A Shining Light Amidst a Total Eclipse: Lessons from Madras, Oregon

The anticipation has been building for months, years even. A gradually-increasing excitement spread across the nation, as the population of half a continent geared up for a once-in-a-lifetime event. A natural phenomenon was about to occur, one that was last seen across the Untied States in 1918. A total solar eclipse.

Meanwhile, as millions of people were getting ready to see the moon obscure the sun, casting darkness in the middle of the day, another kind of darkness has been building up. That darkness, too, thickened across the nation for months. As it turned out, that other, man-made darkness erupted several days before the natural one. A human ugliness of the kind that has not been seen here in decades flared up. A repulsiveness which we all hoped would never be seen anywhere ever again.

On Monday, August 21, I joined the millions who traveled to see the eclipse from the path of totality. I went to Madras, a small town in the high desert of central Oregon. The predictable weather and open landscape there ensured clear visibility. Even NASA chose the place to put up some of its experiments.

A town of less than 7,000 people, Madras was expecting eclipse-viewers in the hundreds of thousands. The town has been preparing for months, and when the crowds arrived it was ready. Townspeople organized several activities, including a Solarfest with food stalls, arts and crafts and a NASA booth, where NASA volunteers provided information and activities. They set up at least four large campgrounds on open fields, including at the local airport. They marked camping spots in advance, closed roads, put up signs, brought in porta potties, and established several shuttle lines.

I stayed in a campground called Solar Town, that by Monday grew into a small town.

Our temporary town functioned flawlessly. Despite hosting thousands of people, it remained orderly, clean and quiet. People camped within their allocated slots. They deposited all the trash in trash bins. Despite the long lines to everything–lines for the bathrooms, lines for the shuttles, lines to see the NASA booth and lines to buy food–people remained calm, patient and friendly. The nights were mostly still and silent.

The people who congregated in Madras came from all over, as seen from this map, posted at the entrance to Solarfest:

There were people of all colors, people of all religions, people of all languages, cultures and countries, people with all body shapes and all sexual orientations. There were locals, visitors, tourists and, yes, IMMIGRANTS! And they all got along. Spectacularly.

“It’s amazing,” said the man who stood in front of me in line for the bathrooms the morning of the eclipse. “A camp full of nice people.” And a camp full of nice people it was. Tens of thousands of them.

This jumble of people sat together to listen to NASA scientists talk about the upcoming eclipse:

Together they ate foods originating from different ethnicities, like this Native American fried bread:

And they all danced together when Native Americans from the local Warm Springs Indian Reservation shared some of their culture:

On Monday morning, everybody watched together when the moon began obstructing the sun:

And everyone held their breath together when, for 2.2 minutes, the moon completely covered the sun. In fact, television crews broadcasted the scenes from Madras , in real time, across the world:

Amazingly, even my parents were able to watch the eclipse with us, directly from Madras, all the way on the other side of the earth.

Millions of people were awed because, in comparison to the sun, the moon and the cosmos, we are completely insignificant, all of us. Our differences and squabbles, our joys and sadness, our small pettiness are all inconsequential.

In times past people considered solar eclipses to be bad omens. They were seen as punishments for sins, warnings from the Gods, the withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven. We know better now, but perhaps we should still see this as an opportunity for self reflection. Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is just around the corner, after all. A total eclipse following the eruption of human ugliness should make us think. Hard. And it should make us act.

There is hope, however. In Madras I found not only a wonderful place to view the sun, but also bright rays of promise for this nation, and for humanity in general. The two minutes of the eclipse passed in a blink, but the light that shone on the high Oregon dessert will last much longer, in many people’s hearts. It showed the good that we are capable of: inclusiveness, consideration, kindness, respect, patience, mutual-help, dignity, appreciation, human decency. These and some others are the qualities that define, or should define, humanity. These are the qualities that make our species stand out from the rest.

Hopefully, camps-full of nice people, like the one I stayed at in Madras, will vanquish the man-made darkness that threatens our civilization. Just the way that the brightness of the sun overpowered the twilight of the eclipse, making the world normal again.

When You Die, Everything You Own Turns Into Garbage: The Sad Truth About Tearing Down a Loved One’s Household

I used to think that thoroughly tiding up my house once a year was a pain. Well, I recently discovered that there is one clean-up task that is significantly less palatable. I am talking about the tearing down of an established household following a loved one’s death. That physical systematic deconstruction of a life that happens once a person is no longer there.

