Sunday, December 14, 2003

Woke up in the middle of the night, with the French radio on. They said Saddam had been caught in Tikrit -- no confirmation yet.

This morning, it was official. I just watched it on the BBC, with full beard which he kept stroking as if it still surprised him.

DNA confirmation? Based on the bodies of the two boys? Well, you read what I thought about that one... I want a good photo of him, in good lighting, full-face: I got pretty good at spotting the "real" Saddam from the doubles.

I mean, in Tikrit... where they have been working the soil over with a fine toothcomb all these months? In a basement? A root cellar? Hum... This takes quite a bit of swallowing.

But I must go. It's time to set off to Flushing Temple, it's snowing, who knows what subways may be not working this weekend. I'll be back later.

If it is Saddam, it's about time. For a moment, I thought we were no longer bothering, just as we seem to have forgotten our old friend [sic] Osama.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

I have been incubating this since my birthday last week. There was something so precious about it, so private too, that I was reluctant to brush off its delicate bloom by having a ready response.

The time of my birthday always coincides with a stock-taking period, not so much because it is my birthday and, therefore, a time of renewal, but because it happens to coincide with the darkening of the light, the winding down of the year and completion of projects, the evaluation of what worked out and what needs to be tweaked, the resetting of counters and compasses, the reaming out of engines, the remounting of gadgets, the rewording of determinations and the mustering of new enthusiasms, which I associate with the Equinox and the New Year, from which I make a fresh start. Hope springs eternal, as y'all know.

So for the past week, I have sailed my little leaky tub under full sail in a Roaring 40's squall, taking in much water, and bailing out, bailing out, still never giving the sails any slack.

This to introduce my surprise email from Sue Garthman:

"Happy Birthday, La Fenskaya!"

. . . in which she invited me to join her birthday boy Robert on his pogo stick.

Robert and I share the same birthday (along with Mozart, Walt Disney, Calvin Trillin, and others).

Anyway, I only read Sue's email on December 7. And I only caught up on reading my favorite linked blogs late that same night, which is when I found the photo of Robert, smiling full screen at me around 1 a.m. in the morning of the 8th.

I fell in love. I just sat for more than an hour looking at this beautiful boy, wiping an occasional quiet tear of joy from my face, peaceful and filled with an inexplicable delight, a warmth that no words can fully express.

Thank you, Sue, and Robert too, of course, for a wonderful birthday present that will stand out as one of the greatest "rainy day notes" ever.

When I was a little kid in boarding school in England, there was a tradition that someone in your family would send you a cake and fixings for a birthday party. My first year there, I didn't know how this worked out, but I had asked my Aunt Doll to bake me a cake, which she duly produced and iced and mailed in time, parcel post.

Mother Peter was in charge of the refectory in those days, a very large, no-nonsense woman with a mustache and a deep voice. When the parcel came in, I knew what was in it, I didn't open it, I just handed it over to Mother Peter to be set aside until the day, which fell on a weekday that year.

What I was unaware of that first year was that another kid in my class, two years older than me, had the same birthday. She had been a boarder there longer than me, she knew the ropes, her mother lived nearby and supplied plentiful goodies. Mary Bedson, who we all called "Bedbug", was well-known for the quality of her birthday parties, and when I got around to inviting people to mine, they had all been invited to Bedbug's first and had already accepted. So on the day, I found myself at the head of a sad little table, sitting with the three most unpopular girls in my class, those who had been invited last by Bedbug and who were very sorry indeed they had already said "yes" to me, because all three of them, and me too, ate our tea with our heads swivelled round over our shoulders, looking at Bedbug's party.

Bedbug had gathered such a large attendance that two refectory tables had been abutted to create a vast single banquet table. It was heavily laden with colored jello moulds, little piles of scrumptious sandwiches made with fish pastes and other savories, small cup cakes, chocolate biscuits, candy, store bought jams, and at the head of the table, just in front of Bedbug herself, was enthroned a huge store-bought, perfect cake, with little pink sugar roses all around the edges, and garlands of green leaves, and "Happy Birthday Mary" in pink script on a perfectly smooth white surface.

