12/22/2010

New York New York ! It's a Wonderful Town !

Above: Elsie, Karen, Bill, Kevin. Who knew that summer of 1984 we'd see each other again, still be friends ?

I reached one of those milestone birthdays this fall - you know, the kind that end in "0", and I promised myself I'd do some special things in honor of it. At the exact moment of my birthday, I was too busy to mark the occasion - barely went out for dinner that night - but I promised myself that the year of living this birthday will be filled with special moments, experiences, adventures. Towards that end I took the first of what I hope are several trips this year : a little jaunt to NYC this winter, to see some old friends, take in a Broadway show.
Kevin and Karen at MOMA...the person who looks like Andy Warhol, behind us, is just serendipitous


I've been to NYC many times in my life - lived in the 'burbs even, for a brief period in the '90's - but this particular visit was made all the more special by the surprise visit of a dear friend whom I had not seen in over a decade. When he walked, unexpectedly, into the restaurant where we were eating, just as casually as if he lived around the corner (in fact, he lives quite far away), my jaw dropped to the floor with surprise and pleasure. That the rest of our merry band had secretly plotted this surprise was so touching, I became quite verklempt.

New York, New York --

A hell of a town,
The Bronx is up and the Battery's down.
The People ride in a hole in the ground.
New York, New York --
It's a hell of a town.
View from my hotel room
Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it - New York, New York
These vagabond shoes are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it - New York,
New York

I wanna wake up in a city, that doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill - top of the heap

These little town blues, are melting away

12/21/2010

The Jolly Lama Visits North Texas

One of the highlights of my year is the annual visit by "The Jolly Lama", Dudjam Dorjee, to my little town on the prairie in north Texas. Local folk interested in Buddhism, Tibet or the Lama himself gather on a mild autumn Saturday in early November for a potluck vegetarian lunch beforehand - which ironically is always one of the best meals I have all year, as the participants go all out to make gourmet "foodie" dishes made from scratch - and then listen to the Lama talk for about an hour or so. His musings are always thoughtful and manage to be extremely practical bits of advice on how to live in the modern world. Perhaps realizing that his audience here is a mixture of sincere students of Buddhism, new age seekers, the curious, and the wannabes, the Lama offers ideas on how to integrate sense and sensibility and move through the world with calm intention.


This year the Lama spoke on the importance and value of meditation in our daily lives, and how to meditate. (He also plugged his new book, an autobiography titled Falling Off the Roof of the World, which I have not yet read.)It has been an especially rough year for me and I have, at times, felt overwhelmed handling all my many responsibilities. The Jolly Lama reminds me that if I am not healthy, I cannot take care of the ones I love, and so it is not selfish to take care of myself first. He stressed the importance of balance in one's life : proper diet, healthy exercise, meditation, and loving interaction with the people in our lives. A powerful message in a crazy world.

That Eclectic Texas "Look"- decor

Resist the urge to think about cowboys, wagon wheel coffee tables, Indians, tee pees, large ugly iron and leather "western" furniture when you think "Texas" style decorating. My own personal style combines a bit of the southwest (including native American arts and crafts) with a little French, a little Mexican,  throw in a dash of eclectic global travels, some modern things thrown into the mix for good measure. You can scale it up or down, depending on the style of your abode. (My own home is a 60's suburban version of French Provencal, so weaving in the French makes sense, but has characteristically low 60's ceilings, so no huge hanging chandeliers for me.) Here are some great sources to help you get the "look"....above, Mexican Tiles
http://www.tierrayfuego.com/Ceramic_Tiles/index.htm
Just remember, a little goes a long way and these should be used like spices in a complex dish, with restraint.

Ballard Designs has been a long time favorite of mine. They seem to go through phases, for years it was sort of classically inspired (as in, Greece and Rome)catalog, then for a long time, recently, French with a more casual modern relaxed spirit. I snapped up a great French Provincial dining room set which, sadly, they no longer make. My other stalwart in this area, Pierre Deux, seems to be going out of business. Perhaps their pricier versions just couldn't sell in the prolonged economic downturn.
http://www.ballarddesigns.com/
I think they are based in Atlanta or somewhere in the South, so you get that southern flair in they way they mix colors and patterns.
A new favorite of mine is Viva Terra, a 'green' (as in , lots of reclaimed wood and recycled or fair trade made goods) slightly more upscale version of Pier One or World Market. I've been snapping up their stuff lately and the quality is great. Love their bold colors and patterns!
http://www.vivaterra.com/

Wisteria is another catalog that I seem to buy from every month. Based in Houston, I just can't get enough and wish they would expand their stores. However, if they did, that would probably spell an end to their many "one-of-a-kind" hand-made items. Similar mix : whimsical, multi-cultural, but with a softer palette.
http://www.wisteria.com/

For a bolder, truly Texan look, you have several options: The famous King Ranch ( as in, an actual historical family owned ranch that has been in business for over 150 years) now has a catalog of leather goods, clothes, and home furnishings.
http://www.krsaddleshop.com/Default.asp?
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The Arrangement in Dallas has been around for awhile and will even ship your purchases ( my mother-in-law periodically comes to town, buys stuff she has sent back home to Virginia)
http://www.thearrangement.com/
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Throw in some native American arts and crafts, especially rugs or pottery, and you are good to go: (Note: most of the Indians native to Texas were plains tribes, which meant they were nomadic, which means they didn't stay in one place long enough to develop an industry of their own goods. Mostly they were driven out and killed by white settlers, sorry to say. So most folk in the American southwest go with the Indians tribes who populate New Mexico and Arizona for that southwestern art look: Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, etc.) . Here are a few reliable sources our family shops from often:
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http://www.themudheadgallery.com/servlet/the-**BASKETS**/Categories
http://www.perrynulltrading.com/rugs-and-weavings-1
http://www.southwestindian.com/cat/Ceramics-For-the-Home.cfm
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Pendleton is a historic wool mill and blanket maker. They make many western themed products that are not to kitchy:
http://www.pendleton-usa.com/category/Home-Blankets/Native-American/1823/pc/1816.uts
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For all your cowhide rug needs:
http://rusticfurnituredepot.com/doorbusters.html?gclid=CKWL4d-a_LwCFRJp7AodamkAeA
Check back here if you are interested in this topic. When I find new stuff, I will post it here.

I'm on pinterest, and I have several boards dedicated to this style....look for me"GirlFromTexas"

12/10/2010

On Creating a New Identity

 




     Writers living on the fringes of the nation-state in global border zones do not always feel that their identities fit within the core of the mainstream societies in which they physically exist. As societies grow and change, a certain artistic rigidity takes over in terms of cultural identity and the creative nexus often shifts away from the dominant foci of an aging civilization to the dynamic fringes of those “parent” cultures. It is within these border zone fringe regions, whether physical or intellectual, that writers address issues related to being dispossessed from the mainstream, and how this fact both marginalizes yet simultaneously fuels their creative self-concepts, forging a new identity that is fueled by imaginative creation. The issues involved in creating a new identity are explored by a diverse array of modern global writers, authors such as Amichai, Nafisi, and Salih, who write from various regions of the world: Israel, Iran, and the Sudan respectively; and include Mexican-American writers closer to home such as Anzaldua, Martinez, and Santos as well. This diverse group of writers explores how a modern global individual’s quest for identity is shaped by aspects of location, tradition, hybridity, and the creative process. Each author offers up a uniquely individual answer to the question: How does the modern response to globalism shape an individual’s local, personal quest for identity?



