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Thursday, 24 November 2011

Gabrielle Giffords Serves Thansgiving Meal at Arizona Air Base...

The following news, penned by Matt York & Bob Christie, caught my attention on my AOL homepage.  The recovery of Representative Gabrielle Giffords after being shot in head is awe inspiring and nothing short of a miracle.  It is a story that boggles the mind.  Here is another milestone in her recovery.  

TUCSON, Ariz. — U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords helped serve a Thanksgiving meal to service members and retirees at a military base in her hometown.
Giffords arrived in the dining hall at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson at midday Thursday wearing a ball cap and an apron with her nickname of "Gabby" sewn on the front. She was accompanied by her retired astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, who also donned an apron.
Giffords used only her left hand as she served, a sign that physical damage remains from the injuries she suffered when she was shot in January.
Kelly supported her from her left side as she worked the turkey station on the serving line. He served ham.
The event marked the first time Giffords has met with her constituents since the shooting. After serving dinner, she mingled with service members, exchanging pleasantries and mostly one-word greetings and responses.
She did tell Airman 1st Class Millie Gray, of Kansas City, Mo., "Happy Thanksgiving, thank you for your service."
Gray said she had intended to only grab a plate and head back to her dorm to eat, until she heard that Giffords was going to be there.
"She's such an inspiration and her story is so inspirational, it really made me proud. I felt very proud and very humble," Gray said. "It just feels really good to see that she is out here supporting the troops, and just continuing to be an inspiration and a strong role model for Americans in general.
"She was very warm, asked how our meal was, which, of course, was amazing. The food is awesome," Gray said. "She and her husband were, just delightful and asked a lot of questions. It was just very warm-hearted, and I told her she was an inspiration and she was very thankful for that."

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Musing on the End of the Iraq War.

"It's hard not to think of my war as a bizarre camping trip that no one else went on."
                       – Alex Lemons, Iraq-war veteran (taken from Time Magazine Nov 21, 2011)

Since food seems to be a big part of our celebrations, it's natural to gather frequently during the holiday season around our dinning room tables and share our gratifications and remember the less fortunate. This year while gathering around the table and celebrating the season there will be a surge of relief knowing that American troops will be back from Iraq. We will rejoice that many families around the nation will spend the holidays with their loved ones returning home from half-way around the world.

On October 21, President Obama officially announced the end of the war in Iraq and the planned return of all U.S. troops by the end of the year 2011.  It boggles the mind that a war that should never have begun has lasted almost nine years, and has drained our coffers of hundreds of billions of dollars that was badly needed at home.

The cover story of Time Magazine's November 21 issue was dedicated to the homecoming of the troops.   Mark Thompson, who penned the story, writes: "As the nation prepares to welcome home 45,000 troops from Iraq, most Americans have little or nothing in common with their experiences or the lives of the 1.4 million men and women in uniform." I found that comment to be very true.

When was the last time I watched a documentary about the war in Iraq or read a book about it?  I cannot recall.  I know there were a few documentaries made about the war and I remember, in particular, one that tracked the lives of soldiers returning home with lost limbs. But Generally speaking, I haven't seen any dramatic documentaries or heard a strong public outcry about the war, nor any movies depicting the atrocities of the war.

When I look back to the Vietnam War era, when I was a teenager in Tehran, it seems to me that I was more aware of U.S. war policies than I am today.  I have a small memory from that time that has stayed with me for all these years.  One day during the early stages of the Vietnam War, we were at a family gathering where my dad and uncles were gathered around the table discussing politics. I, the curious kid, was drawn to their conversation and I was in shock when I overheard one of my uncles saying, "Wars are waged to make wealth." After so many years this statement has proven true.

I'd like to finish this musing by visiting a corps of dedicated people who come together every Friday – rain or shine – from 5 to 7PM at the south-west corner of Brand and Broadway in Glendale, to demonstrate their opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

They call it the Glendale Peace Vigil.  Those who participate say war makes our lives less safe because it creates enemies for America, it brings terrorism, and it depletes our coffers with consuming money that could be spent on badly needed infrastructure in the country. Julianne Spillman and Nancy Kent spearheaded the group in September of 2002, six months before troops were deployed in Iraq. 