Mother Peter, no doubt feeling sorry for me, had prepared for my plain table a plateful of "bread and butter and jam" sandwiches. This was the very same "bread and butter" we got every day, with the same "jam", post-war England none of which were the real thing of what we named them, so the only difference, basically, was we didn't actually have to spread the usual jam onto our usual bread ourselves.

My group of outsiders ate in silence. We none of us could really cope with this business of sitting on the sidelines of a very noisy, joyful, large birthday party happening right beside us, where everyone was scarfing unusual delicious foods, from which we were excluded by some invisible barrier.

Mother Peter kept coming over to us, she could probably understand the situation better than any of us (this was my tenth birthday). She finally said: "Didn't you give me a cake to set aside for you?" I was embarrassed. But once I had admitted to having such a cake, Mother Peter insisted on bringing it up from the depths of wherever it had been held for me. I opened the package, and there it was, a grey, home-made cake, with the spatula marks still showing on the rock-hard icing. No flowers. No garlands. No "Happy Birthday Patricia".

Jolly, jolly Mother Peter fetched me a large knife to cut my cake: "Make a wish, go on!"

In five minutes flat, the only wish I was capable of making was to be able to cut my cake, which was absolutely impregnable! In the end, I was no longer trying to cut it, I was jabbing at it, nay, I was stabbing it, figuring if only I could get past the icing somewhere, I could break it open and bring out the cake hidden beneath this battleship shell. After a little of this, my sad guests and I were in the spirit of it, we were giggling madly, and I became manic, my usual mode -- about time -- and the cake was skittering all over the table, trying to dodge my thrusting blows.

Mother Peter intervened: "No, no, no, Fenn," she protested, "That's not the proper way to cut a cake..."

"You try..." I handed her the knife.

She took over, but then she realized that here indeed was something special, unusual to say the least, in the cake department, she had never before experienced one of Aunt Doll's home-baked cakes.

It took forever for Mother Peter herself to get in. Inside, there was a perfectly good fruitcake (I can still hear Aunt Doll's mantra about her baked goods, "It should be good, it has two eggs in it."), surrounded by delicious marzipan. In fact, only the grey icing was inedible, I swear it tasted just like what it looked like, gun metal.

The next year, the famous "twins" birthday fell on a Saturday. There was an "away" hockey match, so very few people were around for tea. I had asked Aunt Doll for a cake, pleading: "Please, made by Aunt Joan this time", and it had duly come in and been set aside, unopened once more.

At the end of a regular tea, I remembered the cake and asked for it. There was no time to eat it before we had to go into the chapel for Benediction, so I took it into our form room afterwards and shared it with all those people who were around, all those who had not gone with the hockey team.

Now, Aunt Joan was a pro, and her home-baked cake was perfection itself. It was a huge cake, a delicious cake, and we were not many to share it: so we had a memorable pig-out. Years later, everybody was still talking about that cake, it seemed after the fact as if the whole world had been there.

The next time the "twins" had a birthday, Bedbug invited me to share her party with her, so we had the one table, everybody attended, and there were no outsiders at all. The funny thing about all this is that I don't remember any more who the original unpopular three were -- not if my life depended on it. But then, after spending years together in a boarding school, by the end everybody gets along. Fact.

Thank you again, Sue and Robert. Yes, I would love to have a go on the pogo stick, I never had one. I think I would be good at it...

Friday, December 12, 2003

Back to nornal blogging, I hope.

Sunny today and I don't have to leave the house first thing after breakfast. What occurred to me as I was scraping the bottom of the empty Marmite jar was how full of illusions we all are about:

The Descent of Man

If you spend any time on the Web, either digging through the media, the forums, the blogs, and you take the trouble to read the comments made to some of the most cogent writing you have come across, the first thing you will notice is how full of hate and anger most people are to come across any opinion which differs from their own, even and perhaps most especially if that cast-iron opinion is based on prejudice, combined with ignorance, and bolstered by hypocrisy and denial.

Then there is a bunch of people who's main purpose is to organize reparations, retribution, compensation, for suffering of their ancestors or parents in the past, recent or not, even though they themselves never experienced any of it and even though they have only recently discovered the truth of the facts.

