Imitation of Life: Born to be Hurt

Imitation of Life: Born to be Hurt

When I was a kid, my mother and I would often stay up late watching old movies on the Zenith console in our living room. Gosh, how we loved those flicks!

One of our favorites to watch was Imitation of Life, a 1959 tear-jerker with a message. More than just a melodrama, it shines a light on female empowerment, race and class. It’s also about identity and how the color of your skin defines who you are and your place in the world. Finally, it’s about reconciling and accepting who you are. Continue reading

If I Could Do it All Again

If I could do it all again, I wouldn’t have believed I’d stay young forever and that time would never get the better of me. And I would have never sized up my parents, when they were in their 50’s, and thought, “Now that’s old.”

I’d have gone into marriage with my eyes wide open and made sure to keep the channels of communication going. I would have sought counseling long before any problems emerged.

I would have kept separate bank accounts. And I would have never given up my last name for his. While I’m at it, I’d have given my daughter my last name as her middle one.

I would have spent the $400 it cost to travel to Russia with my high school classmates.

I’d have spoken to my kids in Spanish right from the start, so that they could have grown up bilingual.

I wouldn’t have let vanity overtake me and dump my high school sweetheart just because he was a year younger, forever relegating him to, “The one that got away.”

I would never have let my mother’s broken English embarrass me. Ditto for her heavy accent.

I would have appreciated my college education more, studied hard and not skipped out on class. Ever.

I would have invested in Apple when they first came out with the iMac.

I would have gone to Europe in my youth.

I would have practiced piano daily and stuck with it. I also would’ve mastered ice skating and had a flair for figure eights.

I would have gone to Russia with my high school classmates on a two-week trip that only cost $400 per student.

I would have learned how to repair things around the house and change a tire. I would never have fallen for the old axiom that a husband would one day take care of me.

I would not have been irrationally terrified by Patty Duke, for her portrayal of Helen Keller, in “The Miracle Worker,” and I would not have convinced my seven-year-old self that she was lurking in the shadows of my childhood home.

I would have regularly eaten broccoli and acquired a taste for the nutrient-rich veggie.

I would have taken singing lessons just for fun, learn a third language like French or Italian, and started tap classes at age four. I would have joined a Girl Scouts troop, too.

I would have devoted myself to writing and be working on my sixth novel by now. Better yet, I would have come up with the idea for the Harry Potter saga first, leaving J.K. Rowling in the dust. And maybe I would have even written an eighth Harry Potter novel.

I would have called my parents daily and visited them every summer. Even holidays.

I would not have voted for the 2003 California Governor Recall simply because said governor had tripled the vehicle license fee.  I’m pretty sure the repeal of that fee increase is what led to the downfall of the state’s economy and helped put California in the dire straights it’s in today.

If I could do it all again, I would have hugged my kids more often when they were little and when they still loved hugging back. I would have held them tightly and treasured their childhood years, knowing that all too soon they’d be all grown up.

If I could to it all again, I’d memorize each joyful moment of my life, to relive over and over in my golden years.

If I could do it all again, there would be no regrets. No fuss, no muss. I would recognize the frailty of life and savor, while I can, the company of those who matter most to me. If I could do it all again, could I? Would I? Would you?

It’s a Sign!

The golden scales

I'm pretty sure I'm a Libra. Like the lady here, I'm often seen carrying scales of my own. It's quite a balancing act.

Curses! Someone call the Zodiac police or, better yet, get the Zodiac Killer on the phone.  Apparently, it’s the dawning of a new age of Aquarius or, should I say, Ophiuchus. (Which, by the way, can anyone pronounce?) I am absolutely beside myself! Livid, if you must know. In fact, I’m nearly speechless!  Simply because I need to know:

Who had the bright idea of messing with my zodiac sign?

Now, I’m no devout follower of astrology, but I’ve always taken it for a fact that I am a Libra.  Sure, I was born on the cusp, somewhere between Virgo and Libra. But most astrology sections of newspapers and magazines have me pegged for a Libra and I believe them.  Clearly, that is the sign that suits me best. Let me assure you that I have more Libra qualities in my little pinky than a genuine Virgo has in their entire body.  Indeed, I take great pride in my Libra-isms!