Kent recounts how the Vigil was started, “There were a lot of protests against the war of Afghanistan already underway and people were against the upcoming war in Iraq. The main Vigil was in front of the Federal building on Wilshire Blvd in LA.  Julianne and I thought that instead of driving to Wilshire, why not to start our own group? That’s how we formed the Glendale Peace Vigil.” She continues, “At the beginning, before the war in Iraq got on its way, there were more people, but after the war started, the number dropped. At the beginning we were getting 20 to 40 people, but the number has gone down and now only eight or ten regularly show up. In case of rain we get protection under the overhang of the Glendale Galleria.”

"Now that the troops are called back are they going to continue their vigil?" I asked.  Kent responded, "We have no plans to stop this vigil – we're still in Afghanistan and we want to show our solidarity with the demonstrations of the 99%."  I noticed a black button on her jacket and 99% printed in white.  I asked her about their plans for joining with the 99% demonstration.  She said that they don't have plans to fetch tents, however they're supporting the movement.

After talking to them I returned to my car, reflecting on how many people are sacrificing because of these wars, and on how little the rest of us are aware of it. 

The following comments is by Kelly Hayes-Raitt:

Catherine, great post!  I agree with your uncle's observation that "wars are waged to make wealth."  When I was in Iraq in June 2003, 3 months after the US-led invasion and occupation, I sneaked into a Bechtel meeting and witnessed how the American company set the bar too high for Iraqis to get contracts to rebuild their own country.  See my blog post at:

And as we Americans rightfully celebrate the return of our soldiers, let's hold the Iraqis in our hearts.  Estimates of civilian deaths range from 100,000 (documented civilian deaths as a result of the war) to 1 million (based on epidemiological studies).  Every Iraqi has been touched by violence.  I have several posts of detailing my first-hand interviews with Iraqi refugees in Syria:

I am currently writing a journalistic memoir about these experiences. A chapter appears in "Female Nomad & Friends" (Random House, 2010) and "Best Women's Travel Writing 2011" (Travelers Tales, 2011).

Thank you for your wonderful writing!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A French "Meetup" in Pasadena...

Today I'd like to share my French connection with you... 

I learned the French language at an early age because I attended a French elementary school in Tehran.  Even though I changed schools after the sixth grade, I retained a life-long love of speaking French. I continued learning French, by having private lessons and attending classes offered by the French Institute in Tehran.

I was thirty when I moved to America. To preserve my French language skills I started exchanging letters with my aunt who lived in Denmark. She would write her letters in French and I would reply in Armenian. Later we corresponded via email, until her death in 2009 at the age of 97.  She would write emails in French and I would respond in English.  After her death, I no longer had the opportunity to communicate with someone in French.

A few months ago, I found an online social networking site called Meetup, where users can find groups with common interests. I checked for a French-speaking group and I found a few in Pasadena, close to my hometown of Glendale. Last night, I was able to join the group for the first time.  Its founder, Caroline Busse, is a French woman who facilitates French conversation over a French movie.  Last night we watched "The Conquest," a movie that tells how Nicolas Sarkozy came to power and won the Presidency of the French Republic. I liked the movie a lot.

Watching a French movie followed by a conversation in French over a cup of coffee at LA's favorite bookstore, Vroman's in Pasadena, is like being in heaven. Could I have asked for more?  I don't think so.

Our next movie is "Tomboy" on December 1st. The following post is a story I penned about the incident that made me leave my French elementary school.

Facebook of the 1960s

 The year-end picture at Sister's Academy (2nd grade)

                 It is almost the end of the school year; one more week and school will be over.  Next year, school will start in a new location on the outskirts of Tehran where a brand new building has been erected for the Convent. I am a sixth-grader in an all-girls school run by nuns.  My classroom is on the second floor of an old mansion converted into a combined school, convent, and boarding house – about a dozen girls live here as boarders.  On the grounds there is a chapel with all the elements of a Catholic church: An altar with a domed ceiling painted in blue with white clouds, a statue of Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, candles, rows of pews. The pews are set on expensive Persian rugs, and I and the other students kneel on them for morning prayers before going to our classrooms and starting the day.  I am a devoted 12-year-old, and take the sacraments very seriously.