The first thing I come to think about is the Evolution of Man. At the separation of the animal world and the plant world, the animal can move about at will within its environment, whereas the plant mainly stays close to its roots (there are, of course, exceptions, like the orchids that travel down river, planted on logs which in a sudden flood were dislodged from their anchor at riveredge). Then it is thought man and apes had a common ancestor. The differences between ape and man DNA is not so very big, an ape is 98% a man. But the ape is still stuck in his environment, the comfort zone of his forest, swinging the unfettered life from branch to branch, subject only to his instincts and the availability of a congenial habitat, even though he has organized a fairly complex social system, with rules (we can't say taboos, but I think it comes close) about mating, child rearing, the support of the weak, the acceptance of strangers, territorial ownership or guardianship, etc. (Until man comes along and swoops him up into his zoos and animal experiment labs, that is.) We don't, most of us, understand ape communication, but they do communicate, if you watch, you can observe it.

Open a parenthesis here about animal communications beyond human understanding. I used to have two grey-cheeked parakeets, Mimi and Metoo. I don't acutally know what their sex was, or their age (I bought them secondhand in a pet store), but I always thought of Mimi as the girl and Metoo as the boy. Mimi had had one of her feet broken when she was banded, it had healed twisted and dead, but she was an adventurous soul and always the first to try out anything new. Metoo wa physically perfect, but timid. He never wanted to be the first, even though it was easiest for him. When Mimi had shown the way, then he would rush forward, as if saying: "Me too! Me too!" Tha'ts how he got his name.

Grey-cheeked parakeets are not really safe out of the cage all the time, they fall behind bookcases, and they drop wet calling cards all over the place that are not much fun to clean up. So free time was always supervised free time, usually in the evening when I came home from work. One eveiinng, I fell asleep with the bird cage still open. The birds had both gone in to sleep when it got dark, and I woke up to the happy sounds they made first thing in the morning. Instead of closing their door, I decided to leave it open. I had peaches in the house, and I cut one up onto a small saucer, which I placed on top of the cage to see what would happen. The birds watched me, and Mimi made her way out, up to the top of the cage, to check it out. Metoo just stayed put, his head to one side watching her. She reached the peaches and started tucking in "Very good!" she squawked as she ate, "Come and get some of these delicious peaches." Metoo wasn't sure. Was he scared? Was he lazy? Who knows. Eventually, Mimi selected a large piece of peach, and set it down outside the saucer, direclty on top of the bars of the cage, and Metoo climbed up on the inside and ate his share through the bars. Can I be blamed if I interpreted this as communication?

"No, I don't want to come out, I just don't feel like it. Be a dear and just put a piece where I can reach it from where I am."

End of parenthesis.

To go back to the apes, one day at the beginning of time or maybe even before, some apes with more curiosity than the others set foot on the ground and abandoned their comfort zone. Maybe actually they might not have made any such choice, it was a necessity brought about by an earthquake, a climate change, a fire, a time of famine, or a sudden drought. Whatever. This curious band spread out all the way to the inhospitable extremes of the globe. Just look at the bleak daily life of the traditional eskimos, the tribes of the Kalahri desert or the outback of Australia, how primitive man's ingenuity enabled him to survive climate extremes and hardship of every kind, fighting off wild beasts, etc. When you think about it, the mere invention of agriculture is a wonder, waiting for a harvest. . . having to make sure you kept enough seeds for the next season, and didn't eat it all because you happened to be hungry now . . .

On that line of thought, the punchline is that old truism:

"Necessity is the mother of invention."

Don't belitttle it. Nowadays, we have chosen a new mantra, the profit motive, it's called, but that is not sustainable. It is nothing but a pyramid scheme where the only ones that win are the first in. Everyone else loses.

Now, let's leave aside the process of evolution in a general way, and just look at one small aspect of it, which is the incremental process of knowledge shared by all mankind.