I am balanced, diplomatic and urbane, don’t you think?  I am sociable, too (as long as no one bothers me in the morning or on weekends).  Here’s what I’m not:  modest and shy, meticulous and analytical—all traits of a Virgo.  So, ergo, I’m no Virgo.

And yet, suddenly I am not on the cusp but, rather, decidedly smack in the middle of Virgo territory.  It’s as if someone has stolen my identity! For, according to some hapless astronomers, who shall remain nameless, I’ve been cut to the quick–snatched from the comfort of my Libra persona. Which makes me persona non grata. See if I continue to believe in what lies in the stars!

As Maureen O’Connor, explains in, these astronomers have restored the original Babylonian zodiac by recalculating the dates that correspond with each sign in order to accommodate millennia of subtle shifts in the Earth’s axis. Whew! Did you get all that?  I certainly didn’t, so I still don’t understand why these astronomers had to change the Zodiac calendar and of all things, add a new zodiac sign, Ophiuchus.  Five paragraphs later, and I still don’t know how to say that!  Anyway, for those who do want to be in the know, here’s the revised calendar:

Capricorn:  Jan. 20-Feb. 16.
Aquarius:  Feb. 16-March 11.
Pisces:  March 11-April 18.
Aries:  April 18-May 13.
Taurus:  May 13-June 21.
Gemini:  June 21-July 20.
Cancer:  July 20-Aug. 10.
Leo:  Aug. 10-Sept. 16.
Virgo:  Sept. 16-Oct. 30.
Libra:  Oct. 30-Nov. 23.
Scorpio:  Nov. 23-29.
Ophiuchus:  Nov. 29-Dec. 17.
Sagittarius:  Dec. 17-Jan. 20.

My kids have been reassigned too.  Sarah went from being a Pisces to an Aquarius and Josh, who used to be an Aries, is now a Pisces.  Which is ironic because Sarah was the fish in our family, spending countless summers swimming in the pool and at the beach.  Whereas, Josh, not so much.

Well, I for one, plan to stick with the old Zodiac calendar. I’m too set in my ways, (though, I must say, I remain as balanced as the Libra scales), to do anything else. So I will be boycotting the new zodiac calendar (and that goes for you, Ophiuchus!), and that means no one better call me a Virgo.

And as for the astronomers who brought back the Babylonian zodiac, well, as far as I’m concerned, they’re all on notice!

This is Chávez Country: Path to Tyranny

Part Two: Cousin Marisol (names have been changed) is a freelance journalist who has carefully planned our itinerary, to make the most of our stay in Venezuela. Today, we are going to the Teleférico on the top of Mt. Ávila.  It is one of the highest points in Caracas, overlooking the city which is located in a valley.

The bell captain at our hotel hails us a cab. Like most hotels in the U.S., there are taxis waiting outside for the guests.  These cabs, however, have been carefully preselected by the hotel. They are driven by trustworthy drivers and, for added security, they are unmarked and have tinted windows, which helps to ward off drive-by shootings. The thinking being that if a gunman doesn’t know who is in the car, they will be less likely to open fire.

One of the murals I came across, located by the entrance of the Central University of Venezuela.

As we ride to the Teleférico, I see more signs of  Hugo Chávez’ rule:  billboards and posters that thank him for the changes he has made. Some make the case for socialism by depicting people smiling broadly, walking hand-in-hand. I also see colorful murals lauding Chávez and his policies and  denouncing American Imperialism. As we drive along, I make a game of it by counting the pro-Chávez propoganda, but soon I lose count.  There are just too many.  Some of the slogans I notice include:

Apoya el Gobierno (Support the Government)

Ooo-Ah, Chávez no se vá” (a common chant, indicating that Chávez will not leave office)

“Contra el Imperialismo UNIDAD de Nuestra AMÉRICA” (Against Imperialism, unite for our Latin America)

I wonder how many find this display convincing. How long does it take to become indoctrinated? Just how many have become mesmerized by Chávez’ PR machine? As I ponder this, I can’t help but feel relieved that my parents are no longer around to see what is becoming of their country.

