Category Archives: family

A Sunday Morning on Venice Beach

imageWhile staying at the Maggart’s, my extended family in Venice, I took a Sunday morning walk on the beach. I was surprised by how early the beach was alive with activity. Since I moved away in 2000 some things have changed, but not too many. It’s still Venice. The homeless sleep under what ever material they find, towered over by tall palms, joggers sprint through tourists on the boardwalk, vendors roll up the metal doors to reveal rows and rows of sun glasses, tank tops, and tee shirts-3 for $10.00. Artists paint, and skaters, some as young as six or seven, zip through the concrete gullies of the skate course, launching themselves into the air as if they had wings.

I saw a fittness commercial being filmed. Twenty or so folks raced through the sand to the surf and back, did jumping jacks, and raced again. The instructor barked instructions, the camerawoman, hauling her heavy Nikon with a lens as long as my forearm, did her best to keep up.   Continue reading

Settling In. Traveling back.

For the past seven years, I’ve been on the move. Some places I stayed a few months,  some a couple of years.  I settled into apartments in Mexico, China, Costa Rica and Los Angeles, plus, at my daughter’s request, I lived with her and her children outside historic  Charleston, SC.  Except for Los Angeles, where I actually got my stuff out of storage for a short spell, I purchased or borrowed what I needed to make myself comfortable wherever I happened to be in the world.

House on canal in Venice Beach, CA

House on canal in Venice Beach, CA

The Cabin

The Cabin

I learned a lot about myself. My odyssey taught me that my most useful attributes are my improvisational skills, and the ability to be flexible. I discovered that although coffee is  preferred, tea will do just fine; that unusual spices and unidentifiable food make eating an adventure, the struggle to communicate with those who speak different languages is challenging: sometimes fun, sometimes frustrating, that the best adventures happen when one is lost, that fear is overrated. That we are basically all the same.


Amigas: Barbara & Linda

Amigas: Barbara & Linda

Cindy, Wyatt n Bullit

Cindy, Wyatt n Bullit

Mis Amigas

Mis Amigas

Moving crew

Moving crew

ast year I felt compelled to go home.  Unfortunately I didn’t have one.  I had a 10X10 storage unit in Tehachapi, in the mountains between the San Joaquin Valley and the Mohave Desert.  I didn’t belong in the south. My daughter had her own life, and a family that didn’t include me. I missed my friends in California. Maybe I missed the state itself.

I headed across the country in Margaret, my Mini Cooper to my friend, Brandon Maggart’s, house in Venice Beach. Maybe it was the beach, the craziness, the chaos.  What ever, talking to my daughter, Alice, on the phone, she said, ” It must feel good to be home.” Ah, she understood. Still, Brandon’s, although I was totally comfortable, and I loved having another writer to share thoughts and words with, was not my home. I went back to Tehachapi, then to Bodfish and Lake Isabella. Searching.

My cabin in Lake Isabella is surrounded by woods and rocks. Outside my window three Hummingbirds argue constantly about nectar rights at the newly hung feeder. Abby, my friend Sherry’s  dog, comes to visit and to do yoga with me. At night I have a commanding view of the valley lights  stretched out below me as a long strand of rhinestones gracing the neck of the sparse mountains above it.

My Tehachapi friends rallied to pack the uhaul truck. That I have these good friends fills my heart.

Bedroom in cabin.

Bed in cabin.

Opening the boxes, I find pieces of myself that go back to my childhood. There are letters to my mother while she was in the hospital having me. A photo of me in my dad’s arms, my great grandparents surrounding us and several of my grandpa Naughton, the main man in my life for the first decade of my life. My home in Foxburg, PA was the flat on the second floor of his Irish bar. Across the street the beautiful Allegheny River flowed, sometimes leisurely as if it had all the time in the world, sometimes raging as if it was angry, to Pittsburgh.

A small three-legged table that was  my grandma Emma’s sets beside my bed.  I eat my meals on her red, separated plates. A hobnail vase of Mary McCoy’s, my mom’s first cousin and closest friend all of their lives,  my Mother’s bible, so important in her life, a banjo and a dulcimer made and given to me by different men who hoped in vain that I would become a musician.