The Role of Location in the Forming of Identity
     Location is the starting point for this artistic dialogue in the quest for forming a unique and diverse identity. Whereas in the past, members of a cultural group were bound by the limitations that culture, religion, ethnicity, travel, finances, and historical geo-political movements placed on them; today individuals can fly around the globe in a matter of hours and communicate across the world via the internet in only minutes. Media-scapes now move past the boundaries of the nation-state and flow into all corners of the planet, often reinterpreted in various diverse regions in surprisingly new ways. In many parts of the world, people feel freer than at any previous historical time to consciously create a unique, multi- dimensional personal identity that combines aspects of cultural, ethnic, religious or gender-oriented traditional identities.  It is within this context of “anything is possible” that the search for local meaning, played against the backdrop of a global stage, causes modern writers to search for new metaphors to construct identity. Hall posits that “to return to the local is often a response to globalization” (King, 33). This issue of how the local environment evokes and shapes individual identity is explored in a variety of different literary works, with a surprisingly diverse set of answers.
    The simple love story encapsulated in Demetria Martinez’s novel Mother Tongue reveals how individuals, try as they might, never truly escape the lingering effects of global conflict, no matter where they may go, physically. The hero of her story, Jose Luis Romero, flees the torture and conflict of his native El Salvador for the peaceful safety of Albuquerque New Mexico, only to find that the horrors he has experienced in his former nation-state continue to haunt his dreams and his body, impacting his relationship with Maria, the heroine. No matter how hard he tries to start over in his new life, getting a menial job to pay the bills while continuing the political activism for his homeland that gives his life meaning, the violence he has experienced previously trickles down through him into his romance with the naively simple woman in his new country who tries to heal him. Jose Luis lashes out, although he does not mean to, harming Maria, before he ultimately flees a second time, fearing for his own safety. Originally a unique individual who was studying to be a priest, Jose Luis’ past life which constituted his personal vision of “the local” as a seminary student in El Salvador, dissolves away into a present identity that is continually and forever shaped by the global consequences of the war he has experienced. He is from now on a refugee, a political dissident, and a victim of violence. He can never escape these versions of himself; he is a fractured individual and these parts have irreparably shaped him into the new identity he has absorbed unwillingly. Martinez offers the reader no vision of positive change or redemption for her hero; he is only able to create a new more holistic version of himself that meshes his old location (El Salvador) and new location (North America) and their attendant issues via the conception of his son, who bridges the identity gap by searching for his father’s history and heritage, and combining this quest with his own career path as an environmentalist. Martinez’s thoughts on how location and the culture and events that are tied to it affect identity offer a view that people are too much the product of their experiences, especially if those experiences are destructive. The events, people and the places we come from can never completely leave us, and individuals cannot remove the scars of the places they have been or what the past has done to them.
     Nafisi offers a contrasting view to this argument, however, that one’s location irreparably shapes one’s vision of personal identity. In her work Reading Lolita in Teheran:A Memoir in Books, Nafisi lives and work in her native Iran, even as political events during the Iranian Revolution gradually strip away her individual rights as a woman, a scholar, and a employee. The politics of the era negatively impact the lives and identities of many who live under this regime, and still do to this day. Nafisi, however, does not give in to despair as her rights and freedoms are slowly, one by one, taken from her. Instead, she pushes back against the new culture of male dominated, fundamentalist religion-based hegemony, creating a subversive all female reading group that meets secretly while continuing to study and discuss works of the now forbidden Western canon of literature. This response to global political conditions attempting to force a submissive restrictive identity onto females takes the form of the most local response possible: a small group of trusted friends, discussing and journaling privately their innermost responses to life and literature. While previously Nafisi had been a noted scholar, writer, and teacher before the Iranian revolution, she was a respected professional but one who did not yet have a global audience for her thoughts. Her strongly defiant yet intimately personal refusal to accept a limiting,  extremist Muslim vision of how she should think, act and  live her life led her to write down her experiences in this book, which once published abroad ultimately led to her leaving her native country and travelling about the world discussing these very experiences. It is as though the events she lived through and her creative response to them gave her a new identity, purpose and focus. This is in direct contrast to the characters of Martinez’ book Mother Tongue, who are forever changed and cannot escape their locally shaped, predestined identities. For Nafisi, the refusal to accept the identity the global state wishes to impose upon her provides the impetus for new thought and forging a new identity, one located in the world of ideas and transcending the physical boundaries imposed on her  in sheer defiance. As Stuart Hall writes, “I want to talk about two forms of globalization, still struggling with one another: an older, corporate, enclosed, increasingly defensive one which has to go back to nationalism and national cultural identity in a highly defensive way….and then this other form of the global post-modern which is trying to live with, and at the same moment, overcome, sublate, get hold of, and incorporate difference.”(King 33) Nafisi epitomizes this idea as she refuses to accept the boundaries placed on her by the existing society in Iran, but struggles against it in her own personal quest for meaning.
    This issue of the importance of location in determining one’s identity is further explored in more activist ways by Anzaldua in her work Borderlands/La Frontera. Anzaldua begins by tracing her ancestry through a geographical and historical route, retelling the story of the Spanish conquest of Mezo-America. The 15th and 16th century invasions and subjugation of the native peoples by the conquistadors provides an especially brutal example of global forces at work on local identities: the Spanish perpetuated a near genocide on the Aztec people, destroying their core culture as a result. The worlds of both parties were never the same again; the collision of these two cultures produced a violent and forceful blending with the few survivors who remained, which resulted in a new identity created via intermarriage and/or rape that had distinct ethnicities, languages, religions, art forms, and even cuisine of its own. Similar scenarios occurred throughout the Americas with other European nation-states, but Anzaldua chooses to draw on the Spanish and Aztec past of her own unique individual ancestry. While the Spanish attempted to create a “new Spain” in the Americas, what they did not foresee was that the meshing of their own culture with that of local peoples would produce a wide variety of local responses in the form of  new societies that ripples through the history and geography of various New World Hispanic nations and ethnic groups to this day. In many ways, hundreds of years later, the offspring peoples and cultures of this European conquest are more vibrant, and their cultures currently more dynamic, than the existing parent cultures of old Europe. Anzaldua explores her own unique creative blending of a Mexican-American identity that is not stuck in the historical past or even in the dominant form of Mexican-American culture, but instead she is determined to transcend the legacy of this cultural raping of the Americas with its attendant violence, Euro-centrism, coerced religious beliefs and male hegemony. Anzaldua feels inspired to respond to the ethnic pride and diversity movements that began in the late 1960’s and continues to this day, creating and celebrating a new personal identity for herself that is not reliant on the past or on any particular place. Adopting the use of “Spanglish” in her poetry and prose, Anzaldua flexes her creative cultural muscle by contributing artistically to a growingly popular dialect, one that weaves together two different traditions (Anglo-American culture with Mexican, as well as other Hispanic heritages in other locales, such as Miami with Cuban Spanish, etc) into a new identity that is all its own, one that transcends the borderland or any specific location in Mexico or the United Sates. “Spanglish” is just the tip of the cultural iceberg, a cultural marker that forms its own abstract media-scape border zone of Tejuano culture that can be accessed via radio, tv or the internet from New York to Miami to McAllen to Los Angeles to Guanajuato and beyond. Anzaldua, writing in the 1980’s, is perhaps a pioneer in introducing this complex and artistically rich cultural world to a wider audience, and years later it is now clear that “Spanglish” is just the gateway to open up the portals of this culture to others. The fact that “Spanglish” words have found their way into every day American speech, that Taco Bell fast food eateries (however inauthentic to a purist) exist on every street corner, even in the northeastern cities of North America, and salsa surpassed ketchup a few years back as the best selling condiment in the United States, speaks to the power of this rich and creative cultural tradition that transcends any physical local region. This is clearly a globally dynamic culture that is on the move.
     Transcending local circumstances and exploring new worlds, as well as new identities while moving towards the global, is a journey taken in a reverse direction from Anzaldua by John Phillip Santos in his semi-fictional memoir, The Farthest Home is in An Empire of Fire. This, the second book where Santos traces an initial historically based family lineage, first on one side of his parents’ genealogical tree then on the other, Santos begins his quest for identity with tales of his Mexican-American family growing up in south Texas, with homesteads and family members located on both sides of the Mexican-American border. It is clear from his personal experiences that the concept of a “border” between Mexico and the United States, so arguably important to many Anglos on the northern side of this imaginary line that roughly follows the Rio Grande, is a much more flexible, floating, relative and porous concept to those who have grown up with family histories that straddle its boundaries. When individuals trace local family history back to a time where the “border” existed much further north, before Tejas/Texas formed its own separate geo-political identity, one could easily understand why the current location of this current border seems transient and relatively unimportant to current populations who inhabit it. As Santos continues exploring the history, real or imagined, of his family, he eventually journeys to Spain in an effort to discover if he can find any traces of his collective or individual identity from that supposedly “mother” culture and land. While there, he encounters several key individuals, notably a border guard with whom he exchanges shoes in a moment of detente where both parties realize that have more in common than they differ, in spite of the fact that each claims a very distinct and locally different heritage identity. Santos also undergoes DNA testing to see just what percent of his lineage he can scientifically trace back to Spain. This produces the unexpected consequences that Santos discovers his genome contains, in fact, no Spanish blood at all; he is of 100 % Native American descent. Rather than taking this new discovery as a setback, his concept of the “motherland” still matters in an iconic, if not an actual, sense. It is from this perspective that Santos begins to move outward in his journey of self exploration, from a homeland and self- identity bound by geographical constraints into an imagined world that transcends both time and place. Much like Dante exploring the Inferno accompanied by Beatrice, Santos explores a new idealized imaginary homeland, which he calls “La Zona Perfecta”, with his imagined ancestor from the future, Cenote Siete or “C7”. Santos is thus exploring the idea that individuals can create a new self- identity based on imagined boundaries, ancestors, or histories, with no actual physical link to time or geographical place at all. He takes Anzaldua’s creative process one step further.