Two hundred years ago, electricity was known to all as lightning, basically. Today, however, your two-year old kid can probably activate a light switch or press an elevator button, and he knows nothing about amps, or watts or AC/DC, or power grids, etc. That's kinda funny. It's not quite so funny when I realize that most 12-year old American kids today would know more about custom-tuning my Mozilla right now than I shall a week after installing it. Any old-fashioned parent who learnt their multiplication tables by rote in their childhood knows what it is, today, to attempt to support their kids doing new maths homework.

Bottom line of all this is that each generation does not have to reinvent the wheel, and we all benefit through inventions and discoveries made by people more brilliant than ourselves.

Now, in terms of ancestry, what is it makes any of us proud of where we came from? What made you so clever as to be born a white American, for instance, instead of a black American, descentant of slaves, or a native Sioux on some reservation, or the American-born child of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants dreading the raids of the INS?

I mean, what is it makes you own responsibility, say, for being the son or daughter of your very own parents? Did you select them, and if so, how so? Did you introduce them to each other: "Hey, the two of you should get together, you would make a terrific couple? I need you to become my parents!"

Did you somehow manage it that you were born in the best (and cheapest) clinic in town on a cold winter's night in 1937? When Hitler was about to hurl his weight about the world to achieve his dream of the 1000-year Reich? Did you choose that date because you wanted to be part of it, or because you wanted to stop it, what were your plans exactly, if you claim you had a plan, and if you didn't have a plan, what's to be proud of for a fortuitous event, and if you did have a plan, did you fulfill it, and if you didn't fulfill it, what's there to be proud of, anyway?

OK. I know who my parents were. I know about their parents: four of them. Each in turn had four of their own. New maths or old maths, within a thousand years you have more ancestors than were alive in your part of the world. Logically, you must all be related, to the blacks, the yellows, the pinkos and the greenies. Probably, to the weirdos, too. (In my case, I don't have to look far: Granma Brown, as she is called in the family, my paternal grandfather's mother, who remarried to a Mr. Brown after great-grandfather Fenn died in the poor-house in Norwich; the mother who had her 10-year old son placed in a Borstal institution because it was more convenient for her to have him out of the way, so as to make room for Mr. Brown's own children.)

There is an old Chinese story about an Emperior who liked to play chess and was accustomed to winning. One day, a beggar challenges him to a game, and the Emperor tells him: "If you win, you can ask me for whatever you want--even my daughter's hand in marriage, if you choose."

The stranger wins. The Emperor has never lost before, he's not a poor loser, however: "What is it you want?" he asks the stranger.

"I would like some rice," the stranger answers. "Just one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard; two grains on the second square; four grains on the third; sixteen on the fourth; and so on."

The Emperor is delighted: such a great chess player, but such an idiot, he could have had anything, he could have married the princess.

And so it came about that the stranger bankrupted the Emperor and his kingdom.

Our human ancestry does just that. Take a piece of paper and a pencil and try it out for yourself, it's not really funny.

In the sutra I recite on a daily basis, there is a small phrase: "Shiki ko mimi".

What it means is this: "Grinding and sifting to dust". In the words of the Buddha:

"Suppose a person were to take five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asamkhya thousand-millionfold worlds and grind them to dust. Then, moving eastward, each time he passes five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asamkhya worlds he drops a particle of dust. He continues eastward in this way until he has finished dropping all the particles. Good men, what is your opinion? Can the total number of all these worlds be imagined or calculated?

* * *

. . . Now I will state this to you clearly. Suppose all these worlds, whether they received a particle of dust or not, are once more reduced to dust. Let one particle represent one kalpa. The time that has passed . . . surpasses this by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asamkya kalpas."

This is the time our lives have been continuing. We have all been recycled incalculably many times over. We are all a part of One wondrous life. We are all connected.

Today's problem is that everyone is trying to make over other people, as opposed to looking at fixing things at home.

The Egyptians have a saying: "If you want to build a pyramid, you start from the bottom. If you want to clear a mountain, you start from the top." The fact is that trickle-down never works. You must build a society at the village level.

If the apes who left their zone of comfort evolved because they faced difficulties they had never experienced before, our civilization focussed on comfort and ease stands more in the relationship to the apes swinging in the comfort of their trees than to those who set out to become Man.

