Meeting Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng

The Seattle Foundation hosts a series of what it calls “community conversations”, and the latest guest was Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng. Maya has a famous half-brother, former President Obama. They are both the children of Stanley Ann Dunham, who actually graduated from Mercer High School here in Seattle. The Seattle Foundation hosts the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Fund, and it was in conjunction with scholarship awards from that Fund that Maya was here in Seattle.

Barack Obama’s father is African; Maya’s father is Indonesian. Ann Dunham, an anthropologist, certainly didn’t stay close to home after her high school years in the Seattle area.

Maya now lives in Hawaii, where she and Barack Obama both went to high school and where their grandparents lived, and she is on the faculty of the University of Hawaii. She’s also written a children’s book, which she autographed as a gift for all attendees. I had mine signed for Archie and Else.

She’s a lovely, gracious person and a moving speaker: she talked mostly about her mother. The room was filled with highly accomplished, interesting people — including one of the scholarship recipients. I was reminded yet again of our dueling American reality. All of these people, by race, ethnicity, religion, or progressive politics, are anathema to Trump’s Make America White Again agenda. All of the conversation was about hope for the future, our ability to solve the deep problems that perplex global humanity, and the need to support young hard working talent.

Farthest thing in the world from Trump’s smarmy entitled brood, and his American carnage message.

My houseguest, Jane, has also led a global life, spending many years with Doctors Without Borders — mostly in Paris and Africa — and doing U.N. sponsored work combatting the spread of tuberculosis. TB kills more people worldwide than malaria and HIV combined, which most of us don’t realize.

Jane asked me what I thought might bring the country back together, as polarized and angry as we now are. That’s the topic of conversation with one of my email correspondents, as well. How do we get out of this fearful, white nationalist, bitter and destructive place?

I think about it a lot, and I really don’t know.

The Olympian Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya is a South African middle distance runner and Olympic gold winner who has naturally higher levels of testosterone than the typical range for women. Speculation is that Semenya may be intersex.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has now ruled that in order to continue competing, Semenya will have to take hormones that lower her natural testosterone levels and take blood tests to show that she is doing so. That ruling supports an International Association of Athletics Federation ruling that specifically targets athletes like Semenya. The position of IAAF and CAS is acknowledged to be discriminatory, but the belief is that this discrimination is necessary to safeguard the integrity of women’s sports.

This is a tough one, and it has split the world of women’s athletics. Billie Jean King, Abby Wambach, and Martina Navratilova support Semenya’s position. So does Madeleine Pape, an Australian runner who lost to Semenya in competition. British long distance runner Paula Radcliffe supports IAAF and CAS.

I think blanket rules to cover relatively rare situations are generally a bad idea. I also think it’s ironic that governing bodies who work hard to control performance enhancing drugs in elite competition are now taking the position that performance-limiting drugs must be used in this case. If I were Semenya, I wouldn’t take hormone treatments that could have an uncertain impact on my overall health for the sole purpose of making me other than I am and satisfying sports officials.

Asking her to do something quite unreasonable, I say.

Conscious Aging: Actors of a Certain Age

Being a Woman of a Certain Age myself, I relish the acting of Women of a Certain Age who’ve had long careers on screen and stage and are continuing to find challenging and satisfying roles. Think of Meryl Streep, or Glenn Close, or Susan Sarandon, or Tyne Daly, or Helen Mirren, or Judi Dench — all over 70 — or even 61 year old Frances McDormand.

Another favorite of mine is the subtle work of 73 year old British actress Charlotte Rampling. I saw her in the 2015 film 45 Years, for which she won an Oscar nomination in 2016. She plays opposite Tom Courtenay’s Geoff, depicting a retired couple in the English countryside preparing for their big 45th anniversary party. Then a  letter arrives announcing that the body of Geoff’s first love has emerged from a glacier, where the young woman died more than 50 years ago after a fall while she and Geoff were hiking. Such an event, entirely random, should be innocuous, although one of the odder “first love” stories. Instead, the lives of the couple are entirely upended.

Rampling conveys more with facial expressions, icy silence, and finally a violent pulling back of her hand from Geoff’s raised one than most of us can convey with a torrent of words.

