Memoir Monday: Deborah Copaken LADYPARTS

Awful, hilarious, tragic, heroic

Deborah Copaken’s memoir, LADYPARTS, — as seen through her traumatized and largely invisible body parts — is awful and hilarious and tragic and heroic. A professional and underpaid/uninsuranced New York City writer, a mother, former war photographer, ex-spouse to a louse, and sometime-girlfriend to less awful people, Copaken’s brutally honest take on life keeps us laughing as we scream in indignation. I was immediately a fan as I cringe-read fascinating graphic descriptions like this, which opens the book:

I’m crawling around on the bathroom floor, picking up pieces of myself. These pieces are not metaphor. They are actual pieces. Plum-sized, beet-colored, with the consistency and sheen of chicken liver, three of them have shot out of me like shells from a cannon.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

That paragraph, described in Jessica Bennett’s review in the New York Times, either made you stop reading (as a friend tells Copaken, ”no one wants to hear about your bleeding vagina at a party”) or made you want to read more, rewarded by phrases like ”….our ladyparts tucked inside like Marie Kondo’d T-shirts in a drawer….” It made me buy the book, despite or maybe especially because of Bennett’s snotty review.

It’s not an easy read. I had to put LADYPARTS down several times. But, I stuck with Copaken, and I’m very glad I did.

A chilling but familiar tally

Three-quarters of the book later, Copaken — lying supine in the nirvana of ringing bowls in Tibet — lays out all the surgeries, biopsies, and multiple violations that have left her body with visible scars and invisible images “‘indelible in the hippocampus,’ as Christine Blasey Ford will later call her assault by Brett Kavanaugh.” It’s a chilling accumulation, but she knows that women will know what she is talking about. And male readers?

Men, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, talk to the women in your midst: your mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and friends. Ask them for their lists. Theirs might not be as long—being five foot two perhaps makes me an easier target?—but be ready to be appalled by their answers.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

Genuine self

When one of her New York Times’ MODERN LOVE essays was produced for the Amazon Prime series, Copaken is played by Catherine Keener. Keener’s forthrightness is right in line with Copaken’s, who says this after her meeting with the actress:

..often those of us with ladyparts are told to follow the rules and stay in our lanes, to play the part society dictates instead of being our genuine selves. Or we’re fed corporate pablum telling us to stand tall and lean in. But you don’t get to become Catherine Keener by simply tilting your body toward the burning wreckage. You say fuck your dumb fire and use the shoulder to drive around it.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

I included that final line in my Amazon review, and immediately got it bounced back by the prissy editor. A dummed down version of my five-star review is up now, along with my less-edited five-star Goodreads review.

A call to action

LADYPARTS is a call to action, and I was able to ask Copaken what actions she’d like us to take. The occasion was a November on-line (“and live, in New York” just like SNL) pop-up book group event with Copaken, hosted by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Here’s Copaken’s answer:

Donate money to research on women’s health. [I’m contacting Congress and the White House to urge more funding for the Office of Research on Women’s Health]; and,

Don’t shush your friends. Talk about blood in a way that normalizes the topic.

Our ignorance, avoidance, and silencing of all discussions of female-associated viscera is not polite. It’s killing us.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

Experience LADYPARTS for yourself.

Deborah Copaken LADYPARTS
Deborah Copaken LADYPARTS

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Wellness Wednesday: What Would Santa Do?

A cul-de-sac in our South Florida neighborhood provides a contrast in holiday messaging: almost hidden among the twinkling lights and inflatable Santas, elves, and snowmen is a simple sign slung between two palm trees: Happy Birthday, Jesus.

It’s hard to argue against that message, but it’s the secular Santa who prevails in the spirit of the holidays. The jolly old elf whose “belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly” is an easier icon to emulate. What Would Jesus Do becomes What Would Santa Do. The sedentary recluse who pulls an all-nighter once a year eating his way through unhealthy snacks says ”Ho ho ho and have another cookie.”

Snowman under the palms
Snowman under our neighbors’ palms

Which is why I blame Santa for making me lose a tooth last week.

It all started when I spun up batches of Christmas cookies to fill a tin for our daughter and her fiancé to take to his family on Thanksgiving. I was glad to hear the cookies were a hit, and even happier to share a cornerstone of my traditions with the new branch of our family.

But then I secreted a cookie stash and nibbled away as I binge-watched Netflix. Binging while binging is the essence of mindless eating, something I’ve struggled to control for decades.

