Thursday, February 24, 2011

Famous Oscar Flubs & Moments

(Note: I'm re-posting this from last year, since w'e're counting down to a new Oscar night.  I just read in the New York Post that everyone is anticipating a new series of screw-ups on Sunday, especially when we see mothers of nominees talking about their famous kids. Also, the Post said,  keep an eye on whether or not John Travolta unveils his bald head without his usual weave, "inspiring Nicolas Cage to finally own up to his own hair 'issue.'")

I hope to watch the Oscar Ceremonies on Sunday—along with half the world’s population -– but let’s face it, we’re not watching to see which films will win the little gold men, nor to see who cashes in on the office pool. We’re all watching to see which of our favorite actors, appearing under stress and without a script, will make a fabulous flub or world class blunder.

I’ve been watching the Oscars since just about forever, and I remember them all. Well, I wasn’t old enough, (nor did we have a TV) back in 1945 when Joan Crawford, with her usual diva-ish behavior, feigned illness and graciously accepted her Oscar for “Mildred Pierce” at home in her “sick bed” while the cameras rolled.

Here are some of my favorite ill-planned and poorly executed Oscar Moments – in chronological order. If I’ve forgotten some of your favorites—let me know by leaving a comment below or writing me at And if I have the wrong year, please forgive, because the 1990 Oscars happened in 1991, for example, which is confusing, and I haven’t taken the time to double check my dates. (Don’t tell my old professors at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I’m writing against deadline and sometimes, as they often told us, you just have to “Go with what you’ve got.”)

1969—Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand tied for an Oscar but everyone remembers Streisand’s gauzy bell-bottomed pants suit which became transparent under the lights.

1973 – Marlon Brando won the Oscar for “Godfather 1” but in his place he sent a Mexican actress whom he called Sacheen Littlefeather, dressed as an American Indian, to accept for him, while she issued a diatribe against the portrayal of the Native Americans on film. (I vaguely remembered her name as Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, but of course that was the Indian princess on Howdy Doody, which was my very first TV show after we got a television set back in the early fifties.)

1974—Everyone’s favorite Oscar moment was when the trendy, mustached streaker sped behind David Niven—stark naked on camera. Niven never blinked as he remarked that the only laugh the fellow would ever get is for showing off his shortcomings.

1985 – Everyone knows about Sally Fields “You like me, you really like me!” acceptance speech—which is often misquoted and parodied. I wonder how much she’d pay to erase that exuberant speech from history.

1989 – The career of Rob Lowe hit its nadir as he sang and danced with Snow White in the opening number. Think how far back he’s come since then!

1992 – When Jack Palance leaped on stage to accept an Oscar and celebrated by demonstrating his skill at one-arm push-ups, Billy Crystal kept spinning jokes off of his performance all night. (Referring to a choir of children he cracked, “And all them were fathered by Jack Palance.”) The ability to think on his feet is what makes Billy Crystal my favorite Oscar M. C.

1995 – David Letterman’s opening monologue fell nearly as flat as Rob Lowe’s when his “Uma – Oprah – Uma – Oprah” chant left everyone staring, not laughing.

2000 – Angelina Jolie, was so delighted at receiving an Oscar that she enveloped her brother, James, in a passionate, long, sloppy kiss that left everyone else slack-jawed in shock and wonder.

2003--And Adrian Brodie did the same as he attacked presenter Halley Berry in a big sloppy kiss to celebrate being the youngest actor to win an Oscar.

I actually got to attend the Oscar Ceremony in 1991 – (It was the 1990 Oscars.) The reason I got to go is that my husband Nick was executive producer for Godfather III, which was nominated for (but never got) best picture. I’m glad I got to go that once, but I wouldn’t want to do it again, because it’s really boring.

The people who are nominated for something get to sit on the first floor down front, while the rest of us sit in the balcony. The amazing thing is how bizarre are the outfits worn by the folks in the balcony who seem to be mostly would-be actors trying to get attention because they haven’t made it yet. There are long pauses for commercials and people are hired to drift about and sit in the seats of the famous folks below when they nip out to go to the bathroom. The only thing I actually remember about that Oscar ceremony is that Michael Jackson and Madonna, both in white, appeared together as “dates” and sat right in front of my husband.

