Saturday, November 22, 2014

WHITE LIES



My sister has been through two husbands, both tall and fair. There were children, one from each husband. They cheated on her, and she cheated on them. There was drinking. There were drugs. They'd slap Lydia around, and she'd beg forgiveness. They always took her back. Or, she took them back. It depended on the whim of the week. They did this until it played out.

"Remember that time your dad came for a visit?" Lydia said to me one day. She was in the hospital recovering from her latest beating. "I was around four."

I remembered and felt guilty all over again. He'd come for my graduation from high school. His occasional presence always sent my brother and me into father-worship hysteria. Some of it must have rubbed off on my little sister. Lydia was the sweetest kid, shy and quiet, never a problem. She hung around my father's knees, staring at him adoringly, and asked, "Can I call you daddy?"

"No," came his stern reply.

Lydia looked hurt, but she didn't cry. She never asked again, nor did she mention the incident, but her questions regarding her own father increased: the unraveling of my mother's past had been set in motion.

Lydia's birth seven years after my parents' divorce had always needed some explaining. Back then, Mom had filled in the details in her own enigmatic way. "Your daddy thought you were beautiful," she'd say to Lydia with a sigh. "But, he was a musician, and it just wasn't meant to be."

My brother and I accepted this version of the affair that produced my sister with few questions, even though Lydia looks completely different from the rest of us. Mom is a long-legged Latina, but my brother and I take after our father. We're both tall blonds. Lydia is petite and cinnamon-coffee dark with tightly curled blue-black hair.

"Your father was Sicilian," Mom said. 

We anxiously believed that somewhere below the boot of Italy, there was a whole flock of people who looked just like our sister.




"I want to find my real father," she said now, forty-five years later.

We had the name of the man Mom claimed to be Lydia's father. With the internet the rest was easy. So Lydia called this guy, Sam Gianni in Michigan and said she was his grown-up daughter in Santa Fe just calling to say Hi! Yes, he told her, he was a musician who had traveled there to play for the opera, but no, he was not aware of the birth of a daughter and what's more, he didn't remember our mother.

All hell broke loose at that point.

Sam's loss of memory regarding their affair hit Mom's vanity dead center. Her bedroom eyes snapped open, but turned hard and small in the depths. "Just like a man," she said. Her slippered feet pounded off in the direction of her bedroom, but her shoulders slumped like the little old lady she is. She refused to discuss the matter further.

A few weeks later, we went out for drinks--my little sister, Mom, and I. While sitting at the bar together, Lydia started begging for the truth. Again. 

"Who's my real father?" she said. "Why won't you tell me?"
  
"I've got a confession to make," Mom said in her smokiest storytelling voice. "Around 1966, when I was bartending at the El Corral . . . something happened." She took a slow puff of her cigarette, drawing in deeply since it's a low tar brand, her only concession to the Surgeon General's report.

"Business was slow," she continued on the exhale. The nimbus of smoke surrounding the three of us excluded everyone else at the bar; we were in our mother's world now. "I locked up early to get a head start on inventory. I was in the backroom when I heard a noise behind me." She paused here, holding Lydia's enraptured gaze.

"A black man was standing there. He said not to be afraid, that he wouldn't hurt me if I didn't scream. He emptied the cash register . . . and then he raped me." Lydia and I gasped.

Mom looked pleased. "I had been with Sam earlier that day. So, you see, I really don't know who your real father is." Lydia stared at Mom, her mouth slightly open.

It could have happened like this. Or maybe not. Mom's older sister told on her. "Your mother was dating a black guy back then. I don't know why she can't admit it." My aunt tapped her fingers and stared off into space. "He played the saxophone at the jazz club."



Sam the Sicilian's instrument was the violin.

Mom doesn't understand why it's so important to Lydia to know her father. "I was the one who took care of her," she told me. In my mother's world, the fathers and the truth are always expendable. "I know you all think I'm a bad mother," she added, a question beneath her armor.

"No, Mom, it's not that we think you're a bad mother," I said. "It's that we think you're a bad liar."


That day in the hospital with my sister I held her bruised and swollen hand, and remembered another incident from our shared past. When Lydia was five, I came home for a weekend from college. My brother and I, along with our little sister, had driven over to a shopping center to buy shoes. A demonstration for Black Power was in progress in the parking area. A lot of that went on in those days.