We arrive at our destination. I remember visiting the Teleférico as a child, but in recent years it has gone into disarray.  The government has taken over operations, though the Hotel Humboldt, located on the top of Mt. Ávila, and once one of Venezuela’s crowning achievements, remains closed.  Marisol has pulled a few strings so that today we will get a private tour.

Marisol has brought with her two of my mother’s siblings:  Tío Francisco, Marisol’s father, who is a retired pediatric doctor; and Tía Olivia, who now lives in a home run by nuns.

I remember that Tía Olivia once lived just a few blocks from the Palacio de Miraflores, the home of the Venezuelan President, much like our White House.  I ask her whether Chávez is living there now.

“No.  No one really knows where he lives or where he is on any one day,” she replies matter-of-factly. Marisol adds that this is, presumably, a security measure, and that Chávez lives in constant hiding. Apparently, he is fearful of lurking assassins.

Chavez' military patrols this tourist attraction.

We prepare to board the cable car that takes us to the top of Mt. Ávila. Once there, I notice the soldiers.  I’d already seen a few in Caracas.  But here they appear everywhere, carrying their rifles and wearing their red berets. Red being the color of the Socialist revolution. The soldiers are pacing or standing at attention as lookouts—protecting the Teleférico from what, I don’t know.  All I see are Venezuelan families and a few tourists. It is the soldiers themselves that seem threatening.

After our tour of the Hotel Humboldt, we lunch at one of the restaurants located on the mountain and are seated next to a table of soldiers celebrating a birthday.  As they sing “Cumpleaños Feliz,” many restaurant patrons join in, but, to me, the singing feels forced. Perhaps I’ve seen too many World War II movies, for I am associating this moment with a scene from “Casablanca,” in which German soldiers in Rick’s Café Américain sing their patriotic anthem and French loyalists drown them out by singing La Marseillaise. It is one of the most stirring, powerful moments of the film. Nervously, I consider standing up and singing the Venezuelan national anthem, which I learned as a child: “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo” (Glory to the Brave People). But fear prevents me, as there’s no telling whether the other patrons will join me in drowning out the soldiers. Where is Humphrey Bogart when I need him?

Time has stood still in the lobby of the Hotel Humboldt.

In the evening we go to Tío Francisco’s house. I lived in this neighborhood once, when I was attending private school here.  But now it’s different.  Walls with barbed wire have been built around the community’s periphery. There is a security guard at the entrance and each home has locked gates. The walls around my uncle’s house have broken bottles with jagged edges along the top, making forced entry unlikely. I wonder if I could live like this and accept what has become the new normal. And yet I know the answer. We are human after all, capable of doing anything to survive.

More cousins have joined us. We reminisce about the idyllic days of our youth. The conversation soon turns to politics and I sense that my cousins have resigned themselves to enduring life under Chávez. To them, he is an annoyance. A burr in their shoe. Quietly they pray that the U.S. intervenes and stops him. We change the subject and talk about the upcoming family reunion.

The anticipation of the reunion excites me. Though, these feelings are tempered by what I am beginning to see as Chávez’ path to tyranny. The signs are everywhere and there’s no escaping them.

At the reunion, I will find out more of what my family is feeling. Those that are preparing for uncertain times, and those that fear for their children’s future.  I will also learn that one of my cousins is a “Chavista” (pro-Chávez).

This is Chávez Country: Ruling by Decree

CARACAS. With President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez.

President Hugo Chavez, right, likes to link himself to Venezuela's Founding Father, Simón Bolivar, whose portrait hangs behind him.

It’s official. Hugo Chávez, you can take a bow. For, with the start of 2011, comes a new era for Venezuela. Just before Christmas, the Venezuelan congress gave Chávez total power to rule by decree, starting this month.  Yes, he now has carte blanche to legislate on everything–from the Internet and all other communications, to transportation, including the roadways. Which means, Venezuela is now under a dictatorship.

