My Norwegian roots

May 17 parade

May 17 parade

I have booked a flight to Oslo, Norway, where on May 17 I will join my cousins in celebrating the country’s national day, the 200th anniversary of its Constitution. I’m excited!

My father, Wenzel Habel [HAH-bel], was born in Lindås, Norway, north of Bergen, in 1886. He had five older sisters, and when he finally made his appearance his parents were overjoyed to have a son. His father, Alfred Habel, was a district doctor—in other words, a country doctor in the national rural health system. At the time Daddy was born the family lived in a pretty white frame house overlooking a fjord, which I visited in 1979. There is a small pier at the foot of the property, and my grandfather made many house calls by boat. Daddy often accompanied him and learned seamanship as a small boy. Unfortunately, my grandfather died when Daddy was 12, and his mother had died a few years earlier.  That left him an orphan, and his dream of following in his father’s footsteps was not to be realized. Instead, he went to Norway’s Merchant Marine Academy and worked his way up to the rank of captain.

Wenzel Habel, sketch by Astrid Habel

Captain Wenzel Habel,
sketch by Astrid Habel

Years later, Daddy came to the United States and acquired citizenship here. He made sure that his English was perfect. By the time I came along, he was sailing for American Export Lines. He carried cargo and a complement of 100 to 500 passengers, depending on the ship, from New York to various ports in the Mediterranean and back. My mother met him as a passenger. His first wife had recently died in childbirth. They fell in love, and halfway through the trip he proposed to her in a horse-drawn carriage on the Amalfi Drive along the Italian Riviera.

SS Exochorda, one of my father's ships.

SS Exochorda, one of my father’s ships.

In April 1934, Daddy was assigned  to pick up Samuel Insull, a Bernie Madoff of the day who had fled to Greece and was being extradited on criminal charges. Their arrival in New York on May 7 made a big splash. Newspapers covered the event, and they mentioned the ship’s captain:

“[Consul] Berry alternate[d] in watching Insull with Captain Wenzel Habel, master of the Exilona, who was detailed as joint custodian.”

US Consul Burton Berry and Samuel Insull on arrival in New York harbor

US Consul Burton Berry and Samuel Insull on arrival in New York

In Chicago, a man named D. Richter saw Daddy’s name in the paper and recognized it instantly. He felt certain my father was the son of Dr. Alfred Habel, whom he had known more than half a century earlier in Norway. He wrote to Daddy, who confirmed that indeed he was. Richter replied with a long letter describing my grandfather’s life when he was a district doctor in the Arctic Circle. As a young volunteer, Richter had lived with the family and helped my grandfather with his work. He became the son that my grandfather wanted to have. When it came time for Richter to leave, my grandfather gave him his watch and a wallet, which Richter passed on my father along with his description of life at the top of the world in the late 1870s.

Last week when I was cleaning out old papers I came across the letter, which I had not seen in decades. I have always been moved by the story, and with my planned trip approaching, it felt like one of those coincidences that only the Universe could invent. I have been reading and re-reading it.

Richter writes:

Masoy in winter

Masoy in winter

“It is rather hard to find words to express my feelings and emotions when I received your kind letter of May 20 confirming my suspicion that you were the son of Dr. and Mrs. Alfred Habel whom more than 50 years ago I loved so well. Your letter brought tears to my eyes. A letter from a man I did not even know was born, but whose good father so often told me he longed so for ‘a son, a boy, who if he ever came, would be named Wenzel.’ I shall be glad indeed to ‘paint’ for you as good a word-picture of the home of your parents as I possibly can after a lapse of more than 50 years.”

They lived on the island of MåsØy slightly southwest of North Cape at the northernmost tip of Europe. There were few families in the kommune, and some were as far as 30 or 40 miles away “across ugly stretches of the Arctic Ocean, depending of course on the weather, and sometimes [your father] took his life in his hands when he was called for in rough weather, disliked even by the hardy and well-trained fishermen. On such occasions your mother spent many anxious hours, yes, days and nights, waiting for him to return.”