On Sunday I expect to have more fun than when I was there in person, because I can talk back to the screen and get up to get snacks and drinks and even take a bathroom break.

Recent Oscar ceremonies have become sort of boring because they’re so carefully organized, but I’m still hoping for a world-class flub or blunder tonight to add to my Oscar Memories.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Mystery of the Monarch Butterflies of Michoacan, Mexico

They are one of the great mysteries—and beauties—of nature. No one knew where the migrating Monarch butterflies spent the winter until 1975, when the mountaintop in Michoacan, Mexico was discovered by an American named Ken Brugger and his wife Catalina Aguada. The Bruggers had answered an ad in a Mexican newspaper  asking for volunteers, placed by Dr. Frederick Urquhart who had been trying to find the Monarchs’ wintering place since1937.

    The discovery of the Monarchs’ winter hiding place, according to another scientist, was “Like discovering the eighth wonder of the world.”

     For the native Purépecha Indians, the place of the Monarchs had never been a secret.  At the beginning of November every year, the church bells rang, signaling the arrival of millions of butterflies (which had flown all the way from the United State and Canada.)  The Purépechas believed that the mariposas were the souls of dead children, and the annual arrival frightened them, so they did not speak of it to outsiders.

     One of Mexico’s most celebrated poets, Homer Aridjis, who was born in a small village near the hibernation site, had known about the butterflies all his life, since he first discovered them while exploring near his home.  Here is what Christine Potters, an American fellow blogger, whom I met during my recent trip to Morelia, wrote about Aridjis in her excellent blog “Mexico Cooks”

        "In the town of Contepec, Michoacán, a small boy, Homero Aridjis, born in 1940 as the youngest of five Greek/Mexican brothers--used to climb Cerro Altamirano near his home to look at the monarch butterflies that flooded the forests for almost four months in the winter before they left again, heading north. No one living in his area knew where the butterflies came from or where they went. "When I began to write poems," Aridjis said, "I used to climb the hill that dominated the memory of my childhood. Its slopes, gullies, and streams were full of animal voices--owls, hummingbirds, mocking birds, coyotes, deer, armadillo. The natural world stimulated my poetry." But of all of these animals, he says the monarch butterflies were his "first love." Aridjis won Mexico's very prestigious Xavier Villarrutia Award at age 24 and years later, monarchs were still making their appearance in his writing. His 1971 book, El poeta niño, includes a beautiful poem that goes like this: "You travel/by day/ like a winged tiger/ burning yourself/ in your flight/ Tell me/ what supernatural/ life is/painted on your wings...."**"

      Early on, after the discovery of the hibernation site, Aridjis became an activist trying to protect the butterflies’ hibernation place and to prevent the deforestation of the fir trees on which they depend for their survival in the winter.

     When I entered the butterfly sanctuary at El Rosaria, in the Mexican state of Michoachan, on Valentine’s day, last week, as part of the first tour to the area sponsored by Susana Trilling, a chef who is based in Oaxaca, (  the people of El Rosario were still digging out from a tragic storm, exactly a year earlier, which  caused mud slides and floods that buried homes and people and washed away cars, homes and animals, leaving 30,000 homeless and at least 45 people dead. We could see the construction to rebuild roads and bridges as we approached Rosario.

In our itineraries for the trip, Susana had quoted an account of a  storm in 2002 that killed a majority of the wintering Monarchs.  It turns out that the butterflies, who don’t move, but cling to the fir trees when the weather gets cold, can survive temperatures well below zero, if they have little liquid in their bodies, but if they are wet, as they were in 2002, they freeze.  On the day after the storm, acording to Lincoln Brower, an entomologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia,  “We were wading in (dead) butterflies up to our knees.”  He and his colleagues estimated that 500 million monarchs had died from the storm—five times more than they thought had even existed in the colony.

