Where is that hope?

August 20, 2017 — 2 Comments

Work brought us to America in 1997. The suggestion had been presented a number of times in the previous years, but we had demurred. Not because we did not want to relocate – I had by that time lived in ten countries and my husband in six.

A panoply of color and creeds surrounded me and I did not know what segregation was, though at a fundamental level I knew I was privileged. My classmates were Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, animists.

My husband had been traveling to the US for many years but it was not a country I had ever wanted to visit, let alone live. Stories of inherent racism permeated the international arena, in some ways more offensive even than South Africa’s apartheid, because America was meant to be the brave new world where all men are born equal.

But years pass, times change and hope is always present.

We came to America with excitement tinged naturally with trepidation. Houston was to be our city. We chose our neighborhood based on schools and proximity to work but had not taken into account the politics and color of the area and had, unwittingly, chosen a white Republican enclave.

It did not take long to realize I was not considered to be in the middle of the political spectrum – a line I had straddled comfortably for years. I had in a few short weeks become a staunch Democrat. But it’s a big and beautiful country and we came to love it, flaws and all. Our Green Cards arrived as we relocated to Equatorial Guinea in West Africa where we lived for nearly three years.

On our return to the US we decided to stay put for the requisite five years so we could gain citizenship. I was able to write “The President lives in the White House” in order to pass my English test. We had our date to swear allegiance to the flag.

We had filled in the forms, waited our time, paid our money to get to this point – there had never been any real concern that we would not be granted citizenship. Gazing around the packed tiers of the sports arena of a high school in north Houston I was humbled. People of all nationalities were waiting, and a great many of them had sweated and cried to be in that courtroom-for-a-day.

We were all becoming American. We were signing up, as Paul Krugman wrote in a recent New York Times op ed piece, to become part of a “multiracial, multicultural land of great metropolitan areas as well as small towns”.

But here’s the thing, before we got to that point on April 19th, 2010, we, all of us in that auditorium waiting to raise our right hands and pledge the Oath of Allegiance, had to swear we had never been, nor would become, affiliated to any organization that might harm the United States.

Us new Americans promised old Americans to abide by the laws, to live up to the ideals of equality and basic human rights, to respect the values of decent people irrespective of their color, where their ancestors or they came from, or their religious affiliations. And with the exception of handfuls, I believe most of us live by that credo.

But what about those born American? The flag might be raised in school yards and the Pledge of Allegiance sworn in rote each morning but what about the disengaged men and women who have forgotten, or reinterpreted, those words? What about those who spew hatred at anyone who does not believe white is might?

I find myself, as a relatively new and proud American, thrown back to the those days of reluctance. Those days of not wanting to live in a country where the color of skin, or what is worn on the head – whether it’s a hijab or a turban or a yarmulke – labels people in the eyes of the ignorant and angry as unAmerican.

And I find myself sad and despairing at the arrogance and nepotism emanating from that great White House. The days before rage and intolerance flew from vitriolic tweets, the days before innocent people on the street were mown down by bigotry and fanaticism.

Where is that hope? Where are those heady days of proud to be American, old or new?

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Not On Your Nelly!

August 8, 2017 — Leave a comment

Arriving at the gates of Mala Mall game reserve on the edge of the Kruger National Park our entry was blocked by a matriarch and her herd. The elephants milled around, massive Africa-shaped ears flapping to keep themselves cool, some trunks were raised in a trumpet voluntary, and tusks gleamed as young calves were nudged to order. We watched and waited, awed, until they lumbered off, trampling the thorny acacia bushes in their path.

Nellies, as they are known in our family, have long fascinated me. There is a magnificence to their stolid wanderings across a savannah or through a forest, to their stoicism and familial loyalties. That is until riled, when their rage is tremendous.

Nellies

Photo by Apple Gidley

Sometimes, in order to preserve both the health of the herd and the environment on which they depend, humane culling must be done. In African lore, when an elephant is killed, the tail is cut off as a sign of respect for the animal, and if a little cash can be made on the side, well who cares? That is where, purportedly, the elephant hair is obtained for the entwined bracelets so enamoured by tourists. A cheaper memento option than ivory but no less of an incentive to poachers.

