Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Amalia's Florida Escape

All winter I've been going out on the balcony in New York looking for snow but nothing happened.

Then at the end of  January, Yiayia and Papou said that we should come down to South Beach, Miami for a long weekend because Papi was traveling in Asia on business.
Here we are in the airport: Mommy, Nicolas and me.

When we got to the apartment in South Beach where we lived when I was born, Nicolas took a nap in the courtyard while Mommy worked and I rode my bicycle around.  

It has three wheels and gives directions in Spanish.
Inside the apartment I showed Papou and Yiayia what I had learned in gymnastics and yoga.
One day we went to Flamingo Park where I rode on the dinosaur that used to scare me when I was little.
And went down the big curvy slide
While Mommy and Nicolas sat under the Banyan tree
Then we all rode on the little train. I was the engineer.

Later we went to Espanola Way and had crepes at A La Folie.  I made a design out of the sugar packets.
Then we went to the gelateria place nearby.
I got strawberry. I always get strawberry.
On another day we went to Lincoln Road and I did crafts at Books and Books with my Miami friends Eleni and Phaedra.

I colored this purse.  Do you like it?

On Lincoln Road, Nicolas liked to crawl around on the grassy knoll.

And at night on the grassy knoll I would shoot off into the sky rockets with colored lights, sold by the rocket man, while behind me a man was dancing and vogue-ing.

We were supposed to fly back on Sunday but all the flights were cancelled because of a huge snowstorm in New York, so we went to Eleni and Phaedra's house for dinner and their Mommy cut the King cake.
Finally on Tuesday we got on a plane for New York and Nicolas screamed and made a big fuss until Yiayia showed him Peppa Pig on her phone.

In New York there were huge piles of snow everywhere and the cars were all stuck in the snow.  After school on Wednesday, outside our apartment building, Yiayia and I made our first snowman of the winter.
It was the best snowman on East 80th Street.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Thoughts on My 75th Birthday

I woke up yesterday morning feeling vaguely depressed, but until my husband, Nick, wished me “happy birthday”, I didn’t realize this was the day I turn 75 years old.   I think I was dreading this birthday partly because my mother died at 74.  ( Her birth day was Feb. 3, 1911, mine is Feb. 4,1941.)  My mother died of congestive heart failure and actually outlived her doctors’ predictions by about a year.

So I drank my morning coffee and tried to sort out the jumble of thoughts and emotions.  This 75th birthday, so close to the beginning of a new year, was definitely for me a liminal experience, as daughter Eleni would call it. (“Limen” means threshold in Latin.) Eleni studied anthropology in college and in her blog “The Liminal Stage”. she explains: “Liminal stages are psychological thresholds, times of transition when we stand ‘betwixt and between’ one state and another. The biggies are birth, marriage, death---cultures develop splashy rituals around these transitions to ease the anxiety they provoke.”

You can guess which liminal stage I was contemplating.  In fact, I’ve been talking so much about death in recent months that my kids and husband keep razzing me about it.  I’ve sent them memos about what I want and don’t want at my funeral.  (No open coffin, in fact no body or casket.  Funeral service for immediate family only.  Some time later a party/open house/memorial service with no eulogies, only extemporaneous anecdotes with lots of food, wine and music.  I’ve already worked out the entire mix of songs I want -–heavy on Led Zeppelin and Queen.)

Before her death, my mother, the world’s most organized person, had written down the hymns and scripture readings for her funeral, specified cremation, and purchased the mausoleum niche where her ashes, and my father’s, would be stowed in brass boxes that resemble books.  She chose a niche which had a view of the swans on the cemetery’s pond. She had all their financial affairs in order, filed neatly in her desk when she died.

My father, on the other hand, had dementia as well as Parkinson’s disease until he died at 80, so he didn’t even known when my mother died.  His dementia first became evident at our parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1982, when he was about 76.  Needless to say, I’ve been watching myself for signs of Alzheimer’s, and avidly doing Lumosity “brain games” every day.  (Daughter Marina kindly signed me up, knowing my worry about memory loss.)  I realize, as recent articles have pointed out, that Lumosity doesn’t really help you stave off dementia.  It just measures how you become better at the games with practice.  But nevertheless, it gave me comfort that yesterday’s workout results put me at 91.3% LPI --whatever that is-- as compared with my age group, and 97.3 % for “problem solving” (but only 81.9 % for memory.)  I was happy that my numbers had gone up, but then I realized that, overnight, the age group I was being compared to had changed from “age 70 to 74” to “over 75.”   Less competition!

For the past fifty years or so I’ve been making pretty much the same New Year’s resolutions as everyone else: Lose ten pounds, go to the gym (or Pilates) twice a week, publish a book with my own name on it, learn Spanish (so I can communicate better with my bilingual grandchildren.)