Secret cookies aren’t really secret

As my Weight Watchers group understands, it is unfair that food eaten as solitary personal entertainment carries calories. That eating food quickly while standing counts. That not writing it down doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Those extra calories began adding extra weight, including the beginning of a belly like a bowlful of jelly.

Exercise isn’t enough

Long before I emerged from an Amsterdam ICU bone thin and unable to move in 2019, daily exercise was my mantra. The lifelong habit has brought me back stronger than ever and my weight landed back where it had been. Now, however, my old eating nemesis was working at cross-purposes with my health, and, as Marlo Scott of First Class Fitness and Wellness helped me write, exercise alone doesn’t result in weight loss.

Reminded about what got me well

Then my husband reminded me that deep within me is the resilience to push forward. A life force that kept me alive for those six weeks in that ICU. A determination that got me onto an airplane six weeks later, through physical therapy and back in a pool, to running and biking today.

I can’t ignore this. Here I am, despite terrible odds. Here I am.

But Santa called

This doesn’t mean I’ve been iron-clad in my resolution to count on my inner strength. I went out to buy Christmas wrapping paper and came home with gifts and stocky stuffers, including a bag of caramels. As I wrapped the gifts, that bag just called to me.

One caramel. C’mon. What Would Santa Do?

The wicked bag of caramels

I ripped the bag open. Pretty soon, those yummy chewy candies were disappearing. I stopped myself, unloaded most of the remaining bag into gifts for neighbors, and dropped the rest into our freezer. For safekeeping.

That lasted about an hour, when I discovered that a frozen caramel is strong enough to pull a dental crown off a molar. Darn that Santa!

My dentist gave me absolution

The whole story came out at Palms Dental Care where the upbeat Dr. Coakley laughed as I confessed my crazy crime the next day, with not even a charge for my transgression.

Santa came by our house last night during a community event, tossing tiny candy canes our way. Just glad he didn’t have caramels!

Santa’s pre-pandemic visit
Santa’s 2019 pre-pandemic visit

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Family Friday: The Year-Round Christmas Colors of South Florida

On my morning walk with Kumba, our loyal black Lab rescue, I noticed this berry bush that reminded me of Northern climes’ holly. The coral ardesia is pretty but a problem: with no insect predators, it has displaced native plants. See more about berries in Florida in Susan Barnes’ Tallahassee Democrat article “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.

South Florida berry bush

Spotting the berry bush, it occurred to me that there are a lot of holiday colorings to our year-round plantings. Here are some examples from our garden this week.

Crown of thorns, impossible to deter
Hibiscus, crown of thorns, and milkweed
Milkweed, foodstuff of Majestics
Caladium
Caladium, which goes underground in the summer.
Croton
Croton, a hardy ornamental bush.
Hibiscus
Hibiscus, just splendid. Pinks, too.
Cordyline
Cordyline, tall spikes of leaves.
Paddle plant
Paddle plant, a succulent.
Bleeding heart vine. Such bursts of color on our two arbors!

We have joined the neighborhood in adding even more red and green to our outdoor decor, [Along with the great doormat Levi-the-therapy-dog and Julie and Raul gave to Kumba!]

Christmas decor

This weekend, our community will enjoy all the neighbors’ holiday lights when Santa and his hayride/sleigh come to visit. And we are going to see the Lights 4 Hope display at Okeeheelee Park. Footage to follow!

In the meantime, happy holidays from our red-and-green garden!

Here are other posts about gardening that you may enjoy: Five ways that gardening is good for you; Rebecca Mead’s meditations on gardening; and Monet’s gardens in Giverny.

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How American Diplomats Celebrate Thanksgiving

For the first time, my husband and I did not have turkey for our Thanksgiving meal, choosing instead butter-soft filet mignon for our dinner-for-two this year. However, tradition is much on my mind.

As US embassies, foreign service families, and ex-pats of all kinds celebrate America’s national holiday abroad, the events of the day are inevitably influenced by the overseas environment. Here are some Thanksgiving insider stories drawn from my own experience and from the extensive oral history collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST).

The tastes of home

When you’re far from home, it can be the small private traditions that matter. For example, the 1960 Thanksgiving for the international student body at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies(SAIS) in Bologna almost didn’t happen because celery — the essential ingredient in my mother’s turkey stuffing — could not be found locally, and it took an all-day trip to two American military bases to save the day.