The Role of Tradition in the Forming of Identity
     Traditions spring forth from the nexus of specific locations, with their attendant histories, religions, art forms and culture, both local and global. Our traditions provide a scaffolded framework for individuals to begin the process of identity creation: individuals tend to either adopt them or rebel against them, but the role of local traditions in this process remains undisputed. Just as there are an infinite number of cultural traditions around the globe, so there are as many differing responses to traditions, old and new, as there are people on the earth. There is an interesting dichotomy as to how this response to tradition is interpreted, and how individuals use their unique cultural traditions as a “spring board” for self identity formation. This contrast can be seen in writers from the Old World, notably several writers from the Muslim world of the Near East and Africa, versus those arising from the New World, specifically Mexican-American cultures. Contemporary poet Yehuda Amichai, in his collection of verse The Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai, explores traditional themes stemming from his Jewish heritage in his poem, “An Arab Shepherd is Searching for His Goat on Mount Zion”. Here he writes about an imagined moment when the religions of Judaism and Islam began, and how similar and parallel those moments actually were. The poet’s imagery, syntax, meter and diction are all drawn from similar sounding verses such as those found in books of the Old Testament; Amichai celebrates the qualities these two world religions share, which to him seem to be more than their differences. Amichai expands his theme of the universal qualities that all humanity shares in his other poems about family, children, love, weather, seasons, or flowers. Amichai’s topics and perspectives are shaped not only by the traditions of his native Jewish culture, but also from his graphically violent experiences as an Israeli who has fought in combat. The fact that daily violence is an integral part of Amichai’s personal traditions and background can be seen in poems such as “The Diameter of the Bomb”, “Elegy on An Abandoned Village”, and in his lines:
“Half the people in the world,
love the other half,
half the people
hate the other half”  (Amichai 14)