                The bell rings. I gather my books but I am hesitant to run out of the classroom as the others do.  My books held over my chest, I ease my way to the staircase and stop. I peep from above and see Sister Alfonse standing at the foot of the stairs in her black uniform with starched white collar and black veil, watching the girls descend.  Sister Alfonse is the head sister of the convent, just below Mother Superior. After 50 years, I still see this scene in my mind’s eye, like a movie.  The staircase is crowded with girls in dark blue uniforms. I am standing at the top of the stairs trying to figure out how to avoid coming face to face with Sister Alfonse.  Most of the students are from the upper grades and are engaged in conversations. Nobody notices me.  After staring for a few seconds at Sister Alfonse from above and deliberating, I manage to hide behind the other girls and sneak out.  My heart thumping I reach the last step. Sister Alfonse calls "Catherine, viens ici!" (Catherine, come here!) My feet freeze and my knees buckle under me. It is as if I am in a dream; I want to move but I am unable to do so…

               My unfortunate encounter with sister Alfonse was due to my over active imagination that has often gotten me in trouble. Here is the story: Long before Mark Zuckerberg revolutionized social interactions and brought us Facebook, there was another kind of book in Tehran where I was growing up that connected friends. We called it “Daftareh Khaterat” in Farsi (“Book of Memories”). It was a notebook that on each page contained a question like:  “What is your favorite movie or actor?” “What is your favorite food?” Innocent questions like these mingled with not so innocent ones related to boys, like: ”Is there a ‘He’ in your life?” and “where did you meet him?” Such questions would well be considered scandalous for a sixth-grader in Iran in the 1960s, and even more so in a Catholic school setting. The notebook was circulated among friends, and they would write down their names and answer the questions on each page, then pass it on to others who would add their answers. By reading every girl’s comments you would become acquainted with all.

                 I am not sure exactly when I became aware of the existence of such a notebook, maybe at the beginning of sixth grade. As adventurous or maybe creative as I was, I decided to start my own  “Book of Memories.”  To buy a notebook, I went to the best stationery store in Tehran, Nastaran, on avenue Naderi.  It was a store of around 1000 square feet filled with paper goods, greeting cards, wrapping papers, calendars and any paraphernalia pertaining to writing or drawing, like to-die-for fountain pens, or “stylos” as we called them. The merchandise was mostly imported from United States or Europe. It was a high-end store run by two Jewish brothers in their forties who were very stern ­and engaged in no small talk or pleasantries. Their attitude was very foreign to me, because Iranian culture is based on taarof. (The word “taarof” has no equivalent in English. It implies showing politeness or delivering a compliment, though it may not be sincere.) Entering the store was like entering an academy. I had to be very careful not to make a wrong move and become the target of their scolds, but I was still crazy about the store. I guess their stone-faced glances meant they didn't like kids wandering through their store without surveillance. Perhaps they feared I might damage or steal something. I say so, because whenever I went with my mother, they were welcoming. Today if I close my eyes I can still smell the store’s aroma of paper goods; it was like the scent encountered in an old library.  
                 I bought a special hard cover notebook from Nastaran and started my Book of Memories.  I copied titles and questions from another book that I had borrowed from a friend. In our household there was no shortage of magazines; all my uncles and my father subscribed to Time, Newsweek, Life and National Geographic, and they swapped the magazines among themselves.  I cut pictures from these to go with the notebook titles and pasted them to corresponding pages.“Voilà!” I had my Memories Book.  First, I passed it to friends in the upper grades and then to my own classmates. A friend with an older sister who could draw very well, proposed that her sister draw a picture in my notebook and I said, “Why not.” She drew a man and a woman kissing each other with few hearts around them in the background. 
                   Later, I loaned the book to Amalia, a classmate who was a close friend. Amalia had an older brother who caught her working on the book. Being a protective brother, he got mad at her for having such a corrupting influence like me as a friend. He took the book to the principal’s office.  You may very well imagine what happened next.  I was called to the office.  Mother Superior, Sister Alfonse and the principal of the school, a petite Iranian woman – Khanoom Akbar – all sat at the table with somber faces and interrogated me. They showed me the book and the picture of the man and the woman kissing.  To make the story short, they asked me to bring my mother to school. I am not sure why they didn’t call our home directly.  Perhaps at that time it was not common calling home since not every home had a telephone.