Several days after my mother-in-law passed away this summer, my husband and his sister had to embark upon this unpleasant undertaking. As they began demolishing the household in which they grew up, our kids and I came to their aid.

My in-laws’ house has three floors and a basement. They lived there for almost fifty years, during which they accumulated a respectable amount of stuff. They stocked it with everything they needed to make their family’s life pleasant and comfortable, and then a little more. My in-laws filled it with a mixture of heirloom items, passed on from past generations, and things they acquired during their own lifetime. It was a beautiful, well maintained, and well functioning household.

Unlike occasionally tidying up my own house, which is annoying while it happens yet feels good afterwards, annihilating my in-law’s household was not only painful. It was thoroughly heartbreaking on many levels:

There was no hope in it, only despair.

This wasn’t a cleanup that would make someone’s life less cluttered, more focused, brighter. This was a cleanup that marked the end.

It brought up memories and added to the pain.

Every single item reminded us of my parents-in-law, their lives, and our shared experiences. The orphaned objects stressed my in-laws’ absence, and enhanced the still-fresh pain of loosing them.

It felt like an invasion of privacy.

Drawing the curtain over a life requires going over someone’s possessions one room at a time. It means getting into every shelf, closet and drawer. It required opening every box and looking through every letter.There is something very intimate about it. Going over someone’s stuff without their permission, even if they are no longer there to give it, felt intrusive.

It broke the unseen barrier that lies between guest and host. 

This wasn’t my house. I visited it many times, but always as a guest. Even my husband, who grew up there, always returned as a guest after he left. There are certain unwritten rules dictating the behavior of a guest in someone’s house. Going into every nook and cranny felt like a gross violation of that unseen contract. It felt wrong.

It put an end to the childhoods of my husband and his sister.

As long as you have a living parent, and it doesn’t really matter how old you are, you are still a child. Your parents’ house is your safe haven. It is the one constant thing throughout the great upheaval that is growing up. You always have a permanent address, even after you moved away, migrated overseas, or even had children of your own. There is someone to keep your childhood memories safe. There is a secure place to store your childhood treasures, the ones you didn’t want to take with you when you left, yet couldn’t quite bare to do away with: the artwork you made in preschool; your first-grade notebooks; the shells you collected on a family trip; your train set; your books. Once your last parent is gone, that safe haven shatters and your childhood scatters with it.

It was excruciatingly sad to empty out spaces.

We live in a consuming culture. We like buying, stocking, filling. Emptying closets, cabinets and bookcases went against our habits, against our instincts. Their emptiness screamed despair.

It brought up the dilemma of what to do with old pictures.

Old pictures are objects, like any other object in a house, yet they are not. They entrap past generations, past lives, past experiences. Pictures capture the images of loved ones, of your own past self, of people you don’t even know. They immortalize happy moments as well as sad ones. We know that pictures don’t hold people’s spirits, of course, and yet… So what do you do when you find old pictures in every room, in envelopes and drawers and boxes and albums? More pictures than you could ever transfer, or ship, or store, or even scan?

The worst part: It became clear that, once you die, everything you own turns into garbage.

The worst part of tearing down a loved one’s household, by far, was the sinking realization that no one really wanted any of it. Despite my in-law’s house being a beautiful, magical space filled with heirlooms, antiques and exquisite objects, no one had any interest in taking its content. Not even us.

Both my sister-in-law and us already have full houses. More than full, even, as you might have realized if you read my posts about our Big Cleanup or my struggles to keep my sewing room tidy. Furthermore, we bought houses built in a different style, and furnished them differently. We like lighter, more modern things, and prefer to have less of them. Heavy pieces of old Swiss furniture just don’t fit in either of our houses. Nor do big clocks, or someone’s paintings, or an entire collection of copper pots. We can’t even read the old French books, passed over from a distant relative. We don’t have the time it takes to polish sets of silver cutlery, nor do we like their taste. And we already equipped our kitchens with all the gadgets we need.

In our case, we live an ocean away, and shipping things costs more than they are worth. But even my sister-in-law, who lives in Switzerland, couldn’t fit any of this into her house, even if she wanted to.

