Tuesday, April 30, 2013

May Baskets & May Wreaths

(I posted this last year and am posting it again--another reprise . Spring is glorious  right now in Massachusetts and our lawn is  full of violets--both  purple and white, and all the trees are blossoming.  Perfect weather for making and sharing May Baskets.) 

Some sixty years ago, when I was a little girl in (first) Milwaukee, Wisconsin and then in Edina, Minnesota, on the first of  May we would make May baskets out of construction paper and fill them with  whatever flowers we could find in the garden or growing wild. We would hang the baskets on the doorknobs of neighbors—especially old people—ring the door bell, then run away with great hilarity and peek out as the elderly person found the little bouquets on their door.

 Thirty-some years ago, when we moved  to Grafton, MA, I continued the same tradition with my three kids, but then they grew up and moved away.  Just today I looked out at all the flowers popping up in our yard and reflected that all the old people in our neighborhood had died.  In fact, I realized, the only old people left were my husband and myself, so I picked a small May Day bouquet for us out of what’s growing—white violets and purple violets, cherry blossoms, forsythia, wild grape hyacinth--  and here it is.

 In 1977, when the children were all small (the youngest was one month old) we moved from New York City to a suburb of Athens, Greece, courtesy of The New York Times, which had made my husband a foreign correspondent there.  In Greece, even today, whether in the country or the city, on May 1 you make a May wreath of the flowers in the garden.  Roses are in full bloom by then in Greece, along with all sorts of wild flowers. You hang the May wreath on your door.  It dies and dries and withers until, on June 24th, St. John the Baptist’s Birthday, the dried May wreath is thrown into a bonfire.  The boys of the town leap over the flames first. In the end everyone leaps over the fading fire saying things like  “I leave the bad year  behind in order to enter a better year.”

Here is daughter Eleni in 1980 wearing the wreath that was about to go on the door. Next to her is her sister Marina.

 In Greece, even today, you’ll find May wreaths hanging on the front doors of homes and businesses, although I don’t know if anyone still throws them into a St John’s fire.  In Massachusetts, the tulips and forsythia are out, the bleeding hearts are starting to bloom, and soon the lilacs will open, filling the air with their beauty and perfume.  But today I gathered a small bouquet of May flowers and remembered the years gone by.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Child Beggars in India

(I originally wrote this post in January of 2009 when I was back from an unforgettable trip to India and my blog  "A Rolling Crone" was just beginning.  It proved to be one of the most widely read of my posts  and also rather controversial, as I will explain in a note at the end.  Since I'm presently in New York City working against a couple of writing deadlines I am (again) re-posting one of my earliest essays, hoping to reach a larger audience than I did in 2009.  As always, I welcome comments from those who may be more informed about what's happening in India now, four years after I was there.)

Everyone who has not yet seen the film “Slumdog Millionaire” should do so at once. It’s an unrealistic fairy tale with an unlikely feel-good ending, but it graphically illustrates the lives of the countless millions of India’s children who live on the street with only one concern: “How will I manage to find enough to eat today so that I’ll be alive tomorrow?”

Everywhere you go in India you will find beggars. This is particularly true in the large cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Mumbai is a city of 18 MILLION people and HALF of those people are homeless. That means that they live on the streets or in shacks made of tin or cardboard. A night-time drive from the airport in Delhi to Agra gave insights into these hovels and the families who consider home to be a piece of the median strip of the highway. It took an hour just to drive out of the city on a road that was jammed with rickshaws, camels, sacred cows and many, many beggars.

Frommer’s Guide to India in the “Mumbai” section deals with the problem of beggars: ”Families of beggars will twist and weave their way around the cars at traffic lights, hopping and even crawling to your window with displays of open wounds, diseased sores, crushed limbs, and starving babies, their hollow eyes imploring you for a few life-saving rupees…. In the worst of these tales of horror, children are maimed to up the ante by making them appear more pathetic. The choice is stark: Either lower the window and risk having a sea of unwelcome faces descend on you, or stare ahead and ignore them. To salve your conscience tip generously those who have made it onto the first rung of employment”

In India you quickly steel yourself to the crowds of children who are grabbing your arm, knocking on the window of your car, thrusting flowers into your pockets, repeating endlessly the only words of English they know: “Hello Madame, food, hungry, money, please, eat…”

If you give any of them money or even move toward your pocket or purse, their number suddenly increases tenfold and you cannot move for all the hands clutching at you.