It seems clear that for Amichai, his personal traditions involve a blending of his identity as a Jewish man, Israeli citizen, a soldier, and an artist/poet with an almost calm acceptance of violence, war, hate and bloodshed as integral if destructive traditions of his daily life. This is simply the unusual, if unique combination of what he knows and who he is. The fact that he is such a beloved Israeli poet speaks to his many other countrymen who have shared similar juxtapositions, which contrast the beauty of the world around them mingled with graphic violent destruction.
     Sudanese author Tayeb Salih offers a different perspective on the value of traditions in shaping individual identity in his novel Season of Migration to the North. In this story, the main character, Mustafa Sa’eed, is contrasted with the nameless modest narrator with greatly diverging results. Both men are intelligent local village boys, given a chance through hard work and ability to move up in their imperialist Anglophone cultures, located on the fringe of the British Empire. Each boy is given a chance at schooling in the British system, and each eventually moves to London to make his way in that quintessential “hub” of the 19th century global imperialist universe. From here, though, their fates differ drastically. Mustafa Sa’eed becomes a misogynistic serial killer, who eventually returns to his village attempting to escape the law and the consequences of his previous actions by hiding out in this remote outpost, a village along the Nile River in the Sudan. He continues his dream of Empire that reflects his self concept, however, with a secret book room tucked away inside his outwardly rustic village home that is an exact re-creation of a proper English gentleman’s study, a highly symbolic lair that evokes images of power, education, domination, escapism, wealth, and the tangential nature of learning and knowledge without context.  Mustafa Sa’eed is contrasted with the nameless narrator of the story, so like him in many regards save for the most important: while Sa’eed is adrift on the global currents of humanity, learning all that civilization has to offer and achieving wealth, he does this while jettisoning the native cultural ties, traditions and values of his home and past. He is a lost man. Even when he returns to his village, he does so without meaningful local connections. He lives emotionally apart, not partaking in local traditions or family but secretly clinging to his British affectations. Mustafa Sa’eed is living in the midst of his homeland but not interacting with it, not using it to forge a new identity that is hybridized in a positive way that could provide him with a moral compass or nurture him. He is amoral and thus, broken. The narrator, who also returns to the small Sudanese village but does so to live and work and be fully connected to his past traditions, people and culture via personal human relationships to its various members, remains “centered” in a way that provides him with character, morality, direction, and hope. Salih emphasis the symbolic nature of being connected versus roaming in an errant fashion in his choice of title for this work - “migration to the north”, an image recalling a migratory flock of birds, transient, rootless, adrift and purposeless other than to feed - symbolizes those very peoples, such as the narrator and perhaps the author himself, who are located on the fringes of the British Empire and feel the push-pull towards the center to “advance” oneself (in learning or career) that is ultimately empty and self destructive, like Mustafa Sa’eed ‘s life. Salih offers readers in the contrasting character of the narrator the idea that one must flow back to the fringes, to one’s home location and culture, in order to find meaning and connectedness in identity formation, and his novel offers a cautionary tale for individuals who fail to do so.
     This is similar to the approach that Nafisi takes in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Teheran, only she uses her traditions and cultural background in more intellectually interactive way. The author describes how she was born in Iran, spent several sojourns being educated abroad in the USA and Switzerland, yet returned to Iran because it is her home, her culture, and the center of her world. Nafisi returns to Iran not only to work as a college professor but to take what she has learned, share it with others and by doing so, move towards creating something new. The novels her study group read collectively and discuss are interpreted by the members of the group through the lens of their own background traditions and experiences. The author has a particularly strong response to the novel she selectively places in the title of her memoir; many Westerners reading Nabokov’s Lolita might simply interpret it from the point of view of gender roles, male domination over women, as a depiction of pederasty, or Western sexual freedoms taken to the extreme that they ultimately destroy perpetrators as well as victims; there are countless interpretations and emphases possible. Yet Nafisi approaches the meaning of this book through the lens of her own cultural background and traditions. Through that lens, this one book encapsulates what she sees as the enforced will or domination of one over another and thus symbolic for the oppression of Iranian women by the Iranian nation-state after the Revolution. Nafisi’s love of literary debate and the traditions she experienced of academic and personal freedom prior to the Revolution make her eventually realize that her geographical home has become so hostile to her self concept that she must leave it and move away, back to the West, taking the best of her culture, learning and traditions with her as she goes. As a result, Nafisi’s new personal identity becomes not Iranian native, but that of immigrant, and she reinvents herself in that context. She is not rootless, as Mustafa Sa’eed, but continues to center herself on her home culture re-imagined in a new global way.
    The weaving of traditions into a new forged personal identity is a much less sad and more positive and creative process for Mexican American authors such as Anzaldua and Santos. Refusing to be bound by the role(s) society tries to impose on her, Anzaldua in her work Borderlands/La Frontera  uses her cultural heritage and traditions as a vast reservoir of possible identities to draw upon, picking and choosing those aspects that are most meaningful to her. Anzaldua delights in the word play available to her by having two languages from which to draw, Spanish and English, and fully flexes her creativity not only with established “Spanglish” vocabulary, but inventing some new ones of her own. Refusing to be bound by male patriarchal imagery in her traditional Catholicism, she chooses instead to study how an Aztec goddess, Coatlicu, was historically morphed into the modern Virgin of Guadalupe, and adopts her as an archetypal patron. Using this female centered iconography as a stepping stone, Anzaldua moves towards rejecting all forms of male dominated traditional Chicano culture that she feels she has grown beyond or does not truly represent her, and instead celebrates the validity of her personal identity as a lesbian who happens to be of Mexican-American culture, picking and choosing those aspects that contribute to her creative vision as poet, artist, woman, and Latina. Anzaldua is an inspiration not only to individuals from her particular ethnic group, but to anyone who feels bound in a constraining way by the traditions of their own local native culture. She provides a template for how to reinvent one’s identity, selecting the empowering aspects while discarding those that limit one’s creativity or self vision. In this way, she transcends those boundaries that seek to confine anyone by issues of nationality, class, gender, sexuality, religion, artistry, ethnicity, etc. and moves out towards the global process of what she calls “the new mestiza”, a hybrid self-identity that incorporates multi-faceted aspects of one’s traditional heritage into a wholly new and original blended creation.
     Likewise, Santos views this process as empowering; his personal explorations differ from Anzaldua’s only in time and space. Santos’ work Farthest Home/Empire of Fire takes that journey of self exploration and identity creation to a new level, first via a geographical journey, then through a spiritual, historical/futuristic, imagined journey through time. Along the way he too plays creatively with various traditions from his local family back home in Texas, all the way to a variety of local traditions in his mythic “homeland” in Spain. The fact that New World authors Anzaldua and Santos feel so free to re-invent themselves must be a legacy of the historical traditional attitudes of the immigrants who first came here, personality traits that have become inborn or part of our global “American” identities: the willingness to relocate means that at some core level, the self concept of these people was fluid and dynamic. It took a great amount of courage and powerful motivation in those earliest settlers to board a tiny ship and fling oneself into the trusting hands of an unknown sea captain for untold weeks and months on the open sea, out of sight of land; to leave all that was known in terms of family, friends, geography, foods, crops, profession, religion, culture, and way of life and just venture out into the vast universe, confident that it would all work out well at the other end of the journey. A willingness to say to oneself: “ I am no longer a ____(fill in blank: Spanish conquistador, Englishman, French woman, Dutch businessman, Italian priest, etc) but am now a person who was once from ____(nation such as Spain) who now lives on this other far shore, doing ____(new occupation).” The imagination to see oneself in that new way, and the willingness to take a risk in the process of self-creation must be an underlying characteristic of the descendants of those original immigrants, all these generations later. How else could Santos and Anzaldua so fearlessly re-invent themselves? They take joy in their new self-reinventions, and seem to find that it fuels their creative process.