The eight-hour, 400-mile shopping trip resulted in a splendid Thanksgiving dinner that was a hit among the students and faculty who gathered at the Bologna Center on Friday, November 25, although the canned cranberry jelly got more attention than the celery dressing. 

Jane Kelly Amerson López, EMBASSY KID (publication pending)

International understanding

Sometimes, as ADST’s files reveal, Thanksgiving creates an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and understanding.

Ambassador James F. Creagan, who was Deputy Chief of Mission at the American embassy to Vatican City in the late 1980s, drew on turkey, stuffing, and 100 proof Wild Turkey Bourbon to negotiate a ceasefire between rival parties in Mozambique’s bitter civil war.

They had big headaches the next day, but they signed a ceasefire and applauded Thanksgiving.

Ambassador James F. Creagan, ADST Interview

Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, who was Consul General in Marseilles, France prior to becoming ambassador to Guinea, was faced with the challenge of fitting in multiple Thanksgiving dinners put on by clubs of Americans who’d stayed on after WWII. There were two clubs in Monaco, more in Nice and Cannes, and three in Marseilles.

Nobody knew how to make a pumpkin pie, but let me tell you there are more ways to service pumpkin than I ever imagined.

Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, ADST Interview
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida

Conflicting events

And sometimes, history continues to be made despite the American holiday.

Arriving in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, the day before Thanksgiving, Theodore Boyd was quickly thrust in to Congo’s political upheaval.

When I got up on Thanksgiving Day and there was no one on the streets I said, “Oh, that’s okay because it’s a holiday.” Then it dawned on me subsequently that the Congolese didn’t observe Thanksgiving so I went over to the embassy and they said, “Come on in we need you, we’ve just had a coup.”  

Theodore A. Boyd, ADST Interview

However you celebrated, Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

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A Day With A Palm Tree: How to Spread Year-Round Joy with Christmas Lights

A day with a palm tree is a great day!
Stories of personal triumph, community engagement, and environmental stewardship.

About today’s story

Our accountant’s husband, J, is a huge Christmas lights fan. When they lived in our neighborhood, the rooftop Santa and reindeer were on their garage by Thanksgiving, along with an enormous collection of other sparkling, flashing, and inflatable decorations. E, J, and their great kids were the heart of their street, and we were sorry when they moved to a nearby neighborhood. However, we understood: the larger lot gave J more room for Christmas. When we drove by over the next holidays, we spotted their house two blocks away.

Spreading holiday cheer for more to hear

Lights 4 Hope volunteers
Lights 4 Hope volunteers

However, E and J’s hearts are, in a turnaround from the Grinch, two sizes too big, and the family’s passion for Christmas has grown way beyond their home. J is now the architect of a one-mile, drive-through holiday lights display in nearby Okeeheelee Park that runs weekends through January 2. As AP reporter David Sharp said in his recent article about the tradition of light shows, ”You can feel the difference when there is a lot of love behind the project.” Lights 4 Hope, the non-profit the family helped establish four years ago, uses the funds generated by the $15/car entrance fee to spread happiness and joy year-round to families coping with their child’s critical illness or life-changing physical changes.

Wonder if Lights 4 Hope has made a difference? These children’s delight says it all. Lots more of these uplifting photos and stories on Instagram.

You can be part of this joyful mission

To learn more about Lights 4 Hope, including how to get tickets for this year’s display or to become a sponsor or supporter, click on their website here. You can also follow Lights 4 Hope on Facebook or on Instagram. ’Tis the season, after all!

Pandemic or not, this drive-through format is a perfect way to end 2021 in a safe and inspiring way.

The Town Crier
Lights 4 Hope 2021
Lights 4 Hope 2021

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Family Friday: Birthday Breakfast and Anchovy Pizza

My birthday was this month. We all have celebration traditions. Mine are Birthday Breakfast and anchovy pizza.

Birthday Breakfast

Birthday Breakfast is a tradition my mother created 67 years ago to offset likely evening obligations my father’s Foreign Service work required of both my parents. Why wait to celebrate with a post-dinner cake when you can blow out candles and eat (coffee) cake at breakfast while wearing a crown?

My Birthday Breakfast table!

All my life, family birthdays have begun with this celebration, except for the year we forgot Birthday Breakfast on my mother’s special day when my sister and I were selfish teens and our father was up to his eyeballs in diplomatic work.Awful us.