In Mumbai, just outside our hotel, when we walked onto the shopping street of Colava Causeway, lined with stores on the right and street sellers’ booths on the left, all shouting their wares, there were two families of children who were particularly aggressive, following us for blocks, especially a girl of about 11 who kept thrusting flowers onto me anywhere they would stick, and her little brother who seemed to have no adult watching him as he skittered in front of us. I was so annoyed by them constantly clutching at me, but then one night, returning home about 11:30, I saw the family sound asleep on the sidewalk, the children curled into the prone body of their mother, and I felt guilt-stricken. The next day, before I left, I managed to give the girl a hundred rupees without anyone else noticing, and instead of unleashing a crowd on me, she grabbed it, grinned and ran. (It was worth only about $2.00 but that was probably a good day’s income to her.)

The beautiful and sad little girl from Jodhpur in the photo above, who was dressed and painted to look like a Hindu goddess, has a good gimmick, because the Hindu religion emphasizes giving money and food to holy persons as well as to sacred cows. On every street you can see poor Indians putting necklaces of flowers on the ubiquitous cows and feeding them. They also share their food with the bearded sadhus (holy men) dressed only in saffron loin cloths. These holy men live entirely on charity, renouncing all their worldly goods. Feeding them, like feeding the cows, is good karma for the Indians.

The little girls along the Ganges who sell small candles nestled in leaf-bowls are not strictly beggars – they’re actually young entrepreneurs, because everyone who comes to the Ganges wants to sail these candles into the river as an offering (as we did.) At night the boys in their rowboats row the pilgrims and tourists into large log-jams of boats gathered to watch the priests do their twilight fire worshipping on shore and the children selling floral chains, candles and pots of tea scramble agilely from one boat to another.

The children in India who manage to learn decent English are miles ahead of the ones who don’t—because they can move themselves and their families out of poverty and a life on the streets. All the tourists we saw – Japanese, Russian, Italian, Australian – use English as the lingua franca.

We hired Mark, a young man about 18—when we encountered him in Varanasi in a craft store that caters to tourists. His business card said he drove a rowboat and because his English was good, we booked him (at the usual rate of 150 rupees per person per hour) for a dawn trip down the Ganges the next morning.

As Mark paddled through the fog and darkness while the river woke up and the faithful began to bathe themselves and their cattle and their laundry, I asked him if the little girls who sold the candles went to school. He said all but one of them did – her parents couldn’t afford the 300 rupees ($6.00) per month that school cost. He also said that he personally was paying for one child to go to school. I learned that Mark was supporting his entire family of two parents and seven children with his three jobs (rowboat guide, craft store salesman and factory worker.) His father, formerly a carpenter, had TB. His mother had to stay home and care for his six younger siblings.

The biggest surprise was that Mark told us he, himself, despite his impressive business cards, could not read or write. “But how did you learn such good English?” we asked.

“From tourists in the store” he replied. If Mark had the leisure to go to school and become literate, he would probably become the Donald Trump of Varanasi.

I would like to find a philanthropy through which I could sponsor one or two children in India at six dollars a month to attend school rather than begging in the streets. (I already sponsor children through Plan but that goes to the community in Nepal not to the children themselves.) I’ve been googling, trying to find such a philanthropy with access to Indian children, but without any luck so far, so if you have any suggestions, write me at joanpgage@yahoo.com.

It’s really appalling that a country like India, which is now enjoying a huge boom in industry and technical know-how; a country that has a very wealthy class evident in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, cannot manage to provide free schooling for the millions of Indian children who live on the streets.

