Tuesday, August 26, 2014

About my grandfather, ALS & the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

My memories of my grandfather, John Simpson Alexander Ettinger, are filtered by time &  conversation & photos.  

Memory is like that.  It is not always clear or concise.  It is created by the influence of who we talk to & interact with & who we become.

But some memories are clear.  I remember when my grandfather took me to Love Field in Dallas to watch the planes.  He worked for Braniff Airlines.  He was still able to walk then. 

I remember climbing into his lap when he was in the wheelchair.  He always kept a roll of Lifesavers – Pep-o-Mint - in the shirt of his pajama pockets.  Perhaps he did this before he was in the wheelchair.  I don’t have that memory.

And there is the memory of letting me plant watermelon in the flower beds.  But I am sure I have that particular memory because I was told the story over the years by my mother.

I do not remember when he built a sandbox for me the backyard of the house on Wylie Drive he & my grandmother Helen shared.  I hold the memory of his greenhouse & the flats to start seedlings from old slides & photos & stories.

He was the only son of a farmer, an only son who left the farm in Pennsylvania & discovered my grandmother in Texas.  He always had a garden, he always planted.

My memories of grandfather outside a wheelchair have faded from when he & my grandmother were living across the street on Wylie Drive.  I don’t remember visiting him when he was no longer mobile, in a bed, stricken by ALS.

Perhaps because I was very young, my parents Jack & Jean decided to shield it from me.  Perhaps I went.  Perhaps I saw.  Perhaps I have filed that memory in a long forgotten filing cabinet.  I ask Jean & she tells me that she doesn’t remember.  She tells me other stories that she does remember & I listen. 

After my grandfather had to leave the house on Wylie Drive for a hospital, I do have another memory.  The look on my father’s face when he lost his own father.  I was too young to attend a funeral, but I remember that look in the aftermath.

ALS is an insidious disease.  It attacks the body & leaves the mind intact. 

As I watch the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, I am always reminded of my grandfather.  And I am reminded of the purpose of the challenge – to raise awareness for ALS, to contribute to  research for a disease that has no cure or treatment.

All the videos, all the internet sensation supporting this cause has raised an unprecedented amount of money for ALS research.  To date:  $80 million.  Amazing.

But, at the same time, there are posts of challenges to very young children, who cannot possibly fathom the stories behind the challenge & who have to be coached by their parents recording the video.

And too often, no one mentions ALS or the ALS website where viewers can donate.

The ice bucket challenge did not go viral as a game.  It went viral as a cause.

If other worthy causes use the ice bucket challenge to raise funds - wonderful & I support it.  It worked for ALS & I hope it works for other diseases that need a jolt in awareness & funds.

For me, all that ice is about my grandfather.  John Simpson Alexander Ettinger.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Why Houston & Jaki Jean love Michael Strahan

On September 14, 1927, the Houston Public School Board funded two junior colleges, one for whites & one for Negroes & the Colored Junior College was born.

In 1934, the Houston School Board changed the junior college to a four-year college & renamed it Houston College for Negroes.  Classes were held in Yates High School.

In the summer of 1945, the Houston College for Negroes added a graduate program & was quickly outgrowing its space at Yates High.

And then philanthropists like Hugh Roy Cullen stepped in & aided the purchase of 53 acres in Houston’s Third Ward & philanthropists like Mrs. T.M. Fairchild & Mr.& Mrs. C.A. Dupree & a host of men & women of color in the community came together to fund the first structure on the new campus, a structure which is still operating today.

In March of 1947, in response to a law suit brought against the University of Texas law school by an applicant of color, the Texas legislature, believing that the concept of separate but equal would apply, created a law school & the Houston College for Negroes was renamed the Texas State University for Negroes.

In 1951, after students petitioned the Texas legislature, the Texas State University for Negroes became Texas Southern University.

http://www.tsu.edu/About/History.php*  Although I have heard bits & pieces of this history over the years – I owe this recitation to the Texas University website.  I pray I have been accurate.

