Way back in 1993 when Bill Clinton was inaugurated as President, I had been living in D.C. and got tickets to the Inauguration from my Mississippi congressman. I ended up not going because I left for Slovakia on Jan. 11 that year. However, my good friend Ramona Bourgeois went and saw Michelle Shocked in concert. I had never heard of her at the time but fell in love with her music via Ramona. Ramona got married in Hawaii yesterday. Here’s a salute to her and her new beau. May they continue a long way together!
Thursday night we had one of those gatherings of people around our dinner table that, for me, was a thing of beauty.
Of the eight folks at our table, we were born in five different countries. Four of us were born here in the United States of America. The other countries represented were Iran, Japan, Mexico and China.
After an hour or so of polite, but interesting chit-chat, we got into one of those rare and wonderful conversations that goes beyond pleasantries and gets to the heart of things. We started talking about the complexities of relationships, focusing most of our attentions on marriage, parent/child and siblings. The interesting part of the conversation was that while there were a few subtle cultural differences, we had all really come to most of the same conclusions about how to make things work or smooth things over. I asked my guests to consider their culture and offer insights regarding how to make relationships work.
The Cajun spoke first.
“Pick your battles,” my friend Debra Broussard Taghehchian said.
“Act like you want to do it — not like you have to,” said her daughter, Layla.
And then Debra’s husband, Saeed Taghehchian, who is from Iran, offered a Persian jewel of wisdom: “It’s a lot easier to change myself than trying to change you.”
With that one, we all gave a hearty, “Amen.”
Jiro Hatano, our friend visiting from Japan, had been quiet through much of the conversation, but with Saeed’s sage adage, Jiro grabbed his handy-dandy translator and started translating ideas and axioms from Japanese into English. With each, he would do his best to explain its meaning and context.
“His conduct betrayed his upbringing,” was the first translated from Japanese and prompted much discussion. Should the verb be betrayed or portrayed? Was Jiro trying to say the Japanese equivalent of, “He was raised to know better,” or, “Raised as he was, this is what you should expect”?
Jiro said it was the latter. Basically, you get out what you put in.
The second Japanese advice on making relationships work was: You’ll give yourself away every time you open your mouth.
In other words, keep your mouth closed whenever possible.
The third was the most difficult to translate. Jiro’s original version of the sentence was enigmatic:
Inscrutable are the ways of heaven.
After much discussion, he explained its meaning: We can’t predict the future. The way of life is changing always. If we have trouble now, that trouble could turn to happiness one day.
Jiro’s thoughts inspired another Persian insight from Saeed. The first, loosely translated is: Taking the high road sometimes requires keeping your mouth shut.
“Sometimes we say in Iran, if you don’t want to lose, don’t fight,” Saeed said.
My husband, originally from Mexico, agreed and decided it was time to enter the discussion.
“For me, it’s about managing the moment,” he said. “You can’t make your decision about how you’re going to react to one thing by thinking about the future or by thinking about the past. You’ve got to do the right thing based on the circumstances at hand. If you mind that, those moments become cumulative. It’s collecting the little pieces that make a long chain.”
And with that, we finished our sherbet and agreed that if the eight of us from such different backgrounds and family situations could find such common ground around a dinner table in Louisiana, global concord is surely within reach.
Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears Sundays. Email her at email@example.com.
My husband and I have been married 18 years. Through the years, I’ve gotten bits and pieces of the story I’m about to tell, but this week was the first time he ever told me the whole thing — and he gave me his blessings to share it here.
Back in 1969, a few weeks after the astronauts landed on the moon, my husband’s dad went into the hospital.
From everything I know about my husband’s father, I gather that he was a manly man. I know he loved strange meats and cheeses, opera and bullfighting.
“He had a bunch of opera records,” my husband said. “I got that from him. I like opera. I’m not a fan of bullfights, but I’m glad I got to see some. I love the music and the sounds of a bullfight — and you know I love strange meats and cheeses.”
That trip to the El Paso, Texas, hospital marked the first hospital stay of his life. Doctors wanted to determine the source of some stomach problems. My husband and his mom were waiting for his dad when he got out of exploratory surgery. Everything seemed fine.
They talked for a while, and then headed home to check on the family’s two younger children staying with neighbors.
