Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Local Politics

Went to a meeting last night to hear from the city's six mayoral and seven city council candidates. It's interesting to me how the more likely it is that my vote could affect the outcome of a race, the less likely I am to really have any idea what's going on. We tend to follow national politics far more closely than local politics in this country: maybe it has to do with the advent of television; maybe we just got lazy somewhere along the way.

I am thinking about my great-grandfather, Ram Singh, who got involved in village politics to help put an end to gang violence and stayed sarpanch (mayor) until his wife beat him in an election years later (more on that another day). I've heard stories about his work developing the village for years, and only last year found out when my great-uncle Surinderpal ran across some old pictures that Ram Singh had once met Nehru (India's first prime minister).

Nehru is on the left. Ram Singh is in the third row back, second from the left.

The world of my great-grandfather was Dhudike, I think. He lived in and for the village. Then, without any clear time of death, that world ended. His sons were caught up in state, country, world. You had to be--you still do. The kind of village Ram Singh had known simply faded away: he himself died in California in a new millennium when people like me would spend an hour or two trying to sort out candidates we'd never met and most potential voters wouldn't do anything more than notice yard signs as they sat and watched events on the opposite side of the continent rehashed by four talking heads and a scrolling stream of headlines on Fox News.

We can't have quite the kind of community he once had, and probably we don't want it--the village was not without its own problems. But are we, and ought we be, content with what we have? Is there a new and satisfying way to generate and foster community, and an accompanying method for giving those communities a political manifestation?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Three Memories of Food

1. LA

We used to visit my grandpa Art once or twice a year before we moved to Ohio in 1995. Art lived by routines, and so we'd do the same sorts of things every time. We'd go down to Santa Monica to a park on the beach with a playground and a stone dragon. We'd stop by Brentwood Library where Art liked to raise hell. We'd go to a bookstore and each pick out something. And we'd eat a deli: Frohmin's or Junior's (their respective owners may be dismayed that it never mattered much to me which one and I can't distinguish one from the other in my memory).

I remember baskets of nice, dark rye bread. (Being a hungry kid, I loved a basket of anything, which may explain why there's a special love for rye bread in my heart to this day.) I remember ordering a bagel and lox every time or at least almost every time. I'd take the green, unpitted olive off the top and give it to my father but I loved the rest. Lis remembers the blintzes best--it's interesting to me that we never remember the same things, so that even people who have been through exactly the same experiences will emerge with radically different histories.

2. The Mojave Desert

The food was actually from Delano, picked up as we visited Gill cousins on the way back from LA. They sent some extra with us for the road, though. We stopped somewhere in the Mojave desert, on a route that went Bakersfield, Barstow, Baker through the heat and unwrapped a few for a snack. Time spreads spice and the day-old-but-still-soft stuffed flatbreads were so good. This is my first vivid memory of aloo paratha.

Time spreads spice well, and by high school a friend told me that when I'd been out working and came back inside, the sweat smelled just a little like curry.

3. Provo

We lived in Orem, in those days of frequent trips to California, and my grandparents lived where I live now in the northern part of Provo. All but one of their children lived there, too, in the days before we started our international game of danda dook, and we'd meet once a month, I believe it was on Fast Sundays, for food and the time together that inevitably goes with it. We'd drive down one hill and up another to their house, or else mom would drive while Dad and Lis and I got to ride our bikes.

Taco Salad was a favorite at these extended-family dinners, a carryover from the days of my mother's childhood, when her mother found that the only way to keep seven children from asking and asking when they would get to eat on a fast sunday afternoon was to give each of them a food preparation task. Taco Salad was a great Mormon socio-theological statement: it came together through the collective delegated work of the whole unit, everyone involved, the grater-of-cheese no greater or less than the dicer-of-tomatoes or the-masher-of-beans, the feast open to all as they had room to receive it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

California Memories

E_mirror Guest Post by Vilo Elisabeth

I was introduced to the term Caucajewmexdian by my brother. It's a shorthand he invented to describe the ethnic mix that we share. Useful for saying things like “He's one of the best Caucajewmexdian writers.” or “she's a top Caucajewmexdian photographer.” I'm sure it will catch on. The breakdown is Caucasian, Jewish, Mexican, and Indian. India Indian, as we used to say to differentiate from American Indian, or Native American. What most people would call Eastern Indian. It occurred to me the other day, while I was floating blissfully in the Atlantic Ocean, that the CA in Caucajewmexdian also stands for California, where our father was raised.


My father grew up in Mission Beach, living in a summer home that the family eventually lived in year round. The story, as I remember it, was that Grandma Betty asked the children at the close of one summer if they wanted to leave. They said no, so she said alright, and they stayed. They had a house in another part of San Diego that they used to spend the school year in, I'm not sure what happened to it.

This summer house was known by all as the beach house, and for a brief period called the sand house by my youngest brother. You could sit on the second story porch and look through the tree boughs to the expanse of Mission Bay directly in front. When my father was young, the house was surrounded by empty fields. By the time it became my childhood vacation home, it was 3 blocks through narrows walkways between closely packed condos and bungalows and across one busy street to the Pacific Ocean.