Michael Strahan played football in Houston.  First at Westbury High School, then at Texas Southern University.   The only school to offer him a scholarship.  He caught the eye of the NFL & got drafted by the Giants & now has a Super Bowl ring.

None of that, not the fact that Michael Strahan holds the record for number of sacks in a season or his Super Bowl ring, is the reason why I admire this man.

It is because of a speech he delivered in May of 2013 at Texas Southern University when he received an honorary doctorate.

At the end of the speech, he told the graduates: 

I am Michael Strahan.  And I am Texas Southern University.

Because he is both.  And he stood before a group of graduates & acknowledged his family, his faith & the University. 

Tomorrow, Michael Strahan will be formally inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. 
His family, Texas Southern University, & Houston could not be more proud.

The Texas Southern University band, The Ocean of Soul, will be performing in the celebration. 

This is why I love Michael Strahan.  Because he reminds me of why something that happened on September 14, 1927, still matters.

Houston is a city with a history of great universities:  Rice University, University of Houston, St. Thomas University,  Houston Baptist University & Texas Southern University.

Texas Southern University, that descendent of the Colored Junior college, continues to offer the opportunity for an education to a diverse group of students in an amazing number of fields.  And do it with well deserved pride.

What happens in the past, whether in the fall of 1927 in Houston, or yesterday, matters.

Congratulations, Michael. 

Although, as a Texans fan, I have high hopes for J.J. Watt to sack a few more.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remembering Debbie Duran, Holden Caulfield & El Jacalito.

Today, my friend, the writer Cate Poe, living in Mexico, posted about Menudo & closed the post with the following memory:

Brings back fond El Paso memories of New Year's Day at 'Buelis -- Abuelita Duran who the rest of the time ran El Jacalito.

Now, I am not a fan of Menudo.  Pozole, yes.  But Menduo brings back a very painful evening in Paris, while still suffering jet lag, I allowed a Frenchman to order for me (it had always worked in the past) & he ordered tripe.

If it was a test, I failed miserably.  The only lovely thing about the evening was the wine & a dessert of chocolate ice cream covered in a vodka sauce.

And I have not tasted anything with tripe since that evening.

The closing lines of Cate’s post that brought forward a memory were the words “Abuelita Duran” & “El Jacalito.”

I remember the first time I went to El Jacalito.  I can’t remember if I went there with my family or with the family of a friend, but I remember a beautiful older woman greeting us & a beautiful young woman waiting on us.

And I remember that the food was sublime.  Right in the center of the note.

And then I met Debbie Duran, the granddaughter of the owner of El Jacolito. 

We were both in David Cohen’s English class.  In those days, it was called accelerated whatever.  Whatever, we were in an advanced class.
I may have met her before David Cohen’s class.  

I may have used my ploy of “My friend Douglas would like to meet you” that was my way of introducing myself to people I found interesting.  Douglas was a purple mouse pin given to me by my best friend from the second grade, Sue Ann McLauchlan.  The introduction always resulted in a friendship.

However we met, my memory recalls a sprite of a young woman, with fiery copper hair (including eyelashes), deep brown eyes, freckles across her nose & cheeks.

And an amazing spirit.

I would have to ask her, but I think I remember Debbie Duran appearing at school in knickers & dancing with tap shoes across the walks that led to our classrooms.

After reading “Catcher in the Rye.”

The memory of that performance came to mind & caused me to reread J.D. Salinger recently.

But, the memory that came to my mind today, after confirming with Cate Poe that the Debbie Duran stored in my soul was the same Debbie Duran whose Abuela made Cate’s standard for Menudo, is this.

One day, during that English class with David Cohen, somehow the discussion led Debbie Duran to take a stand & speak.

She talked of her parents’ marriage, of a white woman marrying a Mexican.  She spoke of how she was raised in two different cultures.  And about how that experience enriched her life, how glad that she was born to the parents & the cultures that nourished her.

Not in those words.  It was much more eloquent than I can quote all these years later.  This is just my memory of what Debbie said.

A memory that has lasted all these years.

A memory that drives me when I deal with my niece Felicia Marie & nephew John Alexander.  When I so want them to embrace their identity & rejoice it its richness.