Looking at it from this angle the peoples of the West as we know it are peoples of displacement, we are the descendants of those who did not endure in other places, who pulled up their roots and went away to make a better life, to make a new start, and so they did. They conquered their new worlds (it was never uninhabited) and did not even benefit from the cultures they overtook and destroyed -- they did not assimilate them; so they only brought one sure thing, the notion of what they didn't want, the denial of their powerlessness and their inferiority. Which is probably what triggers their anger and their hate when anyone has a different point of view.

People who remain and endure eventually develop the notion of what they want. As an example one might examine, the Iraqis who live in Iraq. They have thousands of years of survival behind them, a good proportion of them under foreign occupation of one kind or another. That is their specialite, survival, and there is absolutely no doubt, they will survive.

For our part, as we lose our jobs, our children, our economy, our environment, our health, our wealth, our hope, our dreams, please tell me how are we going to zap to some other channel more likely to delight our senses and satisfy our aspirations? Are we going to survive? Are our children going to have to reinvent the wheel?

My thought for today: If the Democrats want to beat Bush out to send him back to his ranch, next year, they must focus, not on raising campaign funds so much (he'll always be way ahead on that score), but on raising consciousness and votes. If it doesn't get done this time, it will be too late for the American way of life to survive, because democracy is almost gone from America today, greed and corruption are everywhere, backed by bigotry and lies, and our Constitution is not far behind. Wotchout! Pay close attention.

Notes for the curious (Sorry, can't be clearer...):

Nayuta: A numerical unit, defined differently in different texts but clearly indicating an extremely large number.

Asamkya: An ancient Indian numberical unit, indicating an uncountably large number.

Kalpa: An extremely long period of time.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

After a cuppa tea, I feel more mellow. It rained today, with winds that obliged me to walk with my umbrella furled, so I got wet. All the snow has been washed away, and I noticed outside 340 that all the annuals have gone, but the forsythia is already in full bud.

Go back! Go back! This is much too soon!
Well, that one worked. So, here we go again. Mood's not the same, though. Quite frazzled, in fact.

Let's give old Jacques Chirac's speech one more time. This is part of a speech he made on September 22, 2003 in New York to the United Nations Conference "Against Terrorism - For Humanity". I thought it was very good, and I was able to find the translation into English, while experimenting with Mozilla, which right now is more like Gozilla in my book, because I suspect it's what's bolloxing the blogging.

Terrorism ". . . reveals the evils of our time. It is a feverish expression of suffering, frustration or injustice. When democracy is absent, it usurps the banner of freedom. When social issues become acute, terrorism assumes the mask of justice and solidarity. When a country is under foreign occupation, it unjustly captures the struggle for freedom for its own ends. When a community feels ill-treated, terrorism claims to act in its name.

So we need to take a clear-headed, hard look at today's world.

Terrorism takes as its pretext the frustrations born of unresolved conflicts. I am thinkinng especially of the Middle East conflict which has been the source of suffering, anger and incomprehension among all of the peoples in the region for fifty years now. Only a just and lasting peace can put an end to it." [emphasis added]

Well, I've spent so much time doing and redoing this post that I feel stale. It will have to do for today.
I've tried twice and twice lost the post. I'm just wanting to test this one more time.
Well, I just lost my post, so here goes again.

The breakfast-at-home before leaving the house is still working out. Today was mild with a good deal of rain and a wind so strong that I kept my umbrella furled. Naturally I got wet. Of course, I would have chosen to go to the flower district after Temple to get some fresh greens for my altar. They didn't have what I was looking for, everything is dedicated to the Christmas holidays, it's all wreaths and Christmas trees and holly.

Not quite. There was mimosa, and peonies, which I always think are only available in season, and all sorts of beautiful summer flowers, snapdragons, roses, renunculus, oh how I dawdled, keeping my sticky fingers in my pockets, all they wanted to do was pull out some money and buy something extravagant.