As I helped Lydia down from the car, a tall, very thin, and very dignified, Afro-haired young black man stepped apart from the crowd and approached us. He was carrying a stack of leaflets with various slogans printed on it. Ignoring my brother and me, he stooped low and handed Lydia one of the papers.

"Here you go, sister," he said to her.



My brother and I laughed, standing there in the hard sunlight. My memory is an unrelenting snapshot: our heads tilted back in the same way, our blond hair and strong teeth gleaming mercilessly bright above the rare blue-black luster of our sister's curly-topped head. We laughed back then, looking into each other's eyes and never told Mom, nor kept the memory alive for Lydia.

No father ever came to claim Lydia.

No son of Sicily, memory restored and classically trained, arrived to lift my sister's spirit on lofty waves of Bach or Mozart. No ebony patriarch appeared to teach my sister about her roots, dark and deep, black pride reverberating on the complex notes of his sax.


"Black is beautiful, sister," he could have told her. "Take pride."


Friday, November 07, 2014

The Homesman Is a Woman


There are Pawnees and claim jumpers, rifles and Colt Repeaters, young prostitutes waiting for customers in a saloon, and mules pulling plows in The Homesman, a western directed by Tommy Lee Jones, in which he co-stars with Hilary Swank. But the person behind the plow is Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) an old maid in the parlance of the time working her farm alone.

She’s also the one cooking the supper she serves to an eligible bachelor neighbor right before she proposes marriage. She’s still of childbearing age, has money in the bank, and their union is a logical combination for their adjoining farms. “You’re too plain and too bossy,” he tells her, right before grabbing his homemade cheese and hightailing it out of there.

There’s also plenty of sex in this movie but it’s the spread-your-legs-and-accept-my-seed variety, usually accomplished with the woman’s mom lying horrified in the same bed next to her daughter or the standing version completed in the space of time between slopping the hogs and feeding the mules. Yup, it’s a wonder all the pioneer women who traveled from the East didn’t lose their minds.

The plot revolves around madness. And loneliness. And doing the right thing. Three women went crazy not just because of the bad sex, the infant mortality, the harsh winters and the meager rations when a harvest was lost, but because all semblance of a life they’d once known lay at the bottom of a trunk full of keepsakes.

They had Faith, though, in God, in the man they’d wed, in the promise of children. Until they lost all of it along with their minds. Mary Bee isn’t like these women. Most of them were required to marry and leave their parental homes. Mary had the wherewithal to make her own choices, but she hadn’t counted on living “uncommonly alone.”

She’s the one who volunteers to be the Homesman, the person who transports the three mad mothers from Nebraska back to Iowa. They’re babbling lunatics tied up in a wood-frame wagon. The full sense of her responsibility prepares her to grab at the chance of help when she encounters George Briggs (Mr. Jones) strung up in a tree. She frees him on his promise of aid.



There is the hope of redemption for everyone: the lunatic moms who minimally respond to kindness, for Mary Bee who makes another bold move involving this new man in her life, and for Briggs, if that really is his name, who survives and tries to do right.

The Homesman is a captivating story and Tommy Lee Jones got the history right.




Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Written by Kieran Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Wesley Oliver
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, William Fichtner, Meryl Streep



Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween Interlude


Crisped whispers from the leaves above remind me that it's a SoCal fall. Gone before you know it. Some of the leaves hold on to genetic memories and defiantly turn red, but most of them have given up, yellowed and rustled a goodbye to their mates as they float down. Joey loves pissing on the dead leaves. I wait patiently for him to finish, listening to the wind stir the trees, a friendly caress.

A tiny Asian woman approaches me, smiling. “Please, you tell me where this is?” She holds up an iPhone. “The man say I turn right here.” She smiles again and asks, “Is your baby friendly?” Joey tries to sniff her iPhone. I hate it when people call him my baby. An assumption about Americans and their pets on her part, a friendly crossing of borders, I decide. 

  “He’ll just try to lick you.” She’s so small and thin, I tighten my hold on his leash in case he decides he loves her. My baby is a musclebound 75 lbs.


