Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What Vexed Vincent?

  Hospital at Saint-Rémy, 1889
In the 1980s I visited the Jeu du Paume museum in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris and stood transfixed on the top floor, staring at half a dozen Van Goghs, including "Starry Night." Then in 2012 I visited Philadelphia, and for the first time walked up those fabled steps of its Museum of Art to see a fantastic exhibit of his paintings on loan from Amsterdam. A couple of weeks ago I saw a few more for the first time, right here, at San Marino's Huntington Library.
Starry Night, 1889, MOMA

When I first saw "Starry Night," I didn't know it depicted the view from the east-facing window of Van Gogh's asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just before sunrise. Now that I'm more familiar with his life, each time I see more of his work, I wonder how he kept focused enough to produce such an enormous number of radiant works while struggling with mental illness. The Van Gogh Museum attempts to address that question on its website:

Modern psychiatrists debate what really troubled this brilliant artist. One of the most detailed discussions can be found in the American Journal of Psychiatry article, "The Illness of Vincent Van Gogh."\

Here's an excerpt: The illness of van Gogh has perplexed 20th-century physicians, as is evident from the nearly 30 different diagnoses that have been offered, from lead poisoning or Ménière’s disease to a wide variety of psychiatric disorders. Many writers have acknowledged the epilepsy but considered the psychiatric disorder an independent mental illness. Monroe (7, 8) recognized the unique episodicity of van Gogh’s mental changes, the role of absinthe in his illness, and an underlying epileptoid limbic dysfunction that was associated with his creativity but also, if overly intense, would render him ill. Earlier, in an exceptionally well-documented study, Gastaut (1) reasoned that the artist’s psychiatric changes were based on temporal lobe epilepsy produced by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion.

Here's Vincent, in his own words, writing to his brother, Theo, from the hospital in Arles on January 28, 1889: "I well knew that one could break one’s arms and legs before, and that then afterwards that could get better but I didn’t know that one could break one’s brain and that afterwards that got better too."

Reading his words nearly breaks my heart...what bravery in the face of monstrous troubles.

July 16, 2016 - Jan 02, 2017 Huntington Art Gallery

Van Gogh & Friends: Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism from the Hammer Museum

Henry Huntington and Armand Hammer never met each other, but the two businessmen had at least one thing in common: they both established great art collections that form the core of major museums in Los Angeles. In an exciting “meet-up” of sorts, 15 important works from the Hammer Museum take up temporary residence at The Huntington, offering visitors the unprecedented opportunity to enjoy masterpieces from both collections in one place.  The exhibition contains three haunting works by Vincent van Gogh, including Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) and The Sower (ca.1888), as well as Claude Monet’s View of Bordighera (1884), Alfred Sisley’s Timber Yard at Saint-Mammès (1880), and Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Mardi Gras (1897). Also included are such startling images of modern life and the fin de siècle avant-garde as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Study for “In the Salon on the Rue des Moulins” (1894), Paul Cezanne’s Boy Resting (ca. 1887), and Paul Gauguin’s Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin (1889). Gustave Moreau’s theatrical Salome Dancing before Herod (1876), a seminal work of French Symbolist painting, joins its compatriots.

The Rectory Garden in Nuenen in the Snow, January 1885

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Be the Change...

Dr. Stern, L, and leaders of Orange County Interfaith Network

This past Friday, August 26,  I attended the Orange County Interfaith Network's Kick-Off Breakfast to learn what is being done right here in my own neighborhood to support victims of violence. This overarching organization, OCIN, coordinates and supports all of the 11 interfaith efforts in Orange County. It defines the work of interfaith as:
  • From dialogue to understanding and respect;
  • From understanding and respect to wisdom and compassion;
  • From wisdom and compassion to civility.
 More about the history of the organization can be found here:
In his opening address, OCIN Founder and President, Rabbi Dr. Frank Stern recounted several horrific acts that lead to the choice of support for victims of violence as the focus for the upcoming year's activities: attacks on a Coptic church in Egypt and on innocent civilians in Paris and Syria; random stabbings of Jews in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv...and in the United States, the 2012 massacre at the gurdwara Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; the June 2015 murder of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston, South Carolina; and, locally, the 2015 Christmas party atrocity in San Bernardino. These violent acts impact all races and religions, Dr. Stern emphasized.

