poland.

Or are we? That is the story of holocaust survivors. There's always that question in the air; did anyone else make it? You always hope to hear of a long lost cousin in a remote town in another country. My cousin Martha grew up hearing two rumors: one, that we were originally English (Rand is indeed an odd name for a Jewish Polish family), and two, that relatives of my grandmother made it out of Poland and ended up in Argentina.

We've never had any way of checking the truth of these rumors until now.

Right here in Tucson there exists an organization called the DNA Shoah Project. Their goal: to collect DNA samples form holocaust survivors and their children from all over the world and form a DNA databank. The staff of the project will keep information on file: names, family histories, etc. The DNA samples themselves are bar coded so the databank will see them only as a bar code, keeping individual identities anonymous. A computer will look for a match based not on names or pedigree but simply on DNA. If a match is found, the staff will inform the participants.


I called the project and told them the story of the Rand family. The staff said, yes, we are exactly the kind of story they are looking for. I immediately sent an email to my cousin Martha in New York, daughter of my mother's brother Arthur. She was as enthusiastic as I was, and agreed to take a sample and talk to our other cousins (the more samples the better).

That's where we stand right now. I'm hoping to get at least 3 of the Rand cousins' DNA into the database immediately, with more to follow as we try and contact the other cousins (our family is not close and some members are estranged, which is oddly typical of families who survived the holocaust).

I hope one day I'll be writing a post about meeting another descendant of the Rand family of Stryj, Poland. That would be a lovely, lovely gift.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It's a new day

One week ago today was the greatest election day of my life. I partied all night and I've been partying ever since.

I started working for Barack Obama almost a year ago. My two sons were among those who convinced me to consider him as a serious candidate. The more I read about him (and by him, especially his first book) the more I realized that this was the leader our country so desperately needed. About 6 months ago I decided to concentrate my efforts where I thought they'd do the most good: I became a contributing writer for Huffington Post, reporting on the election and particularly on how the presidential campaign was going here in John McCain's state (I refuse to say 'home state;' he's not from here, and with upward of 10 houses I honestly don't know what state the guy calls home). Writing for Huff Post is one of the most intense, interesting and crazy things I've ever done, mostly because of the outrageously fast news cycle of this campaign. News changed hourly, and as a political blogger the onus falls on you to keep up or get swept aside. I kept up the best I could. First I wrote weekly, then twice a week, then once a day, and finally in the last weeks of the campaign I was submitting stories twice a day, all the while taking photos to accompany my blog posts. I interviewed professional pollsters, local politicians (including Arizona's governor, which was very cool I've got to admit), Obama for America staff, countless volunteers and Obama supporters, and even a few Republicans. I was gratified, humbled, and most of all shocked at the response: my blog received thousands of comments and hundreds of thousands of hits, my posts were picked up by websites of newspapers all over the world. It was astonishing. I wish I could send a thank you to everyone who agreed to be interviewed, and everyone who read my pieces, left a comment, or forwarded it to friends and family. It meant the world to me.

Now I'm taking a much needed break. Being a lifelong political junkie I'm still following the news but at a much more relaxed pace. I muse over a glass of wine every evening, quite happily wondering who Obama will pick for his cabinet, what his first decisions will be, and what kind of puppy those little girls will be getting. And for the first time in a long, long time I'm thinking about our country's future and I'm smiling. I'm thinking of my sons and their future, and I'm feeling optimistic. I'm feeling just what I felt nearly a year ago: Barack Obama is the leader our country so desperately needs in this very desperate time.

Hurray for Barack Obama! Hurray for us!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wistful visit to an old home

We love Seattle. We lived there for 21 years, raised both our sons there, and we love to visit them and our old friends. But there's a bittersweet element to these visits. As we get caught up with our old friends we hear news of lives changing, and because we only visit every 4 months or so, we hear a lot all at once. It can be overwhelming, and this time in particular it hit me with a strong wave of emotion. One old friend is now a grandmother, her teenage daughter - who my son used to babysit - is now a mother. Another old friend just got fired. A dear friend is reaching the end of a long and full life. Two long-married couples are going through painful divorces. One disowned a daughter after she came out of the closet. Another's life has become taken over by a religious obsession.