The scientists feared that only a fraction of the usual number of butterflies would return the next year, but to their delight, they found that the devastated Monarch population had returned to normal.

In my visit last week to the butterfly sanctuary at El Rosario, I learned a lot, including how to tell a male butterfly from a female.  A male has the two dots that you see below on the back part of his wings.   The dark veins on a female are wider

The butterflies that flock to Mexico from the U.S. and Canada to spend the winter are the fourth generation, the “Methuselah Generation” of their breed.

An adult butterfly lives only about four to five weeks, The eggs are left on the milkweed plant, three or four days later the brightly striped caterpillars emerge, and during the next nine to 14 days they shed their skin five times.   On the sixth molting, the caterpillar transforms into a chrysalis, and after eight to 13 days, the adult butterfly emerges. (This is illustrated by a five minute film in Spanish for visitors at a theater inside the Rosario sanctuary.) 

Three days after emerging, the adult butterflies develop sex organs and, five days later begin to reproduce. This cycle occurs three times during spring and summer as the butterflies travel north into the US and Canada until, in the fall, the fourth or “Methuselah” generation is born.  This fourth generation will survive seven or eight months, will  perform the astounding feat of traveling from Canada and the United States to Mexico, and after mating, the females will return back north again to the United States. (The male Monarchs in Mexico after enjoying the 72-hour mating season in February, during which they will mate with numerous females, will then drop dead—their work is done.  Only the females fly back north to lay their eggs.) 
                                      photo of butterflies mating
On the day we walked up the mountain to the most butterfly-crowded sections of the forest, what our guide Raymundo called “The Nucleus”, it was a warm day and the beginning of the mating season, and the air around us was alive with butterflies, while millions more hung on the trees like orange autumn leaves.   We were very lucky, because in the early part of the winter—November and December-- the butterflie tend not to fly, but just to hang still on the trees, and on cold days they’ll do the same.
Our guide told us that only one day in ten will provide the optimum conditions that we saw on Valentine’s Day. As we started up the steps toward the apex of the walk it became clear this was a harder trek than I expected.  (We walked 2008 meters up and 2008 meters back for a total of 6 kilometers, our guide told us—And when we started at Rosario we were already 1850 meters above sea level.)

It looked easy at the start, but only about 100 feet up I was gasping for breath  I quickly realized that the altitude was a major factor in whether or not I was going to make it all the way.  As it turned out, half of our group of six—most in their thirties or early forties—had little trouble making the ascent but the other three of us—with me at 70 being the oldest—had to stop at nearly every bench to catch our breath, while marveling at the scenery around us. (For those not able to make the ascent, horses can be rented, but the last 300 feet up still has to be on foot.)

The butterflies were a constant commotion all around us.  As one book said, the miracle is that they never collide.  In spots where there was water, like a small stream over the road, they clustered. 

The view of the sky, of the laden fir trees, the beauty all around us was indescribable.  When I sat down to catch my breath, the silence was complete-- almost eerie.  But then, as I sat there and my heart stopped raced and my breath returned to normal, I could hearing, ever so faintly, the rustle of thousands—millions—of butterfly wings.

It was a transcendent experience, even for those who have no religion.  No wonder the Purépecha Indians thought the butterflies were the souls of their dead children.

We all took photos and then we realized, as one of the women in our group remarked—there is no way a still photo could give any idea of the indescribable experience we had.  So I tried for the first time to take some videos with my camera, and I’m attaching below a link to one of those videos.  It lasts 55 seconds and if you watch it to the end, you will see some of the members of our group.