Through countless photos and  mementos, I wander back through the years to my son’s births and deaths, my daughter’s births and schools years, their marriages, and the birth of my grand children, to life before my teenage brother was killed by a drunk driver, my ill-fated marriages, the fulfilling comedy years, to the time I could pick up the phone and call my mother. I wonder why my daughter doesn’t want to talk to me. Through photos and articles, I revisit countries I’ve visited, men I’ve loved, and people who have both inspired and thwarted me.

The past gives us perspective for the future. I see a busy one filled with the talents of my friends, music, stories, laughing, sharing and travels. This time when I leave, I’ll have a place to come home to.

Musings; Birds, Relaxation, Impending Danger

It’s a quiet day here on John”s Island, on my back porch office. This morning was a lazy one, filled with reflection. It’s possible to be grateful, content, meditative, fearful and angry within just a couple of hours.

 Back porch office, Casa de Updike, Johns's Island

Back porch office, Casa de Updike, Johns’s Island

The birds are apparently not hungry. I hear them calling to one another in the woods. It’s a language I don’t understand, but wish I did, a melodic cacophony. Walking through a mall in Beijing comes to mind. Probably they will come down soon for lunch. Peanuts and sunflower seeds every day free for the taking, first come- first served. image

Brash handsome  jays calling, jeer, jeer jeer, graceful doves, cardinals, (love to watch the mom feed her loud, demanding babies), woodpeckers: a downey woodpecker and what looks to be an endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which will both soon be gone due to developers denuding the surrounding forest, a pileated woodpecker, yik-yik-yik,  that was the inspiration for the infamous Woody the Woodpecker, juncos, and other unidentified chirpy sparrows, loud barking crows…  and then, a large predator swooped into the forest. Too much in the shade of other trees for me to see what it was with my binocs, but the crows knew. They gathered together screaming and flapping like regiments in battle,  and forced it back, and off. 

We should be able to do the same to the Tea Party that threatens our way of life in America, just as  the Taliban are in the Middle East. Think about it, & check out the similarities at Politburo of Teabilly Mockery.

*open carry of military weapons, despises and wants to topple the US Government , supports the death penalty, opposes women’s rights, anti-abortion, wants to teach religion in schools, integrate religion and state,  no respect for law, authority, or the president, views homosexuality as evil. Scary.  

Casual Guns

Casual Guns


I  can’t imagine the bird scene in the jungle or even the town that is built on the Amazon River in the jungle,  but in seven weeks I will be there. First a few days in Bogota, then fly to Leticia, Amazonas. Can it be anything like I imagine it? image

Walking through the Amazon forest en route to an indigenous village, paper and pencils, maybe a portable CD player, teaching them  our language-learning theirs.  It makes the dreaded yellow fever vaccine, and the mosquitos worth it. 

I spent Sunday with my daughter and her boyfriend at a lake home she is going to buy. In the back is a 12X20′ cookhouse that I’ll turn into my studio. It won’t be the first house I’ve transformed, but probably the last. It will allow me freedom: to be with my family and friends, write, travel, kayak; what else could a nomadic gramma ask for? Lucky me.  

Relaxing with Anna.

Relaxing with Anna.

Dock, Goat Island.

Dock, Goat Island.
















“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” James Beard.


Chinese New Year Dinner in LiJiang, China 2012


chicken soup

And, chicken soup is said to cure a cold, and good for your soul.

No one would argue that food is necessary to live, and if you have good food, life is infinitely better.

Food brings us together, tempts us, identifies us, frustrates us. Some people get rich off it-others work hard to provide it and still others have to steal basic food  to feed their families.

Roasting chestnuts in Chendu

Gandhi said, There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot apper to them except in the form of bread.”

A humble American grandma will say, ‘It isn’t perfect,’ when you praise a dish. 
My mother gave a recipe box filled with her most popular recipes as a wedding gift to brides- an intimate gift of herself. When my son lost his first tooth he asked the tooth fairy to bring him pie. My daughter makes my mother’s pinwheel cookies every Christmas. Students from around the world decorated my grandmothers cookies for Christmas in 2011.
 Our family lives on through food. 