Pizza buon viaggio party on my 9th birthday

Why anchovy pizza is on my birthday menu is another story.

In the fall of 1963, when I had begun fourth grade and my father had begun his second two-year tour as Press Attaché in Rome, the US Information Agency in Washington decided they needed him in Bogotá, Colombia. ASAP. We would not be able to take time to see family in Minnesota, but instead go directly to Bogotá after Dad’s briefings in Washington.

My last day of school at the Overseas School of Rome fell on my ninth birthday. My mother brought personal pizzas to my classroom for a combination farewell-and-birthday party. My pizza came loaded with anchovies, a preference I’d developed during our three years in Italy. As I looked around the room, I understood that leaving was our normal. Packing up just the four of us, on to our next lives.

You might assume that pizza would be associated in my heart with sadness, but instead it became a salty touchstone through which I could always connect with my childhood, especially on my birthday.

Time to go for the gusto again

We’re not fast-food eaters, and the pandemic has only reinforced our home cooking norm. However, pizza entered my consciousness again recently, just in time to join another birthday.

A month ago, I closed the door on a fifth grader selling coupon books for her school. It’s the kind of hustle I participated in when our daughter was little, going door-to-door in our upstate New York neighborhood hustling products for the PTA and the Girl Scouts. In fact, as I said, “No, thank you, we don’t buy anything,” I reminded myself of the old crone who turned our daughter away. “We don’t eat cookies.” I’m still furious at her.

“We don’t buy anything.” Wow, that’s a pandemic phrase. We don’t go anywhere. We don’t buy anything. Unless it’s on Amazon. And even then, if it doesn’t fit into the routine inside our bubble, it isn’t happening. We have become entrapped in our survival routine.

I was shocked at my behavior. There was a quick fix. I called the girl’s mother to ask the youngster to come back, and minutes later shelled out twenty-five bucks for a book advertising discount deals at local vendors that we are unlikely to use. But I at least I’m a better neighbor.

Our daughter flipped through the book when she stopped by. ”The pizza place I like is in here,” she said. My husband stays away from tomatoes and spice. “You know, Dad,” our daughter said, “You could have a little from time to time.” And, I reminded my husband, there’s always white pizza, although that doesn’t really match the standards of my Brooklyn-raised honey.

When my birthday came, our daughter and her fiancé surprised us by having delivered to our home two delicious fresh trattoria-style pizzas: one white, and one tomato and anchovies. What a birthday dinner!

Maybe we’ll even use a pizza coupon next time!

How do you celebrate your birthday?

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WellnessWednesday: How to Rev Up Your Workout Without Breaking a Sweat

I crossed a new fitness threshold last week when I added Tabata — a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) protocol — to my water workout. My 30 minute workout not only boosted my cardiovascular system, but also strengthened my core, my arms, and my legs. And it put me on Cloud Nine for the rest of the morning.

And, of course I sweated (pardon the clickbait!), but being in the water happily masked that fact and kept me cool while I amped up the volume on my workout.

How HIIT Works

You’ll be working at a very intense level and then backing off for a slower recovery period, followed by another round of high intensity.

Kara Meyer Robinson, Web MD

When I was a certified fitness instructor, I incorporated HIIT segments in the cardio portions of my classes, both in the studio and in the pool. It’s a relative newcomer to the exercise business, made popular by its efficiency — it HIITs a lot of fitness targets in a relatively short amount of time — and the variety it gives to a workout.

Researchers have found that HIIT improves both cardiovascular and muscular performance for trained athletes as well as individuals with coronary artery disease. I wanted to add it to my exercise routine in the water which was feeling a bit boring. When exercise isn’t fun, it becomes work.

The HIIT Tabata program

I thought that tabata might be a Portuguese dance, like capoeira. But, no, it’s the last name of the Japanese scientist who developed it in 1996.

Tabata training was discovered by Japanese scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata and a team of researchers from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo.

Fara Ronsenzweig, Active

The structure of Tabata is 8 rounds of 20 seconds fast, 10 seconds slow. You can do any sort of movement as long as you can keep from flailing on the fast part. In the pool, I jogged, did jumping jacks and cross-country skiing, and leg lifts, working my muscles as my arms and legs pushed through the water and working my heart and lungs as I varied the tempo.

Exercise in a given Tabata workout lasts only four minutes, but it’s likely to be one of the longest four minutes you’ve ever endured.