At some point that night, the phone rang. It was one of those phone calls you don’t want to get. Someone from the hospital was calling saying things weren’t going well.
No one else in the family drove. They woke Mr. Ortiz, the neighbor. He took my husband and mother-in-law to the hospital. When they got to the hospital, the staff wouldn’t let them in the room where they had visited a few hours earlier. My husband remembers someone talking to his mom and her crying.
Eventually, they went home. Nothing in his life has been the same since.
That was the summer between his 8th and 9th grade years. In 8th grade, he had been student body president and involved in all sorts of extra-curricular activities. Once the funeral was done and the dust settled, he and his mom sat down and had a long talk.
He was the same age as our oldest daughter is now.
“Think about Greer (our daughter) right now,” he said to me last week. “She doesn’t have a clue about the ramifications of the light bill not getting paid. She doesn’t even think about it. The lights go on by magic. We stop and eat at a restaurant, and she orders whatever she wants. It’s all magic. Back then, when my mom and I figured it all out, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, you mean if I don’t do this, the lights won’t go on? What do we do?’ Well, I got a paper route.”
So began my husband’s long career in newspapers — and many other life lessons.
“I became more aware of everything around me because I became responsible. Childhood was over,” he said. “All of a sudden it wasn’t about me anymore. I wasn’t bitter. That was just the way it was. As a matter of fact, in a strange way, it gave me more reason to succeed — to be good at what I was doing because I wasn’t doing it just for me anymore.”
He had thrown a paper route before, but the short route was to earn money to buy model airplanes. He refers to the job he got after his dad died as “a real paper route” — 100 papers every afternoon. He’d pick them up a block from his high school and walk the mile or so up the mountain throwing papers on both sides of the street. He switched to a morning route his sophomore year in an effort to be available for after-school activities.
By the time he graduated high school, he went to work for the newspaper full-time.
Early in our conversation, I asked my husband what he thought his dad taught him. He was stumped.
“When your parent dies and you’re that young, there are a lot of things that you plan to do together or thought you’d do, but we never got to do,” he said.
By the time he got to the part of the story of how his life changed after his dad died, he had come up with an answer to my question.
“Maybe that’s what my dad taught me — to get up and go to work every single day.”
“Or maybe it was something more. Maybe somewhere along the way, I figured out what my dad knew all along. He was a man who never complained — which may explain why he was so quiet! Even so, I believe he taught by example that life is about happily doing whatever you have to do.”
Gracias por la lección, Papi.
(Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, runs in The Sunday Advertiser. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Everybody needs to read at least one good book each summer.
Don’t feel the need to stop at one. You’re welcomed to read more.
What follows is a list of books I recommend. I’ve tried to cover the spectrum. Some are for the young, and some are for the not-so-young. The list includes fact and fiction. Some are long. Some are short. Hopefully, there’s something on this list that will tickle your fancy.
We’ll start with the long — and my favorite book of the year thus far: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. Follett is the author of Pillars of the Earth, my all-time favorite book. Like Pillars, Fall of Giants is one of those thousand-page epic novels that takes a deep dive into a period of history that I didn’t know nearly enough about. I’ve known the facts of World War I since middle school, but it just never made sense to me. After reading this book, I know why — it was a war that made no sense. It was long and horrible, and the Follet does a great job in the latter part of the book of chronicling one battle after another to the point of ad nauseum, literally. No doubt, the author knew he was being redundant — and that was the point.
While the whole war was largely about the rich and powerful of Europe trying desperately to hold on to their riches and power and keep the rest of the people in their places, the years of daily battles in a three-mile of area of France were stupid and beyond sad. Innocent young boys fought and died, day after day, moving their military lines yards and at time — over and over and over.
Even with that horrible backdrop, Follett does a fantastic job of forcing readers to care about his characters from all over the world. Each has a different stake in the war. In the process of understanding many of the perspectives of WWI, readers walk away with a new understanding for events that set the stage for the rest of the century. Great book. I loved it. It was one of those books that allowed me the great joy of living with the characters during the week I read it.
Other recommendations for various audiences:
— To Heaven and Back by Mary C. Neal, M.D. The non-fiction story of a doctor who died in a kayak accident and came back. Her account of what happened as she moved from life to death to eternal life and back again.
— Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The true story of Louis Zamperini, a WWII Air Force bombardier’s story of survival. Everyone I know who has read this book, from 11-year-old boys to 14-year-old girls to my 70-year-old dad, has been captivated by it. None of them could stop talking about it for weeks.
— The Fault in our Stars by John Green. Ranked by many as the best book so far of 2012 — a young adult title adults also love. It’s the laugh out loud funny, tragic, insightful and irreverent story of a 14-year-old girl’s take on thyroid cancer. Heartbreakingly wonderful.
— Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Twin sons born to an Indian nun and British surgeon and their intertwined lives as the twins move from Addis Ababa to America and back again. It’s a family saga of doctors/patients and exile and home.
— The Dragon’s Tooth by N.D. Wilson. I predict this book and the series soon-to-follow will become big. It’s a young adult adventure tale. Riveting and wonderful. The paperback edition comes out in August — so it may gain some momentum then. With elements of Harry Potter and the old-as-time tale of good versus evil, the difference in this book is that everything the kids have to learn is real and learnable — including Latin, sword fighting, etc. Fun read.
— Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith, bestselling author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It’s one of those dark historical revisions presenting a very different story of the three wise men and their quest. A Catholic priest friend of mine recommended this book to me. Not what I was expecting, but very entertaining.
— The Selection by Kiera Cass. The perfect teen girl book, but I had loads of fun reading it as well. It’s basically a reality television fairy tale set in a dystopian version of what remains of America after a royal revolt follows China’s takeover because of the country’s inability to make good on its debts. Even still, it’s mainly fun, light and entertaining.
— The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Set in North Korea, a thriller and epic tale with romance and lost innocence thrown in for good measure. Many believe Johnson to be a real player on the American literary scene. Amazon picked it as the best book of the month back in January.
(Jan Risher’s Long Story Short runs Sundays. If you’ve got a book favorite or would like to let her know your opinion on one or some of the above, email her at email@example.com.)
Sitting in the dark of our living room, with the lights and electricity out because of Thursday night’s humdinger of a storm, my 10-year-old daughter was freaked out by the lack of light and electricity.
Barely a hundred years ago, electricity was the exception and not the rule. In fact, by 1920 only 35 percent of homes had electricity. By 1956, 99 percent of American homes were wired to use electricity, which means the bulk of us have had lights at our beck and call throughout the duration of our lives. We take light and so much more of our day-to-day lives for such granted that we miss a major element of appreciation altogether.
Genuine gratitude is soul soothing and makes life at large so much more palatable — for everything from a refrigerator full of food to a song that makes you smile to a car that cranks to a phone that rings to a faucet that turns on and spews forth cold, fresh, clean water. By today’s standards, any of those amenities are considered basic necessities by most.
Sitting in the dark of our living room seemed to be a good place to continue the gratitude conversation my 14-year-old daughter and I had started earlier this week. I know 14 is tough, and I try to be fair, but there are times when 14-ness gets to a parent — and, lately, that parent has been me.
I think about the time when I was about her age. I recall enough of that time to remember believing that I was really proving something with my outward display of a near-constant state of frustration with the world. Of course, I generally reserved such an exhibition for my parents at home. I suppose I wanted to be certain they recognized just how little they knew and what a pain they were.
And, you know what they say about karma.
I’m still uncertain about just what it was I was blustering around about, but it was something significant in my mind. Like my own daughter today, I took light and so much more for granted.
Sitting in the dark made me think about all of this.
Lately, I’ve tried on several occasions to share with my daughter how much better life gets after the transition from living a tormented life full of anguish to one that’s more contented — and I’m unsure if that shift comes by choice or chance. Either way, something caused my realization and appreciation of the bounty of my world, and life was so much better afterwards. With that awareness, I also became conscious of other notions that made life much easier — the value of letting go of situations instead of trying to control them, the wisdom of forgiving those who had wronged me in reality or perception and the joy in attempting to do my part to make the world a better place every day.
Together, we continued sitting in the dark until the storm subsided, and the lights came back on.
Read a good book lately? Send me a message or comment telling me the title and why you liked it. I’m compiling a column of book recommendations. Looking forward to getting yours! Pictured below is the cover of the book I finished this week. It took me longer than usual to read it — definitely not a quick read, but an interesting look at the 1960s, written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey.