Thursday, September 17, 2015

Feeding America One Bag at a Time

Yesterday was a treat. Not only did the heat lift in North San Diego County, but so did my spirits. I'd forgotten what a joy it can be to volunteer and offer something so basic but so important to someone in need. I'm on the Board of Trustees for Vista Community Clinic. We hold regular meetings and events, and we hear wonderful presentations given by dedicated staff, but it doesn't compare to the pleasure of giving that comes from handing a bag of food to someone who may be hungry.

Check out the Viola Davis AARP Interview in this month's AARP magazine. This is a woman who grew up hungry and even rummaged through garbage cans looking for food when there wasn't enough money to feed all the mouths in a family of eight. Dad was a groom at the Narraganset Racetrack in Rhode Island. The pay was meager. With a successful Hollywood career, Viola lends her name to national hunger efforts. 

Robert Trachtenberg/
For several months this year, the VCC has set aside one week or more a month to offer cans of vegetables, fruit, and meat, along with bags of beans and pasta, in partnership with Feeding America. As a healthcare safety net, the Clinic serves nearly 60,000 people in five locations in North San Diego County. Many don't have health insurance when they walk through the door, and others lack the money for copays with other, more expensive providers. Without help, these patients can fall through the cracks, except they don't. The Clinic's Web site states "we're dedicated to embodying what it means to be a community clinic: offering every single person the opportunity to be healthy." 

The moms, the babies, the toddlers, and other children with big eyes, bright smiles, and shy words, expressed grateful appreciation for the gifts of life -- good health and good food. Tiny t-shirts trimmed in drools, girlie tops with lace, ribbons and sparkles, and little boy baggy pants crossed in front of the lunchroom-sized table yesterday to collect their goods in a reusable cloth shopping bag. "What's in this can?" I asked the toddler who bowed her head and pressed her cheek into her mom's soft leg. Giant circles of brown beneath the bangs peeped up at me, my arm extended so she could see the picture on the side of the can. "Carrots" was the soft response that slipped from little lips. 

"Gracias," from the lady whose leg pillowed her daughter's head and hands pushed a stroller, cuddly baby tucked inside. "Bye-bye, little one. Come again."   

Happy New School Year

Happy New (School) Year! is such a lovely post from a site to which I subscribe as a writer.  I'll try to share more of these as they touch my heart.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Next stop...Louisville

Part II: "Digging My Southern Roots" 

Big Four Bridge Photo: Nick Roberts
My hometown of Louisville sits on the Ohio River across from Indiana, with two shiny new silver bridges connecting the two states along Riverfront Park: the Big Four pedestrian and bicycle bridge (2014), and the Downtown Crossing I-65 bridge (2016). A third bridge, the East End Crossing for I- 265, is under construction. All three represent pinnacles of clean architectural design, with two already sparkling in the night sky. Last summer, I hiked the pedestrian bridge to Clarksville on a warm summer morning with my sister-in-law, Fay, to browse through quaint coffee, candy, and gift shops in the charming Hoosier town, now coming into its own with the new bridge to boost visitors.

Downtown Crossing Bridge:
I still remember the clanky older bridges and the Colgate clock on the Indiana bank. You could see it best after dark, when it glowed like a giant circle of fluorescent red and yellow that shimmied on the water below.

Mother and Daddy loved cruising the Ohio in their houseboat, along with Joey and Uncle Bill, and a handful of other boaters. On a memorable Derby Eve, my boyfriend and I took a half-dozen or so of his fellow medical students to the river for a late night ride with Captain Daddy at the wheel. Usually, my parents' jaunts ended at Sixmile Island, Twelvemile Island, or Eighteen-mile Island (see Port Kentucky) where they dropped anchor and partied for the weekend. And the trip wasn't complete unless you made a stop at Captian's Quarters for a fish dinner on the way home. As the legend (urban?) goes, my dad swam the Ohio from the Kentucky to the Indiana shore and back when he was a kid. It's probably true, since it matches the other "little rascal" escapades he described at the dinner table, like the time he climbed out the bathroom window and jumped on his bike to ride up Devil's Backbone and escape the babysitter while his mom worked at the courthouse. She was a single mom and attorney in the 1930s who owned an apartment building in the 1940s, but that's another blog article.

