Friday, November 19, 2010

One Night in an Italian Hostel

A few weeks ago I went to a free concert in the park with a friend. There was a very good local cover band playing great songs from Kansas, Styx and spicing it up with some James Brown. At one point they fell into a neat rendition of Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven. For a moment I was transported back to 1989. It was 3 a.m. and I was in an hostel in Livorno, Italy with my Army unit dealing with some jet lag. A group of us sat in the common area doing what musicians do best at 3 a.m. - have an impromptu jam session while drinking some house wine. We had a couple of guitars out, some drum sticks on a wooden table. I was singing. After a while we were joined by the Italians on the night staff, some Dutch and German backpackers and a couple from then Yugoslavia who had just arrived. I was tasked to learned some Italian before the tour to MC our concerts. I wish I would have foreseen a UN delegation over a bottle of wine in the middle of the night! Some of the backpackers knew a little English. Mostly they just listened to us and we exchanged lots of warm, tired smiles and blankets on the tattered, old couch.

Someone started playing Stairway To Heaven on the guitar and I began singing. A few words into the song I realized that everyone was singing along. Everyone. Here I was sitting in an Italian Hostel in the middle of the night with a bunch of strangers from all over the world who I could hardly communicate with, singing a perfect rendition of Stairway To Heaven. Needless to say, lots of wine was shared that night. Everyone made an effort to get to know one another. The Dutch were backpacking through Europe for the adventure. The Germans took a year off of college to see the world. The young couple from Yugoslavia... yeah I think about them every once in a while. They were in love. He was supposed to join the military when they got back. They were scared to death. I often wonder about their fate. A year after that trip the Yugoslav Wars broke out. There's been a lot of suffering. Still is. I hope they made it.

For one night, a group of strangers from all over the world spoke the same language - the language of music. I can't explain the immensity of what we shared, but I carry the feeling with me still.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


I don't support you in this, George! Not one bit! The Empire Strikes Back is perfect the way it is! You're gonna make me go to the theater anyway in a stupid old Star Wars T-shirt, aren't you? Just to be able to see Star Wars on the big screen again and share it with people who (gasp!) have never seen the original movies, aren't you? And just in case you're thinking about it, LEAVE THE INDIANA JONES MOVIES ALONE! You're a whore! I punch yo face! Call Steven Spielberg and tell him to make E.T. in 3d! That would be cool. But leave Star Wars alone!

I wish I could quit you...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Sister's Heartbreak

A few weeks ago I received a phone call in the middle of the night from my sister. Through giant sobs she managed to say, "...he didn't make it... I can't believe I lost my husband... I love him so much..." I sat in disbelief as I listened to her try to explain. My heart broke for her. She asked me to call our father and brother and give them the news. I could barely compose myself, but somehow I managed to pull myself together and do what she asked. I woke my husband to tell him what had happened. He comforted me until I convinced him to go back to bed. Then I spent the rest of the night watching him sleep. As I write this, my tears simply will not stop falling. I will hear the pain in my sister's voice for as long as I live.

My brother in law was only 47. He had a history of heart problems, but it wasn't his heart that had failed. We believe it was an aneurysm. An autopsy wasn't performed because he was a donor. He saved a few lives that night. He and my beautiful sister have a 10 year old son.

I flew up to be with my sister on the first flight I could get. When I walked into the house and saw her as she turned the corner into the front hall, no words were necessary. Her eyes said it all. I put my arms around her and held her for what seemed like an hour. Her body felt small and fragile as it heaved with sobs. The grief was too heavy for her. I took some of that grief and cried for her, for him, for their son, until she finally found her breath. Some hours later my brother arrived, and the three of us were together for the first time in a few years. We had planned to do something in the summer. This was not what we had in mind.

By the time I reached 28 years of age, my sister and I had already lost the most important women in our lives. Our female mentors, our mother, my godmother and our great aunt, and both grandmothers had been our guides through the feminine labyrinth that life places before all women. I called upon the strength of those wise women for the sake of my sister, for myself. I had never needed it more.

Night time was horrid. She would cover herself in his coat and try to sleep. Every hour or so I would hear her cry and I would just hold her or take her hand. This went on for days. I couldn't leave her side. Wherever she went I would follow her like a shadow and make sure I was there to hold her up or shoo people away. When I would feel inadequate, it was my 10 year old nephew who held his mother up with the strength of Theseus. Her pain was his boulder to lift. My little hero.

