Monday, December 27, 2004

Aspects of Snow

Snow. I had forgotten the stillness of a storm when cars no longer rush up and down the street and the only sounds are flakes landing. Boston had a snowstorm last night that covered the red brick sidewalks and settled inches on top of the iron railings and steps leading to the brownstone attached houses. I had not, however, forgotten the warmness of being inside with hot tea and good music as we read, played games or just talked.

I love snow. When I first moved to Switzerland I lived in a small village with 600 people and 6000 cows. Snow fell often. The cows stayed in the barns, the waterfall behind the house froze. Walking through the village was like being in a postcard.

Likewise on my frequent visits to my cousins in Garmish we would walk my two small Japanese chins through the snow. The "feathers" on their legs would become chunked with tiny snowballs. One loved playing it, the other preferred staying in curled up by the radiator. Garmish had the walking paths in the mountains cleared almost as fast as the flakes fell. We paused at a restaurant with an outdoor terrace sheltered from the wind and when the sun came out it was warm enough to eat apple strudel and drink hot chocolate. Sun on the snow covered trees surrounding the restaurant was so bright that sunglasses were mandatory.

Geneva on the other hand doesn’t get much snow. It may snow at 500 meters but the city, which is under a cloud most of the winter, gets rain. The few times it does snow accidents abound. So many diplomats living there are from warmer climates cause accidents because they don’t know how to drive under snowy conditions. As a New Englander learning to handle a car on snow and ice was part of learning to drive.

When I am in Argelès in the South of France, snow is even rarer, although the few times it has fallen it is a cause for all the neighbors to talk about it well into the summer tourist season.

Thus this holiday storm brought back lots of good memories. As a child growing up in Reading, listening to the no school announcements was torture for they were read alphabetically. For my daughter living in Boston the torture was much shorter. There was the snowy morning when the no school announcement brought a happy child bouncing into my bed. The dog joined us, probably because we had donuts and hot chocolate as we lay there watching the snow falling out the window.

Last night I went to bed leaving the curtains open so I could watch the snow float to the ground. There was the same stillness, the same sense of peace. This morning the snow was still pristine, purer than any wedding dress white as the snow glistened in the sunshine.

Storms are a reminder to me that I cannot control so much of the world. Better to enjoy its gifts, a moment of white peace in an otherwise rushed existence.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

A letter to two newsmen

Dear Mr Bradlee and Mr. Hewitt

One of the things I love about being in the States is CSpan. However, last night a program with Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post and Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes at the Kennedy School of Government left me infuriated. They were often patronizing and often didn't directly answer the questions. There belief that the US media is doing a good job was more than I could stand to leave alone. Today I wrote them the following letter:

After watching you on CSpan I was terribly disappointed in many of your responses.

The media (print and broadcast have failed us) regardless by not more aggressively presenting both sides of the story. And the remark that everyone knows that Iraq is a catastrophic failure doesn’t really wash when you look at the pundits and the interviewers nodding their heads and accepting what the officials are saying instead of constantly trying to expose the lies.

There is a lot of difference between a single article or mention then the pounding and repetition given to the Swift Boat people, OJ, Peterson or Dean’s scream.

For example: There was a news story in the Boston Globe about Christmas presents being given to 2600 homeless children in the city. 2600 HOMELESS CHILDREN. Why isn’t that a daily article because that is a scandal.

For example: When anyone died for lack of health insurance, why isn’t that featured? It should be pounded the same way the fluff OJ-Peterson stories are.

For example: when Sen. Warner said to Tim Russett Dec. 29th that the Iraqis seem to lack the will to fight there were many possible follow up questions. Why? Why are we fighting for something they aren’t willing to fight
for? That was a major statement among his fluff on how the war wasn’t really as bad as it seemed. Tim ignored the statement.

For example when Rumsfeld talks about the horror of public beheadings, why not a story on the difference between personal murder on television (individual) and impersonal murder (night after night of bombings)?