My parents grew up in the southend of Louisville where I went through sixth grade at Ellen C. Semple School, a few short blocks from Churchill Downs. See my memories of the Kentucky Derby in my blog article: The Meaning of Horses and Home. In eighth grade, our family moved to a house that Daddy designed and built off of Gardiner Lane, not far from the plantation-style mansion that serves as national headquarters for YUM Brands (formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken), a major sponsor of the Derby and Ali Center (below). My sister, Mila, and I enrolled in Durrett High School, a sprawling modern building with grades seven through twelve. Our old school, Southern Junior High, only had grades seven through nine in a dated brick building our parents attended, so we were moving up in the world and eventually graduated from Durrett. Which brings me to the reason for this trip -- my high school reunion.  But first...

After the girls' trip to Memphis, I met up with Dan at the Louisville airport. We had dinner at Captain's Quarters on the river, and a great visit and good night's sleep at my cousins' house before we took off for downtown the next day. I was eager to see a museum we somehow missed on previous visits.

The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville is a museum and community center established by a man who believes in serving his fellow man. The temperature outside was threatening 100 when we arrived at the bold contemporary structure near the river. The perfect place to chill until the reunion that night. But the chills we experienced from Ali's story registered much more on an emotional scale than a mercury thermometer.

I can still hear a TV broadcaster announce that an 18-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay, from Louisville, Kentucky, won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. What a moment of pride for our city and country. But it was short-lived for the man. When he returned home, the ugly face of racism refused him a seat in an all-white restaurant. The story goes that he was so upset he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. But a 2012 Guardian article refutes the story because Clay later admitted in a TV interview he misplaced the medal:  50 Stunning Olympic Moments: No. 17 Cassius Clay Wins Gold in 1960

Four years later, at the age of 22, he would become the heavyweight champion of the world. With a mountain of titles and records from a celebrated career, Muhammad Ali is considered by many to be the best boxer ever, and always makes the list of top heavyweight boxers in the sport. Nicknaming himself "The Greatest," and egged on by an engaging TV sportscaster named Howard Kosell, Ali displayed a gift of rhyme, gab, and controversy that propelled the sport into sheer entertainment and the topic of everyday conversation. He repeated his iconic "Float like a butterfly sting like a bee" slogan until it generated instant recognition worldwide. The "Rumble in the Jungle" poem about the fight with George Forman is a classic example of Ali's self-promotional, unapologetic poetry. If you somehow missed this amazing guy, give yourself a treat. You can see him perform and pontificate in his prime, and hear what others say at: Muhammad Ali Bio.

When he declared conscientious objection to the war in Vietnam and refused to serve in the military, Ali was charged with draft evasion,  sentenced to five years in prison, and stripped of his titles. Fortunately, he remained free, and even more fortunately, the charges were overturned in 1967. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he became a devotee of the Nation of Islam religion. But more than that, with an international following from his boxing titles, Ali set out to change the world around him. His passion for sports and human rights, and his dedication to the plight of populations around the globe, led to accolades and awards from the United Nations, Amnesty International, and others. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was chosen to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. The Ali Center in Louisville was created in 2005 with a focus on the six principles he believes are critical for living a fulfilled life: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect, and spirituality.

The substantial exhibits at the Ali Center in Louisville occupy several floors and display a long career in boxing, as well as leadership in human rights and civil rights. I was genuinely surprised to see, read, and hear of the many injustices that the young Cassius Clay confronted while growing up in Louisville. Encouraged to become a boxer by a policeman he met when he reported a stolen bike, Ali used the harsh experiences of racism to develop his drive and prove to the world that he was as good as any white man. His example, contributions, and leadership left me with a sense of humility and respect. This is a man who still inspires countless youth, forgotten people in other countries, and leaders around the globe.