And while this may mean little to most Americans, to me it means family. And uncertainty, as I wonder what will happen to my loved ones–my elderly aunts and countless cousins. Some already have left and headed to such places as Spain,  Mexico, Australia and the United States.  But most are still there. Too elderly to travel. Too set in their ways. Too difficult to leave. For many, wanting to go is not enough. It is difficult to obtain the necessary papers, visas.

A few hold on to the belief, or hope, that this too shall pass. But so far, it hasn’t. Venezuela’s illustrious leader, Hugo Chávez has been president for 11 years, with no end in sight.

You don’t hear much about the travails of Venezuela in the U.S. media (except perhaps when Chávez, says something incongruous, like referring to President George W. Bush as “the devil“). But now that he has been given unlimited powers, this may all change.  What more could Chávez want of his people? How many more ways can he constrain their lives? And just how long before the iron curtain comes down once and for all? I, for one, plan to stay tuned.

In recent years, I’ve returned to Venezuela twice. During my first visit, the first in nearly 35 years, I kept a journal.  What follows are my observations of Chávez Country.

January 2007: With much trepidation I embarked on my journey to Venezuela. It all started the summer before, when I, along with my siblings decided to make the trip. I felt uneasy about going, largely due to the many news reports about Chávez–his obsessive adoration of Fidel Castro, plus his manic hatred of the U.S. Though all you need do is read the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory on Venezuela and it’s enough to make you want to ask for a refund on your plane ticket.  Here’s a snapshot:

“Violent crime in Venezuela is pervasive…The country’s overall per capita murder rate is cited as one of the top five in the world…official statistics have shown alarming increases in kidnappings throughout the country… Armed robberies take place throughout the city, including areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists. Well-armed criminal gangs operate widely, often setting up fake police checkpoints.“

My sister says the State Department exaggerates, but I was ready to cancel.  Yet I was told not to overreact. That as long as we  avoided certain neighborhoods, such as the center of Caracas and tourist areas, we’d be ok.  I was hoping to take my son, Josh, who’d be traveling with us, to see the home of Venezuela’s Founding Father, Simón Bolívar. I remember seeing it as a kid, but like much of Caracas, it was no longer a safe place to visit.  So I boarded the plane and decided I’d have to see this country for myself.

Day One: The State Department’s web site indicates that, “Incidents of taxi drivers in Caracas overcharging, robbing, and injuring passengers are common.”  Given this, it is best to be picked up at the airport by someone you know and trust.  Which is why when we land, Victor (names have been changed for obvious reasons), a cousin who makes his living as a chauffer, meets us at the airport.

For 22 years, Victor worked for PDVSA, the government-owned petroleum company. But in 2002, there was a national strike and employees of PDVSA went on strike too.  The strike lasted three months and ended with Chávez firing all the strikers at PDVSA.  Chávez also made it against the law for any other employer to hire the strikers.  More than 20,000 people were affected, including Victor.  Without any prospects, Victor began to drive his car for hire.

I learn that we have to take “El Camino Viejo” (the old road) to Caracas because the bridge that connected to the newer, more direct road, collapsed a few years earlier.  El Camino Viejo is only two lanes with a rather steep incline. Trucks are parked along the shoulder and Victor explains that this is because trucks are prohibited from traveling this road during select times of the day, this being one of them.  So they remain on the shoulder until it’s their turn to use the roadway.

I decide to ask Victor about the situation in Venezuela.  He quickly frowns as his mood changes.  He is trying to save up enough money to leave, he tells me.  He and his wife are eager to start anew somewhere else and frustrated because they are stuck for the time being. Getting an appointment at the embassy takes time.  So does saving up enough money to go. It’s a process. Despite this, I see resilience in Victor’s eyes. That, and a steadfast resolve to make the most of his situation.

Our drive into Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, continues. I find myself looking keenly out the window, searching for signs of change and signs of tyranny.  I also look for reminders of the past, hoping to rekindle memories of the Venezuela of my youth.

Next Up: Path to Tyranny