Some actresses are flamboyant and command the viewer’s eye through force of personality — think Cher in the film Mask. Charlotte Rampling’s characters might — might — fade into the woodwork unless you were pay attention. Her work is so fine that she absolutely requires, demands, that you pay attention.

Panama 2019: Minga’s 78th Birthday

Yesterday, Sunday, would have been Minga’s 78th birthday. I turn 74 in May; she and I are just about four years apart in age. That difference seemed greatest when I first met her in 1967, at the outset of the Peace Corps years. She already had six children. She lived with Roberto Delgado; she’d already had children by three different men. Although I’d had a boyfriend for six years, I probably don’t have to tell anyone with a Catholic upbringing from that era how limited my experience was. Minga had a quiet authority and competence even then. I was struggling to define myself as an independent woman, finally out of the shadow of a mother whose constant theatrics sucked up all the oxygen in the room.

The age difference came into proper perspective when I returned to Panama ten years ago, and that was re-affirmed each year that I returned. Minga and I were both older women living alone. We were both mothers, and grandmothers — she first, then I. We were both political junkies. We were both grappling with issues of aging: she with mobility and overall health, me with role changes and relevance.

MInga’s birthday was always a big deal for her large extended family — cake, a birthday meal, balloons, lots of family around, a pinata from her daughter Mari. I love my Cinco de Mayo birthday, but the celebration of it is usually quieter, especially in these later years.

In 2016 friends Emily and her mom Mary were in Panama for Minga’s birthday. Minga and Emily celebrate their birthdays on the same day, so we had a big Mickey/Minnie Mouse themed party at Minga’s house. It was grand.

The bottom pic is Minga when she and I first met. She is twenty six.

Pinata made by daughter Mari, a pinatera.

Mary,Rufina, Emily

Minga and eight of her nine grown offspring: Marlen, Rufa, Angel, Teri, Humberto, Ita, Manuel, and Daira.

Washing the clothes, a daily chore for Minga. No running water at the house, so she either had to take the clothes to the river or carry bucket after bucket to fill her tub in the yard.

Panama 2019 Reflections: On Minga

My friend Louise, also a blogger, has a new post up about obits, and what we might share if we had unlimited space. Here’s the link if you’d like to read her post in full.

I’m mindful that Minga had no obit. There would have been no place to post one, since there are no print newspapers in the village, and most people don’t have regular access to computers. I doubt any of the family gave a eulogy at her funeral. Sounds as if they relied heavily on Padre Raphael to conduct the usual Catholic service, in which personal remarks from the family do not play a part.

I suppose my blog posts from Thursday might constitute something of an obit.

Minga would have found the concept of an obit odd, I think. The people who needed to know she’d died, knew. So much for the informative function of posting an obit. I think if I or someone had asked her what she wanted shared publicly about her life she would have smiled and shaken her head. Talking about herself, or having someone speak for her, would not — I suspect — have felt right. She did talk a lot one-on-one about her early life, the challenges of being left motherless at five, the grueling day to day struggle of feeding nine children often on her own, and what she hoped her legacy would be. Her legacy to the world was her family: nine independent adults, all of whom had a way to earn their living, and with the obligation to be good and generous human beings.

I’m of two minds about an obit. Jerry had one, in what was then the print edition of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. The informative function was a high priority. He died very suddenly, and professional colleagues, clients, neighbors and friends needed to know what was happening and where and when they should come to pay respects. When you get older, like I am, that informative function shifts. Like Minga, the people who need to know when I die will know.

My two thoughts are these: an obit is a good way of drawing together the threads of a life and sharing with everyone how, in the end, you made sense of your time on earth. That’s easier for someone left behind who is going to speak for you to carry out if you’ve first laid out the framework, maybe even written the thing ahead of time. Louise and I have a friend, Julie, who does “legacy writing” with clients — and writing a sample obit is part of her approach.

My other thought, though, is to look back on the creation of sacred mandalas — intricate sand paintings — by Buddhist monks. A group of monks visited Rochester years ago, and I went to watch them work. They skillfully array grains of colored sand into a complex pattern, working for hours every day without appearing to tire. The construction of a mandala takes weeks. When done, they ceremoniously sweep up the gorgeous creation and dump it in the river. The message is something about the beauty and fleetingness of our material existence.