Fara Ronsenzweig, Active

It’s important to listen to your body: only you decide how fast or slow you go. That’s one of the things I really like about Tabata: you go at your own pace.

However, yes, those 4 minutes can seem an eternity, and I need to be inspired to keep going. You can find loads of pre-recorded music that tells you when to GO and when to SLOW so that all you do is …. work! Here’s Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk a la Tabata which I enjoyed during my workout. There are also timers that keep the count for you.

The HIIT afterglow

High intensity workouts can leave you with a nice buzz. Yesterday’s 30-minute Tabata session in the pool left me feeling confident, calm, and serene. It’s endorphins, researchers say. However, I will listen to the experts (and my husband) and not burn myself out.

How will you incorporate HIIT in your next walk or other workout?

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A Day With A Palm Tree: Florida Writers Triumph in the Royal Palm Literary Awards

A Day With A Palm Tree

It takes a village to raise good writers, and the Florida Writers Association’s annual flagship writing competition, the Royal Palm Literary Awards (RPLA), engages hundreds of “writers helping writers” annually. This year, 25 dedicated RPLA coordinators and nearly 200 judges reviewed an astounding 577 entries, providing in-depth critique geared toward helping each writer continue to improve in our craft. There are no RPLA losers.

However, there are winners, and this year’s were announced during a live Zoom event on October 16, beginning with the Grand Awards.

RPLA Published Book of the Year 2021

Barbara Rein’s Tales from the Eerie Canal won top honors as the RPLA Published Book of the Year. Barbara writes horror short stories with delightfully creepy twists, and quirky personal essays inspired by the oddities that bounce her way. She admits to being addicted to dachshunds.

RPLA Unpublished Book of the Year 2021

Dana J.Summer’s From Hell’s Heart was awarded the RPLA Unpublished Book of the Year. Dana is an editorial cartoonist and comic strip artist turned author. He has written five novels and lives with his wife in Orlando.

RPLA Children’s Book of the Year 2021

Arielle Houghee’s Pling’s Party won Children’s Book of the Year. Arielle, owner of Orange Blossom Books, is a five-time RPLA-winning author, editor, speaker, and executive vice president of the Florida Writers Association. Arielle’s expertise also helped me update this very blog last year!

The Candice Coghill Memorial Award for Youth

NM Collet’s Ode to Rain, submitted in the category of Unpublished Poetry, ages 12 to 15, won this year’s youth award. This award was established in memory of Candice Coghill, who was an active member of Florida Writers Association, a youth writing advocate, and a tireless contributor to the writing community.

RPLA Winners 2021

This year’s roster of winners includes Al Pessin, a five-time RPLA winner and fellow critique group member, whose thriller BLOWBACK — set in Syria, the second in the Task Force Epsilon series — won Silver. A well-deserved win! I wrote about SANDBLAST, the first in the series that takes place in Afghanistan, move over Homeland, here comes Sandblast. Order your books, check out the reviews and read this longtime journalist’s thoughtful piece on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan here.

And check out all these other remarkable RPLA 2021 winners: Doug Alderson, Marty Ambrose, L. Reynolds Andric, Sophie Bartow, Nancy Beaule, Kerry Blaisdell, Barbara Bond, Diana V. Braddom, Bonnie Hoover Braedlin, JC Bruce, Lisa Buei-Collard, Edward Burke, Nancy Buscher, Kip Cassino, Stephen Charles, Bette Lee Crosby, Shutta Crum, Arthur M. Doweyko, Kristin Durfee, Jessie Erwin, Linda Feist, Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick, MR Gallows, KE Garland, Juliette Godot, Lee Gramling, Elle E. Iré, Raymond Hall, Chris Hamilton, Robert Hart, Veronica H. Hart, Michael R.Howard, Donald Jay, Claire M. Johnson, Catherine Kean, Krista Keating-Joseph, Patrick Kendrick, Susan Kite, Linda Kraus, Coby Lee, Loren Leith, Joan Levy, Susan Lloyd-Davies, Lawrence Martin, Claire Matturro, Sharon L.Menear, Mark H. Newhouse, Vanna Nguyen, Virginia Nygard, Dakota Orlando, Elle Andrews Patt, Ken Pelham, Jack Pendray, Craig Pennington, Amarilys Rassler, Vicki Riley, Wendy L. Sanford, PhD, Kelly Sanford, Lynn Schiffhorst, Cliff Sharke, KL Small, Alison R. Solomon, DG Stern, Betsy K. Stoutmorrill, MR Street, Mary T. Wagner, Ryan Wakefield, Patty Walsh, Elizabeth Weiss Vollstadt.