I stoop and peer over the top of my sunglasses at the iPhone screen. It shows a deposit slip with an address in Century City. Not here. The image revolves in the opposite direction. She tries to adjust it by squeezing her thumb and forefinger on the screen, but when she holds it up for me, it switches again. An Asian who can't control an iPhone? Interesting.
Near here, but a long walk, I say. "There’s probably a branch on Wilshire, but I don’t know exactly where." I suggest she call the bank and ask for an address. She shrugs and says she’ll look for it. She's exploring. I’m heading in the same direction so we walk together.
        
Turns out her husband is a student at UCLA in Astrophysics. She’s probably got time on her hands. I ask where she’s from.
        

She laughs. “I guess you know I’m Asian.”
        
“Right! But which brand? What country?”

China is her point of origin. She expresses surprise that there are so many Asians on the UCLA campus. No comment from me on that, but I want to know the specific focus of her husband’s research. She claims ignorance.

We stop in front of a house with the lawn jammed with inflated ghosts, ghouls and witches.



They hover, expressing nothing more than lack of inspiration. An electric hum in the background is the machine which keeps them engorged. Joey is strangely quiet, ears erect, wrinkled brow expressing his version of WTF.
Next door is more creatively decorated. Grasping skeletal hands, skulls, spiders and webs sprout out of the lawn.
“What the hell is that?” I ask Joey, gripping his leash. He whines, anxious to attack the skull which he thinks is a warped soccer ball.



“This is frightening,” my Chinese companion says. “I don’t understand. Why dead things?”

“Good question,” I say. “It has something to do with All Saint’s Day. Saints are people who died vaingloriously for some dumb reason.” Her lips part as she takes this in. Hey, diplomacy is not my strong suit.

“Are you afraid of the dead?” I ask.

“No,” she says, “but skulls not welcome, maybe lewd.”

Welcome to America!


More on All Hallows Eve: Today's Halloween customs are thought to have been influenced by folk customs and beliefs from the Celtic-speaking countries, some of which have pagan roots, and others which may be rooted in Celtic Christianity

Veneration of the Dead by various cultures: 

               

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Birdman: Existentialist Selfie

I like Alejandro G. Iñárritu's directorial work, and a movie starring Michael Keaton was a plus. A trusted friend had seen Birdman in Telluride and gave it high marks. Off to the movies!
Keaton's work has grown darker, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Would he be the antic Beetlejuice? Or, the square-jawed, somewhat reluctant patriarch of Batman? Y'know, the daddy who makes it clear that nobody else is capable of saving the world so he'll have to do it? The story rushed headlong into all the hard questions revolving around love, death and what gives life meaning, but they were overlain with the pop culture vagaries that make everything and everyone seem shallow these days.
The movie opens with Riggan (Michael Keaton) in his backstage dressing room floating cross-legged with his back to us. I rolled with it and marveled less at his yogic weightlessness than with the question of whether he knows one of his shoulders is higher than the other and if it's painful. The camera holds steady, tightening in, for perhaps the longest scene in the movie.
This was a relatively peaceful moment . . . except for the voice which irritatingly dominates Riggan. We've all heard that voice, the one telling us to doubt ourselves. Riggan is a loveless actor staking his life and reputation on Broadway in a production of Raymond Carver's, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The voice is telling him to abandon this theatrical exercise in "art" and return to the sure celebrity of his movie star roles.


Death is not a member of the cast, but Riggan has heard its call. He wants his life to have meaning, but he is so not living in the moment. He reminds his ex-wife that "Farrah Fawcett died on exactly the same day as Michael Jackson," but no one noticed. Riggan does not want to be a Farrah Fawcett Footnote after he's gone.

His just out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone) screams at him that he doesn't even have a Twitter account or a Facebook page, therefore his existence is nil. His love of self prevents him from giving her any credibility or feeling the love standing right in front of him. She sets up a Twitter account for him which garners over 80,000 hits. If Riggan had only listened to her, he could have self-actualized with selfies and lived online into perpetuity.