 One reader of the original blog post has repeatedly posted the same criticism of my article, that says in part: "england simply sucked on indias blood no literacy nothing all other factors are repurcussions to the first add to it politics and corruption and u get child beggary whatever this might be.  one very morally inhumane thing is tourist taking pictures of indian beggars to make a mockery . if u can help .help ...if u cant atleast dont spread hopelessness".  

In my defense, I'd like to tell him --(somehow I suspect it's a "him")-- that three years ago, when two friends of mine went to Varanasi, I sent with them multiple copies of the "Ganges girls" photos above to give to the girls along with money, because I suspected the girls owned no photos of themselves.  Whenever I'm photographing children in poor countries, I don't do it to mock them, I do it to celebrate their spunk and beauty--and I try to make sure that they receive copies of the photos. In every case, as with the Ganges girls, the photographs were received with great joy.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Living and Dying on The Cell Phone

Photo-Getty Images

Yesterday I was in the waiting room of a doctor’s office when the receptionist got a call from her son, 40 miles away at the end of the Boston Marathon.  “He says there were two explosions at the finish line,” she reported.  “I told him there’s nothing about it yet on the computer.”

He’d called to tell her he was all right. When I got home from the doctor, I sat down in front of CNN and watched, transfixed, for the next six hours or so.  I knew a number of people—all much younger than myself—who might have been there.  My daughter who lives in San Francisco and used to live in Boston called me when she got out of work.  She and her friends were at the finish line of last year’s Marathon. I told her that the cell phone service was down in the area surrounding the blast.  Some TV announcers said this was due to overload..  Runners were calling family members and vice-versa.  Where were they?  What had just happened?  Were they okay? The fears mounted as the hours wore on without answers.

Then some people on the TV began saying that phone service had been cut in the area of the attack to prevent more bombs from being detonated, in case the first two had been set off by a cell phone.   (It seems now, about 20 hours later, that the two bombs that went off were not that sophisticated, but rather primitive bombs using a “timing device” instead of cell phone signals.)

When their cell phone calls didn’t work, people my kids’ age turned to texting and Twitter and Facebook.  Last night, as I looked at my own Facebook page, I, and everybody else, read about nearly miraculous survivals—like one of my Pilates instructors, running for charity, who wrote:  “I finished right before it happened. Jon and 3 kids cleared out of grandstands with 3 minutes to spare. Thank you God...so much.”

Here’s another post I saw on Facebook last night, posted by one Lexi Gilligan, evidently a student at Tufts along with the blonde girl in the photo who was holding two thumbs up, named Jaymi Cohen.  What Lexi wrote under the photo was: “So, so thankful my best friend is doing well after surviving a bombing, hospitalization, tons of stitches and a FBI investigation—And she still looks beautiful after.  Love you Jay!”

Then there’s the ghastly graphic photo, posted several times on Facebook, of the runner who’s had both legs blasted off below the knee, except for one long protruding bone.  (I didn’t post this photo—nor did any of the papers or magazines I saw ---because it’s so horrific—but it’s all over the internet.)  The desperately wounded runner is being pushed in a wheelchair by three good samaritans, who are at the same time putting pressure on his legs so he doesn’t bleed to death before reaching the hospital.  One of them, wearing a cowboy hat, is Carlos Arredondo, an immigrant who lost a son in Iraq and now is a peace activist.  He is one of the many bystanders who, after the second explosion, ran towards the victims instead of away. As someone commented on the photo: “He’s actually pinching this man’s femoral artery closed with his bare hands.  Honorary citizenship for this guy!” Carlos was also photographed later holding an American flag, his jacket splashed with the blood of the people he aided.

Carlos Arredondo is only one of the heroes of this massacre, whom I feel I know personally after watching their courage and humanity on Facebook, internet , TV, and cell phone.

I am so old that I remember when every telephone was connected to a wall and had a rotating dial. (I even remember phones with party lines and phones you had to crank to get the operator’s attention!)