This year my New Year’s resolutions changed.  I’m no longer interested in improving my weight, career, or possessions (but still want to learn Spanish).  All my resolutions can be collected under the theme: GET RID OF STUFF.  I am a hoarder, as my family will attest.  I even bought the best seller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" by Marie Kondo, but after reading several chapters I had to stop, because it was making me feel so guilty.  Now I’m going to target certain areas—my studio, my computer desk, my make-up area, the library and especially my closets—one at a time.  Tons of papers have to go. All those books I’ll never read again will be donated to the Grafton library for sale. All my office-appropriate clothes will go to “Dress for Success” so that other, younger women can find jobs. I’ve told the kids, whatever they want, take it now, (in hopes of avoiding, as among my mother’s nine siblings, bitter schisms between two children who want the same antique bureau.)

As the day of my 75th birthday moved from morose reflections over coffee to astonishment at the sight of over 200 birthday wishes on the internet, I alternated between tears (over the card my husband gave me) and laughter (for instance when daughter Eleni posted on Facebook: “Did you know that on her 60th birthday I witnessed this woman sip from a hash milkshake in Amsterdam? Trust me, she was in it for the milkshake. Happy Birthday, Party Girl!)  I was delighted to receive calls and gifts from son Chris and daughter Marina, both on the opposite side of the country, and chuckled at the books Marina sent: “The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program”, “Keep Your Brain Alive” and “41 Uses For a Grandma” among them.

At the end of the day, at dinner in the romantic restaurant Casa Tua in South Beach, FL, Nick and I told each other how lucky we are that we’ve made it through 45 years of marriage, that we have three great kids and two extraordinary grandchildren, and that when we get up in the morning, no parts of our bodies hurt.  That’s a rare blessing when your age group is “over 75.”  So by the time the waiter brought a birthday crème brulée with a candle in it, (as well as a “chocolate meltdown”—both surprises ordered by daughter Eleni)-- I felt ready to cross the threshold into the next liminal stage, whatever it brings. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

O. J. Simpson’s “Suicide Letter” and the Smiley Face

In my forthcoming book “The Saga of Smiley”, which chronicles the history of the Smiley Face icon since it was created in 1963 by artist Harvey Ball in Worcester, MA, there is a chapter about the surprising number of murderers and criminals who have incorporated Smiley into their signatures.

Among them is O.J. Simpson, whose “suicide letter” was read to the media by Robert Kardashian  on June 17, 1994, while O.J. was fleeing on his famous white Bronco ride that glued everyone in the country to their TV sets, waiting for the conclusion: would O.J. kill himself, escape the cops, or what?  Trending on the internet yesterday, because a 10-episode FX TV series based on the OJ. Simpson case begins, (‘The People v. O.J. Simpson—American Crime Story”) is the news that the letter showed that O.J was nearly illiterate, and that his attorney Robert Kardashian edited and improved it as he read. 

What was not in today’s news was that O.J. actually signed what seemed to be his suicide farewell with a smiley face in the letter “O”!

Here is the section from “The Saga of Smiley” that deals with O.J.:

No discussion of Smiley’s life in crime would be complete without mention of the Smiley Face that O. J. Simpson added to the “Suicide Letter” he wrote in June of 1994.

After the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman were discovered on  June 13, 1994, O. J. Simpson’s lawyers promised that Simpson would turn himself in at 11 a.m. on June 17. A thousand reporters were waiting for him at the Los Angeles Police Station, but O.J. didn’t show up.  The police issued an all points bulletin.  At 5 p.m. Robert Kardashian, his close friend, who is today perhaps better known as the father of Kim and her siblings, read a letter written by Simpson to the media.

It said that Simpson had nothing to do with Nicole’s death, it thanked two dozen of his friends, and it ended, “Don’t feel sorry for me, I’ve had a great life, great friends.  Please think of the real O. J. and not this lost person.  Thanks for making my life special.  I hope I help yours.  Peace and love, O. J.”

And he drew a Smiley Face inside the “O”.

About an hour and 20 minutes after Kardashian read this letter, which everyone interpreted as a suicide note, a motorist saw O.J. riding in a white Bronco that was being driven by his close friend A. C. Cowlings.  There ensued a long, slow-motion car chase, while police and friends tried to convince O.J. to pull over and turn himself in, crowds of helicopters filmed from above, and millions of TV viewers around the world watched the chase in fascination, waiting to see if it would end in a suicide, a crash or a confrontation with the police.