                  There are things that I can remember as clearly as that scene on the staircase, but then there are things that I cannot recall.  Lost to my memory is the way I managed to escape punishment for this crime. Neither do I recall how I dealt with the awkward circumstances in which I had put myself. Did I bring my mom to school? It has faded from my memory. All I remember is that I told my parents that I no longer wanted to go back to that school because it was moving far from our home and I didn’t want to be sitting in a bus for two hours each day – an hour going to school, an hour coming home.  I told them, “By the time I get home I will have no energy to study.” They bought my argument, because the load of homework we had was notorious in Iran. We had to toil hours to finish our homework – especially in a school that taught four different languages: Farsi, French, English and Armenian.

                 My dire situation could have had a more dramatic ending but thank God it didn’t. I was lucky.  It was the end of the school year, and the convent was in the process of relocating to a new site.  The nuns were desperately seeking more students for their new establishment, and they didn’t want to lose a student by dwelling on such an incident.  Otherwise, who knows? I would have ended up with an indelible mark on my forehead for being expelled from school.  I asked my mother about this escapade, but she couldn’t recall it at all. Neither does my friend Lylla, with whom I am still in touch.  Most likely it was not as serious as I felt it to be at the time. 

               The incident was a tipping point in my life. I changed schools.  I went from the Sister’s Academy of Institut Mariam to Mariamyan, the Armenian all girls high school. My relations with the sisters that I had spent the most important formative years of my life was dampened.  I didn’t have the heart to go back and visit old friends nor the school that had shaped me and given me a good sense of religion, taught me French and ingrained in me a love for France and French culture. Today, I am no longer the religious girl that I was but still, every night when I go to bed, I close my eyes and say the little prayer I learned as a little girl kneeling on the pews at the chapel. I still love French language and culture and regret in my ongoing Memory Book the premature end to my French studies. 

Sunday, 13 November 2011

BABY BOOM – Baby born at 11:11 on 11/11/11 to Vet on Veterans Day.

I am not sure if I believe in numerology or astrology but from a few months ago I knew that 11-11-11 would be a full moon and we should expect a special energy around us.  I had the intention to arrange a moonlight hike and a little picnic, but it didn't work out, because in our neck of the woods, the weather forecast predicted rain and overcast.  

From an email I learned that on that special day there would be a"water" ceremony conducted by a spiritual healer "shaman" from Zimbabwe, an African country.  A few of my friends and I hit the road to Loyola Marymount University where the event was held. It was interesting to know that the Shaman used the energy of the day to heal the wounds of the communities not individual anguishes.   

On the way back from LMU, I stopped at a grocery store to buy a lottery ticket and I realized that I had left my wallet home and I didn't have any money to buy a ticket.  So my arms longer that my legs (that's how in Farsi, despair is shown) I headed home. That special date came and went without anything extraordinary happening, however I was amused to catch the following news on the AOL homepage.  What a coincidence...

Baby born at 11:11 on 11/11/11 to Vet on Veterans Day.

MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. -- Jacob Anthony Saydeh (say-DAH') won't have any trouble remembering precisely when he was born.

Virtua Memorial hospital in Mount Holly, N.J., says Jacob entered the world at 11:11 a.m. on Friday – 11-11-11.

And to make the Veterans Day birth even more remarkable, the boy's mother is an Air Force veteran and his father currently services in the Air Force. It's the second child for Staff Sgt. Christopher Saydeh and his wife, Danielle. They live at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, where he is a member of Air Force security forces. They are a third-generation military family.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Musing on the death of Michael Jackson

On Monday November 7, the talk of the town was the verdict of Doctor Conrad Murray who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson.  Jury found Dr. Murray who was hired as MJ's personal cardiologist with $150,000-a-month salary, acting with criminal negligence. Here is my musing on the death of King of the Pop's.  This is my second time posting this reflections. The first one was a month ago following Piers Morgan interviewing MJ's brother Jermaine. 