When I was growing up, there was no way to check on absent loved ones.  When I traveled around Europe in the summer of my 18th year, the only way to communicate with my parents was by letter—I would pick up theirs at American Express offices in various cities.  When my youngest daughter lived in France during a junior year abroad, traveled to Amsterdam and then dropped out of sight for four days, I became hysterical, convinced she was dead, until she finally found a way to call home.

Now, thanks to our ever- present cell phones and internet, we can share our tragedies as they are happening and also reassure loved ones that we’re okay.  Thanks to the cameras in our smart phones, we can bear witness to instances of heroism, and perhaps record something that will help the FBI find clues to the murderer who planted yesterday’s bombs in the knapsacks. 

When hope is gone, as happened with the victims of 9/11, we can say, “good bye” and “I love you”.  The downside of this instantaneous connection is all the rumors, bad information and paranoid fantasies that can be transmitted from witnesses to cell phones to internet to TV screen within seconds, as happened yesterday.  This is where journalists must come in—to double check the facts and stop the rumors. 

But every time evil springs up and takes innocent lives, in this age of instant universal communication, I think the good of the cell phone outweighs the bad.  The Boston Marathon bombings will be remembered not for the perpetrator, but for the way the throng of people, gathered in Boston from around the world, ran toward the explosions and tore down the fences to help the victims, instead of running away.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Scary Skinny Airbrushed Models & Bratz Dolls

(I originally posted this on October 26, 2009, when "A Rolling Crone" had just begun. In the years since then, it has received nearly six thousand hits, which I assume means that a lot of women agree with me on this issue.  Because I have some writing deadlines staring me in the face this coming week and no time to write a new post, I decided to re-post this one, to see if you feel advertisers and fashion magazines --and the toy industry-- have evolved over the past years and are now presenting more realistic images of the female body.

You’ve probably seen the bizarre airbrushed photo of model Filippa Hamilton (above left) used in a Ralph Lauren ad that makes her look like some sort of Giacometti stick figure. It appeared in Japan, then was picked up on blogs like Boing Boing. (It was a blog called “Photoshop Disasters” that posted it first. Then the Ralph Lauren company tried to make them take it down, citing copyright infringement.) A blogger commenting on the image wrote “Dude, her head is bigger than her pelvis!’

After a while the company pulled the ad and declared: "It was mistakenly released and used in a department store in Japan and was not the approved image which ran in the U.S. We take full responsibility. This error has absolutely no connection to our relationship with Filippa Hamilton."

They didn’t mention that in April, Filippa was fired by Ralph Lauren because, according to the model herself, they said that, at 5’10” tall and 120 pounds, she was too fat to fit in Ralph Lauren’s clothes!

In the end, the Lauren company ended up with egg on their collective face and women everywhere are complaining about the grotesque body shape that the company seems to be demanding in their models.

Then somebody found another airbrushed model in a Ralph Lauren ad. It’s the woman in the silver outfit above.

You would think that, after all the brouhaha, ad agencies would backpedal on airbrushing their models into stick figures. But just the other day I received an ad in the mail from Ann Taylor (I have an account there) and it seems to me that the women in that ad (wearing the black outfits above) have been airbrushed into impossibility.

I’ve taken countless life drawing classes during which I’ve drawn naked bodies, male and female, of all ages and sizes. When I see images like the women above, it makes me wince—clearly there’s no room for the requisite vital organs inside them. The bodies in the ads remind you of concentration camp victims, but the over-large heads, with big wide-apart eyes and little pointy chins, resemble children. (In a baby, the head is about one third the body length. In an adult, it’s about one-sixth. And big wide eyes and plump cheeks add to the baby look.)

Then, the other day, I read that Steve Madden, who created a fantasy cartoon woman for the ads that sell his shoes, is suing Mattel, the maker of the hugely popular Bratz dolls, for copyright infringement.

As you can see from the Steve Madden ads above, both he and the Bratz Dolls feature baby-faced pouting women with huge heads and grotesque stick-figure bodies.