Furthermore, nobody else wanted much of it, either. Friends and neighbors have full houses, too. One person took the copper-pot collection, but the painter friend didn’t want his paintings back. We couldn’t find a taker even for the houseplants.

eBay and similar online sale sites are already flooded with old sofas and cabinets. The items currently featured there have been listed for months and do not seem to sell. Auction-house representatives walked through the house quickly. Nothing popped out at them. They said they had all the clocks they needed, and that even the ones they already have aren’t selling.

Heirloom pieces that cost my father-in-law thousands of francs to restore are basically worth nothing. It is really mind boggling, but it’s just the way it is. In the end, my husband and his sister will probably have to pay someone to come and haul it all away.

We desperately wanted to take something, anything, just to remember my in-laws by. It wasn’t easy to find such things. We ended up taking a rug or two, even though they were very worn and we don’t have a place to put them. The kids wound up with little mementos: engraved Swiss Army knives and old watches. As for me, I came home with a suitcase-full of rags:

These are some of the fabrics I found in my mother-in-law’s house. I would not have picked them out had they been offered anywhere else, but with things being what they were I felt like I just had to rescue them. For now, I’m thinking of them as my Memory Project. I don’t know how I will use them yet, but I will try to do them justice, out of respect to bygone generations and people gone.

 

 

On Objects, Spaces and Memories: A Still-life Portrait of My Late Mother in Law

My father in law had always been proud of his house, a three-floors-plus-basement townhouse just outside the old city of Bern, Switzerland. He liked to tell people that the house was over a hundred and thirty years old, and that he and his family had lived in it for over a third of its history. My husband and his sister grew up in that house, which still has most of its original architectural details. Our children and I, too, stayed there many times over the past two decades, for weeks at a time.

When my father in law passed away several years ago, the house felt emptier, but remained pretty much unchanged. My mother in law laboriously decluttered many of her husband’s possessions (he was an avid collector). Still, except for minor changes and renovations, she left things pretty much as they had always been. We saw the house as a given. It was a constant, predictable presence in our world, something we took for granted.

A few weeks ago, while on an exciting summer trip, we received the call that every child dreads. My sister in law informed us that my mother in law, who had already been in the hospital for a couple of weeks, had taken a turn for the worse and that time was running out. We immediately abandoned our adventure and headed to Switzerland on the first available flight.

When we arrived at the house that we had known for so long, I was struck by how different it felt. My mother in law left it for a medical emergency, expecting to return within hours and leaving everything in place. It felt like Pompeii, displaying a life interrupted mid-way. We kept expecting her to come out of the kitchen, go down the stairs, or come in from the garden. The quiet house screamed of emptiness and longed for its owner.

A week and a half later she did come back, and everything felt right again. Except it wasn’t really, and a few days afterwards she left it, and us, for good.

After my mother in law passed away, I wandered throughout the empty rooms. Slowly, the unthinkable truth daunted on me. I realized that with her passing a chapter had ended. A chapter in our family’s story, as well as a chapter in the house’s history. I suddenly understood that this was the last time I will stay in that grand old house, and that within weeks it will change beyond recognition. The house we had taken for granted, with its old furniture and heirloom artifacts, will soon cease to exist the way we knew it.

As I looked around, I slowly comprehended that for me, my mother in law was inherently inseparable from the house. The furniture she used, the pictures she hung, the objects she possessed were all a part of how I saw her, of who she was in my eyes. I started thinking of how we all shape our spaces to fit our tastes, and how these spaces shape us in return. The objects we surround ourselves with express our personalities, yet, as we use them, also take a deeper meaning as they become a part of who we are, a part of us.

I looked at the empty house and saw my mother in law in every corner. I then took pictures of the parts of it that were most significant to me, before they disappeared for good. These pictures are in essence a still-life portrait of my late mother in law.