Masoy coastline

Masoy coastline

He goes on to describe my grandparents’ home and then says: “But the greatest attraction was always Fru Emilia Habel herself, with her constant cheerful disposition, her catching smile, her hearty laughter, and all of this accentuated by her good looks and charming personality. Your father was not only a physician, he was also a scholar, a scientist, and a musician.  . . .

He was exceptionally well-liked by all the people in his district not only as a doctor but as an otherwise very able man. It was said . . . that never before had MåsØy Herred been guided by a more able, unselfish, and impartial man than Doctor Alfred Habel.”

The letter is full of rich and fascinating detail.

Masoy in 1838

Masoy in 1838

I’m feeling that my trip to Norway is exactly the right and perfect adventure to be embarking on at this time.


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Super-duper new website for my book

For Cover - thumbnailthe past few weeks I’ve been working with my wonderful webmaster, Juliana Giancini, to finalize the website for my book, Finding My Invincible Summer. You can now connect to it through two links, both and  Yes, both URLs point to the same site. So all you have to do is type in the title of my book (no spaces) followed by .info or .com, and there you are.

The first thing you will see on the Home page is a wide image across the middle with short quotes from people who have reviewed the book. In a few seconds the image will automatically shift to a new one – five images in all. Or you can click on the left and right arrows that show up when you pass your mouse across the image.

Home page slider cropped

The Home page has a new summary of the book plus a few opening paragraphs. It also has links to the book’s Facebook and Goodreads pages; to my pages at LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads; and, on the right sidebar, to reviews by readers at Amazon and Goodreads.

The Reviews tab at the top takes you to a compilation of readers’ reviews that have appeared so far on Amazon and Goodreads (24 and counting). After the first five reviews there’s a form you can use to write your own. If you’ve read the book and haven’t written a review yet, I would be really grateful if you could say a few words on the site, or even better, on You can write a review on Amazon even if you didn’t buy the book from them. Reviews on Amazon are widely read and help to promote readership.

Under the About the Author tab you will see a link to another website, which has examples of my translation work and articles I have written on linguistics, translation theory, and machine translation: The link to sends you to a Q&A interview where I talk about the process of writing Finding My Invincible Summer. There is also form you can use to send me a message with your comments, thoughts, feedback, and so on.

Click on The Media tab and you will see a gallery of photos from my book launch and signing party last year. I will soon be posting a new gallery with photos from the Local Authors Exhibit at the San Diego Central Library. (I’m waiting for the medal that the Library will soon be awarding to local authors.)

Now here’s the exciting part: the Blog tab takes you to this blog you have been following all along. You will no longer need to go to this URL. Everything is now one-stop shopping.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Juliana Giancini for her creative vision, high level of technical expertise, thoroughness, and patience and graciousness in working with me over the past three months – and for empowering me to take it from here.

Welcome to my website! How about giving it a try right now?

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Pinterest: over 1,000 followers!

BreathtakingNine months ago I wrote here about my addiction to Pinterest, the social media site that communicates solely by sharing spectacularly beautiful pictures. Far from curing my addiction, I have allowed it to grow out of control. I am now not only a Pinterest addict but also a Pinterest “ace,” with 74 boards and, as of today, 1,022 followers. The link to my site is

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I believe it. I have learned so much from the stories, history, philosophy, principles, and techniques behind the pictures. And I have learned worlds about the people who share pictures with me—and about myself as well.

My first and most precious board is devoted to my book, Finding My Invincible Summer. Over time I have found scenes that show places I describe in my book, from Corcoran Street to Norway, Brazil, and Portugal.

Landscape planI have also created what amounts to a whole “course” in landscape design through a series of thousands of pictures, starting with 124 site plans, moving on views of hundreds of interesting designs, and then focusing on specific topics: beds, containers, fire pits, fences and walls, gates, lighting, ornament, outdoor furniture, overhead solutions, paving, pools, roof gardens, slope treatments, free-standing structures, and water features. I also have 10 boards on different kinds of plants.