"Consequently," he concluded, "this year we mourn...we pray...we remember...we organize."

Heather Powers
Maria Khani
Subsequent speakers and performers reiterated this theme. At the close of the intense morning, I reflected on what had most impressed me. The heartfelt prayer ceremony lead by Rev. Adelia Sandoval of the Acjachemen Tribe, the inspired singing of "Grateful Girl" Heather Powers,the Blessing of the Bread by Cantor David Reinwald, and the hauntingly beautiful moment of reflection lead by Maria Khani. Equally illuminating were the brief messages delivered by three young women from the Interfaith Youth Council, representing the Sikh, Zoroastrian and Jain faiths.

Keynote speaker Reverand Dr. Gail Stearns, of Chapman University, delivered an address, "Developing an Interfaith Identity Today." She discussed how millennials are more interested in the betterment of lives than preserving an interest in established institutions. Youth, she suggested, don't necessarily adhere to one conviction. They can claim their rituals, their morals, their ethics, yet demonstrate openness and commitment through awareness and respect for differences. In the era of multiculturalism everybody no longer shares the same identity, but rather admit to hybrid identities.
Gail J. Stearns is The Irvin C. and Edy Chapman Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chapman University

Though this was the first event sponsored by OCIN that I'd attended,  I've slotted several more on my calendar, beginning with a series of programs taking place on Sunday, September 11, Patriot Day. 

Truth, Love, Compassion, Beauty, Hope: Change
Additionally, I'm drafting a piece on what we all can do locally, nationally and internationally for an upcoming issue of Uncle Jam. It always comes to can we foster peace and understanding among peoples of different ethnicities and belief systems?

As I found in my many years with Peace Corps,both overseas and in Washington, DC, first, we get to know them. It's one thing to claim empathy in the's another to put a name and a face on a potential victim. I'm blessed to live in Orange County, rich in diversity. I'm thrilled to have discovered this organization that sets realistic goals and objectives to carry out its mission, "People of Faith Working for a Better Orange County."

As a result of attending this breakfast I can claim that I now know Laura, from Hawaii, a Latter Day Saint who displays her peace quilt to schoolchildren worldwide. I now know Maria, who was schooled in Damascus, and who, according the Los Angeles Times, even before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, was active in her community, encouraging fellow Muslims to follow suit. "The best way to counter anti-Muslim stereotypes," she says, "is get out and be a part of American society." I now know Reverend Susan, of the Sacred Seasons Center, and I know Heather, a singer with a touching story, a "Grateful Girl." Consequently, now that I know some of the key players, I'll be looking forward to learning more about the valuable work this group continues to do.

Laura Ava-Testimale 

How many people of different faiths do you know? It might depend on where you live. It could also depend on your level of education. Here's some survey results that might surprise you:

Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Partners" : Masterpieces in Artistry

"Butterfly Brooch," an Art Nouveau gem by Gaston Lafitte

 Around 30 years have elapsed since I experienced art coming to life "right before my eyes," as the flyer for the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters proclaims. I vaguely remember how impressed I'd been with the tableaux I'd seen...but I don't recall those earlier presentations drawing together so many different forms of art.

Brilliantly staged, this year's "Partners" highlights how art emerges from partnerships of all kinds: spouses, siblings, artists and models, even artists and their patrons.  My favorite segments include Lewis and Clark (aided by Sacajawea and her husband), the Wright Brothers, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and even Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. And, of course, the magnificent duo, Astaire and Rogers.