Their Mexican heritage descends from a mother, grandmother, & a great-grandmother born in Texas.  And a great-great grandmother who never learned to read or write, but managed land, raised & sold livestock.

When I look at my niece & nephew, who are so much more Ettinger than Castillo in features but so Castillo mixed with Ettinger in coloring & so both Castillo & Ettinger in spirit,  I think of that magnificent young woman with red hair, freckles, & brown eyes, standing up to tell her story.

Who danced across the walks of Coronado High School.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

About garbage collection & why writers like Cate Poe inspire me

(Photo by Cate Poe, Lake Travis, 2012 - totally stolen)

Today, I read a blog post by my friend Cate Poe. 

For those of you who don’t know the back story, Cate & I both attended Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas.  Although neither of us graduated from the halls of blue & gold.

We both remain connected by friends & memory.

I don’t remember ever meeting Cate at Coronado.  But when her name popped up in Facebook posts from CHS friends, I remembered something about Catherine Poe.  I was drawn to her by the fact that I believed I should remember something important about her & by the voice of her text on social media.

My friend Cate has lived an extraordinary life.  Her life as a community activist inspired me & changed the way I viewed the state of our world.  Her example left me filled with hope.

Cate currently lives in San Miguel Allende in Mexico, with the amazing Tejano.   Who has another name (which I know) , but I like Tejano better.

How she traveled from a community activist based in Brooklyn to a resident writer in San Miguel Allende, is her story to tell & write, not mine.

(Although I would happily be her biographer.)

Cate has a fabulous blog & today she posted about garbage collection in San Miguel Allende. 

Cate has a unique voice when she writes – genuine, honest & full of an appreciation for the wonder to be found in what others find mundane or ordinary.

Always laced with intelligence & kindness & respect.

I, however,  have no scintillating stories about garbage. 

Although I still remember when the raccoons raided my friend Marguerite’s garbage & angrily threw away champagne bottles in search of food.

I also remember the times I watched the doors to the basement of my building on Virginia Avenue (next to the State Department) in Washington, DC, open to accommodate the trash trucks & watched the largest rats I had ever seen, except for in Naples, scurry. 

And I remember leaving out the remnants of my sons’ childhoods on the curb – car seats, high chairs, walkers, day beds - & a man at my door asking in broken English if he & his wife could take the items.

I remember all the mornings when I have forgotten to place the trash on the curb the night before.  When I run out of the house in my night clothes, open the garage door & try to take the trash can to the curb before the truck hits our spot.

One morning, I was pitifully late – the truck was at the curb.  I was at the garage door.  One of the workers ran up the driveway, grabbed the trash can, emptied it & then brought it back to me.

Cate’s blog post brought back of all those memories & experiences. 

And gave me a new perspective about each one of them.

I thought of the quote by Salmon Rashid posted on my refrigerator - so in the center of the note:  
The miraculous coexists with the mundane.

And  I was reminded to look & find the wonder & miraculous in every day.

Reading, words, matter.

From this reader, excellently well done, Cate.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

On stories, text & the novel "Family Matters"

“Everyone underestimates their own life. Funny thing is, in the end, all our stories...they're the same. In fact, no matter where you go in the world, there is only one important story: of youth, loss and yearning for redemption. So we tell the same story, over and over. Only the details are different. ” 
Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters

Vintage Books & Anchor Books posted this today on my Facebook news feed.

I have never read anything written by Rohinton Mistry & in all fairness, perhaps I should read this novel before commenting on a quote posted on a news feed on Facebook.

But this is my blog & to paraphrase a 1963 song by Lesley Gore, the first hit single for producer Quincy Jones;

It’s my blog & I will write if I want to.

While I agree that everyone underestimates their own life, its importance & influence, I cannot reach the conclusion from that particular observaton that all  of our life stories are the same.

I know, from years of study, that all text comes from texts before & influences texts to follow.  But each poem, each short story, each novel, each individual’s text is unique.  A reweaving of what came before, but the result is the author’s own weave.