There was no funeral for my brother in law. Instead, my sister chose to have a Celebration of Life party. I'm so glad she did. It was beautiful. When we walked in we were greeted with the most unexpected surprise - EVER. A group of women stood at the entrance. I looked at their faces and could not believe my eyes. We had grown up in a small Connecticut town on a street with kids who were our playmates and dear friends. I hadn't seen them in years. And there they were, all grown up, waiting to share this moment with us. I was at a loss for words.

After a loving goodbye to my brother in law, we went back to the house. All of our dear friends and relatives joined us and we spent the evening telling stories and filling the house with laughter and tears. My cousin and I slipped out to get some much needed tequila, cause we're cool like that. We toasted to the memory of the man who gave my sister love, happiness and a beautiful son. I looked around me and realized that surrounding my sister was an entire generation of women. Our cousins, friends and sister in law stood with me and enveloped her with the love and strength of all of the women who came before us. In my mind I saw my mother give a loving nod and a smile. I realized at that moment that she would make it through this.

That same week there was a storm in the North East that left entire towns under water. Just about everyone we knew had damage. My sister's basement flooded and we spent two days bailing out water. It wasn't what I had in mind, but at least it was a distraction.

I decided to stay with my sister as long as I could and help her through dreaded quiet that would descend upon her life after everyone else went home. Her bedroom transformed from a place of subtle romance to a dark and dreary cave. She decided to change everything from the curtains and bed sheets to the arrangement of the furniture. We shopped, had lunch in odd places, bonded over silliness. Her darkness was lifting enough that she decided to go back to work. I stopped by with one of my cousins to give her some support while well meaning clients gave her their sympathies. It was tough, but she made it through her first day back, and through the devastating news that Ricky Martin came out in public as a gay man.

As much as I wanted to stay with her, I decided it was time for me to go home. Leaving her was heart wrenching. I'm grateful to the friend who accompanied her home from the airport.

Because of his heart condition, my brother in law was not able to get medical insurance. And now the hospital bills are arriving. Now my sister is left with one income, a son, a mortgage and thousands of dollars in medical bills. I have decided to help her by putting on a benefit. For the first time in my life as a performer I will use my voice to help my sister. She has only asked me for one thing: to record her favorite song for her. I wasn't sure how I was going to do it. Then a few days ago I met with a wonderful pianist who has agreed to help me with this project. It may seem like a simple thing to him, but I don't think I'll ever be able to express to him how much his generosity means to me.

Today my sister told me that she felt more positive about life. Because of his condition, they always knew they were living on borrowed time, and they lived every day as if it were the last. As much as she misses her husband, she is grateful for the time she had with him. I don't think I can ask for more than that.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Political Flashback

The day after the inauguration I had a really sobering experience. I have a small vending business that I had contracted out that year to a construction site and was lending a hand that day. In the frenzy that was lunchtime I ran into a friend. I was so excited to see him because we had spent the entire presidential campaign season comparing notes and discussing the numbers and just hoping. When I saw him my first reaction was to hug him and jump up and down like a kid seeing a friend after summer vacation in the school yard. When he saw me his eyes lit up and his face showed what can only be described as glee - for a second. Immediately that face turned to fear. He put his hands in a "stop" gesture and looked around as if he were about to get caught doing something wrong. I was alarmed, to say the least. I said, "Hey! What's up?!" He said, "Can you believe it? But we gotta keep it on the down low, cause, you know, there's a lot of pissed off dudes out here and I don't want any trouble!" I took a good look around. There was rather large group of really angry looking white guys and all the black and brown guys looked like they were handling explosives. That's when I noticed how disturbingly quiet it was out there. I don't want to know what might have happened if ebony and ivory started hugging and celebrating in the middle of all that tension. Ever since that day I've been wishing for the President's safety.

Last night's passing of the HCR Bill jarred me back violently to that day on the construction site. Not that it hasn't been an entire year of obvious racial upheaval in politics, and if you don't see that all of this crap being thrown about isn't mostly racially motivated, look again. The lack of respect for this President is unheard of. Even when Bush and Cheney were wiping their asses with the Constitution, there was still a modicum of respect for the Office of the President of the United States. While Bush was "misunderestimating" his command of the English language, not a single person ever had the gall to stand up and hurl slurs in at him during a speech to Congress.