For example: We had body counts in Vietnam, Why can’t we get them in Iraq? Why aren’t we asking why the Army isn’t counting?

For example: Why aren’t we doing more on the torture stories.

For example: Why not some features on bias in newscasting? Why use the word insurgent vs. freedom fighter vs. terrorist. Liberator vs. occupier.

For example: Why did CNN use all the clever graphics and music during the war making war entertainment not news? How about a story on how war is presented to the public?

For example: Why hasn’t been a story done on Catholic charities being told they would lose funding if they did too much for the people of Haiti? Has anyone talked to aid workers on what is happening on the ground regularly? Any aid worker in Latin America during Reagan knew who the CIA agents and they also know that reporters often sit in the bar waiting for stories to come to then. When they are in the field they can report daily movements of helicopters across borders. I don’t see that covered in the same depth as it should have been.

For example: When Bush talks about Iraq invading their neighbors why hasn’t anyone said we invaded our neighbor Grenada?
For example: Why isn’t Lay and others of his ilk being hounded with daily stories? Why hasn’t the suffering of those he hurt been featured regularly? Why haven’t there been more calls for his and others to be tried? Yes I know some steps have been taken, but the import of the corporate crime receives far less attention than the murders.

For example: What are you doing to report both sides of the Social Security issues?

For example: The press does stories on how to handle money when people make $50,000. How many articles have been done on how to live on $10,000 or less?

Why aren’t we asking hard questions:

Every story should have both sides shown.

BBC has an excellent interviewer Tim Sebastian. When someone says something that is a lie, he calls them on it. Why can’t the American press do that? I would also love to see Jeff McMullen of Australia added to the regular staff of 60 Minutes, but if he did not want to come back to the program I would understand.

Now admittedly I am better read than most people. On a daily basis I scan or speed read the following: FT, IHT, Liberation, Le Figaro, Le Monde, The Guardian, the Observer, Tribune de Geneve, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Dawn, Sydney Herald, Lebanon Star and Haaretz. Weekly I look at the Economist. I sometimes look at the German papers but my German is weak.

Although I disagree with columnists like Jeff Jacoby, George Wills, etc. their conservative opinions should be continued along with liberal writers on the op-ed pages.

The press has a long way to go to protect the US. Although you need to make money to stay in business, you also have a greater responsibility as citizens to protect this country.

Best wishes,
Donna-Lane NELSON
Geneva Switzerland

Friday, December 17, 2004

Meeting Louisa May Alcott

I met Louisa May Alcott. Stop doing the mental math, I am not THAT OLD.

Jan Hutchinson, curator of Orchard House, the place that Alcott lived and used as a backdrop for Little Women, did a one-woman performance as Alcott at the Boston Public Library. Using the trick that her carriage had broken down when a kid rolled a hoop into it, she spent an hour talking with the people that she found in the "waiting room" congratulating those females dressed in slacks or pantaloons.

Although the American Library in Geneva is indeed cozy the three small rooms cannot compare to the Boston Public Library where I spent hours doing research, reading, exploring. The American Library also has programs in English when I need to escape French culture.

On the other hand, although the resources, are infinitesimal in comparison, the warmth and friendliness more than make up for it. And for the small membership fee in Geneva, I can save a fortune in feeding my reading in English habit. Although I do read in French, the book has to be fascinating to hold my interest.

It would be lovely if someday, Ms Alcott could travel to Geneva to talk to the residents there in the same way she did to the BPL.

For anyone near Concord MA who loved Little Women, maybe Ms Alcott would be around However, as Alcott (Hutchinson) complained about the visitors that interrupted her to knock at her door for autographs, she sometimes put on apron, dusted her hands and face with flour and pretended she was the maid. The museum is worth the trip with or without an introduction to Ms Alcott.

Flunking an exam

As a student I was compulsive about passing exams. This compulsion has carried over to medical exams. Today I flunked my glaucoma test, not because I have the disease, but because I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Each year when I visit the States I have my eyes checked. The cost is less than in Europe, the cost of glasses is way less and more important I can get the big, big glasses that my Europeans friends say are "pas chic." Okay, my hairdresser likes the look, but he is alone. I don’t care -- they protect my eyes.