Then my inner artist finds expression in collections of drawings and paintings, portraits, sculpture, street art, art glass, jewelry, textiles, patterns, and wood art. The art section is followed by boards on architecture.

Monkey w i-phoneThen come the animals. So cute! I have special boards for all kinds of animals. Animals are followed by boards for places where I have been, which have given me wonderful trips down Memory Lane. Finally come my schools, paleo recipes, Christmas, and last but not least, People I Admire, with Byron Katie on the cover.

I let myself do a little pinning every day, and I only pin pictures that I really like. I’m not just collecting photos, I fall in love with each and every picture that I post. I invite you to join me and get a feel for the many interests that I enjoy sharing with others. Again, the link is:

My previous blog on Pinterest is at:

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Medical wisdom

Cover - for blogAnyone who has read my book, Finding My Invincible Summer, or spent any time with me knows that I have only tentative respect for the medical wisdom we are exposed to in today’s “evidence-based” world. Most experts contend that medical truth can only be verified if is subjected to the gold standard of double-blind placebo-controlled trials. They automatically reject any approach that doesn’t pass this test—be it homeopathic, traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, Anthroposophical, or from any other system. “It’s all a crock,” to quote a doctor mentioned in my book.

Moreover, these “experts” have repeatedly tried to get the U.S. Government to outlaw the sale and use of any treatment that has not been “proven” to be safe and effective in double-blind placebo-controlled trials.

Several questions come to mind. First, these trials, regardless of their results, do not guarantee safety. Safety depends on many factors: accurate reporting of the (inevitable) side effects; the doctor’s interpretation of these reports, knowledge of the patient, and overall judgment; and, most important, the patient’s circumstances and the extent to which he or she actually follows the treatment.

There are also questions about how the double-blind placebo-controlled trials are conducted and reported. This subject is covered in detail in the Carl Elliot’s White Coat, Black Hat, which I will review in another blog.

Samuel Hahnemann Father of homeopathy

Samuel Hahnemann
Father of homeopathy

For now, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that these studies are objective and that their results are reported honestly. I believe that the concept itself of the double-blind placebo-controlled trial is naïve and deceptive. It is premised on an extremely narrow view of health and the human condition. It ignores most of the variables that affect a person’s overall health and resistance to disease. I believe that the very notion that human “subjects” can be compared under the same conditions is deeply flawed.

This concern applies especially to cancer, a major target of drugs being tested in these so-called objective trials. It is well known that cancer is the result of many different factors acting upon the body. The World Health Organization recognized long ago that cancer is multi-causal. It is dizzying to think of all the influences that could contribute to a person developing cancer or dictate the course of the disease.

Ideally, the subjects in a trial for a cancer drug would have to be matched for the following criteria:  existing health issues, family health history, prescription medicines, over-the-counter remedies, dietary supplements and herbs, body mass index, metabolic type, digestive status, blood type, exercise regime, current and past smoking habits, environmental tobacco smoke, alcohol consumption, recreational drug use, sleep patterns, daily fluid intake, diet (including types of sugar and fat, meat, dairy, eggs, gluten, corn, diet drinks, colas), pollution in the environment, workplace conditions, exposure to TV and computer screens, cell phone use, history of past exposure to radiation, socioeconomic status, urban vs. rural residence, family dynamics, social support, pet ownership, and many others—all trumped by the single most important factor: the patient’s attitude.

And what if the subject is also engaged in one or several alternative practices? For example: acupuncture, aromatherapy, biofeedback, chiropractic, crystal healing, emotional freedom technique, homeopathy, hypnosis, massage therapy, meditation, Reiki, Qigong. There are dozens of possible approaches, and any of them could be affecting the patient’s status. These effects would also have to be factored into the results.

And here’s a thought: maybe the body does what it does through its own natural intelligence, beyond anything we can measure or control.