Because of my Irish heritage I salivate just thinking about real Colcannon; mashed potatoes with cream, sauteed cabbage and crispy onions topped with lots of butter and black pepper.

The smell of fresh tomatoes takes me back to my mom’s kitchen in late summer when she labored to can jars of tomatoes, beets, peppers and  vegetable soup-summer in a jar during a snow storm. 

 I can taste her love steeped in the red sauce she taught me to make for  stuffed green peppers or pasta. At a request of a friend in China, I made spaghetti for him and his girl friend. He had thirds and finished off the sauce in the pan with the heel of the french bread I’d bought. “I had spaghetti at an Italian restaurant in Beijing, he said, but yours is better.”  Mom would be so proud.

Food is the highlight of my travel. I can’t describe nearly as much of what I see in museums, as I can the food of a country, and the people I share meals with.

Decorating Christmas cookies at EF International 2011

In Tangier I was admiring the sensual aromas and rich colors of bins of spices when an elderly man came up to me with a flat aluminum pan  full of what looked like cornmeal mush. I said, “No thank you.” A passerby said, You should have some. It’s delicious. He was right.  I ate the baked meal with my fingers, scrapping the small piece of paper it was on to get every grain.

In Fez, Morocco,  I was invited for dinner to the house of a man I met on the train. Actually, I went to Fez because he persuaded me to see the ancient Medina. Fortunately his marriage proposal came after the delicious meal his sisters cooked-so I fled on a full stomach.

Throughout Morocco I devoured roasted camel, and bowls of fava bean soup from street vendors. Come evening I sat alone with  6 to 10 different colored bowls spread out before me, each holding a unique flavor in restaurants for dinner. 

The gracious Thai people think it is sad to eat alone so they don’t let that happen. I’ve had a Thai businessmen join me for lunch to discuss American politics, families invite me to join their table, and even the cook on the island of Ko Semet sat with me after she had cooked my meal. The following day she invited me into her kitchen to observe to learn how to make Thai chili paste -her way. 

In China I cooked traditional American Christmas and
Thanksgiving dinners for twenty plus students, staff and friends on a two burner stove with no oven. It’s amazing what you can do in a wok.

A pot, A Wok. And a bowl=a double boiler!.

Almost every weekday I ate at least one meal at the dining hall. Because all of the meat and vegetables, including fish with bones, are chopped into  one inch pieces it is extremely difficult for a novice like me to determine origin.  It became a game of ‘guess that food.’ resulting on me eating mostly vegetables. The cafeteria workers, though, monitored my intake. One day I was sitting with a student, having lunch when a tiny woman came up to her. “Tell her she isn’t eating enough meat.

On several occasions I was invited to a hot pot restaurant. Hot pot is a cauldron of hot spicy, oil one dips skewers of meat and vegetables into.  It’s not for sensitive palates.

Offered a pig snout from a street vendor, I couldn’t do it- just couldn’t bring myself to bite into a big pig nose.

I laughed as my students read the yellow mustard jar at our traditional American picnic featuring hot dogs. “Is this American mustard. Ruby? I thought mustard was green.”  ” Ah. You are thinking of Japanese wasabi.  Not even close.”

 Eating with people on the road is the sharing of cultures, the acceptance of one another’s differences, the acknowledgement that we are the same. As a stranger, when I’m  invited to dine with a family or new friend in a country where I barely speak the language, I’m humbled and grateful.
When traveling, food is the adventure; everything else comes after. I was 23 when I first flew outside the US mainland to Puerto Rico. My date, an impossibly handsome man, bought us blood sausage from a street vendor. Oh my god, I said. Cooked blood! I can’t possibly eat that! Next came the whole fish with a sunken eye peering at me. “The muscle behind the eye is the best.” he teased. I put a lettuce leaf over it. He ate the eye muscle, I devoured the delicious fish. And then there were fried plantains, squid and pineapple freshly picked. I probably still wouldn’t eat the eye muscle, but the rest-piece of cake!