This trip to Michoacan, Mexico was a gift from my husband for my 70th birthday—and I can’t think of a better way to mark a milestone in life.  It was something I’ve always wanted to do before I die, and I wish you an equality miraculous and moving experience, to mark a landmark birthday.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saving the Planet with Pig Poop

 Here in the troubled Mexican state of Michoacan, on a tour called “Michoacan Cuisine and Monarch Butterflies” led by the Oaxacan chef Susana Trilling, I’ve met a lot of remarkable people. Two of the most interesting are women from the indigenous Purepecha tribe native to this region. Both women have used their talents and courage to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

 First we met Benedicta Alja Vardas, who came with her 16-year-old daughter Graziella, lugging her carbon-burning grill, from her small village of San Lorenzo to the  Colegio Culinario in Morelia to teach us some of the dishes from her people’s pre-hispanic roots. (Both the cuisine and the music of Michoacan have been declared non-tangible World Heritage Treasures by the Mexican government.)

Benedicta, who speaks the Purepecha language at home, was an orphan who married at 13.  She had two daughters after the age of 20 and rarely left her village.  But seven years ago, in the first  “Encounter of Traditional Chefs” in Morelia, she won first place and has won first place (and often second as well) every year since. Last year the judges decided to make her a lifetime honoree and let others compete.  Although Benedicta had never traveled, in October of last year she was flown to San Antonio, Texas to demonstrate her cooking methods before the Culinary Institute of America.

Wearing her traditional Michoacan traje of  pleated velvet skirt, lace blouse and lace-edged apron, Benedicta cooked several dishes for us.  The recipes were all labor intensive and involved lots of grinding things on the metate—pumpkin seeds, chili seeds, herbs, flowers and of course corn,( including masa dough), which is the  foundation of the local pre-hispanic diet.   Her speciality is Molé de Queso—cheese molé—and a pumpkin-seed-based Atapakua, which is stirred only in one direction until it thickens enough for the spoon to stand up in the pot.

For a grand finale she made tri-colored tortillas our of blue, white and red corn dough.

The second and even more remarkable Purepecha woman chef we met was Calletana (also spelled Cayetana) Nambo Rangel, whose home we visited in the village of  Erongaricuaro.   She has been fighting  for women’s and children’s rights most of her 66 years. One of 12 siblings, Cayetana says, “I get lawyers for abused women and children. I don’t want any woman to be abused because I was abused myself.”

Cayetana was employed as a social worker in her village when, 13 years ago, the Mexican government sent a group of men “all doctors and engineers,” to Colombia to learn about the revolutionary method of using animal waste to create a natural gas that could be used to power a family’s heat and electricity at no cost—and  in a way that emits no carbon into the environment and even  sterilizes the residue to provide nutritious fertilizer for crops. (It can work with the waste from pigs, cows, goats, and even humans.)

“The government wouldn’t pay for my ticket to Colombia because I was a woman,” she says,  “but I wanted to go, so I sold two cows to pay for my ticket.”  When the group returned from Colombia, the only person who understood the technology and installed it in her own home was Cayetana.

Since then, she has spread the word about bio gas and biodigesters (look it up) throughout her part of Mexico.  She has been visited by people from Peru, Israel, Russia, Canada and many other countries, who came to learn the process.  Cayetana can be seen preaching her  gospel on YouTube (in Spanish).  She shows us a letter written to the U.S. State Department in an effort to get her a visa to come to the Illinois to lecture hog farmers on “improving and implementing technology in hog farms,” but the request for her visa was turned down.

On Friday, when we visited Cayetana in her large, immaculate kitchen and watched her cook several pre-hispanic dishes (again grinding on the metate) she insisted we get hands-on experience and learn to wrap corn leaves around a dough of masa and frijoles for corundas.  She also created a stew-like soup, all cooked on her stove which is powered by gas from the waste produced by her three pigs .  She cooks using “Quatros Fuegos—four fires” namely burning charcoal, burning wood, propane gas. (she says she can’t remember the last time she bought a tank) and using the bio gas from her pigs.

 She took us outside to show how the waste from the pigs is mixed with water from a hose, (“You don’t  even get dirty”) and then the waste runs into a tank where it  is converted into gas which fills a huge plastic bag.  The gas is then sent by a tube into the house to the water heater and stove.

 Cayetana insisted we work before we got to eat the feast we’d prepared.  in her flower-filled courtyard we toasted her with sweet lime water flavored with Chia seeds before she and her aged mother Lupe hugged and kissed us and waved good-bye.