All writers – those that put words down on paper or on film or on the Internet or are authoring the story of their lives – all writers pull from their past & others’ pasts & from the present &  from projections into tomorrow.

All our stories are not the same.

Because the only important story is not one of “youth, loss and yearning for redemption.”

Rohinton Mistry was born two years before me, so his words are not coming from a place of extreme youth.  He was born in India, resides in Canada & writes in English.  He is a highly recognized author: Oprah's Book Club, Scotiabank Giller Prize, Neustadt International Prize for Literature, Governor General's Award for English-language fiction, Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, US & Canada.

Although we are so very near in age, we come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different experiences. 

Which may explain my resistance to his premise in this quote that the only important story is of “youth, loss, and yearning for redemption.”

Because I truly believe that there are so many stories yet to be told.  Stories born of maturity & experience & enlightenment & forgiveness.  Stories that do not focus on youth or loss or yearning but on what comes when one realizes that the very best to be is found in the sunrise of the next morning. 

And on the realization that redemption is always possible, at any stage in one’s life.

All stories contain threads of other stories.  It is impossible to tell one’s own story without drawing on the stories or incorporating into one’s memory the threads & pieces of stories told by family, friends, extended family, strangers; from fiction or from the world.

In spite of the words Tolstoy used to open his magnificent Anna Karenina, all families & all family matters, are not the same:

 All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

So, it seems that this text by Rohinton Mistry & I have a rendezvous that is perhaps overdue.

I will, of course, let you know how that rendezvous plays out.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On How Jean Travels

As a follow up to Jean’s recent flap surgery to close the wound left by a bedsore, this morning we went to see her surgeon, Dr. Ravi, at the Advanced Wound Care Clinic at Methodist Hospital in Sugar Land. 

And to have Dr. Ravi look at a new development.

Our visit, which began with Jaki Jean putting her dress on backwards & only noticing as I climbed into the ambulance & the EMTs taking the longest route out of Meadows Place to the Southwest Freeway to avoid construction, went well.

When we returned home I positioned Jean according to the instructions given me at the Wound Care Center.

Twenty minutes later, I left the kitchen to check on her & her position had changed.

This was not the first time I had noticed that I would place the wedges to position Jean & find her position changed.  In the hospital & at the Long Term Acute Care facility, I attributed this to the nature of the sand bed.  Her body was slipping.

But today, because of questions Jennifer, my favorite nurse at the Wound Care Center, asked, my care giver spidey sense was heightened.

So I comment:

I think you move when I am not looking.

Silence.  And a look I have come to recognize. 

I ask:
Do you move when I am not looking?


Do you move yourself?


As I  move to re-position Jean with the wedges we use for that purpose, I explain why it is important for her to not to rearrange herself.  I tell her about the new development, not a bedsore, but a tender place on her body that we need to allow to heal without pressure.

And because I remember that this woman is not just my mother, but the amazing Lavera Jean Sims Ettinger, whose kindness, love, intelligence & sense of humor are still with us, I apologize for not explaining why positioning is so necessary.

I remind myself that repositioning  herself, moving herself, is still a control my mother possesses.  Jean cannot get up out of her bed & walk out of the room.  But she can decide exactly where in that damned bed her body dwells.

Today, I took that control from her.

And once again, my heart breaks a little bit more.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Remembering D-Day, 1974 & Today

In 1975, I found myself with a man I would eventually leave, in a pub in the outskirts of London on June 6th.

It was crowded, the crowd very British & the loudspeakers full volume.  There were no televisions in pubs in those days & the only electronic device was the radio playing through the loud speakers.  We were the youngest two people in the pub & the only Americans.

We were staying in a bed-sitter flat in a suburb of London.  We ate breakfast in our room, which was equipped with a hot plate, a sink, dishes, a tiny thing that passed as a refrigerator, a television & a heating unit that demanded coins. 

Our flat was ground level, a picture window facing the street.  A tube station was within a short walk & London was just a subway ride away.

Our bathroom was equipped with a claw foot tub & a toilet nestled in the basement next to the host family’s washer & dryer.  Which resembled nothing I had ever seen before.