We simply don’t know, and it’s simplistic to believe that the placebo-controlled double-blind study yields anything but a very rough impression.


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Philomena and the Magdalene Laundries

Jud DenchI was happy to see that Philomena has garnered Oscar nominations for both Best Picture and Lead Actress. Judi Dench’s performance is most compelling. Both nominations are well deserved.

I’m a long-time Judi Dench fan. I have admired her versatility and subtle facial expressions in many roles, from “M” in the James Bond series to softie Jean Hardcastle in television’s As Time Goes By. She always nails her character. So when I saw ads for Philomena, I put it high on my to-see list.

The film far exceeded my expectations, though I can’t say I “enjoyed” it.  I came away emotionally drained. Sad and horrific scenes kept replaying in my mind. The ending left me anguished for the women of the Magdalene Laundries and deeply unsatisfied.

I have to confess, though I had heard of Joni Mitchell’s song, I knew little about the Magdalene Laundries and this dark chapter in Irish history, which lasted from the 1700s until as recently as the 1970s. For others like me, I will explain that these Catholic convents—asylums run by various orders—were condoned by the State and played the role of warehousing society’s disgraced and unwanted young girls and women. Their original purpose was to deliver the babies of unwed mothers (some of them impregnated by their own fathers or parish priests), adopt them out, and reform the mothers, whom they regarded as “fallen women”—hence the name Magdalene, from the belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.

Magdalene Laundry

Over time, they also accepted delinquents sent to them by the courts, as well as young women who were mentally or physically disabled. The inmates all lived side-by-side and worked in the convents’ laundries, businesses that not only generated income but also served as a reminder that the women were forever condemned to cleansing themselves of their sins. Unless they could buy their freedom, they worked for decades without compensation. One in 10 inmates died. Over the centuries, an estimated 30,000 women were incarcerated in these institutions and subjected to this cruelest form of slavery—cruel not only for the physical punishment but for the relentless abasement of hapless young women.

The survivors of the Magdalene Laundries have been seeking restitution, and in 2013 they received a settlement from the Irish Government, but the Catholic Church has yet to acknowledge any culpability.

The two Philomenas

The two Philomenas

Philomena is a true story. It was first revealed by investigative reporter Martin Sixmith, who published the The Lost child of Philomena Lee in 2009. The real Philomena Lee is now 80 years old and has been making public appearances, telling why she kept the story of her first-born child a secret for 50 years and finally decided to go public.

The story is gripping. For those who haven’t seen it, all I will say is that Philomena, a naïve Irish girl who doesn’t even understand how she got pregnant, is sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary, where she delivers a son whom she names “Anthony.” She remains there with Anthony for three years until one day he is summarily taken from her and adopted by an American family. Against her will, the nuns force her to sign a paper swearing that she will never try to find him. For 50 years she mourns him and cherishes his picture but is terrified to initiate an active search. Anthony, for his part, spends his life looking for her. The two main characters—Judi Dench’s eponymous Philomena and Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan—are portrayed to perfection. The real Sixsmith claims he is not as emotionally dense, but he has accepted his character in the film “for the sake of Art.”

I found it fascinating to research the lives of the people behind the story. From what I can tell, the facts are entirely accurate. The only changes have been to draw the characters slightly larger than life, since apparently the screen demands it.  

For us today it is difficult to imagine that getting pregnant out of wedlock was still seen as a terrible sin in the 1950s. The stigma even existed in the United States. I write about this in my book, Finding My Invincible Summer—which is why this story touches me so deeply.


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Winter solstice and the Bureau of Aging and Growth

BAGDecades ago I saw an improv play that left an indelible imprint on my psyche. In it, the Bureau of Aging and Growth (BAG) has granted the characters a year off from their regular commitments— job, school, homemaking—to pursue whatever is most important to them. At periodic intervals, they are required to report their progress to BAG. Needless to say, they get sidetracked and no one has made “good” use of their time. They have no accomplishments to report to BAG, and they act out their frustration with themselves in creative ways. The piece was a brilliant commentary on one of our deepest human questions:  What do we do with the time that is given to us while we’re on the Planet?