At times during the trip I had to find quiet moments to just sit and take all these changes in. Some of these were friends who's lives seemed as solid as Mt. Rainier. The one who was fired seemed on the perfect career track; respected, admired, and happy. Some were friends who seemed to have it all; I would never have imagined a religious obsession overtaking what I thought was such a collected person with the perfect family and home. I would never have predicted any of these twists and turns in the lives of people I thought I knew so well. But, really, that says more about me and my perceptions than about them. That old saying, that you never know what goes on behind closed doors, that's what I found myself thinking. We show our friends the face we want them to see but everyone has other faces, the ones kept in the jar by the door.

I sat outside one day and just took a break, absorbing all the news I had heard. I listened to the wind humming through the trees. Seattle in the fall is so lovely; every tree is a rainbow of fluttering leaves, making a crunchy red, gold and orange carpet below your feet. The clouds are moving in and the rain is just starting. There's a bittersweet element in the air, of summer leaving and the long grey wet winter beginning, and it matched my bittersweet feelings perfectly.

And of course, all this news was a good reminder to me, to count my blessings and appreciate the good and bad in my own life. Seeing my two sons is what I thought about the most; each time I spend time with them I love them more and more. I am so proud of those two young men, but they also make me laugh and it is so merry being with them. And I reflect on how lucky my husband and I are to have them, and to still have each other to have and to hold, to hug and to laugh with, after all these years. Right before we left for Seattle we attended the wedding of a dear friend, who was a radiant and elegant bride. We were younger than my friend and her new husband when we married and there is no way I can impart-to them or to anyone-what a long strange trip our marriage had been. I wish I had the words to tell them, oh, how it's worth it.

I love my visits to Seattle but I am so happy to come back to the beautiful desert. This is the place I call home. I've lived in states on both U.S. coasts and in between, and in two other countries, and I could never have predicted that I would have ended up in this wild and beautiful land with giant saguaros and bobcats on my roof. And then it hit me: of course I couldn't have predicted the dramatic changes in my friends lives - I couldn't even predict my own! Life is what it is, this roller coaster ride. You get in and hang on. And if you can remember to enjoy the ride, it's a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I love baseball!

Ah, baseball. This is a subject I could rhapsodize about all day; the beauty of the stadiums, the minutia of the game, the site of a perfectly arching home run flying through the air on a sunny summer day as the crowd goes yeaaaaaaaaaa!!

But today I love baseball because of today's game, a one-game, winner goes to the playoffs, loser goes on vacation game between the White Sox and Twins. If you love sports, how could you not love that? How could you not love a sport that plays 162 games and still ends up with a tie? So much drama, so many side-stories...here's the White Sox, with a manager (Mr. Anything But Quiet Ozzie Guillen) who put himself under the microscope on day one by saying that if his team doesn't go to the playoffs he should be fired. There's the Twins, a talented team with a young pitching staff sending a rookie to the mound in what will definitely be a very fired-up Chicago ballpark (reports are the game sold out in less than an hour).

Who am I rooting for? Well, nobody. I'm in it for the drama, and the love of the game. About the only horse I've got in this race is one of my all-time favorite players, Ken Griffey Jr., who was traded to the White Sox this year by the Reds. I'd love to see that sweet swing shine in the playoffs once again. Actually, if you think about it, Jr. may be the only guy on the field who knows what a one-day playoff is like. He was in the last one held in the American League, back in 1995. I was living in Seattle then and that game is legend there. I haven't checked the rosters to see if anyone else took part in that game (Angels vs. Mariners) or in last year's National League playoff game (Rockies and the Padres), but at least I know that Jr. can stand up in the White Sox dugout and tell his team 'Listen, this is what it's like.'

And what must it be like? Every play is magnified, whether it's an error or a game-saver. You've got to play every at-bat like its your last. Wow. The tension on that field must be palpable. But I bet it's also a heck of a lot of fun, because you're still in it. You've still got one more chance to win.

I've always loved October. Up until recently I lived in places where the leaves gave an eye-feast of color every October. I looked forward to that smell in the air and that crisp hint of cool that had you reaching for a sweater. I can't separate the start of football season from the feel of raking leaves. But most of all I've always loved October because it's baseball at its finest. Every year the post season brings me an unexpected memory, a moment that I will never forget, often at the hands of a new hero I've never heard of before. And while here in the desert I no longer rake the leaves, I still love October because of baseball, and that bittersweet feeling of watching the best the game can offer while knowing you're about to be without it for the long winter months.

