Moscow, Novodevichy Cemetery
Rex always smelled of the fire. That acrid scent of burning cedar and daily BBQ mingled with a sour whiff of whatever cheap whiskey they had around. It clung to his heavy works shirt in the summer, and I gradually became so accustomed to it that I could sense that hint of smoke at first sight.
Somehow I can’t recall ever seeing him by a fire even once, though surely I must have. Nor can call up the details of his features; more than a decade later, only the silhouette of his huge frame and the ten-gallon hats he favored pulled down low over his fleshy face linger in my mind’s eye. That ungainly form, so heavily tied to this earth, was unforgettable. On so many occasions, I recall that bulky shape filling his rickety porch, leaning forward with a good-natured leer as C and I approached, watching her eyes glance over the rusty bike leaning against the weathered steps. “Hey,” he wheezed. “Wanna ride my Huffy? Heh.” As if to demonstrate that his lechery was all in good fun, he would heave his awkward frame skyward and shuffle into the old house for another beer, always safely assuming we would follow.
Here is the text of a letter I sent to my Texas Congressmen in response to Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims and refugees, the Wall, and the ICE raids carried out in Texas last week. Given that it is unlikely to be read by my state reps, I chose to address a broader audience and am now sharing it here in support of all immigrants in our country, regardless of documentation status.
As a Texan, I cannot envision my state without immigration. In Houston, Michel Elias Dabaghi, the son of Lebanese refugees and a world-class innovator in heart surgery, put Texas Medical Center on the map. Without Lebanese-American Clifford Jamal Antone, Austin’s sixth street might never have outshone other Southern blues hubs to make our state’s capitol also the live music capitol of the world. Our state’s most famous universities name Lebanese-American donors among their greatest benefactors: Joe D. Jamail has given over $50 million to the University of Texas, while Michael Halbouty provided not only for buildings, but also the campus’s sponsorship of George H. W. Bush’s presidential library in College Station.
On the day that I voted, I wore my grandfather’s ring to the polls. My grandfather was a first-generation American in a time when Italian immigrants were not considered to be white. His family came from unsustainable poverty in Southern Italy, kept alive by the charity of a nearby monastery, and arrived in America to Oklahoma only to be met with the Great Depression, racism, and more of the same poverty — hardly the wealth of opportunity that we like to believe our country offers. My grandfather’s father took a job in coal mines to support the family, and he himself later took a job in the burgeoning oil industry, though it was hardly the booming field then that we know it as today. My grandfather never lived a wealthy, comfortable life. He was at Okinawa in WWII and until the day he died, he never spoke a word of the horrors he experienced there. When he came home from the war, he attended Catholic mass nearly every day for the rest of his life. He volunteered for St. Vincent de Paul supporting his community’s poor, never with judgement or condescension, but with empathy. He was one of the rare few of strict pre-Vatican II upbringing who fully grasped the spirituality amidst the formality and the community in the rites. My grandfather had all sons. His whole family only ever had sons. In over 100 years, I’m the second girl to be born into my family, and my grandfather cherished this. He never valued me less than the many men in my family or imposed any limitations on my aspirations; if anything, quite the opposite.
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Originally published on Huffington Post.
Since the debate on Sunday, the Internet has far and wide lauded the final question, asked by Karl Becker, for attempting to bring more positivity and friendliness into the debate. To the audience’s surprise, he asked the candidates, “regardless of the current rhetoric,” to “name one positive thing that [they] respect in one another.”
I can understand the American public’s enthusiastic response. This election season has seen an unprecedented level of toxic hate speech, accompanied by a shocking rise in hate violence nationwide. In its report on hate groups and domestic terrorism, the Southern Poverty Law Center went so far as to call 2016 a year of “extraordinary violence.” For many of us, the memory of President Obama’s exhilarating Hope campaign now seems impossibly far away.
And yet this debate question, while it represents a healthy intent, leads America in an unhealthy direction. Rather than attempting to target the roots of inequality and negativity in this election season, Becker’s prompt sought to smooth it over with a temporary veneer. While Becker called for more respect between the candidates, women were left wondering: When will we receive the respect that we deserve?
“This arm ok?” Stretch. Wrap. Snap. Click. (pause) “So. What do you do?”
One distracted explanation and half a purple-capped vial of blood later, the nurse exclaimed, “Oh! My father was also a Russian translator!” I looked up. “Russian and Spanish. He worked for the courts down in the Valley.”
“Really? In the Valley? Spanish I get, but how the hell did he learn Russian way down there?”
Shoomp. Click. New vial.
It wasn’t until Colby’s successful third attempt that I learned of the previous two. On New Year’s Eve, behind a locked door, with his father’s shotgun. Before that, in the bedroom with a bottle of pills. Before that, some other place, some other failed escape. He was sixteen years old. He was the first of my friends to commit suicide, but he wasn’t the first to die, nor would he be the last.
Most people I’ve met claim they were drawn into studying Russian by the country’s prolific literary culture (some, let’s be honest, because of the country’s seemingly endless supply of beautiful women). While I think of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita as a masterpiece, the tomes of Tolstoy and piles of works by Fedor Dostoevsky, Mikhail Lermontov, Leonid Andreev, Isaac Babel, and many more that graced my desk were never enough on their own to draw me in. Fascinating studies of a foreign culture certainly, but hardly sufficient to stop me in my tracks.
For me, the real wealth of Russian arts, their truly inimitable cultural contribution to the world, was its classical music. It was the music that drew me in, wanting to better understand the history and culture that had produced such a deep and varied art. Among the modernists, I marveled at Aleksandr Skryabin, influenced by the atonal works of Schoenberg and the tonal language with which Chopin experimented, he composed synesthetic Black and White Masses. Despite his experimentation, he retained the undeniable air of thorough classical education and technique so apparent in certain Russian composers, most detectable in the dark, complex pieces composed for the left hand written after he severely inured his right overpracticing Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan and Balakirev’s Islamey and was told he’d never play again.