Whilst I may not like to hear about the culling, what really sickens me is the mindless and cruel slaughter of any wild animal for their tusks, whether to be made into jewelry or ornaments or used by men ever hopeful of enhanced sexual prowess.

And yet the recent public crushing of two tons of ivory in New York’s Central Park did little to alleviate my disgust of the trade in ivory, or belief it will have an effect. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, more than 270 tons have been destroyed around the world in an attempt to discourage poaching, to send a strong message that laws in place to ban the trade will be adhered to.

I wonder though is this a knee-jerk reaction to the sight of bloodied carcasses, tusks wickedly carved from these aged and knowing faces ?

Should we not instead be debunking the cultural beliefs that magic cures lie in those majestic tusks or rhino horns? Educate the young, both in Africa, Asia and the West, that senseless killing endangers not only the animals existence but also the environment.

As reported by the Associated Press, Tiffany & Co, who were involved with the Wildlife Conservation Society in the recent New York spectacle, say “no price justifies slaughtering elephants for their tusks.” But does crushing tons of ivory, often pieces many hundreds of years old and of great beauty and cultural significance, really discourage that criminal element?

I would argue it does not. By all means crush tusks that have been newly harvested – in that way those actually involved in the gruesome trade are immediately impacted financially, and the incentive lost. Of course laws must be enforced and poachers given severe punishments for their cruelty. Of course the law should go after the grey and greedy money men and women trading, and also the law should go after the end user with far higher fines and penalties including significant jail time, along with public shaming.

And trading in ivory antiquities should be highly taxed. But to destroy art fashioned many years ago, in an age before much of the world knew of the horrors and environmental impact the ivory trade caused, is to my mind an act of public appeasement.

We cannot rewrite history, despite our desire to purge the memory of the cruel and inhumane treatments meted out to both humans and animals. We must never erase the past because to do so lessens its importance on our future. Instead we must build on it. What was acceptable to many of our forefathers is not now. We are more informed now, and have a greater awareness of the fragility of the world around us, but to destroy art and artefacts takes away some of those lessons of bygone eras and ancient cultures..

There is a place for ivory and rhino horn pieces. The same way there is a place for statues and art deemed offensive because of modern sensitivities. Museums and private collections open to the public are the repository for the world’s cultural history and art, good and bad. We visit them to be educated, enriched and yes sometimes horrified, but only with awareness and learning of our past will perceptions and cultures change.

Last year I interviewed a delightful octogenarian, Raymond Feldman, who’s had a stall at the London Silver Vaults for 62 years. Each sale, whether to Sean Connery, or the then Crown Prince of Thailand, or a grandmother from Bermondsey looking for something small for her first grandchild, is recorded in a black ledger along with thank you letters, receipts and requests. Silver naturally is his passion. Sometimes old pieces, a tea set maybe or sword, had ivory incorporated in the design. Mr Feldman stopped visiting trade shows or sending items to the US when customs officials started ripping off ivory adornments, thereby destroying these works of art, some of them almost priceless.

“How does destroying art help anyone?” he asked, suggesting instead we should be learning from it.

Netsuke, for example. First made in 17th century Japan, netsuke were the toggle, in effect miniature sculptures, made from bone, or jade or ivory to which were attached small containers, sagemono, hung on a cord from the obi, or sash, which in turn kept the pocketless kimono respectably tied.

Crushing and burning inanimate stacks of ivory and rhino horn in Central Park offers a powerful image, but a more horrifying image, and much longer lasting, would be to show pictures of mutilated elephant and rhino to the public, including our teens. Those teens are the guardians of the future. Show them the source of those trinkets. Debunk the myths of greater health and bedroom stamina.

For our grandchildren to step bravely into the world they must know their past, and understand the beauty and, sometimes, the gore of art while decrying and disallowing the continuation of such cruel practices.

And they must have a chance to see nellies in the wild.

https://blog.internations.org/2017/07/the-greatest-reasons-to-love-life-abroad/

Thanks to Internations. org – it was fun!

Bonnie and Clyde

July 17, 2017 — 1 Comment

Bonnie.jpgClyde.jpg

As requested – I introduce Bonnie and Clyde!