I love this game. Bring it on.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Unexpected Moments

Can't stop thinking about travel. That's probably because I'm spending quite a bit of time logistical planning one of the biggest (maybe the biggest) trip I've taken or planned. I don't mind, not at all; I find the planning a large part of the fun. The background makes the arrival that much sweeter. But sometimes I overdo it in the planning department. My wise husband and two wise sons caution me about this, with varying degrees of success. During the planning for this big trip, youngest wise son resorted to Star Wars talk (the journey vs. the destination, very Yoda) to drive the point home. They're right of course. It's often the unexpected, unscripted travel moments that are indelibly marked in my memory; it's when I recall those that I get the strongest sense for the place and people, which is why I travel to begin with. Last night I found myself remembering some of them.

Like the market in Kusadasi Turkey; after touring Ephesus we had time to spare before boarding the boat back to Samos, Greece, and I had in mind that I wanted to buy a carpet bag, one of those old fashioned woven bags I never see anymore. Walking down the market lane was like running a gauntlet, with merchants literally blocking our way exclaiming the delights of their wares (our favorite: the guy who proudly told us he had 'authentic fake watches'). I settled on one booth with a great looking bag on display, when I asked the price I was naturally quoted something ridiculous. I countered with half and was met with a great sigh. Why do you insult me so? the merchant said. I am not a rich person, I replied. I came all the way here from America, and I am putting two sons through university. At the word 'university' the old merchant's demeanor changed dramatically. Two sons in university?! he asked incredulously. My son, he said, wants to go to American university. I know how much they cost. Then he took my arm, led me graciously into the back of his booth, and said effusively, come! Now I will bargain with you!
Or that trip to England years ago, when I confused the booking date for our last b&b and there was no room at the inn when we arrived. We went instead to the nearest town, an unheard of place named East Grinstead, and found a room at a nice little hotel. The next morning was our last in England and with time before our flight we visited East Grinstead in search of a bookstore; oldest son was very fond of a series written by an English author, and the latest installment was available only in England. We found a delightful town full of history; the church had a memorial to those 'martyred in the name of religion,' and the downtown had a classic High Street with what appeared to be an original Tudor building. We were also most definitely the only tourists, a big plus for us. The Tudor building was, as luck would have it, the bookstore - a delightful, rambling crooked-floored bookstore run by two lovely ladies who seemed quite pleased to have our little family as their one and only customers. They confirmed it was an original Tudor building, and then asked if we'd ever heard of Anne Boleyn. We exchanged a four-way look; we'd just spent a week in England, and after visiting the Tower and National Portrait Gallery even youngest son at age 7 knew that name. The lovely lady motioned us to follow her; behind the cash register she pointed to an original wooden support beam. There on the beam was a charming carving of a young woman in silhouette. This was once the home of some of the Boleyn family, she said. Legend says that this is Anne. We were stunned. We'd been caught up in history for the last three weeks and on this our last day we were given this totally unexpected little history gift, like a send off. Oh, and yes, they also had my son's much-wanted book.

One last travel gift, this one courtesy of Todos Santos, Mexico, a pretty little town on the Baja peninsula northwest of Cabo San Lucas. A very small arts town in something of a state of disrepair, Todos Santos is the kind of place where you've got to pay attention while walking the crooked and wobbly cobblestone streets or risk twisting an ankle. But it's very pretty in its shambly little way, and the arts community is thriving, supported by daytrippers from Cabo and by a goodly number of ex-pat Americans who've adopted the town as home. My husband and I were strolling the main street and had reached a spot where the sidewalk was pretty much non-existant; the building beside it was boarded up and morning glory vines swept across the boards and onto the path. This was one-way foot traffic only, and an elderly Mexican gentleman was approaching. I remember thinking he was a man who had worked with his hands his whole life - I must have seen something I no longer can recall, like calloused hands or gnarled fingers. I stepped aside and motioned for him to take the narrow path first. As he did, he broke off one of the full white morning glory flowers, and when he stood before me the old man bowed, kissed my hand, and presented it to me with a giant smile (almost no teeth), exclaiming something to me in Spanish with great passion. And then he walked on, still toothlessly smiling, a debonair old Mexican gentleman. I was speechless. What a charmer he must have been in his youth, and boy could he still deliver. Although bent and toothless, he presented that flower to me with flourish and flair, like he was Errol Flynn and I was Olivia de Haviland.

That's why I travel.