We usually don’t face this question head-on because society structures our time for us. As children, we have school and homework, and in between we say: “Mom, I don’t have anything to do!” If Mom is resourceful, she will cook up projects to keep us busy. In school we develop interests and start to pursue them. We become involved in extracurricular activities, engage in sports, play games, hang out with friends, obsess about our maturing bodies, test our power with wheels and explosive devices, get drawn into temptations. Then we start to have committed relationships, find a job, and settle into the proverbial “rat race.” Along the way, we may find pursuits we are passionate about. All this keeps us busy—very busy.

Another time-filler is the media, especially the Internet and television. This steady flow of input—tantamount to hypnosis with our eyes open—numbs us and sucks up our last bit of time so there’s none left. We may even have to steal hours of valuable sleep to make up for the time spent.

Now let’s suppose we had a clean slate and were faced with a year of empty time: no obligations, no media, no distractions. Just 365 blank days stretching before us. It’s a scary thought. I submit that, employment and caregiving aside, we create much of our busy-ness—volunteering, hobbies, classes, sports, gaming, partying, talking on the phone, e-mailing, texting, Facebooking—to keep from having to stare into that yawning cavern of unstructured time. While all these activities have their place, I believe that one of our motivations for choosing them at any given moment is that we are afraid the unknown: what we might see if everything went still and perchance we got a glimpse of our true selves.

Here’s where the solstice comes in. As daylight gets shorter, we have long hours of darkness to fill. It provides the opportunity for contemplation. But the specter of spending time alone with ourselves is so scary that civilizations have invented holidays to see us through the dark. We shop, decorate, carouse, reach out to friends—all in an effort to avoid the abyss.

In my own life, my freelance translation business has been slow (clients carousing, contracts slow to come through). I am faced with time on my hands—time I could well use to do all those things I put off last fall because I was too busy. Yet I’ve been having trouble focusing on my priorities. I feel overwhelmed as I stare at that empty hole and wonder where and how to start.

The answer came to me this morning. Here’s my insight and the point of this blog. I now realize that Nature has her reasons. It’s all very purposeful. Empty time is a gift to be cherished, not avoided. This is time to be alone with myself. To contemplate if I choose to, read a book or two, listen to music, or do nothing at all. It’s okay to do nothing and let the thoughts flow. By not fighting the empty time, I feel certain that the pieces will fall into place in right order and I will emerge with greater understanding, focus, and the energy to tackle whatever shows up on my plate.

I can forget about reporting to the Bureau of Aging and Growth!


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Local Author Exhibit at The new San Diego Central Library

Happy New Year, everyone!

SD Library logoWhat a great way to kick off 2014! I have just learned that the new San Diego Central Library will be launching its first Local Author Exhibit with a reception on January 31st. My memoir, Finding My Invincible Summer, is one of the featured books.

The new Central Library opened last September 30. It’s an awesome project. You can watch an excellent film about it at Thirty years in the planning and three years in the making, the building is nine stories tall and a has a dome (larger than the one on the United SD Central LibraryStates Capitol) that now dominates the downtown San Diego skyline. The dome is purposely “unfinished,” symbolizing the idea that learning is always a work in progress.

The new 500,000-square-foot space houses more than 2.6 million references and has numerous specialized collections, like the San Diego Heritage Center, the Rare Book Room, the Dr. Seuss-themed Children’s Library, and the Society of Baseball Research. It has a Workforce Center for job-seekers, a Teen Center, the ICAN Center for the disabled, a computer lab, and a full-fledged high school, which occupies two of its floors. The entire building is filled with original works by San Diego artists, and it also has a sculpture garden, an art gallery, and indoor and outdoor concert venues. The Reading Room on the 8th floor has windows three stories high overlooking the city and San Diego Bay.