It ended at 8 p.m. as the car and O.J. arrived at his Brentwood home, his young son came out to greet him and he went inside to talk to his mother and drink a glass of orange juice.  Three days later O.J. was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to both murders.  (Ultimately, after an eight-month jury trial, Simpson was acquitted.)

So what about that happy face in the O of his signature?  Was O.J. happy, sad, or suicidal when he drew it?  People are still debating this question. The driver, A. C. Cowlings, reported that during the ride O. J. was holding a gun to his own head.  But it’s doubtful that he really intended to kill himself that day.  Here’s what police found in his car afterwards: $8,000 in cash, a change of clothing, a loaded .357 Magnum, a passport, family pictures, and a fake goatee and mustache.

What prompted O. J. Simpson, “ Happy Face Killer” Keith Jesperson, and possibly the gang of Smiley Face Killers, to include the Smiley Face in their signatures?  Were they trying to convey their love and joy, their ironic glee at spilling blood, or something else altogether?  For each individual, Smiley may have meant something different—but it certainly meant something important.

Everyone who uses a Smiley is trying to communicate something emotional that written words are not adequate to convey. That’s exactly what led to the most prevalent manifestation of Smiley in the twenty-first century—the emoticon, and its offspring, the emoji. Happily, these days people who include Smiley in their signatures aren’t murdering anyone—except, in some cases, the English language.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Our Big Fat Greek Baptism #2

All photographs by Erika Sidor
 Back when I was a child and attended a Presbyterian church, baptizing a baby was no big deal.  The parents and baby came down to the front for a few minutes after the Sunday service, the minister sprinkled some water on the baby’s head and said a few words, and it was over.  I don’t even remember that I had a godparent, although I must have.
When I married a Greek in 1970, I quickly learned that in the Greek church, baptisms are a really big deal, involving ritual, dancing and a fancy sit-down meal after the elaborate church service.  When Nick and I baptized our three children, the godparents presented their godchild with a new set of clothing and a gold cross.  And every time, my father-in-law, Christos, led the dancing while balancing a glass of Coca Cola on his head.  (And he never spilled a drop!) Here he is at the baptism of daughter Eleni in 1975.  She was only 11 months old, but after watching her Papou, she started dancing Greek-style, holding her little hands in the air.

Last November, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when daughter Eleni and her husband Emilio threw a baptism party for their second child, Nicolas José, no one danced with a glass on their head, but everyone had a rollicking good time, even nine-month-old Nicolas, once he got over being submerged three times in the baptismal font.
Here’s the family ready to leave for Saint Spyridon Cathedal in Worcester.  Nicolas is wearing the antique christening gown that his abuela, Carmen, brought from Nicaragua.  It’s been worn by babies of the Oyanguren family for over 100 years. Mommy and Amalia are dressed in accordance with the color palette Eleni chose for the baptism: dark blue, light blue and silver.  (Eleni works for Martha Stewart, so there’s a color palette for every party.)

Nicolas is always ready for a party!  Here he is waving at his about-to-be godmother Amy Ambatielos Pappas and her husband--another Nick.

Once he was carried to the baptismal font and Father Dimitrios Moraitis blessed the  water, Nico looked a little worried.  On the right is Nico’s godfather, Gerardo Baltodano Cantero, the brother of Emilio’s father Alvaro.  “Tio Gerardo” came from Nicaragua for the baptism along with his wife, Maria Caridad.
When Father Dimitri immersed Nico three times in the water the baby protested loud and long.
By the time his godparents had dried him off and dressed him in his new clothes, Nico had calmed down a bit, but still wasn’t happy.  Here his Godmother Amy leads a procession around the baptismal font to symbolize his new life as an Orthodox Christian, while his godfather Gerardo carries him.  
By the time everyone arrived at the Cyprian Keyes Golf Club, Nico was ready to party.  Eleni decorated the tables with the theme of Saint Nicolas, baby Nico’s patron saint, who is the protector of sailors.  The centerpiece on each table was a sailboat topped with two tiny flags—for Greece and Nicaragua.  The adult favors were small icons showing Saint Nicholas rescuing sailors from a storm, tied around the traditional bag of Jordan almonds. The children’s favors were sailboat cookies (and each child took home a sailboat.)
Here are Amalia and her Yiayia Joanie examining one of the sailboats.

Before the meal began, Eleni, Emilio and even Amalia welcomed everyone.  Once Amalia saw the power of a microphone, she didn’t want to give it back.