I’m beginning to think that a dangerous and bizarre standard of beauty is creeping into the public consciousness.

Remember the era of Twiggy in the late sixties? She also had a very babyish face on a long skinny body, but today, with the new standards of beauty, we’re being sold an even more immature and impossible role model.

And little girls playing happily with their sullen Bratz dolls are going to absorb this standard of beauty, without realizing that no one but a cartoon can look like this and survive.

Remember when all feminists decried the effects of Barbie with her huge breasts and teeny tiny waist? At least she looked as if she ate once in a while.

Meanwhile, I keep reading that America’s children are suffering an epidemic of obesity because they don’t go outside and play anymore, they just sit in front of the TV set.

Today’s New York Times (Oct. 26) cited an article soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research that “explores the self-esteem among women looking at pictures of models.” One of the results of the research, not surprisingly, was that “women with normal body-mass indexes had low self-esteem when looking at very thin or at moderately heavy models.”

I don’t know why they have to pay researchers to come up with results like these! It stands to reason that women (and even more so, little girls) when exposed to impossibly thin images of models like those above (and the Bratz dolls) will have low self esteem and will aspire to look like anorexic skeletal victims with large heads and baby faces set in a perpetual sullen, vacant stare, caused, no doubt, by being on the verge of starvation.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Tale of Three Wedding Gowns


The other day, on the track of some photos I took when we were living in Greece in the seventies, I dragged out of the closet two sealed cardboard boxes containing all our un-sorted family photographs from that decade.  Although I didn't find what I wanted, I unearthed a treasure that I didn't think existed -- a photo of my parents dressed for their wedding in August of 1932.

I had heard stories of the sweltering day when my Minnesota-born father arrived–landing in a Kansas cornfield in the small private plane flown by his (rich) brother-in-law Millard, who was to be his best man.  The wedding took place in the church of my mother’s father, a Presbyterian minister, in Oswego, Kansas, and then the reception was held in the church hall or in the rectory next door where my mother had grown up.

I was always told that the amateur photos someone took didn’t come out, so the bride and groom had to re-stage the event. But many details in this photo seem authentic to the wedding day—the three white calla lilies my mother told me she carried, and the look of terror in their eyes.  My mother (Martha Dobson Paulson) is wearing a Juliet cap, I think it’s called, a drifty veil and a bias-cut long white satin dress that looked like a slip or a nightgown.  The photo doesn’t really show the gown, but I remember, when I was about 10 or 12 years old, finding the dress in a trunk.  Naturally I tried to put it on but, even as a child, I was too wide to pull it over my hips. (My mother struggled all her life with being underweight.) 

I assume that this dress was made for Martha either by one of her sisters (there were seven girls in the family—all talented at sewing) or by her mother, Anna Truan Dobson, who gave quilting and sewing lessons as well as teaching French and piano.  There was not enough money, I suspect, in the salary of a minister with nine children to buy a wedding gown, even if there had been an appropriate store in Oswego, Kansas.

 Finding that photo reminded me of buying my own wedding gown in New York in the summer of 1970.   I was making about  $100 a week as a journalist, and shopped my way down Fifth Avenue, until I got to Lord & Taylor on Fifth and 38th.   The matronly saleslady in the bridal department brought out what I recognized as The Dress as soon as I tried it on.  It was a sample, worn by a model, in a size six. (In those days models wore sizes six and eight. It’s not that models have become thinner over the years, it’s that the definition of a size six and eight have changed.  Now models wear sizes zero and two.)

This dress was everything I wanted—it had lots of lace and a modest neckline and long sleeves. (In those days no bride would dare to wear a strapless dress in church.) It had a lace-edged train and buttons all down the back. And because it had been worn, I could buy it at half price--$250 instead of the original $500!