The Role of Hybridity in the Forming of Identity
    Hybridity is the end product when an individual responds to various global realities and then meshes together aspects of local experiences, preferences, and traditions into a new self concept. In the modern world where individuals feel freer to explore and create new versions of themselves,  hybridity results as various diverging parts of one’s cultural traditions are blended into a unique new concept that is different from either one or the other of its parent components. A hybridized identity is not a patched up conglomeration, but a dynamic new thing unto itself. For an author such as Amichai, the Israeili poet seamlessly blends, without much visible conscious effort or psychic conflict, various aspects of his life: soldier, poet, lover, Jew, father, scholar, destroyer, and nurturer. Which identity is paramount? Which is more valued? It is not clear; none of them seem to be. The many diverse topics of Amichai’s poetry  reveal a multi-sided personality, like a tetrahedonal dice, and his self concept draws equally on his many diverse life experiences as he rolls through whatever life throws him. It is to the poet’s credit that he can incorporate all these various forces into one complex yet integrated whole version of himself. Perhaps these vastly differing parts of his identity offer up a melting pot of strengths upon which Amichai draws, as needed, in a variety of situations. Not everyone can be a poet and a soldier who has both seen and caused death so frequently and yet remain mentally balanced. Amichi channels his experiences with various forms of death and destruction as a way to sensitize himself to the transient beauty of this world, and to make anew his appreciation for the fragility of the current moment, or a tiny flower, that is sublime.
     Martinez offers up a vision of hybridity that is not as smoothly integrated as Amichai’s. In Mother Tongue, Jose Luis is a man who has experienced warfare, too and is a sensitive soul who had been studying at seminary. After the violence he experienced when he escaped from a mass killing event, Jose Luis is so scarred by what happened to him that it haunts his dreams forever. He never can seem to create a new version of himself that incorporates both his past and his present, his global (old) experiences with his local (new) life, no matter how safe he feels at the moment and no matter how hard Maria, his lover, tries to heal him via her nurturing earth mother persona. Perhaps it is because by destroying that which Jose Luis valued most, i.e. his previous family, his religious studies, and his former way of life, the globally destructive forces he has internalized have altered his self identity forever in a way that destroys him. He is unable to recover and truly heal or create a new version of himself from the pieces. For Jose Luis, no hybridity is possible – until the next generation, when his son picks up the mantle of cultural traditions from both parents and weaves them into his own hybridized (American and Salvadorian; science, and faith; old world and new) mestizo identity.  
     On the surface, Nafisi seems to ignore the concept of hybridity altogether in her memoir Reading Lolita. Her book selections for the study group are all Western titles, mostly American novels, and while the author laments the societal conscriptions she faces, she seems focused on those aspects of her life from the West that have become an integral part of her previous identity, as the bulwark of her stand against societal tyranny and the fundamentalist Islamic script for women’s identity she faces. Her love of academic discourse, philosophical debate, civil freedoms, rights of (wo)men, satellite television, books, Western clothing, food, hairstyles, and makeup, etc. is evident in her poignant descriptions of the removal of these itemsfrom her life. She chooses not to dwell on aspects of her native cultural traditions that might lend strength or comfort to her during this process, such as family, friends, religion (even if her own interpretation of it), mythic or iconic images from Persian traditions, pop culture (movies, music, etc) or any of Iran’s native literature. Nafisi mentions briefly A Thousand and One Nights but chooses not to dwell on the lead female character even though Scheherazade is a clever woman who evades death by using her intelligence to out-manipulate and thus control a cruel dominating king. The form that hybridity takes in Nafisi’s work is subtle yet provides a valuable lesson to any reader: instead of consciously choosing to create a new vision of herself by integrating various aspects of her home land culture, Nafisi almost without realizing it transforms not only herself but shines a light on a path for her students as well, through the books that they read and their responses to them. Nafisi models how to face down oppression via her actions. Using the stories and the characters from Gatsby to Lolita, the reading group discusses various strategies for dealing with oppression and confronting one’s dreams in the face of obstacles. It is clear that the discussions of this reading group provide each member with ideas that nurture their souls and give them strength to face the differing and unique challenges each member confronts. Characters such as Huck Finn get re-interpreted through the eyes of an audience very different from the readers who first encountered him, and what the women take away from these fictional lives is different from traditional Western interpretation of their meaning or importance. Huck Finn, for example, is often taught in American schools by focusing on the controversial (for its day) father –son relationship between Huck (a runaway white boy) and Jim (a runaway African American slave), or the conflict that lies in Huck’s heart between what he feels is “the right thing to do” (i.e. to help to free Jim) versus what society tells him is “the right thing to do” (i.e. to report Jim as a runaway slave). Nafisi’s reading group instead interprets this novel from the aspect of personal freedom, both for Huck and for Jim, as the two characters create their own self identities in a transient border zone that exists only so long as they are away from the confines and laws of society and are floating freely down the Mississippi River. The dialogue that ensues regarding this work and others among Nafisi’s students, with its resultant construction of an imaginative, creative, abstract literary zone, free from the constructs’ of current time, history, or place, forms the version of hybridity that Nafisi, almost without realizing it, creates – a hybridity of experience, of the creative moment, blending local and personal thoughts via global literary constructs, into a newly imagined vision of the literary time and space that transcends the actual real world geo-political time and space.
     It is important to note that for Sudanese author Salih, the role of hybridity comes at a price. His novel Season of Migration is a cautionary tale, warning against the destructiveness of self-creation without context. Mustafa Sa’eed is a man who abandons his traditional past and ties to location, family, and local culture in an attempt to re-invent himself according to some plan not authentic to himself and his hybridized background. Is he simply a stereotype of how “white men” and the dominant colonizing society view people of color, or a foil that enables us to better understand the narrator’s character? Clearly, Sa’eed forgets who he once was in his attempts to be successful in the global environment; he loses all his native traditions in his attempts to become more “English”.  Exactly why he is a broken man is not truly explored in Salih’s work – it is never clear if society is what breaks him, or if it results as a matter of personal choices gone wrong- but the reader can draw the conclusion that something is amiss. The narrator, who manages to successfully integrate his old village traditions with his new educated professional self, to take what he has learned and apply it in a new context that blends old and new traditions, is able to straddle that local/global divide in a way that does not destroy him. He survives with his identity intact. Sa’eed ends up not only with a broken self concept, but also dead, and the novel leaves ambiguous if he died due to a natural flooding disaster or whether it was self inflicted. However, people who grow up along the Nile River treat this body of water almost like a deity unto itself, with a vengeful personality all its own. However Mustafa Sa’eed dies, it is clear that fate or karma or the universe, in the form of this mighty river, has literally swallowed him up and tossed his dead carcass aside. The only part of him that remains is his library, hidden and forever isolated,  useless to others and not even current.

The Role of Creativity in the Forming of Identity
      Authors of global literature offer up a nuanced variety of responses to the roles that location, tradition, and hybridity (i.e. integrating various aspects of one’s identity into the creation of new self) play in shaping individuality in the modern world. In each of these works discussed, creativity is the integral part of the process of taking all these factors and blending them together to come up with something new. This dynamic activity not only fuels the imagination and provides ideas and material for artistic expression, as it does for Anzaldua and Santos, but the process itself contributes, in an endless looping, to their newly formed visions of self, which leads back to more new ideas for artistic expression. The creative process allows individuals to incorporate diverse parts of their unique local experiences into a blended new whole, so that they can heal their fragmented souls and turn painful experiences into something beautiful and positive, as Amichai does via the writing of his poetry. Characters who are unable to do this remain frozen, as do Jose Luis or Mustafa Sa’eed. Artists and athletes often speak of being “in the zone”, that transcendent experience where one is so focused on the activity at hand that one loses a sense of the here and now or even of the self, and instead flows into, through, and around the activity and the moment. Action and actor become one. Time stands still and details of location become irrelevant. It is clear here that in a sense, our global writers, whether Mexican Americans such as Azaldua, Matinez, and Santos, or writers from other global realms of the Near East or Africa, such as Nafisi, Salih, and Amichai , have each transcended the local border zones in which they find themselves, and move towards an artistic version of being “ in the zone”. These writers speak to issues of identity creation that refuse to be locked into a specific location or defined by historical traditions, gender shaping, religious, or geopolitical movements.  While searching for that vibrant new blending of various aspects of their unique, local realities, each author has utilized the creative process not only to form a new identity as a painter draws on a canvass, but also to develop a creative process, a mixing of media and cultures that is, in and of itself, a creative border zone that exist beyond the realms of time and place, forever in the present “now”, the moment of creation. It is easy to imagine that as the internet and mass media grow more pervasive, reaching even the most remote corners of the planet, this creative mixing of local traditions with global paradigms will continue to fuel this shift into new hybridities beyond the ones discussed here. Individuals will have so many more choices with which to draw in that identity formation, the possibilities are endless. Hall reminds us that “…the most profound cultural revolution has come about as the consequence of the margins coming into representation – in art, in painting, in film, in music, in literature, in the modern arts everywhere, in politics, and in social life generally. Our lives have been transformed by the struggle of the margins to come into representation. Not just to be placed by the regime of some other, imperializing eye, but to reclaim some form of representation for themselves. “(King 34) It is this process that leads to the formation of new self identities and the development of the creative space as border zone all its own.
Copyright 2010 K.S.Reidy









Works Cited:

Amichai, Yehuda.The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Berkely: Univeristy of California Press, 1996.
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera.San Francisco, Aunt Lute Books , 2007.
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis,      University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
King, Anthony, ed. Culture, Globalization, and the World System. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2001.
Martinez, Demetria. Mother Tongue. New York : Ballantine Books, 1994.
Nafizi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Teheran. New York: Random House, 2008.
Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. New York: New York Review Books, 2009.

Santos, John Phillip. The Farthest Home is an Empire of Fire. New York: Viking Penguin, 2010.