For my dentist, my GYN and my intern I am a good patient. Thanks to my daughter’s hobby when she was infant of sticking her finger in my eye that resulted in myriad corneal abrasions, I have become paranoid about anything near my eyes. I do not wear mascara and even thinking about contact lenses causes all my body orifices to seal in fear. Even the thought of an eye exam causes sleepless nights and nausea on the day of the exam. And it is not like I can go over my notes one last time.

I was so proud of myself in "passing" the reading part of the test by reading the smallest line. This means I don’t need new glasses. I have an A. However, that joy was diminished by the F in glaucoma testing. Horrors I have averaged out to a C student in eye exams.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Old musicians in the subway

Street musicians are one of the delights of the Boston T, the name for the subway, for those that have never visited The City on the Hill. Because the city has an active folk scene, I always hope one of the singers, guitar strummers or steel drum players will be the next Tracy Chapman. But on this visit I have noticed that the musicians instead of being young hopefuls are older men, men of the troisième age (third stage) as the French call senior citizens.

An older man played the comb while he sang Dean Martin and Perry Como hits of my childhood in the Government Center station. In between he told bad jokes without ever losing the twinkle in his eye. I happily put money in his container. Our eyes met. "I know I’m not very good, but I’m trying as hard as I can." He wasn’t very good, but to work that hard while being ignored took courage. The only thing I could do was smile.

Park Street station was bustling with Christmas shoppers. A bald man sat near the E car stop singing Christmas Carols. He had a good clear voice and many of those waiting tapped their feet or mouthed the lyrics. I dropped money in his container too.

What I wished I had done was to ask why at this stage of life were they doing this. Did they need the money? Was it a second chance at a dream to perform, a dream that had to be put away for other responsibilities? I didn’t, but I hope it was the second and not the first. In this time with so many struggling to make ends meet, I am afraid it is the first.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Lunch in Boston

When my daughter Llara visited me in Geneva, she would come to my office. I wore a business suit, she would be in jeans and I would treat her to lunch at one of the UN alphabet organizations, ILO, WIPO, HCR, ILO, or ITU cafeterias. Today was a role reversal and when I showed up at her office at the Mass. Board of Higher Education. She wore the business suit and treated me to a taco salad.

As I used to be pressed for time, this was her turn to be pressed. I choose to walk back to the place I am staying to enjoy my former city starting with Boston Common. Each step was like renewing old acquaintances: the Shaw Civil War memorial, skaters on the Frog Pond, The Ducks from Make Way for Ducklings still waddled in bronze. The tiny suspension bridge where my friend Susan and I fed ducks on a Christmas Eve before church. The swan boats weren’t there of course, but George Washington’s statute still stood tall. All squirrels on the Common are obese. I saw one with an entire bagel.

I continued down Newbury Street noting that there were less consignment stores then before. There was the time I was tempted by a $400 mink coat that must have gone for at least $3000. However, my anti-fur ethics over-ruled. Yet in Geneva whenever I see the poster with a fox cub saying "Your mother has a fur coat? Mine lost hers?" I remember the temptation, which keeps from a total-holier-than-thou attitude.

I had forgotten the beautiful churches with architecture that would be at home in any English city. One church had a plaque asking if people were looking to regain a sense of spirituality. A group of students photographed it for the last line, "then get your ass back to church."

If I were ever to live in a US city again Boston or Maine would be the place. My nephew visited from California this week and the fact that I once lived within walking distance of eight colleges and four major hospitals, the Boston Symphony plus a museum or two or three or four, he found amazing. I found it a part of my past that every now and then becomes my present.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The disappearing faucet handle

Where have all the faucets gone
Long time washing
Where have all the faucets gone
From a long time ago

With apologies to Peter, Paul and Mary. One of the things I have noticed in my visit to my home country is that all the handles on faucets in public restrooms have seemed to disappear. They are replaced by electric eyes that turn water on when you figure out what the right action is. At a movie theatre I tried various movements that might have resembled a disco dancer until I read the sign, "cup hands four inches away from the spout and hold for several seconds." It worked.