Nico’s Papou, Nick Gage, gave a beautiful blessing, saying in part, ”I want to wish him a long life full of the love, joy and wonder he is feeling today, I want to express the hope that all of us will be around to dance at his wedding…But if I don’t make it, I hope that those of you who do will tell him how deliriously happy I was today that he was given my name to carry on throughout this century…And finally I want to wish Nicolaki a blessing we say in my village: ‘May he live as long as the mountains’.”
Later it was time for photos.  Here is Nikolaki flanked by his godparents. Nick and Amy are holding their son Alki, who is looking forward to a sibling coming this year.
And here Nico is with his grandparents.  That’s Abuela Carmen Oyanguren on the right.
Then the dancing began.  Here’s Amalia leading Papou on the dance floor.
Now she’s in a line of dancers that includes her great-aunt Alexandra Stratis, her cousin Anthi Vraka, and her Mommy.

Even Nico’s non-Greek relatives from his Grandma’s side—namely Great Aunt Robin and Great Uncle Bob Paulson, cut a mean rug during the Greek dancing.  (But then Robin’s a professional dancer.)  At the far right is Amy’s Mom, Vicky Ambatielos, dancing with her grandson Alki.

Finally, Papou Nick asked little Nico if he would like to learn Greek dancing.  Nico said yes.

So, although the baby’s Papou Nick did not balance a glass of Coca Cola on his head, as his great-grandpa Christos used to do, Nico’s Papou gave him his first lesson in the kalamatianos, and that was even better.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

George Discovers New York City…Part Two

In my last post, chronicling the beginning of the action-packed day when I toured Manhattan with George, a young visitor from Greece, we encountered the Museum of Natural History, Columbus Circle, a series of three-star restaurants, and various street people on our way to Times Square.
When we got to Times Square, they were already setting up barriers and cameras in preparation for the next day’s New Year’s Eve dropping of the ball at midnight, which would be witnessed by an estimated one million people packed into the area (plus 6,000 cops hoping to keep them safe.)  One professional cameraman, setting up his tripod, said the ball would fall from just above the Toshiba sign above.
George took photos in all directions, and so did I.  The crowd frantically waved at the huge Revlon billboard, which kept zooming in on the people in the street below, including us.  It’s a kick to see yourself on a lighted billboard above Times Square!
Next George led me into the nearby Hard Rock Café, where he bought a tee-shirt, saying “We don’t have a single Hard Rock Café in Greece.”   Then it was on one block to Madame  Tussauds where the line of people waiting to get in stretched for what seemed like miles.

When we finally got in, after paying $40 each, we were herded into a large elevator to the 9th floor, called “Opening Night”, filled with film stars dressed in red carpet garb.  We would walk down to the other floors, each with a different theme.  The first statue to welcome us was Kim Kardashian and then Kanye West, seen here with George.

On the next floor I enjoyed seeing John Wayne with this elderly fan, and then Jennifer Lawrence with a much younger admirer.

Jimmy Fallon was interviewing this young lady.  And Don Draper was already celebrating Happy Hour.
I made George pose with Lucille Ball and Ernest Hemingway, even though he had no idea who they were.  There were floors with scientists and writers and inventors and a theater where we watched a six-minute 4-D Marvel Heroes film.  Evidently 4-D means that, when you see splashing water or a bullet whizzing by or a punch in the back or an explosion, you experienced it yourself, sitting right there in your chair, with water in the face, air whizzing by, and a poke in the back.
We passed through the floor featuring presidents past and present with their first ladies.  Obama and Michelle didn’t seem to mind two teenagers taking over the presidential desk.  And finally George reached the floor he had been waiting for, where he got to spar with Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali.
When we left Madame Tussauds, we walked across to Fifth Avenue, looked at the Library lions, then set out to walk up Fifth Avenue to see the  famous Christmas tree.  The sidewalks were so crowded that I kept thinking about how, in India on religious holidays, people who fall down are trampled to death by the crowds.  Luckily I didn’t fall down before we got to see the tree, with the skating rink in front of it and all the beautiful  lighted angels lining the way.  George was determined to be photographed with a New York police officer (don’t know why) and this gentleman obliged.
Finally, because George wasn’t able to mount the Freedom Tower or the Empire State Building the day before due to fog, we bought tickets to go to the Top of the Rock --the observation tower atop what we oldsters call the RCA building, right behind the tree. (In 1988 it became the GE Building and last year the Comcast Building.)  Halfway to the 67th floor, everybody got out and filed through a security checkpoint just like at the airport.

It was worth it, and the $32 tickets, because from the top we got amazing views of Manhattan at night, including the Empire State building that was decked in red and green lights for the holidays.
Once we were back on the ground we sprinted over to Loi Estiatorio on 132 West 58th Street where Nick was waiting for us.  There the owner and chef, Maria Loi, the official “Ambassador of Greek Gastronomy”, shared some of her cooking secrets with George.

After we caught our breath, George declared that he had seen a week’s worth of New York City in two days. I had to agree.