A still-life portrait of my late mother in law:

This is the coffee corner in the kitchen. It’s where her days, and ours, when we were visiting, started. It used to house an older, much bigger coffee machine, on which our eldest daughter, as a toddler, used to make coffee for her grandfather. But several years ago, when that machine broke, my mother in law replaced it with a smaller, more convenient piece:

And this is the opposite wall in the kitchen, with my mother in law’s prized collection of copper cookware, which she kept polishing; the corn-kernels-filled clock she got from friends in the US; the flowers she always kept on her breakfast table; and the ever-present daily newspaper:

My mother in law used these dishes every day, for every meal, for who-knows-how-many decades. I will always think of her when I see a blue plate:

This is the fridge, with the grand kids’ pictures and the many magnets my kids spent hours playing with:

In the nearby living room the beautiful old stove, covered with tiles:

The corner by the big window, the brightest spot in the house, where I loved reading books, when I could:

And the opposite wall, with it’s books and nick knacks, baptism bottles, and the painting a friend gave them:

Also, ever present, a sunflower, her favorite flower. This last one, although cut and in water, actually outlived her:

The adjacent dining room featured the other side of the stove, with different tiles:

As well as these three paintings, painted by another friend, and a fake-flower arrangement that has been there since my very first visit. This was the setting for many of our dinners, and hers:

Throughout the house there was a collection of clocks, my father in law’s legacy. Some were old Swiss clocks with sentimental value. These included my parent-in-law’s wedding gift, a clock or two passed down from past generations, and a replica of a Swiss railway station’s clock. There were also new, modern clocks, to just tell the time. Clocks hung in every room, on every floor. When my father in law was alive he used to wind them every Sunday, and they all synchronized on the second. Once, we visited, and I noticed the clocks were off. That was when I knew his days were numbered. When he died, my mother in law continued with the Sunday-winding tradition. Until she didn’t:

Upstairs, on the third floor, is the wall in the room we always stayed in, the room that used to be my sister in law’s when she was little. Here you see the fake bonsai, portraits of my mother in law and her sister when they were young. A work of art my husband made as a child, and a painting of the clock factory that a distant relative operated in China, long, long ago:

Finally, the cigarette advertisement, still surprisingly hanging on the door, larger than life. The model was my mother in law, when she was young and as beautiful as a movie star. The cigarettes were what killed her. Uncomprehendingly, she left the poster hanging even after she received the diagnosis of lung cancer. It catches her exactly as she was: strong, defiant, life-loving and doing things her way.

 

Excavations, Realizations and Thoughts on Creativity

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might remember that every summer my children and I embark on The Big Cleanup project: a thorough cleanup and reorganization of every single room in the house. Well, we haven’t quite gotten to it this summer, yet (!!). I did, however, briefly step into my sewing room, which, once again, became overwhelmingly messy during those last few weeks of school. I started removing some of the layers, and, as part of my archaeological digs, unearthed a few items which led to a few realizations.

Under a mound of fabrics I found this half-sewn purse. I started making it at the very beginning of my sewing frenzy. It must have been my fifth or sixth handbag, and I abandoned it midway:

The reason I never finished it was that once it reached this stage I realized that I didn’t really like it at all. I couldn’t get myself to finish it, yet was unable to throw it away, either. By this stage, you see, I had already put quite a lot of work and time into it. Tossing it felt wrong.

Now, however, with hindsight brought about by additional months of sewing and many more bags, I could look at it more objectively. I could frankly admit that it is quite unattractive (hideous even!), a design mistake. These days, I probably wouldn’t have even purchased the fabrics of which this purse is made. I would never have started working on it, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have gotten that far along.

Additionally, I discovered a pile of cut-and-ready-to-sew bags. If I remember correctly, I cut them shortly before house guests arrived last year. Since my sewing room is also our guest room, I have to clear out of it whenever overnight visitors come. By the time our guests left, though, I had already moved on to other projects. Time went by, and I never returned to these unfinished purses.

Looking over them I realized that I still liked some (that summer travel bag I was about to sew for myself, for example!). Yet, I no longer liked others.

All of this was a mini revelation. I knew, of course, that creativity is a dynamic, evolving process, and that I, as an artist, constantly change. I just didn’t realize that things evolve that quickly. Yet, those unfinished bags in different stages of making proved that what appealed to me a mere year ago was no longer doing so now.

I often work on small batches of similar pieces. I dedicate three or four weeks to work on a series of six of seven handbags, for example. Or a week to sew several journal covers. Within each batch, every individual item is unique. I always believed that what dictated the one-of-a-kindness of my pieces was the physical limitation of my raw materials: for environmental reasons, I try to use mostly rescued, repurposed and upcycled fabrics. These often come in small pieces, and are not big enough for more than one, or–at most–two items. I actually like working on one-of-a-kind pieces, since their uniqueness requires constant designing and keeps me excited about creating. 