The headpiece—a circular lace-covered ring with a short veil of tulle with unfinished edges—cost me only $30 because I had it made by one of those milliners working out of a cubby hole somewhere in the fashion district around Seventh Avenue.  The sort of open pill-box shape was my private homage to Jacqueline Kennedy

I already knew which photographer I would use for the formal wedding portrait--Jay Te Winburn, a society photographer who became famous for his shots of Brenda Frazier, the debutante of the year in 1938. Brenda eventually became so notorious for her social status and peculiar beauty-- her white-powdered face and crimson lips--that she and her debut appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in the midst of the Depression.  She lived a tumultuous life as the epitome of the “poor little rich girl”, and before she died at the age of 60 in 1982—in fact when she was only 45 years old—photographer Diane Arbus took a photo of her propped up in bed with a cigarette in her hand and a fur wrap around her shoulders, looking haggard and old:  a cautionary tale for all debutantes.  

I chose Winburn because he took only black and white photographs, using only natural sunlight that poured through the windows of his second-floor studio on 57th street.  When I posed for him in my princess-style dress (everyone had a princess-style wedding gown in the early ‘70’s) he said to me, “That headpiece is not worthy of the dress.” I knew he was right, but I couldn’t afford a better one.   He also told me that I was to be one of his last brides, as he was retiring. True or not, I always like to say I was the last Jay Te Winburn bride.  

In those days The New York Times wedding pages would use formal portraits of the bride, not snapshots of the happy couple in a casual pose.  And when I collected mine, I was proud to see  “Jay Te Winburn Jr.” on each one in his miniscule script.

When daughter Eleni broke the news to me in June of 2010 that she was planning to be married in Greece, and that the wedding was only four months away, she added that we had an appointment to go shopping in Manhattan at one of the only two places in New York where a bridal gown could be bought off the rack. It was called The Bridal Garden and we found it on the ninth floor of a grim industrial-looking building on 21st Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

The gowns in the vast suite were all samples, most of them worn once by models and then donated by the store or by the designers themselves.  All of the gowns are sold for a fraction of what they’d cost at retail, and all the proceeds go to charity—to a charter school in Bedford Stuyvesant.

There were two other bride-plus-Mom couples there, shopping with the efficient help of salesladies Winona and Vivienne. Eleni found The Dress within ninety minutes, a vision in point d’esprit lace with a halter neckline and a beautiful lace-edged hem and train (like mine).  And on her wedding day on 10/10/10, she carried calla lilies --as did my mother in 1932-- but Eleni’s were miniature and flame-colored.  Her lace mantilla was a vast improvement over the headdresses that her mother and grandmother wore.

When Eleni made her selection, the salesladies told her the dress was unique—it had arrived from Barcelona, Spain, only a week before, donated by the designer, Rosa Clara, and it was immaculate, having never been worn.  (Dresses that have been soiled are cleaned by the Bridal Garden’s special dry cleaner for $250—a bargain price today, but back in 1970, $250 was what I paid for my whole dress.)

Winona said that most brides, when they find The Dress, get a particular expression, a “bride face”, when they see themselves in the mirror.  Eleni was wearing her “bride face”, and when she twisted up her hair and Winona placed a simple veil on her head, I felt my eyes fill with tears, just like all the other MOB’s who come to The Bridal Garden.

Eleni wrote a check to pay for her own dress—less than half the price it would have cost in Barcelona, and all for a good cause.  Then we headed off to a French restaurant nearby, to have lunch and raise a glass of wine to the One Perfect Dress. 

Soon it would be flown back across the ocean to Corfu, where it would be topped by a Spanish- style mantilla, posed on a red staircase, and worn in an open, horse-drawn carriage to a Catholic Church for the first wedding mass, then paraded around the town square, escorted by musicians and costumed troubadours, to a Greek Orthodox church for a second ceremony. Then it was walked down cobblestone steps to the edge of the sea, below an ancient fortress, to the Corfu Sailing Club, where it would  twirl to “You’re Just Too Good to Be True”, and finally, lit by sparklers and a shower of good wishes, would sail away from the shore into the moonlit sea of the future.

Three generations of wedding gowns, each with its own tale.