I am still not quite accustomed to Mozilla. It will take a while. But I managed to find the translation into English of the speech President Jacaues Chirac made tot he United Nations Conference "Against Terrorism - For Humanity" which ws held in New York on September 22, 2003. Here is a part I particularly liked:

Terrorism ". . . reveals the evils of our time. It is a feverish expression of suffering, frustration or injustice. When democracy is absent, it usurps the banner of freedom. When social issues become acute, terrorism assumes the mask of justice and solidarity. When a country is under foreing occupation, it unjustly captures the struggle for freedom for its own ends. When a community feels ill-treated, terrorism claims to act in its name.

So we need to take a clear-headed, hard look at today's world.

Terrorism takes as its pretext the frustrations born of unresolved conflicts. I am thinking especially of the Middle East conflict which has been the source of suffering, anger and incomprehension among all of the peoples in the region for fifty years now. Onlya a just and lasting peace can put an end to it." [emphasis added]

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

I've started back on doing security at the Manhattan Temple in the morning, four times a week. It really feels good. I have breakfast, I walk there, I walk back, it's very joyful.

I went to Long Island City to see Kenna the nutritionist for the first of our monthly sessions. I feel good about that, too. She is a beautiful, generous soul, and I am most grateful to have met her. It's funny I did, at just the time I was thinking of changing my whole lifestyle, including my eating habits. I already feel a difference in the way I feel, in that I am totally pain-free for three weeks now. Quite a difference. I talk about it to all my "sick" friends, who knows, we could all do with a little relief. It doesn't take that much effort to obtain a noticeable improvement. Just make sure you keep the balance as alkaline as possible. It works.

I've changed my browser to Mozilla so I'm going through a period of adaptation. I'm also looking into a backup system (it's about time), but I don't really understand the language yet. There's a good one I can download for free, from a source I trust completely, but I'm a little retarded in the understanding department. I will just have to go buy the ink for the printer, and print out a hard copy of theinstructions, and study the whole damn thing before I install it, otherwise it will drive me crazy.

I think I am going to enjoy Mozilla. I already love the name.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Today was the 20th Anniversary of Myosetsuji Temple in Flushing. What a wonderful celebration!

The weather really did a number on us. The group from Philadelphia were unable to come up, but quite a few members came down from Buffalo and Toronto.

Catherine sang two songs, one in German (Schubert, I think), the other in Italian (Mozart). The tears came streaming down my face, it was so beautiful. I was not the only one, I noticed. She was not scheduled to give an experience, but she did as an introduction to her songs. She told us how five years ago she had moved East from LA, where she had been a producer in Hollywood, and how her whole life had flipped from the moment she connected with the New York Temple. Out in LA, at the time, it was not possible for her to connect to the LA Temple, because it was so far out of town (it has moved since). But she came to New York just as we started daily meetings in Manhattan, so she got involved right from the start. She had never thought she would be able to start a family, and suddenly, she met and married her husband, and immediately they had this really beautiful little boy. She says her whole life has turned 360 degrees around. Her husband and son were not there: the kid is all over the place, these days, but he had recorded a piano accompaniment for her, and the performance was absolutely stunning.

Then, we also had Phebe sing us a Bob Dylan song. She also gave us her experience (inspired by Catherine, she said). She started practicing only two years ago, at a time when her life was closing down and everything was looking bleak and her perspectives were dwindling. Her career has taken a turn for the better, she has a new CD out, her depression has lifted, and she said: "I've been singing this song for years, I now finally understand what it means." It's one thing to hear her on the radio, or listen to her CD's, but it's quite another treat to hear her live. Wow!

Irene did not come. Snowed in in New Jersey, back still hurting, probably unable to dig herself out.

I had a wonderful time, I got to speak to exactly the people I wanted and needed to speak to. Afterwards, I went to Roosevelt Avenue and had a slap up $4 lunch before heading home.

In the evening, I made the $2,000 soup from Suzette's blog link, which got Janna's approval (a first). We had some of Carol's cake for dessert, with rum raisin ice cream and canned pear halves. It was my second, "official" birthday, celebration.

There are a lot of people who think I was born on December 7, asamatteroffact. My father did. He always claimed it was on the 7th that he got the telegram announcing my birth. My feeling was that as time went by, he could have got it right in the end. He had been hiking with his girlfriend in the mountains, I guess, and the telegram was waiting for his return at the hotel in Athens. He didn't see me until I was five months old.