Now, however, I understand that what makes each piece unique is not only the physical limitations of my materials (i.e.–the size and nature of the fabrics I’m working with), but also the nature of passing time and evolving taste. A purse I make today, for example, will, by necessity, be different than a bag I will design a year from now. By next year I will have experienced new adventures and processed life (and art!) in new ways. I will not be the exact same person I am now, therefore the art I will make cannot but be different than the art I make at the moment. Each and every item I create, it seems, is a reflection of a fleeting, specific moment in time and in my life.

*****

You might want to know what I did with the unfinished purses I found. Well, I didn’t want to complete the olive-colored monstrosity shown above. The distance of time meant I no longer felt attached to whatever efforts I invested in it long ago. So I calmly took it apart. I saved the parts I can still use (the button,  for example, is beautiful!). The rest I deposited in a fabric-recycling collection bin. As for the pre-cut bags, I only kept those that I still want to work on. I will finish my travel bag, sooner or later! The other pieces went back into my fabric piles, to be used for future projects.

I realize that although I never finished some of these bags, working on them wasn’t a complete waste of time. I like telling my kids that making mistakes is not only human and normal, but also necessary. We all learn from mistakes. Like all mistakes, these failed handbags probably taught me a few important lessons. For one, they made it more clear to me what I don’t like in addition to what I do. That, I think, is something worth knowing!

How Hamilton Turned a Middle-aged Mom into a Paparazzi, and Why You Should See It, Too!

It’s been a year and a half since the Hamilton Craze swept over the land. Newspaper articles. Radio talk shows. Endless Facebook posts of friends posing with the famous murals. Meanwhile, here at home, the music has been playing non-stop over and over again, with my kids singing along, knowing every word.

I tried to resist it as long as I could. I am not fond of crazes, for one, nor am I especially into rap or hip hop. Whenever the kids played the music, I asked them to turn it off (or to at least lower the volume). I also repeatedly rebuffed their many pleas to go watch the show. 

They were quite persistent, however, as stubborn kids can be. Once they got their father on board I knew my case was lost.

Thus it happened that, over loud protests, I was recently dragged to watch Hamilton at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco.

I passed on posing solo in front of the murals, though I didn’t mind snapping shots of my offsprings. I didn’t buy a souvenir shirt or a printed cup. In fact, I went into the theater feeling rather skeptical.

Once inside, however, strange magic started spinning its web all around me. The audience’s anticipation was catching. Excitement was in the air, and it was physically tingling. The empty stage conveyed a secret promise.

Even the playbill had more allure than it usually does.

Finally the show began. It immediately drew me in, even though I didn’t know the history, the story line, or the words to the songs. The high energy was captivating. The voices were mesmerizing. The story itself was interesting. For the first time ever, I also found myself admiring a show’s lighting. The lights in this show were as physical as the stage props or the actors. They were a live part of the play.

Two hours and forty-five minutes passed in a blink. When it was over, I was left elated and awe-stricken. Not to mention curious to learn more American history…

We exited the theater, and saw people gathered around the stage door outside, waiting for the actors to come out.

My kids wanted to hang out as well. At this point, I was a lot more eager to surrender to their demands. So we waited. The crowds gasped every time the door opened. Then they exclaimed with disappointment when it was only a security guard or a member of the orchestra (I felt a bit sorry for members of the orchestra. They worked hard, too, I’m sure, but were hidden under the stage).

The actors dripped out slowly. They were greeted with loud cheers. Suddenly, in a matter of seconds, this reluctant, middle-aged mom turned into a greedy paparazzi!

I began snapping pictures of the actors, even of the ones I didn’t recognize from up close. From touching distance, they all seemed incredibly young. Much younger than they appeared from far away on the stage. In their modern outfits and without makeup, it was sometimes hard for me to tell who played who. And yet, there I was, clicking my camera away like there’s no tomorrow. I suddenly understood how my son must be feeling every time he goes Pokemon hunting. Except that instead of Larvitar or Dratini I “caught”:

Eliza!

King George (his acting was awesome!)

Thomas Jefferson (likewise!)