I particularly like the backstage glimpse of how the models were selected and outfitted for "The Perfect Match." We watched how that painting come to life to the tune of "It Had To Be You,"  as the chosen two were garbed and groomed and led to their positions.
The Kiss on the Hand, Gerolamo Induno

Perhaps the most surprising story for me involved the complex partnership that developed between Antoine Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Anne. During the 18th century and before Lavoisier's breakthroughs in modern chemistry, many natural philosophers still viewed the four elements of Greek natural philosophy—earth, air, fire, and water—as the primary substances of all matter.

Marie-Anne! What a helpmate!
The Lavoisiers
This young woman, though not formally educated, helped her husband in his research and soon became widely regarded as a valuable laboratory assistant and hostess. She recorded his lab research in her drawings and prepared engravings for publication. She promoted his work everywhere.

All day today I've thought of personal partnerships, and what makes them work. How do two individuals become a compatible "us"? Is it because they have similar values and goals, like the Wright brothers? Is it because one leads masterfully and one follows gracefully, like Rogers and Astaire? Is it because both share a passion for exploring together, like Lewis and Clark? 

Do we even recognize when we've found the ideal partnership that we've been destined for? The only sad aspect in last night's celebration of wondrous partnerships was when the narrator, Richard Doyle, cited Rivera's words during the segment on his tempestuous relationship with Kahlo: “I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And would continue to be, up to the moment she died, 27 years later.”

Consequently, I've renewed my awareness that my habit of fully savoring the moments that spell magic in my life have enabled me to lay claim to an contented old age. Last night I absorbed how the Pageant's magnificent setting, combining those ancient elements, took center stage:
the evening air, sultry so close to the sea;
the fiery descent across a hazy sky of one of the last of the Persiads; 
the adobe earthen walls of of Laguna Canyon, incorporated into many of the displays (Lewis and Clark with their spyglasses high up the hill toward the left);
and always the water...the omnipresent Pacific Ocean ambience of Laguna Beach. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Setting Sail in the Summer of '16

Viking's Lif on a Grand European Cruise

If you'd asked me this past May what I'd envisioned for the last summer of my seventies, I certainly would not have predicted another miracle.  I've already benefited from so many. Death-defying recoveries from accidents, attacks and ailments. Life-enhancing jobs in Belize, Seychelles, Washington DC and Washington State. Unexpected honors and heartwarming celebrations. My life actually can be defined as a long series of miracles. I've already had far more than my fair share.

Sue leads the Amazing Gray Yoga Group in a rowing skit
So at this summer's start I'd only anticipated continuing to enjoy the yoga and aerobic classes at my apartment complex, lead by Sue Burchfiel, of Amazing Grays Fitness. And I do, attending one session or another nearly daily, if only for the discipline of being forced to wiggle my arthritic ankles, and to pretzel myself into a forward fold. Sure, I long for the days when I could execute butterfly bends on a drum and one-handed walkovers. Now, at 79, I'm content that I can not only lean down to touch the floor without bending my knees, but can flatten my palms on that floor. Also I credit Sue's gentle flexibility classes for my ability to have soared through 2016 so far without a major attack of sciatica. Another miracle.

Though my late husband, Ken Wilson, and I had taken Holland America cruises to Alaska and across the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, I'd never floated down a river, except on a kayak on the Saline south of Little Rock one afternoon with a friend. But this summer, after watching Viking longships sail at the opening of season after season of "Downton Abbey," I embarked on a fifteen-night Grand European Cruise, down the
New friends from Alabama and New Zealand enjoying Mozart.
Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers, from Budapest to Amsterdam. Highlights aboard our "Lif" included a Mozart concert in Vienna and a German night aboard the boat, where we feasted on seven kinds of sausages, plus pork loin and schnitzels. Our staff dressed in lederhosen in honor of the occasion. We ended the evening discoing to the tunes of Abba...and I shook my booty for an entire half hour without collapsing on the postage-stamp-size floor...another minor miracle. Again, all the credit for my continued stamina goes to my low impact aerobic classes.