(Tomorrow—Monday, Feb. 14—we are going to the  remote area near Zitacuaro  where the Monarch butterflies are  gathered.  We’ll be back in Morelia on Tuesday night and I’ll report on the butterflies as soon as I get internet access.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Let St. Anthony Find Your True Love (A Valentine Day Ritual from Mexico)

On Tuesday, arriving in Morelia, Mexico on Day One of the Monarch Butterflies and Michoacån Cuisine tour, I didn’t see a single butterfly but did learn about a place that may be more efficient than E-Harmony and in helping single ladies find the man of their dreams.

It was San Miguelito, the restaurant in Morelia where we ate the first night.  It calls itself a “Restaurante, Bazar, Galeria, & Museo” and they’re not kidding. 

 In addition to scrumptious Mexican food, they sell Day of the Dead figures, Botero-like fat little angels, a wooden chair that is also a skeleton, and aprons imprinted with Guadalupe.

 But the main draw is the back room, which, in addition to dining tables and chairs, holds more than 700 images of St. Anthony of Padua all UPSIDE DOWN.

For over twenty years, according to proprietor Cynthia Martinez, single women have been thronging to this room to beg St. Anthony to intercede for them and send their destined mate to their side.

 There are bulletin boards filled with photos and thanks from satisfied customers who have finally met their soul mate.

Here is what you have to do:  take 13 coins of the same  denomination from two bags hanging nearby.  Line up 13  coins on the base of the main St Anthony statue.  Walk around the statue 13 times.  Pray to St. Anthony.  (Suggested prayer below.  The restaurant also provides a Spanish-language version.)

There is a three-hole notebook below the statue on which you can write your specific request.  One woman covered 21 pages detailing her requirements in a mate.

Nearby is a shelf holding some of the dozens of notebooks  which have been filled in the past two decades with single women’s requests.

Back in the U.S. I had heard that people wanting to sell their homes would bury a statue of St Anthony in the front year, upside down of course, to speed up the sale. (A new friend, Christina, tells me that that’s actually St. Joseph.)

I think the point of the St. Anthony ritual is that, when your wish is fulfilled, you will release the saint and turn him back over.  But the St. Anthonys at San  Miguelito restaurant in Morelia have been standing upside-down for so long, while bringing couples together, that I  don’t think they have any hope of landing on their feet again.

Here is a poster on the restaurant’s wall advertising the Saint’s miraculous powers to lead you to love.
If you want to try this ritual at home:  get your own statue of St. Anthony and 13 identical coins and give it a try.  Here is a suggested prayer I found on the internet.  If you would like to have the Spanish-language prayer given out by San Miguelito Restaurant, write me at

Oh Wonderful St.Anthony, glorious on account of the fame of thy miracles, and through the condescension of Jesus in coming in the form of a little child to rest in thy arms, obtain for me of his bounty the grace which I ardently desire from the depths of my heart. Thou who was so loving towards miserable sinners, regard not the unworthiness of those who pray to thee, but the glory of God that it may be once again magnified by this request which I now make to you. Amen

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thoughts on Turning 70

(The photo shows my mother and myself in 1943)

When you turn 70, (as I do on Friday, Feb. 4) you can’t consider yourself middle-aged any more.  Let’s face it, you’re wicked old.

In 1985 my mother died at 74 of cardiomyopathy and my father died at 80 not long after, but he spent his last years lost in dementia, which may or may not have been connected to his Parkinson’s disease. I think we all keep our parents’ ages at death in the back of our minds like a bad omen.  A male friend of mine was convinced that he’d die of heart disease at 62, like his father, and didn’t relax about this until he passed that milestone year.

I used to think the best time of life was when your children are young and all sorts of accomplishments are still possible in your future.  But now I think that, for women, crone-hood – life after sixty—is the best time of one’s life.

If that is, you are lucky enough to have good health.  Two years ago I was collecting classmates’ bios for the book distributed at our 50th high school reunion in Edina, Minnesota. I realized how many classmates had died (39 out of 331) and that many were struggling with serious illness.  Also a number of my friends have had their mobility compromised by hip or knee problems and other ailments.