Last week I took my grand kids, six and nine to an Asian market. “Ooohh. Look at the pigs feet. What is that? It’s a block of congealed blood? Oh gross. What’s an eel? ” Who eats this stuff, the boy said?” “Many people-all over the world, Honey-even in your own neighborhood.”  

Living in Mexico I found myself at the same taco stand, several days a week  eating fresh fish tacos with crunchy cabbage, cilantro and avocado – a balanced meal for a buck fifty.

In Lisbon it was bacalhau -salted cod,  sardines, squid on a stick; in Spain I ate my weight in tapas, washed down with red wine. In one bar the tiny fish bones kept sticking in my throat. Agh. Agh I coughed. Laughing, the bartender and two other patrons urged-mas vino, mas vino.

My family’s staples were potatoes-roasted, mashed, or fried and home baked bread. My southern husband introduced me to rice and grits- my housekeeper/cook to heavenly greens, black eyed peas, chitlins, and corn bread-soul food. Isn’t it all food for the soul.

  In Asia I watched folks work in rice paddies- small and large. I  heard stories about cobras’ weaving among the thick fields, and the cobra hunters who catch them and milk the venom.  I’ve shared  unidentifiable food  on trains, buses and boats with people I knew for an hour or a night.

 In Central America I talked to coffee farmers who pick the berries and spread them out in the sun to dry, and women sitting on the ground surrounded by baskets of vegetables, fruit or a few chickens to sell.

Food is as essential to our souls as to our health.  I agree with J.R.R. Tolkien who said, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. ”

Domestic Violence- A Family Affair.

The idea that girls are less valuable than boys-women less valuable than men- makes me crazy. Thinking about my female students in China, I recall an incident that happened to one of my students. It’s a common one-still happening in all cultures, all countries- regardless of laws,women’s rights, or women’s lib.

One morning, my student Cassandra texted to say she wouldn’t be at class because she was ill, and she had something important to do. What, I wondered, other than going to the hospital or doctor, would be important for a sick person to do?

 The following day her roommate came to class alone. She explained that Cassandra stayed home because she was recovering from the bruises she incurred when her jealous boyfriend beat her up two nights before.

I asked if the police knew about it. “They do. But, they say it’s a family matter. They don’t get involved in family matters.”

It was such a broad statement that I had trouble wrapping my head around it. She wasn’t related to the boy. She didn’t live with him. Yes. She knew him. Yes. She dated him. Does that qualify him as family? Is hitting a female member of your family OK?

Becaue she was afraid he would come back, Cassandra asked another boy she knew if he would sleep on the couch for the next few nights just in case. Against campus regulations, he agreed to. The boyfriend apparently heard about this so when he showed up again, he brought a partner with him to back him up.

The fight that ensued caught the attention of the campus police.The following day the boyfriend’s parents were called. He was warned that he would be expelled if he bothered her again.

The girls told me that his threat from the university was not because he had beat her up, but because he had been overt about it-had made too much noise. Had it been kept quiet it would have remained a family affair.

Wang Xingjuan, a women’s rights activist in Beijing says,

“Chinese women feel ashamed when this happens to them, and there are still so many people who think it’s a normal event. It’s a slow process. We’ve had hundreds of years where men were simply allowed to beat their wives,” she said. “The culture is deeply rooted, and for many, it’s still taken for granted that women are inferior to men.”

That is China, a developing nation.

Here in the US where we think we have already developed, RAINN, a national organization on rape, abuse and incest, reports that every two minutes someone is sexually assulted- an average of 207,754 women and girls over 12 each year!
54% of these cases are not reported to the police. 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail. 
2/3 of them are known to the victim.
Why is this?

Women still feel ashamed and somehow guilty when they are violated. Whether it’s been two hundred or five hunderd years, women’s feelings of inferiority are deeply rooted.

Men still make most of the laws in the world. They make more money and have more infuuence. Conservative media wonks like Rush Limbaugh are allowed to slander respectable women bcause they advocate for women’s rights.

Not enough women are demandng respect and equality. Not enough of us are speaking out. Women are the only ones who can make the family safer. We must.