Along Came Clyde

July 14, 2017 — 7 Comments

Dejected and rejected strays have always found us. And so it was on the 29th December 2016 that Bonnie appeared. A harried waiter shooed a bundle of matted fur from an establishment on the Boardwalk in St Croix and as his booted foot moved I shouted, “Leave it, I’ll take it.” The ‘it’ concerned was a black kitten, so emaciated we couldn’t tell its sex. Carrying it home was like holding a bag of chewed chicken bones. Closer inspection found it’s gums and tongue to be white, it’s last vestige of energy gone in a final scurry from terror and pain.

A night spent with it sleeping on my chest was a night of sad shuddering breaths. But as morning tickled the hills pink and mauve it rallied and a frantic rush to the vet, an immediate blood transfusion and a number of nights in the clinic found it beginning to thrive.

Bonnie is deaf. Now, I don’t know if you’ve tried but training a deaf cat is tricky. She does not hear the crash and tinkle of broken glass or crockery. She does not hear the panicked shouts of “don’t” as she crouches ready to pounce on some imagined intruder flitting across her line of vision – a shadow maybe traversing a coffee table laden with glasses. But the purrs and kneading make up for the mounting breakages.

We joked that a dog would be a good companion – something to look out for her.

Then along came Clyde – our Trinidadian pot hound – though he almost didn’t make the flight. All entirely my fault. A miscommunication, a missed email and a near total fiasco. It was 2:30pm on a Friday afternoon, the day before I was due to travel to America – a day sandwiched between a public holiday on Thursday and another on Monday. Fortunately that island nation at the bottom of the Caribbean chain pulled out the stops – helped by the unwavering fortitude of my daughter behind the wheel of a car in Port of Spain’s notorious traffic.

In despair at gridlocked vehicles ahead I leapt from the car and made my jagged way along two city blocks, down a side street and burst into the Department of Agriculture. My breathing akin to bagpipes being primed, my hair plastered in grey and purple streaks to my neck and with sweat pouring down my face, I waved TT$5 in the receptionists face – words were hard to come by. To her credit she did not shy away from the mad woman babbling at her about a chop needed from Trinidad’s chief vet in order to get an export licence for a puppy from a trash heap in Cedros.

In remarkable short order the stamp was obtained and with groveling thanks I ran out to Kate and my granddaughters waiting in the car. There followed a mad dash down the freeway to the next government office where the actual licence could be obtained, normally in two to three days.

A stern, uniformed woman of East Indian descent looked me up and down from her perch behind a desk guarding entrance to the inner sanctum, and shook her head.

“Your shoulders are bare. You cannot enter a government building dressed in this way.”

Said shoulders slumped.

“And your feet. You do not have enclosed shoes.”

Begging, and I think with a glimmer of tears, I garbled an explanation, assuring her I meant no disrespect and that everything that could be my fault, was my fault. Her features softened and breaking into a crooked tooth grin and taking my hand, she said,

“Come. I will take you.”

Apologising profusely for my lack of correct attire to the disinterested young man tugging idly at his wispy beard, I felt my heart sink. And then he too smiled.

“You have the chop?” He asked, taking the papers from my damp hand. “Sit. It will take time.”

Twenty minutes later I was out the door. 24 hours later Clyde and I were on the plane with a glass of wine. Well, me anyway.

Global Entry allows a saunter through immigration with barely a missed step. At Customs I was told to wait for my suitcase to be delivered, when baggage, canine and I would be escorted to animal control.

I waited. And some more. Two cats and a dog, a yappy little thing, who came after us were ushered away with their owners and luggage. And then the dreaded words. Your suitcase does not seem to be here. Go through, then report it to the airline. Clyde and I were by this time eager to find some grass, and we scurried along to a woman standing sentry, her tan uniform bursting at the seams.

“Medical papers. Rabies certificate.”

After wishing her a good morning – it was 5am – I explained the latter was not needed as the animal in question was under three months and Trinidad and Tobago was a rabies free country.

“Every dog coming to the US must have a rabies certificate. It is on the CDC website.”

In the politest possible manner I disagreed, feeling beholden to point out Trinidad had been rabies free since 1917, which was more than could be said for Texas.

Her pink talons jabbing the air near my face, her voice strident, I was informed the puppy could not enter the US and would be returned from whence he came, on the next flight.