7/15/2010

Travels : Four Corners Area Pt I


You know GFT loves New Mexico - as many Texans do - and tries to get there every other year or so. The desert in the Four Corners area is somehow more beautiful than the very same desert as it appears in Texas, and the shopping and food are much better. The elevation from sea level starts to climb as you drive through the panhandle area of Texas, and you can feel the air getting clearer and the clime becoming cooler. On this particular trip, a strange personal "Trip to Bountiful" sort of road trip - the sole purpose of which was to scatter my father's ashes along the way, accompanied by my mother who despised him (they divorced long ago) but was so senile that she had completely forgotten this fact - mom and I engaged in both  revisits to sentimental places from my childhood, and retail shopping therapy. Along the way, we ate some fantastic meals.

The Pantry, in Santa Fe
There are hundreds of wonderful restaurants in Santa Fe; it is truly one of those destination towns, like New Orleans or San Francisco, where you can go to simply to eat - and dining alone will provide all the entertainment you need. Roll outta one meal, walk it off, window shop, look at art galleries, see some sites, roll in to the next one. Everyone has their favorite spots in this town, and over the years I have tried many of them. This year, was wanting to get out of my rut, a bit , so approached my visit with open eyes and ears. Struck up a conversation at the Hagen -Das ice cream shop on the square (it is a long standing family joke, that every single day at 3 pm, no matter where she is or what she is doing, my mother says, "Now seems a pretty good time for some ice cream!" Imagine a little old lady, deep East Texas drawl.) with a woman who owns an upscale jewelry store on Canyon Road - she gave us two tickets for free comps at a tapas bar, La Boca, that was new in town. How fun ! Adventures happen everywhere, if you open your eyes.
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In spite of my mother's complaint that we were eating "too much Mexican food", however (that's like saying, "too much Cajun/Creole food" in New Orleans ! Sacrilege ! Tired of what you are eating ? Then select a different dish! So many choices, so little time......), I seldom veer too far off the beaten path of southwestern cuisine in NM. Have eaten at the Indian restaurant in SF and it was mighty fine, but when I'm there, I'm rarely in the mood. Can get Indian at home !
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Just to liven things up a bit, this year I decided to head the organic route, wherever possible. Started off our visit at the Farmers Market in Santa Fe, where I have often found not only wonderful produce but great arts and crafts, as well. Sampled local offerings there, bought ristras, gourds, baskets (still a few weeks too early to buy the famous Hatch green chiles, which arrive in late summer/early fall)......Picked up several local publications, and perused them for restaurant reviews. One thing led to another and.....
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One of the new places I tried this year, as a result of reading a review in the local organic newspaper, was The Pantry on Cerillos. This mom-and-pop diner has been around forever, yet somehow I'd never eaten there. I tried blue corn chicken enchiladas, one of my all time fave dishes, and it was fabulous. Melt-in-your-mouth tasty; I'll definitely go back. Mom had tacos and liked them, too. This place turns up with positive reviews on a lot of web sites. Don't miss it - another great little inexpensive spot with fresh wonderful food, I'm adding it to my list of places to hit each time I'm in town. They serve local wines with dinner, which we sampled - much needed after a hard day of shopping . A plus ! Kid and family friendly, I hear they are good for breakfast, too .

The Plaza Cafe in Santa Fe
A completely unexpected surprise for me was eating breakfast at the Plaza Cafe on the square. I must have passed this spot 100's of times, and never paid it any attention at all (assuming anything on the square had to be too touristy and therefore, bad). The exterior is unassuming; I almost missed it. Inside, it's sort of retro 50's diner-ish. Mom and I bellied up to the counter and ordered pancakes, thinking they would be little doily sized things, al la IHOP, but no! Mine were blueberry, hers were apple. When they arrived, they were the size of platters and simply to die for ! Possibly the world's best pancakes.... I'm still dreaming about how to replicate in my own kitchen. Will definitely add this spot to my list of place to hit each time I'm in town.

Often, when I travel with hubster, we sample the local brewpubs - beer is his chief hobby (sampling, collecting and consuming, mostly, although he does make home brew, once in a while). It just so happened at one meal this trip where my mom and I were pooped and ready to rest up and eat, I looked around , and there was Second Street Brew Pub right in front of us. We popped in and enjoyed the shade in the pleasant shady dining patio, and fortified ourselves with huge club sandwiches that were pretty tasty. Oh, yes, the beer wasn't bad, either .

Demo chef at Santa Fe School of Cooking
One of the most fun things to do in Santa Fe is attend a cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Part gourmet food/kitchen shop, part restaurant, part entertainment, if you are a casual or serious cook, you will get to see demonstrations, learn and practice many techniques for cooking southwestern food. A gf and I took a class here almost 20 years ago - that year I learned how to make enchiladas - from scratch. It included making and rolling my own tortillas.....it was a blast. This time, I enrolled my mom and me in a tacos class, but it covered such diverse things as: making red and green sauce, how to roast your own chiles, and several great recipes (including one for shrimp tacos which was to die for). We had a blast and I highly recommend it to anyone. Had thought about taking my surly teenage kids along for that one but chickened out at the last minute....should not have worried, there were several teens in the class, as well as a diverse assmt of geezers, gourmets, moms, and the usual hungry people this year.
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Hotel options in Santa Fe are plentiful, offering everything from spas and the truly luxurious to cheap cheezy motels, and everything in-between. A long-time vacation spot for the wealthy and those who love the art scene or skiing, there is something for everyone. I tend to favor brands in the Hilton family, only b/c I collect points there, but there is probably a branch here of every chain in America.

View from Far View Lodge Cafe, Mesa Verde
By far the most unusual dining and hotel experience we had this year was when we spent the night at Mesa Verde National Park. I've been visiting this place since I was a kid - never stayed in the park itself (always worried that it was too difficult to get a reservation, I guess, maybe with a waiting list years long). Growing up, we always stayed in Durango or Cortez. This year, perhaps due to the economy, I found plenty of rooms inside the park readily available on expedia or travelocity websites, at a discount. The only difficult thing about it was the fact that we arrived late at night - SOMETHING I ADVISE YOU NEVER TO DO, AT ALL COSTS. The front gate was open but no one was there, and we just rolled in (no one to sell us an entrance ticket). I then had to drive 15 miles deep into the park on twisty, turning mountain roads with no lights, no signs, no guard rails, only praying and hoping this adventure wasn't going to end like "The Shining" , "Thelma and Louis" or a slasher movie. After what seemed like an eternity and probably was - I am terrified of heights and was driving about 1 mph, as the roads were all torn up and "under construction"- we finally found Far View Lodge. In the dark, it seemed like nothing special. Checked in, went to our room, collapsed. But oh, how the light of day changes things ......... we woke up just as the sun was rising the next day. This hotel, turns out (couldn't tell night before, in the dark) is perched on a mountaintop in the park, with a view that spans the horizon. You can see canyons and ruins and into distant states. It is incredibly breathtaking; words alone don't do it justice. I was worried about getting some coffee as fast as possible (always my chief concern upon awakening), and discovered that inside the gift shops/ park buildings there are several restaurant choices, (some casual, some upscale) open to hotel residents hours before the park opens to the general public. Mom and I wandered over to the place that had a breakfast buffet and ate with scant few others, in front of giant windows that took in all the majesty of the sun coming up over the canyons. It was magnificent, a moment I will never forget.