[Whew! I’ve been singing the ABC song all week as I worked on this little project!]

How great to celebrate these authors and the Florida Writers Association, truly “writers helping writers.” Here’s to gathering in person next year to celebrate those who garner the 2022 RPLA wins. The process begins in February!

FWA RPLA 2022
FWA RPLA 2022

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EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR. Episode 4: A Fragile Democracy Takes Hold in Venezuela (Caracas, 1958)

This is a condensed version of my book about being raised in the Foreign Service during the Cold War. EMBASSY KID is being evaluated for publication by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Episode 3: How My Mother Got Our Family Through a Revolution

Episode 2: The Mob Comes Roving

Episode 1: The Dictator Flies Over Our House

Preface

The End of the Secret Police

In the aftermath of the exit of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, an enraged mob surrounded the headquarters of his dreaded secret police, the Seguridad Nacional. Hundreds of Venezuelans had disappeared into that fortress. The National Guard, a military force sent in to control the crowd, fired instead on the fortress when the trapped secret police began shooting from inside. After the military smoked out the secret police, prisoners, some barely able to walk, emerged into the arms of their families. Looters sacked and set fire to the building. 

When a couple of Dad’s colleagues investigated the damage, they found several letters to Embassy staff that the Seguridad Nacional had intercepted and opened, including one from Dad’s boss’ mother saying she was coming for a visit. She arrived three days later. 

The Seguridad Nacional was no more, and the police were in hiding. A group of military men and civilians from the underground movement asserted some control, but mobs continued battling throughout the city for the next three days. Hundreds died, and thousands more were wounded. Slowly, looting ebbed.

A fragile democracy takes shape

A fragile democracy took shape. The leaders of the three dominant political parties created a governing body, the Junta Patriótica, which the United States formally recognized. Previously clandestine revolutionaries took positions of leadership in the government, media, and the business community.

For the first time in a decade, Venezuelans could read uncensored newspapers. Mom and Dad could once again use the telephone without fear of being listened to. Trying to reach my father at the Embassy one afternoon, Mom had been told by a harsh, Spanish-speaking male voice, “This is the Seguridad Nacional. You do not have anything to tell your husband.” 

The new political scheme gave Dad’s job enhanced meaning. He had made many good friends among the media in producing a USIS (as USIA was called overseas) television program, “Venezuela Mira a Su Futuro,” “Venezuela Looks to Its Future.” Now he could enjoy the freedom of tapping into a larger pool of journalists. The programming at the binational Centro Cultural, a key to USIS activity, expanded as well, drawing in greater and more relaxed audiences. The Embassy’s lending library saw English-language books flying off the shelf. 

Information propaganda was USIA’s bread and butter, but sharing America’s rich culture was the long game, as my father’s contemporary Ambassador Samuel R. Gannon would later recount:

You make all your mileage out of culture, the long-term, slow moving crafty exploitation of the parts of your culture that have made you worthy of respect and admiration.

Ambassador Samuel R. Gammon III, oral history interview, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Nat King Cole and other cultural ambassadors visit

Dad and Mom’s cross-cultural communication responsibilities grew richer as the junta settled into the business of governing. Taking advantage of the calm in the wake of revolutionary violence, USIA in Washington beefed up the cultural envoy trips. The great Nat King Cole arrived for a series of concerts, fresh from the Tropicana in Havana, followed by Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, and composer Aaron Copeland flew in for an afternoon of music and conversation at the Centro Cultural. 

Nat King Cole at the Tropicana, Havana 1958
Nat King Cole at the Tropicana, Havana 1958

Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic flew down for a May 1 concert at Central University, where they played the Venezuelan national anthem with appropriate emotion in counterpoint to the May Day labor union march downtown. At the press conference before the event, Dad got a kick out of helping Bernstein work his renowned charm on the local press. The headlines in the newspapers the next day spoke of “international understanding.” 

Leonard Bernstein’s scrapbook news clip of Phulharmonic 1958 concert in Caracas
Leonard Bernstein’s scrapbook news clip of the Phulharmonic’s 1958 concert in Caracas

Diplomatic normal life resumed

Mom and Dad resumed evening hours’ “representation” at dinners, arts events, and other opportunities to engage with Venezuelans while Susie and I stayed home with Fina.