Since 2012, the Ali Center has given the annual Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award to "honor individuals around the world who have made significant contributions toward the attainment of peace, social justice, or other positive actions pertaining to human or social capital." Harry Belafonte and Geena Davis are among the 2015 recipients: Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards

The Durrett High School reunion on July 18 was at the lovely Audubon Country Club, nestled in a 1908 neighborhood, now called the City of Audubon Park, with historic homes, high-canopied trees, and graceful pink and white dogwoods in the Spring. As you enter the area, the Craftsman, Tudor Revival, Dutch Colonial, Neo-Federal, and Neo-Colonial houses and surrounding lawns provide a backdrop to a melodic drive on winding streets like Nightingale, Meadowlark, Dove, Robin, Oriole, and Wren. The welcoming brick Tudor clubhouse was the location for our meet-up with classmates one usually sees only at reunions, especially if you live in California. Some might say the event is a chance to pause, reflect, and reconnect to the good ole days. But we were adolescents, so were they always the good ole days?  Maybe not, with the angst that accompanies that stage of life. Some memories weren't so good, but they now reside in the basement of the memory bank.

For me, the Saturday night gathering had all the elements of an old home week as we recalled characters and stories, compared life notes and careers, and skipped some history best left in the archives. I'd been to the past two reunions and managed to keep in touch with a handful of alums. A few of us even took girls' trips, starting in 2007 to San Diego (Dan had to sleep in the RV), and a few years later to Asheville (drummed on the back deck at sunset), Vail (shopped the ski resort sales for fluffy down jackets and artsy sweaters), and Memphis (jingled instruments and sang and danced to the blues). But I was eager to reconnect with friends who'd been out of touch for years. I even made a few calls months before, and was delighted to see Betsy, who lived in one of those lovely homes on Oriole; Janice, who kept me company every morning at a table in the cafeteria until the bell rang for home room; and Glen, who gave me rides to college our freshman year as commuters. Before dinner, the class photo was taken on the steps of the country club in 99-degree heat, with lengthy staging that had us gasping for the AC. Back at our tables, after an informal welcome, one classmate read a poem he wrote about our teen days, and the rest of the evening we table-hopped, danced, and enjoyed the company of those who knew us when.

Jay May Photography
To tell the truth, as I reflect, I realize people don't really change that much, if you discount hair color and weight. Same look, with a few more years, and same personalities, with more confidence and experience. Though I do wonder if it's like going to the beach. Only the good bodies show up. The others stay at home. I found myself gravitating to the same people I liked in high school, but eager to connect with others I didn't know as well. It was fun to hear about Glen's passion for golf, which meant he and Dan talked for quite a while. And his wife, Audrey, whom I knew from college, showed me the lovely gold jewelry her daughter makes in NY: Satya Jewelry. There was also my friend Bob, who shared his loneliness after a big loss. I remember him as one of a group of guys who invited me to be one of the girls they honored at an annual Demolay or Rainbow Girls dance. I bumped into Rick, another of those guys, to remind him that he chose a speech I wrote to give for a contest he entered. Unfortunately, he didn't win, he reminded me. Maybe third place.

Table favors were two CDs, an event program with a few yearbook pictures, and two blue martini glasses that we've put to excellent use. After I returned home, I thumbed through the program and played the CDs. One CD included almost our entire senior yearbook, with everyone's senior picture, which I was delighted to have since mine was lost in a move years ago. But the last part, In Memoriam, struck me as sad. Too many classmates gone. The second CD was loaded with songs of the day, but again, so many sad songs, reminders of the difficult days of adolescence. I wondered if the absentees at the reunion skip it because they want to leave that part in the basement. For me, the feeling in the room was joyful and the laughs were about the fun we had and the crazy stupid things we did. It was a time to celebrate, and to acknowledge how far we'd come since we cheered the Durrett Demons, blew out 16 candles on a birthday cake, and collected trinkets for our silver charm bracelets. I'll say to those who passed on the reunion, we miss seeing you. And rest assured, any skeletons of the good ole days were buried long ago.