Travels : Four Corners Area Pt II

La Placita, Old Town Albuquerque
Half the fun of any road trip is sampling a wide variety of cuisines and restaurants. I confess to being a strange mixture of both high-brow and low-brow tastes, in most aspects (cinema, literature, fashion, hobbies, husbands, and food !) and will happily dine at a 5 star restaurant or a roadside diner, enjoying each equally the same. Either end of the spectrum offers something unique and valuable that I want to experience. A trip to the Colorado - New Mexico region allows me to visit some old faves, and try some exciting new experiences as well. Sure, now and then one has to eat at a Denny's or a Waffle House, simply because nothing else is available. (It must be noted that I consider breakfast to be the only "safe" meal to eat at Denny's any or time any where, and as there are no Denny's at all along I-40 running through the entire state of Tennessee, and as hubster and I make that trek every summer, we endure what we know will be a long day of arguing as we cannot agree on where to eat, otherwise. Denny's is a "safe" choice in oh-so-many ways for us!) But it is a shame to waste a perfectly good road trip, with all the exciting food options that exist out there, on the familiar blandness of a chain restaurant.
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Hubster's family has long argued over which restaurant in old town Albuquerque is THE restaurant where they always dine. (One of the many things we share in common is childhoods spent out here, and a love of the cuisine.) Each time we go there, no one can never quite remember where it was that we ate last time we were there. Hubster's mom refers to a place she calls "El Ranchero", which she claims make the best chiles rellenos in all the world, yet there is actually no restaurant that has ever existed by that name (or similar) in that location. I know, I know, most in-the-know locals and well read tourists shun the Old Town area as tres passe, but I was traveling w my mom this summer, and she needed to hit some of the "old lady" spots she likes, too, so I indulged her. We found ourselves in Old Town, strolling around "power shopping" (you really have to see how fast and furious my mother does this, to believe it) one fine Saturday evening, and decided to stroll in to La Placita for dinner. This place hit the spot perfectly, serving us large sampler plates of the New Mexico cuisine we love so much, reasonably priced and perfectly rendered. My plate included chile rellenos as one of the items, and while this is not my fave dish, it was cooked and tasted just as it should be. I was pleased to note several Hispanic families with kids, and a young couple next to us who smooched the entire meal, who appeared to be locals, so I figured it couldn't be all that bad. It was a delightful meal, and about halfway through it, my mom sort of straightened up and said, "I have been here before ! A long time ago, when you girls were babies ! I remember it now!"
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Another family fave in Albuquerque is the Frontier Cafe, across from the University of New Mexico. Hubster reminisces fondly about eating green chile stew and I, the burritos, from that wonderful hole-in-the-wall cafe. A special note of interest : the tables, chairs, signs, menus, dishes, and all accouterments are EXACTLY the same as my long time Houston fave diner dive, House of Pies. It's as though each diner bought their initial set-up from the same restaurant supply store, the same year. Truly amazing.
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Plenty of hotel choices in ABQ, take your pick.

The Alley Cafe, Taos
It has long been a personal tradition of mine to hit Taos in time for lunch, or at least, cocktails, so I could sit on the balcony patio at Olgelvies Bar and Grill, on the plaza, and sip a margarita while enjoying the scenery (foreground: tourists, mid-ground: plaza, background: mountains). Never fazed me that the food was only so-so; the ambiance was worth it. I've been enjoying that place since the late 1970's. Sadly, it was closed this summer, so I had to find a new spot to dine in Taos. Conversation with a local shop-keeper (more power shopping w mom!) revealed that the economic downturn has hit Olgelvie's badly, they are trying to remodel, refinance, and keep it going, but it's all very up in the air at the moment. We manged to find a charming little spot called The Alley Cafe, literally in the alley behind the plaza, and ducked in out of a rain storm for green chile cheese burgers and margaritas, which were tres magnifique ! Fires burning in the fireplace were the prefect touch, as it was about 40 degrees and threatening sleet that day.
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One of the many fun things to do in the Taos area is to visit the wineries just outside of town, which are located along a back road, aka "the road to Dixon". Beautiful mountain scenery and charming little boutique wineries dot this highway. Family fave is La Chiripada, but I've been told others are wonderful, too. While my mom and I often order cases from off the LC website, it is a lot more fun and educational to attend a tasting session, and sample a wide variety of their many award-winning vintages. We did so this trip, and had a lot of fun - and came away with another case of wine ! The vintner recommended a lunch spot for us, named like Razzy's or something like that, (so new it does not have a website yet for me to check spelling) but it was closed the day we were there, so we had to press on.
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When staying in Toas looking for a romantic weekend, I've stayed at both of the very charming, historic, and luxurious old hotels : La Fonda, and Doc Martin's Historic Taos Inn. (I've been told there are great ski lodges in the area, which I'm sure have some mighty fine restaurants, but I tend to prefer to be in town, as I don't ski, and would rather shop, look at art, drink, eat, stroll about, etc. Bad knees......) The restaurants in each of these sentimental faves are lovely; never had a bad meal. It is a particularly pleasant thing to do in the fall or winter, and curl up by the fire.....
original photo of Bake's Lotta Burger....the current ones look about the same
While wending our way from Durango to Gallup (where the real shopping takes place; it must be noted that everything else is just a feeble warm up!), we often pass through Shiprock. Now, the road from Durango to Gallup, through Shiprock, is long, straight, flat, isolated and runs through the Navajo reservation for several hours/hundreds of miles (depending on how fast you drive !). I find the land beautiful, but many, not used to the serenity and undeveloped quality of the dessert southwest, might find it stark and lonely. It used to be that there was nothing, literally and figuratively NOTHING at all save sheep and hogans, the entire distance from Shiprock to Gallup. I did notice this year that someone has brightly built a gas station about halfway down this highway, around Teec Nos Pas. How many tourists, I wonder, ran out of gas on that road, over the years? Or get lost looking for the road to Chaco Canyon? Those in the know will fill up on food and gas, in Shiprock. Our family knows the area well, from the days when my brother-in-law worked at the hospital in Shiprock, and we visited him several times. Shiprock is not known for upscale cuisine, mostly just fast food choices, so this is when I eat at Blake's Lotta Burger, one of the few local fast food chains still extant. Yes, there are McD's and the other mainstays available, but why eat there when this one is so much better ? Cheese burgers are the thing to eat here, with green chile, and also pretty good shakes. (About halfway through this trip, my mom said to me, "Why is it that everything we are eating is Mexican food ?" When in Rome, ma, when in Rome.........)


As I mentioned earlier, part of the goal of this trip was to engage in retail shopping therapy, as we morned the passing of my father, who especially loved the American Southwest, used to paint there frequently when I was a child, and instilled a love of the area and culture in me at an early age.

If you enjoy shopping for Southwesetern items, whether it be rugs, pottery, jewelry, or other bric a brac, know this : prices in Sante Fe are twice that of prices in Albuquerque, and prices in Albuquerque are twice that of Gallup. Yes, Gallup is 2 hours west of Albuquerque - but worth the drive if you are a serious shopper.