SD centrallibrary-floors

The project cost $185 million and was funded through a public-private partnership, with donations not only from corporations but also from numerous private individuals. It is a true community effort – a triumph for San Diego!

I’m very excited about the new Central Library, and I will be posting more news and photos in the coming weeks, including a report on the Local Author Exhibit.

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Goodreads Giveaway and Other Good News

goodreadsI’m excited to announce that my book, Finding My Invincible Summer, has been approved for a Goodreads Giveaway. is a site for serious readers where you can connect with other readers, join discussion groups, rate and review your all-time favorite titles, take quizzes, win free books, and much more. The site claims to have over 20 million users. It is now owned by Amazon.

The Giveaway started today (Monday, December 16) and will last a week. The way it works, people sign up saying they’re interested in getting a free softbound copy of my book, and at the end of the week 10 copies are given away based on an algorithm that Goodreads uses to pick the winners. The winners are encouraged, but not required, to write a Cover - for blogreview. On the evening of the first day, already 83 people had signed up for my Giveaway and a long string of folks had added the book to their “to read” list. This is a great way to promote it to a really receptive audience.

Since Finding My Invincible Summer is new to Goodreads, its page has yet been fully developed or “populated” with ratings or reviews. If you have read the book and liked it, you could go on the site and rate it by running your mouse across the five stars – no need to write a review. The link is I would be very grateful!

Another cool feature is that this blog will show up on my Goodreads author page!

In other news, Finding My Invincible Summer finally has its own website – still a work in progress – which is on track to becoming feature-rich with all sorts of bells and whistles. The site will be growing and getting fancier over the coming months. You can check it out at The new site also has a “Blog” tab that directs the user to this blog. Now that the framework is in place, I will be blogging intensively in the weeks to come.


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My memories of November 22, 1963

Shot in Dallas


It feels like yesterday. My grief is still raw.

Though I never met John Kennedy personally, I felt close to him for many reasons. At the time, I lived in Washington, D.C. — in fact, my home at 211 “A” Street, N.E., was just a block from the U.S. Capitol. I was already deep into Democratic politics when Kennedy decided to run for president. His messages inspired me, and I passionately believed he was the person our country needed. I quit my job and volunteered to work on his campaign. They needed people in the office who could take shorthand, and soon I was given the task of not only typing but preparing letters for his signature.  Most of the letters got routine responses, but sometimes I would have to ask for guidance – especially when the writers were seeking favors, judgeships, and the like. Long before he was elected, folks were already carving out a piece of the pie for themselves. My letter-writing efforts were rewarded with an invitation to the Inaugural Ball.

Later I was offered a job in his administration. Many starry-eyed young people like me were anxious to have a part in the New Frontier. Adventure was in the air. Though the appointment didn’t work out, by that time I had met a number of his aides and I had friends who knew him personally. I avidly followed every speech, every event of his presidency. I rationalized his failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs and I bit my nails and celebrated his leadership in the Cuban missile crisis. He was my personal hero, the center of life as I knew it.

JFK thumbnailOn November 22, 1963, I was working in an office building on “K” Street. I had gotten up from my desk to walk down the hall when I heard a woman say “The President’s been shot!” At first I didn’t take her seriously. It seemed too crazy. But I sensed that something was wrong, so I put on my coat and went down to the street to see what was happening. A newsboy was hawking an early edition of the city’s afternoon paper, the Washington Daily News. I bought a copy.

I told myself: surely it was only a minor wound. An article on the inside of the front page was titled:

Trip backfires - detail

It started out:

“HOUSTON, Nov. 22 — The story of President and Mrs. Kennedy’s ‘non-political’ trip to Texas is chock full of bad timing and highly political backfires.” This piece of reporting was wisely omitted from the paper’s next edition, but I saved it because of the cruel irony.