 The voice follows Riggan down narrow and twisting backstage hallways that are shadowed and not so clean. It quiets only when he is onstage. There he wrestles with dramatic egos other than his own. Lesley (Naomi Watts) is happy to finally be on Broadway and is not about to have the experience ruined by her boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton), who eerily echoes Riggan's vacuousness regarding love. His method acting means he's impotent except onstage. Riggan's lawyer and manager, Brandon Vander Hey (Zach Galifianakis) is a practical breath of fresh air in the stale oxygen residues left behind by other people. Cinematic, albeit satirical, references to superheroes and the actors who played them abound. At one point, Mike wonders if they'll replace him with Ryan Gosling. This is after he's flashed his six-pack for the viewer.

Is Riggan experiencing existential angst or is he just crazy? Sartre said that life has no meaning...that it's up to each of us to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that we assign to it. Personal love, the love between humans didn't matter to Riggan. They weren't as real to him as fame. He chose fame and went out with a blaze of glory . . . and lots of twitter hits.

Friday, October 17, 2014

BOOK SIGNING IN BURBANK

 Book Signing at Burbank Library, October 18.

 Sandra Ramos O’Briant, author of The Sandoval Sisters’ Secret of Old Blood, will meet readers and sign books at the 
Burbank Public Library, 300 N. Buena Vista Street in Burbank, California on Saturday, October 18 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The Sandoval Sisters’ Secret of Old Blood received two awards in 2013: Best Historical Fiction and Best First Book, (ILBA, 2013).

Visitors can meet over 50 authors in person, browse books, buy books, and enter to win a Kindle Fire! 

Ms. O'Briant appears as part of the Local Authors’ Showcase, a presentation of the Burbank Public Library. The event is free and open to all.




 Copies of The Sandoval Sisters will be available for purchase.   If you already    have a copy,bring it along and have it signed!

  All proceeds from the sale will be donated to the library.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Adventure #1: Mexico, 1967

My best friends and I drove a '60 Chevy from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Mexico City, Guadalajara and Acapulco during winter break in 1967. Not only did I turn 18 on the trip, but my bff's were all guys: Arturo, from Juarez; Donald, from Española, NM; and, Hugo, from Venezuela. We liked to dance salsa in the rec room of the girl's dorm. I accepted the invitation to join them on the road trip without hesitation. My first adventure as an adult was about to happen. 
Before your imagination goes dark, or brightens with anticipation, you should know that I left Albuquerque a virgin and returned intact. The sexual revolution was in full throttle and the Pill was readily available. But I wasn't. 
I had more important matters on my mind, like planning my wardrobe for the trip. I wanted a bikini, but couldn't find one in Albuquerque. No worries, we were going to Acapulco! What better place to buy my first bikini? The itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny bikini hadn't hit the fashion pages yet; bikinis were more like hip-huggers. 

In those days, I was thin and flat-chested so I cut up a padded bra and brought along large safety pins to secure the cups to the inside of the top. Part of my meager savings also went toward high fashion-purple wide-leg lounge pants, a matching top and a head scarf which could be tied around my hips. 
Far out!
2014-10-06-headscarf.jpg2014-10-06-palazzopants2.jpg





In the '60s, the roads in Mexico were not all paved and there were few signs indicating which way to go. One moonless night, we got behind a bus with a sign saying it was heading for Mexico City. We ate its dust all the way into the smoggy capital, checked into a youth hostel and slept soundly until the city awoke with a clamor I'd never before encountered. No matter; I was traveling and took it all in hungrily. Speaking of eating, I also ate everything the guys ate and drank the water without hesitation. 
That first day, we visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología, which was just like the National Geographic pictures I'd lingered over as a kid. Of course we traveled out to the Teotihuacan Pyramids. We took the next available bus heading to the pyramids. Our bus gave us a villager's view of the back way to get there. We exited the paved highway and traveled on a dirt road where there was the occasional mud hut. A naked toddler exited one and pooped in front of his home. A man sat nearby smoking a cigarette. An industrial building sat alone in another section. It had a chain-link fence around it and the only sidewalk in the area running along the front. The yard was dirt. An old woman swept the sidewalk clean, but the bus churned up dust as we passed. She reached the end of the sidewalk, turned and swept in the opposite direction. 
At last, we reached Teotihuacan. We raced up the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun and raised our arms to the sky in youthful triumph. 
2014-10-06-tepyrsun.jpg
Next stop: Acapulco and my new bikini. 
The skies cleared, but the day grew hot and muggy. There was no air conditioning in the car. We stopped to buy tacos and fruit from a street vendor. Across the way, children frolicked naked in a stream. Hot and sweaty, I joined them in shorts and brought along a bar of Dial soap. It was refreshing to be clean again. I was clean, wasn't I?
In Acapulco, we stayed in a beautiful hilltop hotel. The guys didn't want me to go anywhere alone, but I insisted on shopping without a male chaperone. On the walk back to the hotel, two boys about my age headed in my direction. As they passed, one of them grabbed my crotch. I screamed and swung my bag with the bikini at him. They laughed and walked on, slapping each other on the back.