A Tribute to Michael Jackson...

L.A. to get Jackson reimbursement… (LA Times 6/19/2010) The title grabbed my attention.  Almost a year after his death, he is back in the paper.  The article was about Michael Jackson’s estate to help pay the cost of his memorial service at the Staple center in downtown Los Angeles.  Memories rushed to my mind.  What an unfortunate death! What an irony to have a private doctor by your side plus bodyguards 24/7 and not being able to prevent a cardiac arrest.

Flash back: October 28, 2009 – I made sure that my calendar was clear, because I wanted to be among the first, to watch the silver screening of “This is it”, the documentary movie of Michael Jackson’s rehearsal footage of his failed concert in London at 02 arena.  My son and I chose to go to the showing of 7:30p.m. Did I like it?  I can only say that the world has missed an uttermost concert. The critics described it as a “feverish grip of pure creativity.” I say it was magical – a mélange of dizzying dances and powerful stage techniques with Michael Jackson in total control of every move on the stage.  Sitting there watching the movie with wet eyes, a thought was swirling in my mind, “What a shame that he couldn’t make a comeback.” In my eyes, he was still the sweet kid, the soft-spoken MJ. I could not see a fifty-year old man.  There was no hint of his failing health, something that I was expecting to see. Instead I saw him as agile as 20 or 30 years ago. The movie, definitely re-established the value of his music and proved that he was genuinely a thriller.

Flash back: Sunday October 26, 2008 – just five days before Halloween.  We are in San Diego having dinner at an outside café in Gas-Lamp district.  As we sit there I notice groups of young adults wearing shabby clothing with frayed hair. Some have bandaged their heads.  Some have wrapped themselves as mummies, with blood-like stains all over, and some are wearing misfit clothes.  The groups are parading at the sidewalks with unusual strides, some limping, some moving their arms slow, in zombie-like motions.  Curious me – I ask an approaching kid.  “ What is this all about?” the kid answers, “It is to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s the Thriller.”   “Oh! Michael Jackson,” I think to myself, “he has been absent for so many years. Has it already been 25 years?  Hmm, most of these kids were not even born, then.”  A nostalgic sense envelops me.  Why is it that the talent of most geniuses is overshadowed by their enigmatic lives?  That day, I was happy to be there and watch the re-incarnation of the “Thriller” but deep in my heart there was a black spot, a question mark about his legal issues with young boys.  The parade was a great tribute to a genius, an eccentric performer, who took pop music to the never-traveled heights.  

Flash back:  1979 – We have just moved from Iran to the United States.  I am watching on TV, a documentary about Michael Jackson’s life starting when he was a kid dancing with his brothers in their group – Jackson 5.  Until that moment I had not even heard his name. Watching MJ sing, dance and moonwalk in his white bodysuit was awe-inspiring. The seven-year old Michael, with a big Afro leading his older brothers in a group dancing and singing, won my heart instantly – I thought he was so cute.  And then years succeeded… the boy became 25, 30 and 50.  His life shrouded with enigma with litigations and odd relationships, made the electrifying MJ to disappear.  And then on June 25, 2009, we learned that the ultimate Peter Pan passed away.  And then there was the barrage of clips from his life and his previous shows on TV.  Thirty years later, I sat down again in front of the TV, and watched his twirling and chirping, this time with a heavy heart.  Maybe through the eyes of my mind I was watching my own life go by so fast.  When on July 7, his poignant memorial service was aired on TV, I thought to myself, “why did we have to loose him to recognize his genius?”  How sad, that his death brought him back. Unfortunately all too often it happens, to all of us at one point in our lives, when we don’t recognize our blessings until it is too late. 