The news of his death came about an hour or so later. I was shocked numb. I couldn’t believe it. We were sent home from work early. It was Friday, and, like the rest of the nation, I spent that evening and all day Saturday staring at the television set, tears streaming down my face, my heart unable to accept what I was hearing and seeing. The live minute-by-minute coverage bore on and on, gradually turning the nightmare into reality. On Saturday I went to buy groceries at the A&P, and I remember the stillness. No one said a word. People were wrapped up tight in their grief as if it was deeply personal, even though all of us shared the same sorrow. Everything felt strange. My body was functioning, but I wasn’t inside it. I could hardly feel what I was touching or the ground underneath me.

The funeral was on Sunday. I bundled up against the cold and stood waiting on the sidewalk for the procession to arrive at the Capitol, where the President’s casket would lie in state in the Rotunda. At the exact moment when the riderless horse passed in front of us, followed by his casket on a horse-drawn caisson, a man next to me holding a radio announced to the crowd that Lee Harvey Oswald had been killed. He held up his radio so we could hear the news and a replay of the gunshots. What an emotional moment that was, with Kennedy’s casket in front of us and the sound of shots in Dallas in the background.  Moments later, those shots were replaced by the deafening salute of cannon on the Capitol grounds.

I got in line and paid my respects to my hero, overwhelmed with sadness but at the same time awed by the majesty of the occasion. As the day wore on, people started to arrive from all over the country. The line to the Capitol passed right in front of my house. I watched through my window as thousands filled up the narrow street, slowly shuffling through the night as they patiently waited their turn. When I woke up the next morning the line was still there. The record shows that “hundreds of thousands lined up in near-freezing temperatures to view the casket.  Over the span of 18 hours, 250,000 people, some waiting for as long as 10 hours in a line up to 10 persons wide that stretched 40 blocks, nearly 10 miles, personally paid their respects as Kennedy’s body lay in state.”*

While Camelot didn’t turn out to be quite as perfect as I believed at the time, John Kennedy inspired a generation and his legacy cannot be denied. The assassination of a president is a horrific act that wounds a nation forever. You can tell me that it was 50 years ago, but it still feels like yesterday.




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Elena Eleska and woolgathering in the Bolivian Altiplano

VillagesContinuing with my profiles of people who have impacted my life, I’m writing this time about a little dynamo of a woman who called herself “Eleska” – a name she created from the initials LSK, which stood for Lene Schneider-Kainer. More formally, she was “Elena Eleska.” Her German name had been relegated to a footnote in history. Eleska managed to lure me to the remote and barren highlands of Bolivia, where she took me to visit villages far above the timber line so isolated that only Quechua was spoken. If I had fulfilled her wish, I might be living there to this day.

My aunt brought her home for dinner one evening when I was still in high school. A tiny woman in her 60s, she wore her short grey hair brushed back from her face and spoke with a thick German accent. Her enthusiasm was boundless. She was an artist by profession, and she wanted to start a cottage industry in Bolivia that would make woolen goods using high-quality llama and alpaca fibers and traditional native designs – unlike the garish pieces she had seen in local markets – for a luxury market in the United States and Europe. The idea was to empower women and help them rise out of poverty. It may not seem very novel today, but 50-plus years ago she was a pioneer. She was looking for U.S. government money to get her concept off the ground and she had managed to get the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt referred her to my aunt, whose job in the Office of Education was to help people get grants for their projects.

Eleska self-portrait

Eleska self-portrait

Born in Vienna in 1885, Eleska studied art in Berlin, where she launched her career with a collection of erotic drawings and paintings that were the talk of the town. She married a fellow artist and they had a son, but the marriage didn’t last. She fell in love with author-poet Bernhard Kellermann, and the two of them set off to retrace the route of Marco Polo, traveling by caravan throughout Persia, India, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Tibet, China, and Russia, and returning on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Back home, her diary, paintings, and sketches from her travels became the fodder for numerous publications and exhibits. But Hitler was rising to power, and she knew she had to leave Germany. The only visa she could get was for Bolivia, and she and her son settled there in the Cochabamba countryside. Her son started a farm, and she had her own home nearby.