My adventure buddies shook their heads and tsk-tsked at the risk I'd taken. They were in love with me and I was in love with their love. Undaunted, we danced that night at the Tequila a Go-Go. Yes, I am so old I danced at the precursor to disco.

At around 4 a.m., we loitered on the curb outside the club and my friends befriended a taxi driver. The cabbie promised us something unusual. We piled in and he took us far out of the city.
We traveled on an unpaved road to an unlit area. In the distance, dim light outlined crudely assembled shanties. People -- male tourists -- roamed a rutted lane with the structures on either side. Women sat outside the huts and beckoned us in. Light seeped out through gaps in the walls of the tiny casitas. There were no street lamps or power lines visible so the light must have been from candles or kerosene lamps. Tall, blond Nordic-looking men dressed in tennis whites peeked through the gaps at what was going on inside.

I sat in the middle of the back seat of the taxi with Donald and Hugo on either side of me. Arturo sat in the front seat next to the driver, who slowed so that we could see what was offered. A middle-aged woman beckoned us with a graceful sweep of her arm. The taxi paused. She lifted her skirt and spread her legs wide.
In unison, without consulting one another, every guy in the taxi except the driver pressed the lock button on his door. Ha! My friends were innocents, too. The sun was coming up when we returned to our lovely tiled rooms high on a hill overlooking Acapulco Bay.

Sleep mattered little, but we managed to sneak in a few hours before heading to Revolcadero Beach, where thunderous waves pounded into shore. I had never bodysurfed in my life. Nevertheless, I swam out with my pals. A high shimmering wall of water towered over us. I dove into it as the guys had instructed, fully expecting a pleasant ride to shore. 
2014-10-06-fullOlasCarlosCastro.jpg
The water seized me and curled my body into an O, spinning me in circles until it spit me out on the beach. I stood as the water withdrew and looked down at my bikini. My padded inserts still clung to the giant safety pins, but now hung below my bikini top. Before I had a chance to tuck them back in, a wave slammed into me and dragged me out, then whirled me to shore again. When I stood this time, the padded inserts andthe giant safety pins were gone. 
I spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on the sand in all my unpadded and crumpled glory. We ate dinner there, a round fish cooked by a little old lady over a campfire. 
It was time to head home. We'd planned a visit to Guadalajara, where Arturo had relatives. We stayed in that first night, but the next evening we went out to an upscale nightclub. I wore my glamorous purple outfit. They wouldn't let me in because women weren't allowed to wear pants! The guys argued vehemently with the management in Spanish and I was finally allowed entrance. It occurs to me now that they may have bribed them.
The music was love sung by an older gentleman whose name I don't recall. The lyrics were filled with longing. He closed his eyes while he sang. His posture and every wrinkle on his face expressed loss and regret. Spanish was the language my grandparents spoke, but I wasn't fluent. Still, his meaning was clear: Love while you can and hold onto it for as long as possible. 
Donald laid his head on the table. He'd become more solemn as our journey progressed. It was he who held my hand when I became ill on the drive home. I'd had the warning signs of La Turista for several days but was too embarrassed to tell the guys. 
Student health back home said I didn't have anything ominous in my system and expressed wonder and chagrin that I'd nonchalantly bathed in a stream, eaten food from street vendors and drank the untreated water in Mexico.
Hey! I was having an adventure.

Also at the Huffington Post: http://huff.to/1uD0jkj