My father learned to swim by chasing an escaped boogie board to the middle of the bay, against his better judgment, which kept him from participating in swimming lessons. He was halfway across before he realized that he was swimming. My mother's father, by comparison, learned to swim in India by hanging onto the water buffalos' tails when he took them to the pond. Years later, this same man took his children to the beach in San Diego. When my father first saw pictures of my mother on a beach trip from her childhood, he recognized the water—it was his own bay, just the other side. Who knew that his wife was waiting across the water for him all those years ago?

It was my mother and then my grandfather that taught me to swim in the city pool, standing in the water and beckoning me to leave the safety of the wall and traverse the distance to the safety of their arms. But it was my father that taught me to love the ocean. He stood by me, holding my hand, and showing me when to jump to keep above the waves. It is a skill that I carry with me to this day. I don't remember if I was afraid of the ocean before that, but I was a timid child, so I very well may have been. My maternal great-grandmother, who once ran against her husband for mayor and won, had not seen the ocean until crossing it to come to America. She couldn't believe that her grandchildren were allowed to play near the water— “it has no end!” she exclaimed, and locked herself in the car, refusing to join them on the beach. She did think that America was a great country for the fact that you could by crisped rice—an essential ingredient for the Indian delicacy Maroondas (known to Americans as Rice Crispy Treats) in a box at the grocery store.

But the fact that you cannot see the end of the ocean does not bother me. I find peace in the rolling waves, serenity in the rise and fall of the water. I let my mind and body relax, and enjoy the expanse of water, sand, and sky. I think of the first woman I saw give birth, and how she reminded herself to “ride the wave” during rough contractions. Now I live near the Atlantic Ocean, and although it is still not as familiar as the Pacific, does bring thoughts of my family. I miss my brothers, who would have fought with me to pass through the breakers. We would have bobbed in the water together, talking and watching for the next swell.


When Grandma Betty, the woman who raised my father and the matriarch of the family, passed away, I met my father in San Diego for the funeral. After the funeral we went to his favorite spots—the beach where the seals congregate, Sunny Jim cave, the beach house. As we walked he told me about his childhood, and the places he used to go. The places his father would take him when he came down to visit. We each took a few books from the built in bookshelves at the beach house. A reminder of the time I used to spend bobbing on an ocean of words during our stays there, curled up in the window seat with the gargoyles carved in wood near the ceiling gazing down.

It was sad to realize a certain time and place was now inaccessible, except in memory, photos, and the stories we tell each other and ourselves. No more will my siblings and I race from the car to be the first to open the wooden gate to the beach house. To hear Grandma Betty call down from the upstairs porch. To eat her tamale pie or her corn cakes out of sea shell plates while we watch the bay. I can tell my children about my summers there, but unlike my father I cannot take them back to the house itself.

I will, someday, take my children to the ocean. It might not be the Pacific, but I can still stand next to them, hold their hands, and tell them to jump.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mattathias Singh Goldberg Westwood

Geneological connection: Matt is Caucajewmexdian #4 (out of five) i.e. a brother of the writer(s)
Name Origin: Mattathias (Hebrew: Mattisyahu) and his five sons were the leaders of the Maccabees, who led the revolt against the Greeks that is commemorated by Hanukah--a holiday with great family significance as well as some Jewish religious significance. "Singh" is a Punjabi word meaning lion. It is the name the last Sikh guru took upon himself and gave first to the Panj Piare, or "five beloved" and then to all male Sikhs who joined the Khalsa, or Sikh lay priesthood (women were given the name Kaur, meaning "princess.")
Random Meditation on Name's Origin: Five literal sons who followed Mattathias, five first "sons" of the Khalsa order. Further Khalsa/Maccabee parallels are worth pondering. Both are fundamentally religious orders who had to shift into modes of militant self-defense when their religious freedom was severely threatened. Both differed in matters of appearance from the rulers of the time. Both acted with reverence in the presence of sacred texts and were fixated on their respective temples. Both created traditions that gave my brother his name.
Age: 18.
Height: Tall.
Hobbies: Keeping up with Eastern European friends from trans-Atlantic Diplomacy camp, drinking mango lassi, spending way too much time with every paper he's every tried to write because he wants to swallow the whole world every time he opens a book or picks up a pen, joking around with little sister and partner-in-insanity Judith.
Stories: A child named Matt used to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy and get inspired to do his own experiments: one involved finding out if his dresser draws were watertight by filling the top one as full as he could. The verdict: not watertight. Another bedroom experiment involved flour, though I can't remember the details.
A young teenage Matt once sat groaning on the couch as I sat at the computer and tried to extract the finishing touches of a report on the Carpathian mountains out of him. I wonder if he can't stand to finish writing because he's smart enough to know that you're always going to be leaving too much out.
When I left for Germany, I left Matt a $100 computer I'd been using for a while. I didn't realize he would read everything on it, and, possessing a memory far superior to mine, become better acquainted with my intellectual development than I am.
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