When I met her, I was studying Spanish and had developed a passion for all things Latin American. Llamas fascinated me, and the sweaters she showed us were beautiful. I was captivated. At 15, my career was a blank slate and I was open to even the most far-fetched options. She picked up on my enthusiasm, and we clicked. She started writing me letters about her dream in Bolivia. She wanted me to go to there and carry on her work. I seriously considered her proposal, and 10 years later I found myself flying to Bolivia on my first adventure outside the United States.

I will save the details of the trip for another day. Suffice it to say that after I arrived in La Paz, it took me five days to find Eleska’s home outside Cochabamba, which was in the open countryside miles from the nearest small town, Quillacollo. Her home was an oasis of beauty: a charming classic adobe hacienda with tastefully furnished rooms opening onto a lush central courtyard. Antiques, art objects, and paintings were everywhere. On the walls of the entrance hall she had painted maps of the world showing all her journeys. It was truly the home of an artist.

I was to spend the summer learning the business of collecting wool from the villagers in the mountains and training local people to make apparel, blankets, and rugs. Each day we would start out in the jeep with her driver/interpreter, Siles, and head for the hills. Some of the villages were as far as a day’s journey, high in the mountains. Along the way, we would pass herd after herd of llamas. Llama herd - goodMostly we saw women and children. The women were the breadwinners, planting sometimes steeply terraced fields, taking their produce to market, raising chickens and other farm animals, herding llamas, making chicha (a fermented corn drink), and of course collecting and spinning wool. Eleska explained that the women seldom married because having a husband would mean that much more work. Their homes were very simple: adobe walls with thatched roofs and packed-earth floors and, if the family was lucky, a table and chair for a visiting guest of honor. I noticed that many of them had white or red flags hanging over the front door. Eleska explained that the white flags were advertising chicha, while the red flags meant that love was for sale. I tried the chicha and concluded that it must be an acquired taste.

When we arrived in the villages, the women would come running up to us with armloads of freshly shorn wool or long skeins of yarn they had spun. Eleska had also hired some of the more talented women to knit sweaters for her business. She would inspect their offerings and Siles would weigh the wool on a hook, interpreting what the villagers were saying into Spanish so that we could understand. Then Eleska would pay them, and off we’d go. The next morning her maid would wash the yarn and hang it on lines in the courtyard.

When possible, afternoons were spent in the workshop where most of the goods were made. Construction of the building had been paid for with funds from the U.S. government under what was then called Punto Cuarto – Point Four, the predecessor of USAID. It was humming with activity, and Eleska would check carefully with each of the workers to make sure that everything was in order. I remember watching a young girl with no arms weave a shaggy mat with a llama design in the center using her toes.

We also traveled to the different weekly markets, Marketwhere the women dressed up in their hats and intricately woven shawls and carried their swaddled babies papoose-style on their backs. Eleska bolivian babywould buy wool at the markets, find out about new sources, and scout for talented weavers and knitters. I remember buying a simple grey wool shawl for the equivalent of 5 cents – I had been warned not to “spoil“ the vendors, but I felt ashamed to pay so little.

On weekends we would go on outings in the mountains with Eleska’s grandchildren. Their favorite place was a lake in the Tunari mountains where enormous fish were caught and brought back for Sunday dinner.

Tunari lakeIt turned out that I wasn’t as thrilled with the project as I had thought I’d be, and a leap into the wilderness that sounded easy when I was 15 had become more complicated by the time I was 25. And besides – I was in a relationship with a guy back in Washington. I couldn’t bring myself to take the plunge. As I was leaving, Eleska gave me a ring she had made with semiprecious stones from Tibet.

My other souvenirs included the mat made by the girl with her toes, bedspreads and shag rugs (shipped separately) and a cardigan sweater that withstood daily wear for more than 40 years.

My Bolivia adventure is a distant memory, but every year I still make a donation to Heifer International to buy a purebred llama for a Bolivian family.  



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