In the afternoons, my mother took Susie and me to the pool at the Circulo Militar, the private military club that diplomats were deemed members of.  Paddling in the shallow end, with Mom holding me up by the back of my suit, I had no idea I was enjoying a priviledge, just as I would take for granted throughout my childhood that my diplomatic passport would sweep me to the head of the line at customs.

Years later, my passport no longer special and relegated to the same line as everyone else when returning to the United States after overseas travel, I cringed to see how we treat visitors to our country. 

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Wellness Wednesday: We Are in Training for Life

Every day since I woke up an Amsterdam ICU in 2019, I’ve been in training, training for life. It’s no longer about one race. It’s about staying in this game of life, as well as I can, for as long as I can.

I used to train for running races

When I was in my 20s and living in New York City, I took up recreational running as it was just taking off. I put in the training miles on early-morning runs along the East River, and my husband joined me for weekend runs in Central Park. Soon, we were participating in races organized by the New York Road Runners under Fred Lebow, co-founder of the NYC Marathon. My husband and I both completed half-marathons, but my most notable running moment was shaking the hand of legendary Norwegian marathoner Grete Waitz’ on a Manhattan sidewalk. Her gracious manner and winning ways made her the completely approachable queen of New York City.

Grete Waitz, 9-time winner of the NYC Marathon, crossing the finish line with NYRR’s Fred Lebow in 1992. He was dying of cancer, and it took them more than 5 hours to complete the route.

I stopped running, stopped training

Plantar fasciitis put an end to running as my go-to activity fifteen years ago. Although I continued to exercise, mostly in the water, I stopped thinking of it as training. It was about looking better, or getting thinner, or feeling stronger. I took it for granted that I would simply keep going.

Illness stopped me in my tracks

All that changed on May 5, 2019, when I was stopped in my tracks in Amsterdam by a ruptured aneurysm. For six weeks, my body battled to survive. When I woke up, I was rail thin — okay, yes, my first thought was YIPEE! —and unable to move.

Muscle atrophy comes on fast when you are intubated, and if I hadn’t been strong to start with, it’s very likely I would not have made it.

Then, I was back in training

Everything — leaving the ICU, returning to the United States, living independently in our South Florida home, navigating the world again — everything depended on me recovering my ability to move.

Moving my tongue, my jaw, my neck to be able to chew and swallow, and strengthening my fingers to be able to feed myself. Getting my arms able to lift myself, my torso able to sit up, my hips able to roll me over. Standing up with help. Standing up alone. Walking with help. Striding alone.

I did it all. I got back to living my life.

Surprise return to running

In relearning how to stand and to walk, and through my daily 60-minute exercise routine of walking, stretching, swimming, biking and strength training — I’ve improved my body mechanics. As I recently wrote, I’ve built back better, with a mid-foot heel strike that is easier on the feet. As a result, I no longer have heel pain, and, a couple of times a week I’ve even been able to get back into jogging.

It might be an old-lady shuffle, but from where I was two years ago, this is running!

Physical activity as medicine

This week, I also came to understand physical activity as medicine, thanks to the legacy of my hero, Grete Waitz. I learned that she was just one year older than me, and that she died a decade ago of cancer, the same disease as took NYRR’s Fred Lebow in 1994.

Grete continued running as she was treated for cancer, and her belief in the therapeutic value of physical activity led her to found AKTIV Against Cancer, a foundation whose mission it is to have physical activity become part of cancer treatment, just as exercise is prescribed for people with Type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

We need to treat this as a medicine.

AKTIV Against Cancer funding recipient Lee Jones, Ph.D., Memorial Sloan Kettering

So get moving

None of us gets out of here alive, but let’s live well for as long as we can. We’re all in this training camp together.

Take a lap around the block, and call me in the morning.

A good doctor’s prescription.

5 thoughts on “Wellness Wednesday: We Are in Training for Life

  1. Hi Kelly
    Didn’t know you we’re running again. Check out my son Steven’s Badass Running Company website. He organizes fun races with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. The people who take part are not highly competitive. They just want to have fun. His next race is on Sunday October 24 in Delray.
    I’ll try to send you the link.
    So glad you’re doing so well.
    Sending big hugs
    Faith

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