I’ve been very lucky this far, which is something that I think about every day.

When I sit down in the morning with coffee and the newspapers, I’m profoundly glad that I don’t have to show up an office at 8 a.m. with five newspapers in my hand, then read them and mimeograph a news summary for my company’s management before ten a.m.  That was my first job in Manhattan, working for Lever Brothers.  Now all executives get their daily business news instantaneously on their I-phones or Blackberries or laptops.

I admit, I’ve become addicted to the computer, which I think is the most important innovation in my lifetime.

When my mother died in 1985, she had never touched a computer (although my father actually sold huge, hulking Univac computers to companies before he retired.) When she was pregnant with me—in 1940-41-- my mother spent the time compiling a book-sized family history of our ancestors, typing it up laboriously with lots of carbon copies, and distributing it to her eight siblings and eventually to her children.  Think how much easier that job would be today!

Another computer phenomenon is the social networks, especially Facebook, which many people consider invasive and dangerous.  But it has created a worldwide community which can share news and ideas and opinion instantly.

Consider this—on the first day of February, two young women who are among my “Facebook friends” each gave birth to a daughter—one in Omaha and one in Connecticut-- and they both announced it to the world on Facebook before they were wheeled out of the delivery room.  One even posted an album of photos of the baby, before and after the umbilical cord was cut.

Also, I’ve heard from friends with relatives who are soldiers in, say, Afghanistan, that an expectant dad in the military can watch his wife’s entire labor and delivery live on the computer (I guess through Skype.) This is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing. Of course if the dad didn’t have to go to war, that would be an even better thing.

Sometimes I imagine explaining things like this to my mother, who would have loved the internet.

The goal that motivates me to exercise on the stationary bike most days and go to Pilates lessons is the hope that I’ll stay alive and mobile long enough to be a grandmother. My friends become inarticulate when trying to explain how grandchildren can transform your life.

It seems to me that when women turn fifty, they’re likely to give their husbands a big cast-of-thousands celebration and ignore their own birthday, but when they turn 60, many of my friends celebrated themselves with the party or trip they’d always wanted.

And when women enter crone-hood, they often channel the creative energy they used to spend on home, children and jobs into some long-hidden passion-- designing jewelry, writing a book, gardening, volunteering their talents to a philanthropy. They allow themselves to do what they always wanted, but never had time for. A friend of mine, a couple of years older than I am, went from wife, mother and chef to law student, then lawyer, then judge, then a state chief justice. A run-in with cancer slowed her down and she retired.  Now she’s enrolled at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary School so that, aged 70-plus, she can fulfill her childhood dream and become a veterinarian. (And she relaxes with horseback riding and tap dancing!)

I, too, went the “discover-your-passion-at-60” route and turned away from journalism (although I still do it) to re-discovering art, which was my major in college until I realized I could never earn a living at it.  So I started taking lessons at the Worcester Art Museum, exhibited in some local shows and sold some paintings.

As long I can get around and handle my own luggage, I intend to travel to places I’ve never been and take lots of photographs (mostly of people) and then turn the photos into paintings.  Last month I wrote about a night spent watching sea turtles hatching on a beach in Nicaragua and heading into the sea.  I called it a “bucket list” experience.

Next week I’m off on another one.  My husband is giving me the birthday gift of a
culinary tour in Mexico with chef Susana Trilling, traveling around the state of Michoacan to witness the migration of the Monarch butterflies.   Susana has a cooking school in Oaxaca (called Seasons of My Heart) and I’ve been on unforgettable tours with her, far, far off the beaten path to many parts of the country, but this is Susana’s first Butterfly tour and I know it’s going to be amazing

There are a lot more trips on my bucket list and I don’t know how much time I’ve got left to make them, but, free of the drama, responsibility, worry and insecurity of youth, I’m entering my seventh decade with anticipation (and hope) that this will be the best one yet.