Garcia's in Gallup
Gallup is a town that is strangely frozen in time : so much of its growth era was dominated by the magical "Route 66" that guided folk from Chicago to Los Angeles back in the earlier part of the 20th century. If you are searching for a modern upscale hotel or restaurant here, forget it. El Rancho claims to be "where the movie stars slept" back in the day, but I've been in there and it reminds me of Norma Desmond's nightmarish house in the movie "Sunset Boulevard." Too many dusty old stuffed animals leering at you, their glassy eyes, their yawning jaws.....you know they all come awake at night, when you are not looking, don't you ? Your best bet is one of the clean new mid-range chains near the highway; the main street through town, which is the actual "Route 66", is filled with quirky looking motel-courts from the 1920's through 1950's, which while nostalgic and cute, promise you lumpy beds, damp shag carpeting and funky smelling rooms with not enough scratchy small towels. There are 1000's of small diners in this town, each serving pretty much the same local fare. For such a seemingly small town in the middle of nowhere, the entire town can book up quickly (it is a regional hub, home to several major rodeos and Indian inter tribal conventions) so plan and book ahead if you go there. August is the busiest month - I'd skip August, unless compelling personal business took me there - although, August is known for great sales, when everything is half off.
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I always say to people that Gallup is where I go to shop, seriously shop, and they seem unaware that it exists. Gallup is off the tourist beaten path, close to several reservations, and the prices for anything (I'm talking native American handicrafts here, of an upscale variety : jewelry, baskets, rugs, etc) worth having are roughly 1/3 that of prices for the same item in Santa Fe. If you collect items of this nature, you know what I'm talking about, and it is not "tourist grade" inexpensive (made in China) crap sold in some mega store on the highway next to a gas station. The quality and the prices make Gallup, only 2 hours west from ABQ, well worth the trip. There are also many places that sell what local hand-crafters use to make jewelry, so if you are "into" beading, it's like being a kid in a candy shop. I have more than once seen an individual stroll into a store, ask for the manger, and bring out a crumpled paper lunch sack full of incredible jewelry this individual person just made, themselves, to sell to the store, to sell to people like me.
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There aren't any especially wonderful places to eat in Gallup, but this year, just by chance, we wandered in to a 1950's looking diner along the far west side of "the strip" named Garcia's, looking for breakfast, and it was wonderful. Car had been making an ominous sound the previous day, which was stressful, but that morning a helpful young man in a parking lot rolled under and looked at it (a loose plastic flap, that is all - had it checked at a dealership in Santa Fe, later, which confirmed and fixed it ) . We then ate at the spot nearby, and all my tension were quickly soothed by an incredible green chile omelet, great coffee, fresh squeezed o.j., home-made tortillas and fry bread. My mouth waters even now, thinking of it. All presided over by a charming and ebullient proprietor, Garcia himself, who visited with us and talked about how his food was actually good for you b/c it was all home-made, from scratch, no preservatives, no additives, no trans fats, etc. I was sold; he had me at the first bite, anyways!




Summer Reads

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. By now it seems that everyone in America has read this novel. It's been on the New York Times best-seller chart for untold weeks and received a lot of media buzz; book clubs all across the country have championed it. IMDB informs me that a movie version is in production.
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The story of a generation of women living in Jackson, Mississippi during the nascent years of the Civil Rights movement, The Help employs a frame story structure that follows the adventures of an east coast educated, wealthy young white woman, Skeeter, who returns home from college adrift and purposeless in the early 1960's. Too smart to marry any of the local hicks, Skeeter is a member of the Junior League but feels out of place and disconnected with her southern (read "brainless, racist, superficial") society sisters. She attempts to find purpose in her life by secretly interviewing and writing down the stories of all the maids who work for her family and friends around town, focusing primarily on the tales of two main characters, Minnie and Aibeleen.
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Along the way, Skeeter and the maids find themselves, each other, and purpose in their lives. They believe that the simple act of telling their stories will somehow change the racist world they live in, and perhaps they are right. Most people I have spoken to about this book have uniformly praised it......but I have to admit it drives me crazy. It is a noble enterprise to recount the experiences of the maids, to let their voices be heard, and to decry the hypocritical society women who employ the maids to raise their children without a care in the world yet simultaneously worry if that same maid could be trusted to use their toilets or while polishing the family silver. This criticism of southern society - both then and now- is valid. My problem with this book is the attitude that seeps through every page; a self-congratulatory vibe that fairly shouts, "Aren't I a good person for taking the opposing point of view and telling you what these women's lives were really like ? Look at me ! I'm a southerner who is not racist ! I understand the plight of these people ! " And that, in and of itself, is just as damning as being racist. It is a view of people and situations that reduces individuals to stereotypes and fosters a post-colonial imperialist missionary attitude. These poor people can't help themselves, they still need us white folk to do it for them! This book is patronizing and the characters remain stereotypes (the noble white woman, the funny irascible maid, the all-caring lovable mammy who suffers silently, the white trash tramp with the heart of gold). While an entertaining read and probably an eye-opener to the many southerners who will ponder it with some discomfort, The Help will never be a great literary work. The entire time I was reading this story, I couldn't help but think of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, a timeless classic that manages to explore similar themes (African Americans are people, too !) while creating characters that are sympathetic, archetypal and deeply drawn (Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell, Atticus Finch, Dill Harris, Scout, Jem, Calupurnia), not stereotypical.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Of all the books I read this summer, this is the one I have recommended most to others. This story blends fantasy, noir style mystery, mythology and classic road trip motifs into a captivating tale of a modern day quest for the self. Shadow is released from prison, takes up with a strange fellow who may be the god Loki in disguise, and the two travel across the continent rounding up other displaced former old world deities (often depicted in humorous ways : Egyptian gods turn up as morticians) all the while preparing for some grand epic clash of the Titans sort of battle that is going to take place at the "Rock House" of east coast fame (from barn roof signs all over the mid-Atlantic area: " See Rock House ! Only 45 miles ! ) The enemy ? "New Gods" that have supplanted the old ones: gods of credit cards, money, tv, movies, and the internet (personified as an obnoxious rapper kid in a limo). Highly entertaining while offering valid social criticism, I could not put this book down, and neither will you. Great for lovers of fantasy, mythology, the American scene. Will make you think of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" - in a good way.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker.The title of this book captivated me, and Elna Baker is a humorous raconteur - her yarn about working at FAO Schwartz one Christmas season, selling a baby doll a named "Nubbins" causes me to break out in laughter even just thinking about it. I am surrounded by many Mormons where I live, and confess I know little about their faith (other than a quick tour through wikipedia) or what they think about the world and themselves. This coming of age story, which recounts a wholesome young woman's attempts to make it in the Big Apple, finding love and herself along the way while maintaining her personal values, provides a sympathetic eye-opening view to Mormonism at its most mainstream interpretation. (Granted, this is a a liberal version of this faith, or the author would not find herself living in New York doing the things she does.) Read it for humor, or for understanding this often unknown faith/culture just a wee bit better. Now that I think about it, each of the books I read this summer explore the concept of moving past prejudice and into getting to know individuals in a more open manner. Social criticism in a variety of highly entertaining formats.
Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. The title perhaps riffs on one of Groucho Marx's old jokes: Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read. So we have a book about man's best friend that is, in itself, man's best friend (a book about man's best friend.) In this work, the author applies the same observational anthropological skills that many have used to study primates and other species, and applied them to the study of that animal that is constantly by our side and yet rarely completely understood. A fascinating read for any dog lover, Horowitz explains how dogs "see" in "smell-o-vision", why it is important to take a moment to greet your dog when you return home at the end of the day, the importance of play, or marking, of barking, and many other interesting behaviors. Her style is engaging and not dry - this is a great read.