All these summertime diversions have kept me away from updating my blog. July is my first non-entry month since I began to log my literary and travel adventures back in 2010.

These have been busy and engrossing weeks, with AAUW activities, with learning my responsibilities in my new appointment as 47th District Liaison for California AARP, and participating in my book, film and travel discussion groups. I even put the final touches on two or three stories that will be published in books in time for the holiday season.

And it's been a summer of nonstop fun. There've been excursions for starlight concerts during the last season of the Pacific Symphony at Irvine Meadows, frequent treks to the movies...special favorites include The Free State of Jones, The Music of Strangers, Genius, Cafe Society and theater presentations, including "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and "The Great American Trailer Park Musical," dining at old favorites like Mimi's and El Torito, and new favorites like The Galley in Newport and Hercules in Orange.

My 6/28 birthday at Hotel Laguna with a friendly author.
Best of all...this summer I met a friendly author. A university professor, he's published a scholarly book and has been working on polishing his skills at fiction. In his youth he greatly admired Hemingway, but is patient as I rant about why I consider Fitzgerald a better novelist. It's been an unexpected treat to trade ideas for future literary projects. He also shares my passion for classical music and Broadway show tunes.

We've planned more summertime fun...the Laguna Pageant of the Masters next weekend, and a trip to Pismo Beach in September, as well as a Catalina voyage for his December birthday. Maybe even London, Oxford and the Isle of Wight next summer.

Nearly daily we find new common (and sometimes uncommon) interests. You might call if serendipity that we met one another at all, given the population density of Southern California. Or synchronicity, or simply happy circumstance. He claims we're riding the same wavelength of the universe. I'm convinced it's yet another miracle.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Pair of Merry Mollusks

Pasta Amore

My husband from 1955 to 1980, Bob Elders, was born on June 9, 1931. He would have turned 85 today. I still think of him on his birthday, and remember those early days of our marriage when we had so little money but so much fun. Here's one of my favorite stories of those newlywed days when we were both students at what was then Long Beach State College. Bob had not yet joined the Long Beach Police Department, and this was two years before our son, Steve, was born.

A Pair of Merry Mollusks

“A man taking basil from a woman will love her always.” - Sir Thomas Moore

February 14 fell on a Tuesday in 1956, not a good news day for us. Bob and I had hoped to spend our first Valentine’s Day evening as a married couple at the Villa Nova, our favorite Italian restaurant. But I wouldn’t get a paycheck until Friday, and we’d already spent Bob’s GI Bill allowance on the rent and utilities for our tiny apartment.

“Don’t worry, honey,” Bob said that noon as we munched on our bologna sandwiches and apples on the shady patio of the cafeteria at Long Beach State College. “We’ll celebrate tonight somehow.”

An eternal optimist, Bob kept up the chatter as he drove me to the valve manufacturing firm atop Signal Hill. I’d been lucky in landing a part time job there, editing the company newspaper, a glossy monthly.

“I’ll pick you up at 5. We’ll have a cozy supper at home tonight. I think I’ll have enough left after I fill up this old Pontiac’s tank to buy a bottle of Chianti, and you can cook me up a Valentine’s surprise.”

It would be a surprise all right, I thought, trying to recall what remained in the pantry that I could make a meal of. Nonetheless, I forced a smile. At least we had each other, and we wouldn’t be paupers forever. Bob intended to take the local police department exam in a couple of months, with the goal of joining the force by summer. We were certain he’d be assigned a swing shift, which would enable him to continue his police science studies at the college. He still had another year to complete for his degree.

At the office I conferred with Alisa, who worked in accounting.

“What can I make for a special supper tonight when I don’t even have any meat?”

“Have you got any canned clams?”

“I think so, but that’s hardly festive. Besides Bob doesn’t like chowder.”