I am so grateful to have friends of so many different cultural backgrounds. We embrace our differences and celebrate them. We learn from and support each other and enjoy the culture that we have created together. Too bad a lot of our leaders can't do the same.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Every once in a while I come face to face with a form of racism that's like a benign tumor. It's painful and annoying, but not life threatening. You want to pop it like a giant zit, but it just isn't that easy. This racism comes mostly from those who either don’t know any better, or those who have a sense of entitlement that apparently comes with their skin color. Let's just call it Dumbassism.

For the past three years I have been judging vocal contests in town. What I like about these contests is that they’re an opportunity to introduce people to different types of music. This is important to me because I consider music to be the one language we all can share. What I have found is that most participants come out of this not only having improved themselves vocally, but also having acquired a new appreciation for music. Much like the American Idol format, this is done by having the participants learn a song from a different genre every week. It challenges people to sing things they never thought they could sing.

This week the genre was R&B. Everyone knows what R&B is, right? Wrong. Wrong as wrong can be. More wrong than a spam daiquiri. More wrong than a poopcicle. More wrong than Ray Comfort’s relationship with bananas. Here are a few shudder worthy examples of questions I was asked:

· Does R&B stand for Rap & Boy Bands?

· Is it true that Michael Jackson invented R&B?

· I don’t know any R&B. Can I just sing some Whitney Houston?

I’d go on, but it’s too painful. The people who asked me these questions honestly did not know what R&B was, just like they don’t know who Beethoven is. I took the opportunity to give a music history lesson, and to my great surprise, found that most people knew more than they thought they knew. They just didn’t know they knew. Well, now they know – ya know?

I suppose what surprised me the most was the fact that the people running the contest, who are professional DJs, knew even less about R&B than the contestants did. And to my dismay, did nothing to learn about it. How can one be a DJ and not know about different genres of music? How can they not want to learn? I have been working along side these people for three years now and until last night, I had no idea they thought this way. I tried to shrug off the thought because how could I be friends with them and not realize this until now? I was left with a feeling that, sadly, I knew all too well.

At the end of the evening the DJs were making a list of awards for the finale and asked my opinion. The first thing I did was correct a horrible grammar error before it made it to the engraver. I explained the mistake and was told, “I can’t believe a Puerto Rican is correcting MY English. I mean someone who speaks Spanish is correcting ME.” I’ll give you a moment to digest this, because it took me a moment as well………3, 2, 1. “Yes. I speak two languages fluently. I can communicate effectively in two others. You, however, can barely speak one.”

What angers me most is the fact that for them it was a normal reaction. They had no problem referring to me as a lesser human being simply because that’s how they’re used to thinking and they don’t see anything wrong with that. I can only conclude that the reason they didn’t bother to learn anything about R&B was racism. I would love for someone to prove me wrong.

I'm at a loss. I can usually tell within five minutes of meeting someone if they're an asshole or not. These are people who I welcomed into my home, people who my husband and I have helped time and again without reservation. How is it that all of a sudden my ethnicity is a problem? If my leg worked better I'd kick myself.

Ah... Wait. "I'm having one of those things.... A headache with pictures!"(Phillip J. Fry) Of course. Sigh.... As long as I'm giving critiques to other people, everything is honky dory. The second I criticize or correct them, yes.... that's it. Nice. I must have a weakness somewhere in my defense shields. I'll get right on that.

Not that this is my first foray into Dumbassism. I have spent my whole life dealing with it. From dumbass childhood school mates to teachers who discouraged me from furthering my education because, “Puerto Rican girls end up pregnant anyway. Why bother applying to a university?” to grown up bit... uh... women my own age who upon learning that I am Hispanic ask me to clean their homes. I have an education. I gave 21 years of my life to the military. I help people whenever possible. But it doesn’t matter what I have accomplished in my life. I am three of the hardest things to be in this country: a woman of color, a person with a disability, and an Atheist. I am so sick of this shit! Look, racist assholes, learn to play with others! Dumbasses!

The most important thing that I am is a Human Being. This is what we all are. Why is it so hard to look at people and see the Humanity? Why do we constantly have to treat people as if they have less value than others? I feel like I’m walking in mud. I’m incensed. There’s only one week left in this contest. I’m going to see it through, but unless minds are somehow opened, I don’t think I’ll be judging the next one.

Also, I discovered that certain vitamins make you poop different colors. J