As we explored London & its environs, we ate our lunches from our backpacks or at pubs.  Pubs offered cheap food,  great atmosphere, endless refills on hot tea.  We drank copious amounts of hot tea.  And an occasional pint.

On June 6th, we sat in a pub, drinking our copious amounts of hot tea & suddenly the music blaring over the loud speakers stopped.

We were in the middle of planning a day excursion to Stratford-Upon-Avon & another to Stonehenge.  Until we noticed that all conversation & movement but ours had stopped at the sound of one voice coming from the radio through the loud speakers.

The voice of the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe in World War II.

People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of the concerted United Nations plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian allies.

I have this message for all of you. Although the initial assault may not have been made in your own country, the hour of your liberation is approaching.

All patriots, men and women, young and old, have a part to play in the achievement of final victory. To members of resistance movements, I say, Follow the instructions you have received. To patriots who are not members of organized resistance groups, I say, Continue your passive resistance, but do not needlessly endanger your lives until I give you the signal to rise and strike the enemy. The day will come when I shall need your united strength.  Until that day, I call on you for the hard task of discipline and restraint.

Citizens of France! I am proud to have again under my command the gallant Forces of France.  Fighting beside their Allies, they will play a worthy part in the liberation of their Homeland.

Because the initial landing has been made on the soil of your country, I repeat to you with even greater emphasis my message to the peoples of other occupied countries in Western Europe. Follow the instructions of your leaders. A premature uprising of all Frenchmen may prevent you from being of maximum help to your country in the critical hour. Be patient. Prepare! 

As Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, there is imposed on me the duty and responsibility of taking all measures necessary to the prosecution of the war. Prompt and willing obedience to the orders that I shall issue is essential.

Effective civil administration of France must be provided by Frenchmen. All persons must continue in their present duties unless otherwise instructed. Those who have made common cause with the enemy and so betrayed their country will be removed. As France is liberated from her oppressors, you yourselves will choose your representatives, and the government under which you wish to live. 

In the course of this campaign for the final defeat of the enemy you may sustain further loss and damage. Tragic though they may be, they are part of the price of victory. I assure you that I shall do all in my power to mitigate your hardships. I know that I can count on your steadfastness now, no less than in the past. The heroic deeds of Frenchmen who have continued the struggle against the Nazis and their Vichy satellites, in France and throughout the French Empire, have been an example and an inspiration to all of us.

This landing is but the opening phase of the campaign in Western Europe. Great battles lie ahead. I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us. Keep your faith staunch – our arms are resolute – together we shall achieve victory.

At the end of the speech, every woman & man in the pub stood, all their faces streaming with tears & applauded.

Humbled by their reaction to an event that occurred thirty one years earlier, before either of us was born, we were silent & still.

I lost my appetite for my tomato & cheese sandwich on buttered white bread & for those comforting copious cups of hot tea.  Other speeches were played & read, but this was a speech by the American general who would become the 34th President of the United States.

And then a man at a table near us reached out his hand, & smiled.

You are Americans, aren’t you?

One of us replied yes, sir & he got up from his table, shook our hands & said

Welcome.  You will always be welcome here.

Other patrons stopped at our table on their exit out of the pub to give greetings & solidarity.  As we left, those that remained called out wishes for a safe & happy journey.

It was one of those singular moments that sometimes happen when you travel & attempt to mesh yourself in the local culture. 

On our trip that summer, we experienced incredible singular moments.

But none like that particular moment.  A moment that was not just about being American or British or French or Russian or Australian or Belgian or Brazilian or Canadian or Chinese or Danish or Greek or Dutch or New Zealanders or Norwegians or Polish or South African or Yugoslavian.

 It was not even about being German or Italian or Japanese or Hungarian or Romanian or Bulgarian.

It was about a day that will ever remain in our nation’s collective memory, & other nations’ collective memories, as the day when all who loved freedom stood together, kept their faith staunch, their arms resolute & achieved victory over an enemy that threatened the world.

On this day, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I salute those men & women whose sacrifice guaranteed that the rest of us could emerge.  Free.