Er.... How come so many people associate me with the "day of infamy"? Er... Don't answer that!

Saturday, December 06, 2003

I am posting this on the 10th, dated the 6th. Not correct, I know, I don't think I can catch up any other way. It would have just been one long blog, with a beginning, a middle and an end. This way, it will be just snippets, little stepping stones across a whirling white-water rapid.

Larry and Carol had invited me for "Friday night movies", last night. Larry didn't say anything about my birthday. I didn't think they had remembered it, it really does not matter to me at all, I celebrate for a whole week, or more, without help from anyone. But Carol had remembered. I spent more than half an hour on the X-town bus, after waiting more than 20 minutes for it, and finally piled out at seventh avenue and took the subway. So, I was late, that is, not late, but later than usual. Carol and Lydia were watching Jeopardy, and there was a fresh baked plain cake on the table: "See, I remembered this year!" Carol said triumphantly. "Do you want any icing?"

A plain cake is just wonderful. Later on, after we had had Indian take-out (my choice), with red wine (I don't think I have had red wine in... six, seven, or is it eight, years?), and Larry had come home and we had all watched the Woody Allen movie, what is it, Love and Death, Carol explained to me how strange this cake was, because it was basically a pound cake with a substitution of cream cheese for part of the butter. And then the baking of it was weird, it was placed into a cold oven, sitting in a dish of water, baked at 200 degrees for x minutes, then at 300 for x minutes, and so on, and finally baked for a long time at another specified temperature, the general idea was hours of work, with constant setting of the timer and getting up to adjust the settings.

Just as we were sitting down to the cake, Pete came home, unexpectedly. He had gone to Princeton with this debating team, they were supposed to stay there for the weekend, but when their train got there, they were sent back, the event had been cancelled because of the snowstorm. So Pete and his team came back to New York and just went out to dinner together, and then they all went home.

It is heroic of Carol to bake a cake in that house: Pete does not like cake, Lydia only eats a very little bit, Larry never eats any cake at all, and so Carol and the guest of honor are just the two of you sitting there enjoying it. It was a very successful cake, very dense, plain and delicious, and I went home with the 3/4 of it.

Carol and Larry had a present for me: a beautiful Spanish shawl from the Metropolitan Museum, the sort of shawl I think they call "mantillas", black with beautiful white embroidery and long silky fringes. I draped it around my body in every possible way, with lots of oohs and aahs, and Carol said: "It would even look good draped on a piano..."

Yes. In my house...

Anyway, pretty soon after the cake eating, Larry went to bed. And Lydia was sent to bed because she had to get up early in the morning (the poor kid spends a lot of her spare time sitting for exams for all the various high schools she is trying out for, but I must say she is a very good sport about it). Pete went into his bedroom to get on the Net, and Carol and I eventually sat down, and started talking. I don't know how long this went on, but eventually Pete came out and asked: "Is Dad still up? I wanted to ask him something". No. He's been gone a good while.

Then Pete grins at the two of us and asks: "Whatever were you doing? You mean the two of you have just been talking all this time?"

Yup. Actually, that's how Carol and I became friends, way back in 1984. No matter how late it was, no matter how long the day had been, how hard the work, how close the next morning loomed, we still could find something to say to each other. And mysteriously, there were three places in New York that we considered "our favorite places": the lobby of the Algonquin, to sit around drinking a bottle of wine with friends, or the Wine Bar on West Broadway, where you could drink a glass of any wine you had a fancy for, and talk and talk and talk in an elegant setting, and a small Ethiopian restaurant where you could eat authentic Ethiopian food with your bare hands, accompanied by Ethiopian mead.

We had both of us discovered these three favorites on our own, and each first time we went there together, it was funny to discover we had the same taste.

I will always remember the first time we went to the Wine Bar together. At that time, Carol was a lawyer working for a large Wall Street law firm which did quite a bit of pro bono work for various organizations. Whenever the firm took on pro bono projects, a memo to All Lawyers would be circulated asking for volunteers. These assignments would usually be snapped up by associates who had just closed some major deal, and who had not yet been assigned to something else so that they saw a window of opportunity to do something a little more personally rewarding. At this time, Carol was one of the lawyers handling two political asylum cases from Zaire, one of whom was in detention at the Varick Street facility in Manhattan.