And also Hamilton himself, among others. This actor, Ryan Alvarado, was the standby, yet his acting was superb!:

All the actors were incredibly friendly and polite. They gave so many autographs that their hands must have gotten sore, yet they didn’t complain. The actors let people take selfies with them, and joked with young and old alike. They made quite a lot of people happy that day. My daughter, for one, will cherish her signed souvenir book for years to come.

People, if you haven’t seen this show yet, go see it! You don’t need to know American history to enjoy Hamilton, nor like rap or hip hop music. It’s truly amazing!

The Summer of Love: Still Relevant Fifty Years Later!

Fifty summers ago, in 1967, 100,000 youngsters converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. What began as a concert in Golden Gate Park developed into the Summer of Love and the resulting Hippie Movement that changed the United States, and the world, forever.

I heard about it, of course, and, like everyone else, associated it with sex, drugs and Rock & Roll. But I didn’t really know the details, and never thought any of it was relevant to my own life. The Summer of Love felt far removed, something that happened at a great distance and long ago.

Recently I visited the excellent Summer of Love exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and realized just how wrong I was. Cruising through the exhibition, guided by the many signs and the audio guide (highly recommended!!!), I learned that what happened fifty years ago actually shaped my own life (and yours, too!)  in ways big and small.

The young hippies rebelled against what they considered to be the constraining lifestyle of their parents (think 40’s and 50’s), and against the Vietnam War. Their rebellion involved lots of drugs and free love, yes, but also a shakeup of concepts related to religion, lifestyle, art and fashion. As you might imagine, I found the later two to be the most interesting.

Graphic artists began designing new kinds of posters during the Summer of Love. At first they drew them by hand:

Then they started printing them, inventing new printing techniques on the way. Their posters drew elements from old circus posters, among others, and were meant to express the experience of being on a drug-induced trip. That involved using bright, neon colors, and juxtaposing contrasting colors with the explicit intention of irritating the eye:

Influenced by tie-dyed clothes, some artists began experimenting with tie-dyed canvases. This beautiful piece, for example, is by Marian Clayden:

Hippie art found its most creative outlet in fashion. The fashion of the 1950’s involved tailored, tight-ish outfits. The hippies were going for loose, flowing clothes, designed to make the wearer feel as if they were wearing nothing at all:

Whereas many clothes in the 50’s were made out of polyester (an exciting new material that was invented during WWII, at the beginning of the 40’s), the Flower Children wanted to go back to natural fibers such as cotton, wool, and linen (in essence, they rebelled against a material that was relatively brand-new, but seemed ancient to them since their parents used it). They turned fashion into art, and broke all the existing rules of color and texture. They incorporated textiles from all over the world into their clothes, often from several cultures in one outfit. By doing so they expressed their growing interest in foreign (mostly Eastern) spirituality and religions. The outfits in the picture below, for example, have Indian, Thai, Panaman and Chinese motifs, to name some:

Many outfits at this time were hand made, hand painted, hand appliqued, hand embroidered. This hospital scrub, for example, decorated by a “bad trip” patient, must have taken numerous hours to create:

The hippies took a staple, iconic American piece of clothing, jeans, and tweaked it. In essence, they were the inventors of denim art (not to mention bell bottoms!):

They incorporated art into each and every item of clothing, such as these boots, which were made by hand for drummers:

This applied to accessories as well. This purse by Linda Gravenites, for example, must have taken days to embroider:

The Flower Children brought crocheting into the limelight. Although this isn’t one of my favorite art media, I couldn’t but appreciate the work and creativity that went into making some of the exhibited pieces. The pictures below is of a wall-sized bed spread:

Sadly, not all was sunny and happy during the Summer of Love. The exhibition sheds light on some of its darker sides, too. As a parent, the below poster, for example, broke my heart. These are pictures of runaway teenagers that parents from all over the country sent to the SF police, in the hope that they would find their kids:

And the following announcement talks of other dark aspects, such as rapes, STDs and “Bad Trips.” The latter were drug-experimentations gone wrong, which sent many Flower Children into hospitals and months-long recovery (hence the elaborately embroidered hospital garb shown above):

*****

Have you taken a yoga class or tried meditation? Did you ever shop at Whole Foods or buy organic foods? Are you taking nutritional supplements? Are you recycling, composting or upcycling? Do you own any Anthropologie, Free People, Urban Outfitters or Sundance Catalog clothing? Do you wear a fashionable pair of jeans? If so, you are the unknowing beneficiary of the Summer of Love! Many aspects of our current lifestyle, it turns out, are a direct result of the hippie movement!