Calmly I told her he was already in the country – don’t play semantics with a writer – and that I would like to speak to her supervisor. A muted conversation took place between the taloned one and a pleasant-looking woman, presumably her superior, and we were waved through with the words, “I misspoke. You can go.”

The lost luggage ground staff were equally unhelpful, refusing to believe my explanation given over Clyde’s keening, that Customs had my baggage tags. About to lose my final shred of civility, we were all saved by an apologetic skycap hauling my case.

At least he had a smile. And Clyde was welcomed to America.

The Day That Was!

June 14, 2017 — 1 Comment

The monsoon season has made itself felt on and off all day and the frog song and cricket chorale are in full voice. They are the sounds of my childhood and transport me back to Africa and Asia. Tonight though I am in Trinidad. I am revelling in the symphony that surrounds me, interspersed with the occasional car being driven as if it is the circuit at Le Mans and not a narrow road meandering through Cascade, Port of Spain,

It has been a long day. It started at 5:30 with a warm little body snuggling up to me. My granddaughter likes her morning snuggles. We have reached an accord. I will cuddle but will not budge from bed until 6, when her little tummy sounds the alarm for breakfast. Who needs reveille? My other granddaughter meanwhile was glued to the iPad watching Jessie, a fairly innocuous program about a Texan nanny, a butler, and various children of different ethnicities all living in a penthouse in New York. I have yet to figure out where the parents are.

Which brings me to my granddaughter’s mother. My daughter, Kate. She is in London finessing the art of pole fitness in preparation for teaching it, along with classical ballet and Pilates – once her residency status is confirmed. Hopefully a rubber stamp as she is married to a Trinidadian. I am therefore helping out with the children so my son-in-law can earn a daily crust.

But I was telling you about my long day.

Not only am I responsible for two little beings. Getting them to school and nursery, along with packed lunches, water bottles, homework for one and any other seemingly extraneous necessity by 8 each morning, I am also playing Gigi to two dogs, a cat and a goldfish. I managed to kill the other goldfish, though in my defense little Johnny did not look well when I arrived.

Now I love animals and am a firm believer in children growing up with them. Responsibility and respect is taught, not to mention the sheer joy of pets. I was prepared for two grandchildren, one dog, one cat and two goldfish. The puppy was an unintended addition. Kate is a soft touch for waifs and strays – and days before my arrival they found an orphan pot hound on a trash heap at Cedros, in the south of the island. He was injured, riddled with worms and starving. She would not be my daughter had she left him to die.

The puppy, of indeterminate parenthood, is sweet natured. Their elderly Staffordshire is a dear and loving dog with humans and, strangely, the family cat, but any other dog, or gecko, or balloon, or kite is an anathema to his doggy psyche. This being the case, two days of a newly energetic and irritating puppy was enough to make him snap. Fortunately Buddy did not go for the jugular but rather a firm bite to the belly, puncturing the puppy’s little abdomen.

A tearful daughter on the phone before I left Houston, and she left Port of Spain, and I  found myself calming her down with the words, “I’ll take him. He can come and live in Houston with Bonnie.” I should add here that Bonnie is a deaf kitten I rescued from certain drowning off the Boardwalk in St Croix.

In order to keep the peace, and the vet’s bills to a minimum, we – my long-suffering son-in-law, the children and I – have had to come up with a system of separation. One dog in, one dog out. One dog in the loo, one in the kitchen. Meal times are tricky. Both dogs love cat food and loiter with intent if they have managed to avoid capture and / or expulsion, whenever the cat, Jax, tries to eat his kibble. Meanwhile Lilly swims in solitary circles waiting for fish fodder.

By 7 am this morning, I had brokered a peace treaty between feuding granddaughters, cleaned up the cat’s vomit and the puppy’s poo from the welcome mat. I did mention it is the monsoon season and this puppy from the rubbish dump, in a matter of weeks, has rejected rough living and will not perform his ablutions in the rain.

The school run was accomplished with little fuss, both girls loving their respective places of learning and, as I waited for the gate securing me from the perils of Port of Spain to click shut, I decided I had earned a cup of coffee on the verandah.

It is my favourite spot in my daughter’s house – it’s where I’m sitting now – and as I sank into a chair with my steaming café au lait and the last of the brownies, I patted myself on the proverbial shoulder at a morning managed.