Alisa grinned. “I’m talking pasta, baby. Pasta means amore…trust me, I’m Italian. Men love pasta. I’ll give you my mom’s recipe. And remember, if you don’t have one thing on hand, just substitute another.  Santo Valentino would approve!”

“Saint Valentine’s Italian?” I cocked my head and furrowed my forehead. Somehow I’d vaguely thought of him as English, but realized I might have been thinking of a photo I’d seen of the statue of Eros in Trafalgar Square.

“Of course he’s Italian! He’s buried just north of Rome, near where my mom grew up.”

Alisa scribbled down her recipe and I tucked the folded paper into my pocket.

That evening Bob dropped me off at our place.

“OK, honey. You see what you can conjure up, and I’ll go get gas and some wine.”

I opened the recipe as I checked its ingredients against the few cans and jars remaining on the kitchen shelf.

Canned tomatoes, canned clams, olive oil, parsley, oregano and my favorite basil. Si certo, I had them all. Plus a package of linguini. I always kept onions and garlic on hand, and still had half a loaf of sour dough in the breadbox.  I even had a shaker of grated Parmesan. We’d have a feast. I rummaged around and found a red and white checked tablecloth and a couple of candles to make our kitchen table even more festive.

We ate every bite, and Alisa was right. It indeed was the food of love. Bob sopped up the last of the sauce with the last of the bread and sighed.

“My compliments to the chef. But I can’t keep eating all this pasta if I want to get in shape for the police exam,” he said, with a rueful shake of his head. He’d been running on the beach several evenings a week to prepare for the upcoming physical. “But tonight’s special, so I think Saint Valentine will work his magic and make these calories not count.”

“Did you know he’s Italian?” I always liked to share my new knowledge with my amiable husband.

He looked at me as if I were demented. “What else would he be? What did you think?”

“Never mind.” I sipped the last of my wine and smiled. “I’m just happy as a clam that you liked our dinner.”

“And why are clams so happy?”

I was relieved he’d asked. I always enjoyed sharing such tidbits.

“People forget the second half of that saying. It’s really ‘happy as a clam at high tide.’ I guess at high tide they are out there swimming around and not floundering on the sand where people dig them up.”

“You’re so smart,” Bob said, laughing. “Wait right here while I get your Valentine’s present.”

He went into the bedroom and I heard him open a drawer. He came back with a homemade Valentine…a heart cut from the Sunday funnies, and a Hershey bar with almonds.

“Next year I promise a two-pound box of See’s and a real Valentine,” he said, giving me a hug.

“What do you mean? This is a real Valentine!” I opened it and read the verse he’d scribbled in crayon. Bob never had been noted for his poetic skill.

I read it aloud: “I will be your Valentine, if you will be my clementine.”

I gave my husband a puzzled glance. “Clementine?  Didn’t she drown?”

“Clementine’s the name for those little mandarin oranges we saw at the Piggly Wiggly last Christmas. Remember how juicy and sweet and squeezable they were?” He squashed my hand to make sure I got the picture.

“And it’s the only rhyme I could come up with at the moment for Valentine.”

“I can think of another,” I said, grinning.

“What’s that?”

I giggled. “Frankenstein.”

Bob hooted. “How about concubine? Or Palestine?”

We cleared away the supper dishes, merry as a pair of mollusks…at high tide. 

Alisa’s Mom’s Pasta Amore

1 pound package linguini                                l tablespoon olive oil
½ cup chopped onion                                      l tablespoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper                       2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 14.5 can tomatoes                                        2 6.5 ounce cans minced clams, undrained
1 tablespoon dried parsley                              1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil                                  salt, pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese, grated

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain
Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add onion, garlic, and crushed red pepper and sauté 3 minutes or until onion is browned. Stir in tomatoes and tomato paste. Cook until thick, stirring constantly. Stir in clams, parsley, oregano and basil. Stir until heated through. Serve atop drained pasta. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.