June 29, 2010 – Four days after the anniversary of his death, and when the dust had settled, I went to Forest Lawn to visit the King of Pop’s burial place and to see for myself the outpouring of grief from around the world.  I had read in the paper that fans had come as far as Spain and Japan to pay respect and to commemorate the first anniversary of his death.  And I living in Glendale, California where the cemetery is situated had missed the opportunity to be with his fans on the day of the anniversary.  Michael Jackson’s body is interred inside a mausoleum.  One cannot see the tomb because it is enclosed behind walls.  But outside of the Mausoleum for about 40 feet along the walls, there were all kinds of memorabilia from white gloves to flowers, poems, flags of different nations, all laid down.  When I arrived it was around 4:30 in the afternoon.  There were a few groups of people, a middle aged husband and a wife, a mother with her kids, a young couple, all paying the last tribute to a singer that they had loved.  I am glad that I could make it there, even few days late, to witness the sadness in the eyes of the people who were still hanging there. 

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Musing on the death of Steve Jobs...

The following piece will be published in the Asbarez paper:

Heaven Should be Like an Apple Store...

Today, November 5, marks exactly one month since Steve Jobs, the father of modern day communication industry, closed his eyes forever.  For most of us familiar with the beauty of the innovative products he brought to the world, his death was very sad. The creative genius of our time lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at age 56 on October 5.

Following his death a barrage of tweets, Facebook posts and emails filled the networks. Some expressed sorrow over the loss of an icon who shook a whole industry and who revolutionized the way we communicate. Some focused on his reputation for mistreating employees and for outsourcing manufacturing to low-cost labor in China. And some claimed Steve Jobs was fluent in the Armenian language because his adoptive mother was Armenian.  We Armenians felt a tickle that he had roots in our culture and wished that this fact had been documented more before his death.

Among the emails I received, there were cartoons depicting Steve Jobs entering heaven.  In one of them, Jobs was at the door of heaven in his signature black turtleneck and jeans standing next to a lectern on which the archangel has his huge notebook and is trying to find Jobs' name by leafing through the pages one by one.  Jobs, ever the innovator, tells the archangel that he has an app for upgrading the system.  The cartoon really amused me, because even before receiving these caricatures, or even before his death, whenever I entered the Apple Store, I imagined that heaven should be like an Apple store. 

I had this feeling one day at the Americana shopping center in Glendale. As I was walking towards the store, I noticed from afar the dancing water-fountains in the forefront and the glass walls of the Apple Store as a backdrop. The scene was accentuated mostly because of the silver balls that are displayed as props along the sides of the windows, which give an impression of clouds.  Together the water fountain, the clouds, the store's soft lighting, and the sleek displays looked so futuristic. I stood there for a moment and gazed at the scene.

Perhaps another contributing factor to that sensation was the one-on-one training program I get at the Apple store. I have had the opportunity to discover the depths of knowledge available through Apple products.  Things that I have learned during my private sessions are almost magical. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, it does feel heavenly when I enter the store for my appointment. A smiling genius – that's what the sales people in blue T-shirts are called – approaches me and asks if I need any help. Right there, they pull my information on their hand held little computer and then usher me to the corner to meet another genius that is going to work with me.   

I'd like to finish my musing on Steve Jobs with another tweet that I received.  It's a caricature of Jobs walking and listening to iTunes.  At the bottom of the picture it reads: icame, isaw, iconquered.  We Armenians are certainly very proud to know that an Armenian mother has been behind the making of a genius. Too sad he left this world too early.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Breaking News: Bank of America drops Debit fee.

 I just received the following email from Consumers Union. 
Bank of America just announced that it will drop plans to charge its debit card holders a $5 fee to use their card.
That's because you, and tens of thousands like you, got fed up and said "no" to this final affront. You said, 'we can take our money elsewhere.'
Your public protest gave momentum to a growing movement among consumers to transfer their money from the big banks to credit unions and smaller community banks.
And the big banks heard you. Last week, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, SunTrust Bank, and Regions Financial halted plans to charge monthly debit fees. Bank of America was the only hold out. An hour ago, Bank of America cancelled its fee, too.
What an amazing victory!
And its more than just this one fee. The public backlash over debit card fees will serve as a wake-up call to banks that they can’t take their customers for granted. While banks may come back with other fees in the future, they’ll be gauging public reaction carefully.
Enjoy your victory.