If you think of the mandala as representing the complex elements of a life, while it’s there in front of you it’s there, and visible for all to see. When it’s done, it’s not there, and can be conjured up only in memory. No one tries to say what the mandala looked like, or what anyone is supposed to remember about it. Each person in touch with the mandala carries his or her own memory. Nor does anyone try to preserve the mandala. It’s there in all its glorious color and complexity, and then it’s not. That’s the preciousness of life and the sadness of loss, all in one fell swoop.

I’m still going back and forth between these two contrasting notions. Glad to hear your thoughts.

Panama 2019: Talking with Minga

Yesterday I wrote about how I will miss Minga being there when I arrive in the village  in a little over a week. I wrote about the things she discussed with me, but not so much about what I discussed with her.

Remember that we had vastly different life experience. Minga never read a book — she was illiterate. She never saw a movie, went to a concert or a play or a museum, ate out in a restaurant unless it was with me. She never traveled farther than Panama City, and there only reluctantly. She delivered her babies alone or sometimes with a midwife, and was on her feet again by dinner time to cook for her family. She nursed the newborn, and sometimes also the one year old born the year before. She never married, although she had children by four men, never enjoyed whatever little protection marriage brought even to the very poor. She thought my working out was hilariously funny. She worked so hard every day she had no need to make a thing of it. Her bones and muscles had plenty of workout from the water she carried, the firewood she gathered, the children she lugged around, the baskets of heavy wet clothes she hauled back from the river. She had no choice about large swathes of her life, or limited choice. When the man she was with failed her in some way, she had the choice to go — which she did, her growing number of children in tow. “Working things out” was not on the radar.

I talked with her about politics, a love that we both shared. They loved President and Mrs. Obama, and are perplexed that American voters chose a man like Trump who hates people with brown skin. Minga was surprised, I think, that I am perplexed too.  She and I talked about sex. Panamanians are very overt and candid in discussing such things, much more so than my social circle here. Hardly anyone among my very good friends, even indirectly, has asked me if I miss sex since Jerry died. Minga and I talked about God. They all, not just Minga, assume that I am Catholic because everyone there is. Panama City has an old and well established Jewish community, dating back to World War I. But everyone in the village is Catholic. They also can’t help noting that I don’t go to church — there is only one Mass on Saturday early evening and one on Sunday morning, which makes it easy to see who is there and who not. Minga was non-judgmental, but she did note that I didn’t come into the village at either time Mass was offered. That didn’t stop her from roping me in to her devotion to the Saints, and to the Virgen del Carmen. When I won $70 on one our casino jaunts, she insisted we stop at the church and give thanks to the Virgen. I asked, tongue in cheek, if the Virgen is the patron saint of gambling — to which Minga responded by laughing heartily.

We were never short of things to say, and when companionable silence seemed right, she sat very close to me, her hand in mine or stroking my arm. Either of us might have been the one to break the silence, prompted by a thought or a memory or someone going by on the road. Minga didn’t gossip, but she knew everyone and pretty much everything going on.

I will miss all of that dearly.

Reading Susan Gubar

Susan Gubar is an English professor at Indiana University, now retired due to the onset of ovarian cancer. With her longtime collaborator Sandra Gilbert, Gubar edited the 1985 Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, which is where I first came across her name. She has many other books and publications. Most recently, she’s been writing a piece in the New York Times every two months or so about her experience of living with cancer. She’s a wonderful writer, and although I currently suffer no such life threatening illnesses, I am drawn occasionally to reading about the experiences of people who do. My respect for Gubar’s other work drew me to read the Times pieces each time one appears.

I knew that Gubar had a book out in 2012, Memoir of a Debulked Woman, which I’d avoided reading. Her New York Times writing largely skates over the grim physical details of her illness; the memoir dives right in. “Debulking” is the surgical procedure in which attempts are made to remove the cancer — usually, surgeons get much but not all, leaving a condition called “suboptimal debulking”. Isn’t that a mouthful? In Gubar’s case, the surgeon also accidentally nicked her colon, creating a site which developed into a massive infection needing extensive treatment with further gruesome procedures. Honestly, it’s a wonder the woman isn’t dead.

After sticking to the Times writing for quite awhile, I decided that if Gubar could live with the debulking, I could read about it. I downloaded that memoir, along with her 2018 Late-Life Love: A Memoir. The latest book is about her second marriage to the man who has supported her through ten years of grave illness, alternated with periods where she is able to write, lecture, and support her remaining doctoral students. She is also a wife, mother and stepmother, grandmother, friend, academic collaborator and scholar.

This is one remarkable woman. Most remarkably, after all she’s gone through, she’s well enough to write, and to have a life and to risk love.

The debulking book is pretty hard to read, although once started, I was determined to finish. The take-away is that you don’t know at the outset all that you’re going to have to endure, or you might not start. Nobody gives you a list of procedures that might have to follow the initial operation. If they did, you might choose comfort care and call it a day. But once down the path, and because you love life, you will likely keep going as long as there is life to be lived. It’s a sobering message, but in the end, a hopeful one.

The late-life love book, which I’ve just started, is touching and moving. I might recommend skipping the first memoir and going right to this one, although I suppose it’s the suffering they’ve endured together that makes late life love so sweet.

If you like fine writing from women of a certain age, Gubar is just the thing. Find her work in the New York Times, and then decide if you’d like more.

Remembering Gilda Radner

I was never a fan of SNL, and hadn’t seen much of Gilda Radner’s work. But CNN did a New Year’s day special on her, and promoted the heck out of it — enough to entice me to watch.

Like many other comedians, Radner didn’t become a funny person because her own life had been a hoot. Concerned about her childhood chubbiness, Radner’s mother put her on Dexadrine at the age of ten. Later, Radner would have to be hospitalized for an eating disorder that left her weight dangerously low. Her beloved father died when she was fourteen. As an adult, Radner was in and out of relationships, finally marrying Gene Wilder, with whom she remained until her untimely death from ovarian cancer at age 42. She miscarried the baby they conceived together, and then the discovery of her cancer precluded trying again.

Radner was funny in the iconic mode of Lucille Ball — both highly physical comedians whose bodies and facial expressions and gestures did as much to communicate humor as their words. Radner was not a stand up comic who relied on monologues, like Seinfeld or Rosie O’Donnell. Radner created hilarious characters — Baba Wawa, Roseanne Roseanneadanna, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner — and she inhabited them even as she spoke of their inhabiting her. She could, she told us as her audience, do anything as long as people were laughing.

I expected that the program might be a collection of her funnier sketches, but instead was touched by the deep dive into the life and early death of someone who was brilliant at her art, and whose work took comedic roles for women a quantum leap forward. Beyond that, she started Gilda’s Clubs, where women with ovarian and other kinds of cancers can receive support.

Radner made a lasting impact, despite her foreshortened years. One of the things I’m aware of as I’ve passed 70 and am headed toward 74 in 2019, is that long life gives lots of chances — for learning, and growth, for experimentation, for healing, for mistakes to be corrected and relationships rewoven, for growing in the appreciation of life’s beauty and preciousness. When you die at 42 you don’t get nearly enough of that, whether you are famous or not. Rest in peace, Gilda Radner.

Remembering Minga

Emily and her mother Mary traveled with me to Panama in 2016. Emily and Minga celebrated a shared birthday, and the entire Panama clan showed up in the village to celebrate.

While going through pics on her phone, Emily found this one of Minga at the condo I was then renting, out on the balcony looking toward the ocean. Remember that Minga never in her life lived in a house with stairs, or a second story. The concept of “a view” was not part of her expectation in having a home.

Back in the Peace Corps era, the land on which this upscale complex was built was used by villagers to graze their cows — including Minga’s then marido, Roberto Delgado. The small circular mill he used to grind sugar cane to make raspadura was here. He sold each cake of raspadura — brown sugar — for a nickel. Their daily income in those days was under $3, maybe under $2. Minga and Roberto had five children living with them, and Ana living with Minga’s aunt. Ana sometimes came around at supper time for a plate of rice and beans.

Families came on Sundays to cook over open fires and swim the two rivers that go out to the sea, or to play on the beach. They’ve lost that access now, along with the use of the land.

Minga looks pensive to me in this shot. I wonder what she might have been thinking.