I phoned a friend. Our conversation was though abruptly cut off and the reason for the vomitting cat became clear. The other half of the ingested fledgling was clenched, vise-like, between the puppy’s needle-sharp teeth. Refusing to play ‘pull ‘with poor mangled creature, I tossed a squeaky toy and distracted Clyde long enough to retrieve the remains.

Twelve hours after this last incident, I am enjoying a large bourbon and water, listening to the timbre of the tropics and thinking how lucky I am. Between bodily functions and dead birds, we have painted plant pots, played pairs, flipped omelettes for supper and read The Little Mermaid.

It has been a long day, but messy details aside, a truly lovely day!

There is a strident section of US society vehemently against abortion. They tend to be right leaning, conservative Christians. This piece though is not so much about the splutterings of people denouncing the right for women to choose whether to have a baby or not, no matter what the circumstances of conception. It is about those same people shaming teenage girls who have become pregnant.

To have or not to have a baby. Either choice is brave. More often than not the boy man involved has negligible responsibility for the outcome of their actions. His life will continue uninterrupted. But for the young woman it is a decision that will impact the rest of her life, regardless of which decision she makes.

There are of course many of those against abortion who do not fall into the category of sanctimonious prig. Who support their daughters, their nieces, their young congregants through a confused and difficult time. Who respond to a perceived shame, which can taunt and haunt the girl, with calm kindness. Who offer practical as well as spiritual guidance. I might not agree with their stance on abortion but I admire their compassion, resilience and continued beliefs.

No, my contempt is reserved for those, of any faith, who condemn a girl whether pregnant through carelessness or callousness, who decides to keep the baby then is rejected by those very same so-called believers. Adults who turn their back, who refuse to accept any responsibility for the situation. And many of these people, whether individually or through institutions and churches, do have a responsibility. I rarely advocate others taking the blame for circumstances in which we might find ourselves. But in instances like this, blame can almost certainly be spread around.

What has riled me into writing? It is the report in the New York Times about a young woman of 18 not allowed to graduate from her Christian academy with her peers, because she is pregnant. She has also been ejected from her role on the student council. She is being supported by her parents, one of whom was on the school board but has since resigned in disgust at their stand. She is also being supported by the anti-abortion group, Students for Life, whose president was quoted as saying, “There has got to be a way to treat a young woman who becomes pregnant in a graceful and loving way.”

I was curious about the syllabus of the Heritage Academy, the school in question, and so tried a number of times to get an answer to a simple question. “Does your school teach sex education?” An answer was not forthcoming and my calls and messages have not been returned, which can only lead me to believe the response would have been ‘no’.

The Heritage Academy website proudly trumpets, “Our intent is to honor Christ in every facet of our program.” They demand a signed pledge from parents to that very effect and, here’s the kicker, “….to resolve problems in accord with Scriptural principles (Matthew 18:15), avoiding gossip and contentiousness (Ephesians 4:31; Proverbs 17:14), to be forgiving (Colossians 3:13)….”

I had to look that up and in my bible it reads, “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also (do) ye.”

When will the communities who espouse such rigid strictures – that of ignorance and abstinence – and enmesh their children and charges in them, learn the world is not black and white? To recognize hypocrisy is an ugly and futile endeavour. There are no winners. Least of all the young women who might find themselves pregnant, and often alone and ostracized by the very people who are meant to be nurturing them.

Students of Heritage Academy also have to sign a pledge. It is a high-minded document – I have no idea if it is legally binding – which demands “guarding my mind against immorality, impurity, rebellion, selfishness, carnality and violence”. Do students entering in lower grades even know what half those words mean?

Demanding abstinence or, as some coyly call it, chastity, is an ineffective, idealistic form of birth control. It is a fact of teenage life – hormones rage. Missteps and mistakes are sometimes made. They are though less likely to be made if comprehensive sex education is given at the appropriate times, in the appropriate manner and to both boys and girls.

We all have a right to our own opinions, but if that view blinds us into turning our backs on pregnant girls, then shame on us all. As always there is a truth to axioms. It takes a village to raise a child.

It takes two to make a baby, it should take at least two to teach it to tango.