I became involved because I speak fluent French. I translated documents, and I also was put in charge of checking in on "the boys" to make sure everything was going well. Kibwe, in detention, was my prime responsibility, and I would usually visit him once a week, bringing him books to read and the regulation "seven pieces of fruit". I put it that way, because you could bring in seven apples, for instance, or seven oranges, or seven pears, but you could not bring in seven peaches, because that was not "regulation", the pit had to be removed from the peach, and then the peach counted as two pieces. Same for an avocado, once you had removed the pit, it became two avocados. Obviously, you never brought grapes, or strawberries, or blueberries, etc. In between visits, I would call him.

Those were the days when I made obscene phone calls. That is, I made the phone calls, and invariably got the obscenity. You can only call into the Varick Street detention center at certain times and it sort of has to be pre-arranged with some of the prisoners, who will give you the number of a public phone booth in one of the corridors to which the prisoners have access during a certain period each day. Normally, they make the phone calls, if they have the money, but you can call them, if you have a number. What would happen when I called is that there would be a bunch of prisoners hanging about the public phones, and when they heard the voice of a woman, they started talking dirty. You just had to be firm and say: "Get me Kibwe, please."

One evening that I had gone home fairly early, I called Kibwe, got the obscene phone, did my usual number, and suddenly the guy at the other end stopped talking dirty and said: "Kibwe can't come, he's gone."

"Whadda you mean, he's gone? Where has he gone? Please get him for me, I need to talk to him."

"He's gone. They came and took him away. He's been deported."


The guy couldn't say more. I was appalled. Of course, outside office hours there is nothing you can do to check with the INS what the hell is going on. I immediately called Carol, who was still at work, and we agreed to hop into cabs and meet at the Varick Street detention center.

I arrived ways before she did, somehow it was easier to get there from uptown than for her to come up from Wall Street. Of course, I had no authority at all to get in, and so I did my wailing banshee act, demanding to "see my client".

"Are you a lawyer?"

"Well, no, I'm the translator... The lawyer is on her way, I just want to get things started."

I was so worked up, I was in their face and all over the place. Whatever my inner fire might have been, one of the guards went in the back and started looking for Kibwe. By the time Carol arrived and we were let in, exceptionally, this was highly irregular, it was not visiting hours, but we insisted we wanted to see our client, we wanted to be sure he was not being deported against his rights, and there we were, in the usual sad little room, where they put on one gloomy light for us, and suddenly, there was Kibwe walking casually up to us in his little prison uniform, with a big grin on his face: "What's up?"

He had been in the gym, working out. The Afghan who had talked dirty to me had just said that for a joke.

Of course, as soon as everything was sorted out, the guards sent us packing. But the interesting thing was that from being aggressive towards us, they had turned to friendly and pleasant. It also became apparent to me that they all liked "our" boy, and that it was not likely anything horrible would happen to him under their care.

Carol and I were terribly relieved. We walked out into the freedom of the street, laughing at how scared we had been.

"Are you going back to the office?" I asked her.

"No. Are you going home?" She answered.

We both agreed we needed to celebrate our feeling of relief, but where to go? "How about the Wine Bar in SoHo?" I asked "We could walk over". And that's when Carol said: "That's one of my favorite places."

The day Kibwe was granted his political asylum, and we went to pick him up, he came out with a very large, very heavy suitcase, that was hard to move more than one inch at a time. "What the heck do you have in there?" I asked him, laughing.

"Ma chere, " he smiled quietly, "Those are all the books you brought me during the past two years".

That day of his release, we did not go to the Wine Bar, but our entire victorious group walked to West Broadway, to some fancy place or other that has also gone out of business since then. We were all very happy.

Kibwe and his buddy had been referred to us by Arthur Helton, who was killed in Iraq last August in the UN headquarters where he was visiting. After Mobutu, Kibwe eventually went back to Zaire, with his wife and children. I wonder how he is doing now. He was a very charismatic person.

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