On a more personal note, I left the exhibition realizing that ANY Texture would not have been what it is had the Summer of Love not happened. Eco-friendly art? Sustainable accessories? Purely handmade items? Bright colors? Ethnic fabrics? Denim art? Turns out, to my great surprise, that ANY Texture has everything to do with what happened far away and long ago! The Summer of Love is still relevant. It’s relevant to you, to me, to all of us!

If you are curious to learn more, the exhibition runs until August 20th. Just make sure to get an audio tour! If you go, please go ahead and post your impressions in the comments 🙂

One last suggestion: If you do see the exhibition, go grab lunch (or dinner) at Haight-Ashbury. Some things haven’t change much over the last fifty years…

A Day in the Great Mayan City of Chichen Itza

One cannot (or rather, should not!) visit Cancun without going to at least one of the Mayan ruins scattered across the Yucatan Peninsula. Hence, on our recent trip to Mexico we forfeited a day at the resort to visit Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was also declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It was well worth it!

The kids were not happy with the early-morning wake up. I must admit that I, too, would have preferred to sleep a little longer on my one week off. Leaving without breakfast was no fun, either (none of the resturants was open at 6:30 am). And yet, when we arrived at the site around 9:00 am, we immediately regretted not getting up even earlier. Chichen Itza opens to the public at 8:00 am, and by nine there were already quite a lot of tourists. It got significantly more crowded as the day progressed, not to mention increasingly HOT. Going early, it turned out, is a must!

Once inside, the grand scale of the city was truly impressive. Before we had time to take it all in, however, our guide, Luis, immediately rushed us to El Castillo. This is the site’s most famous step pyramid, also known as the Temple of Kukulkan. We walked all around the temple, to see both its stripped back and restored front. Luis urged us to take as many pictures as possible before it got too crowded.

While we were busy posing for pictures, the tour group behind us started clapping. We assumed they were thanking their guide. But when we got close to the same spot, Luis, too, began clapping, and asked us to do the same.

Our clapping resulted in a strange-sounding echo, that is supposedly similar to the sound a snake makes. Kukulkan, you see, was the Serpent God. The ancient architects dedicated this temple to him. There are snake heads on both sides of the long stairs, and during the spring and autumn equinoxes the stairs cast shadows that look like a descending snake. If you squint while looking at the following picture, you might see a hint of this, too:

Luis started telling us about the site. He talked rapidly and excitedly, and everything he said was really interesting. Later, however, I realized I wasn’t exactly sure what he had actually just said. It had to do with serpent and jaguar gods, astronomy, equinoxes and lots of human sacrifices.

Next, we went to the ball court. The court at Chichen Itza is the largest in the Americas, and is very impressive indeed. Shaped as a rectangle surrounded by high walls, it featured special seats for dignitaries. Here, too, sound-enhancement seemed to have shaped the architecture: a clap at the end of the court creates an echo that resonates nine times in its middle.

The ball games played here required throwing a rubber ball into one of two stone-ring hoops hung high up on two opposite walls:

Getting a ball through that little hole must have required quite some skills! Players played for very high stakes: the members of one of the groups ended up paying with their lives. According to our guide, historians cannot agree on whether players on the losing group lost their heads, or those of the group that won.

The city has many other impressive structures. This, for example, is the Temple of the Jaguars. Apparently, all the carvings on the walls, as well as the jaguar sculpture in the middle, were once painted with vivid colors:

After walking among the main buildings of the site, our guide gave us the option of browsing the souvenir stands or going to a less-visited part of the city. He was somewhat reluctant about the second option, and was visibly unhappy when we chose it. To me, however, that part was the most exciting. It had a far more authentic and wild feel to it, and was a lot less crowded (!!). Walking there felt a little like being in a lost city in an Indiana Jones movie. The architecture, the art and the carvings were truly amazing:

The Mayans had sophisticated art and architecture, into which they incorporated their culture, religion, aesthetics and science (mostly astronomy). Yet, although I studies art history in both high school and college, I never learned anything about Mayan art. Once in Chichen itza, I regretted not knowing more about the culture that left all those incredible artifacts. It only enhanced how Euro-centric our Western culture is… Luckily, there are many resources on the internet, for those curious to know more.