I also have noted that toilets now flush automatically.

I suppose this stops people from leaving water running and toilets clogged.

Toilet and washing habits vary. In Syria (and other Arab countries) most people feel sitting on toilets is unclean. You squat over a ceramic hole. You then have a hose to wash yourself and a single piece of paper to pat yourself dry and dispose of in a basket, therefore not clogging the drainage system.

Not that Europe is backward in toilet/water habits, before, during and afternoon nature calls.

Some French porta potties after you leave, lock and completely wash everything: walls, ceilings, sink, toilet. My girlfriend didn’t realize that you needed to shut the door and wait. As I left the toilet she grabbed the door and went in. As soon as the door closed the washing procedure began and her husband and I listened to her screams. She emerged. Quite sanitary.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Of Liberal Academics and Conservative US Executives

The US news seems awash in articles decrying that most Academics are liberals. Jeff Jacoby in the Globe, The Washington Post, even The Economist (with a wonderful cartoon of an Elephant unable to squeeze though a university gate while a donkey struts through with no difficulty) all say "Horrors". No where have I seen articles saying there are too many conservative Republican business leaders. I suggest we take half the top US executives and half the liberal academics and have them switch places for the next year with the corresponding salary changes, of course.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Of Menopause and Maine

The woman standing at Gate B1 waiting for the Bus to Portland waved a paper over her face. "Menopause," she said.

"Did you see the stage show Menopause, the Musical?" I asked.

No. I told her how four menopausal women took well known songs and changed the lyrics.

"I’m having a hot flash, a tropical hot flash," I sang. People looked, I suspect more because of my bad voice then the words.

The woman and I talked all the way to Portland discovering we were both writers, both Unitarians, both anti-war, anti-Bush etc. We were for the same things too. She had been an organ builder.

The bus driver had welcomed us aboard with a song and in what seemed like minutes he was singing us a farewell song.
And there my former neighbors and old friends Gary and Carol stood. We had shared meals, music and watched out for each other’s teenage kids when we were away on business or vacation. The kids were too old for baby sitters but needed a sensible adult a staircase away for emergencies.

Gary and Carol had visited with me in Geneva on their way to Italy and I had seen their house when they first bought it, but they had done much too it. Carol had recreated the Tuscan countryside on the living room wall.

Three days was short but time enough to exchange memories and make new ones as we ate with another writer friend and her husband just back from Paris where they had gone for a flu shot. We took a long walk as I enjoyed the down east architecture and was introduced to people in their village. A driving rainstorm stopped the finches, sparrows and chickadees from entertaining us at the bird feeder. Even the squirrel gave up his antics as the wind swirled around the house. Plans to visit the Wyeth museum and eat at a restaurant were abandoned in favor of a quiet day by the wood burning stove and more good conversation.

The hardest part about being an ex-pat is missing friends, but after years abroad if I were to return to the country of my birth where I feel a stranger, I would miss those friends from Switzerland and France that I have nurtured for almost two decades.
Arriving back at Boston’s South Station, I grabbed a meal at the food court. A cop walked by and handed an elderly man his wallet. All the money was there. It just felt like the right ending.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Cheap prices and buying frenzies

My girl friend was oohing and ahhing about the cheap prices for appliances, such as a coffee maker for $6.99. All I could think of was how much somebody earned (or didn't earn) in making it. Henry Ford paid his people more than the going wage so they could afford to buy his cars.

We are in the middle of the buying frenzy known as Christmas. Watching it I feel as if I am witnessing one of the old Pac Man games as the little face gobbles up everything around him.

At the same time I see ads on television for storage sheds so people can store things they don't have room for.

Americans paid over $11 billion in late charges on credit cards.