Of course, we couldn’t leave the place without looking at the souvenir booths. Those were a combination of local crafts and a flood of cheap Chinese imports. Sadly, telling one from the other was nearly impossible. Once again I was saddend by the loss of local heritage resulting from globalization.

 

The Downsides of All-Inclusive Buffets

I am quite ambivalent about all-inclusive resorts. On the one hand, staying in one is a real treat, a rare luxury. Unlike active vacations that require a lot of planning, for an all-inclusive you just have to pack and show up. These kinds of vacations are the only ones that allow me to take a real break from the least-pleasant chores that come with motherhood: doing laundry, tidying up, buying groceries, cooking and washing all those dishes… And yet, at the infrequent times we go on one, I always end up feeling rather uncomfortable.

Part of my unease derives from my discomfort with the idea of having other people do basic chores for me. While it’s really nice to leave a room dirty and messy and return to find it clean and neat, I somehow feel guilty about the unseen hands that did the work. I know that my being there creates jobs for people, and that the money I spend helps them feed their families. But somehow I can’t shake off the feeling that I should be the one cleaning after myself (and my brood of pretty messy kids!). Having elves do my work just doesn’t feel right.

The part I find most disturbing is the all-inclusive buffet. Although I really enjoy walking into a well-stacked dining room, eating all I can, and then leaving without having to worry about dirty dishes, I still  find the entire setup concerning on many different levels.

For spring break this year my family and I traveled to Cancun, Mexico, and stayed at an all-inclusive resort. The place had multiple dining rooms, and they were all well stacked for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each meal included multiple dishes of every imaginable kind. Food was plentiful, and it was presented in a beautiful, artistic manner:

Great, no? Well … not really. The food was so beautiful, that we wanted to try everything. Since it was self-served, we often ended up taking more than we could ever eat. That lead to problem number one: The breakdown of all our hard-worked self-restraint. At home, I try to teach the kids to eat until they are full, and no more. With an all-inclusive buffet that goes to tatters. Everyone ate way too much.

Problem number two: Sadly, despite looking amazing and making us droll, most of that food didn’t actually taste all that good. We took one bite and didn’t want to finish. We ended up throwing much of it. Now, if you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you probably know that I’m quite obsessed with waste-preventing. At home I try to use things up as much as possible. I don’t buy more than we can eat. I creatively use leftovers. And on the rare occasions when food does get spoiled, I religiously compost it. So seeing my family (me included!) throw all that food was quite painful.

Problem number three: EVERYONE in the dining room was taking too much and eating too little. The amounts of food going to waste were staggering. I started wondering: all the waste at the resort completely dwarfed my obsessive conservation efforts at home. A year of my meticulous, daily efforts probably spared the planet less waste than was produced in one meal at the resort. I began doubting whether my efforts were really worthwhile, or whether they actually made any difference…

Problem number four: Several years of sever California drought put us all in water-conserving mode. Yet, here we were, at a place where plates disappeared seemingly on their own the minute you put your fork down. Every second, third or fourth helping came in its own new, clean plate. How much water did they use to wash all those dishes??? In the big scheme of things, did it really matter if we cut our shower time by another minute??

Problem number five had to do with desserts. I often tell the kids that it’s OK to eat everything, as long as it’s in moderation. We always have something sweet at home, and the children are always welcome to it. But they know (I think) to ration the unhealthy stuff. Well, the dessert tables at the all-inclusive buffets were the prettiest of them all! When I had to choose pictures for this post, I realized that the great majority of our food-pictures were those of desserts. I wonder why…

The result? We all loaded up on the least-healthy items, even when they, too, looked much better than they tasted. That, despite reading all the research about sugar being poison. We simply couldn’t help ourselves!

Last but not least, problem number six: Amidst all that food and all that waste, it was hard not to remember my grandmother’s chastising: “finish your food, because there are children in Africa who have nothing to eat.” The abundance inside the resort juxtaposed with the poverty and scarcity around it. The unfairness of it all was blatant.

In the end, in a rather masochistic way, I was happy to go back home, to my own simple cooking. I can’t help but wonder, though … does this happen to you, too, or am I the only one not able to enjoy too much of a good thing?