Family Friday: How Our Rescue Lab Earned a Place at the Thanksgiving Table

We’re actually three.

Me, to our waitress on Thanksgiving

Oh, let me get you another set of silverware.

Our waitress

I pointed down to where our six-year-old rescue black Lab lay quietly at my husband’s feet on the outdoor deck, his Thanksgiving napkin bandana bunched into a make-shift pillow.

Yes, we took our dog out with us to Thanksgiving Day dinner.

Florida law permits dogs in outdoor dining

Dogs were banned from Florida restaurants until 2006. A new law that year allowed local governments to let restaurants apply for a permit to welcome dogs in outside patio areas. Now, many restaurants welcome pooches sans permit more often than not.

Waiters are so used to it now, when they see a dog, they don’t bat an eye; they just bring them water.

State Attorney for Palm Beach County Dave Aronberg who sponsored the 2006 legislation when he was a state senator (as quoted in The Palm Beach Post article by Hannah Morse, November 15, 2021)
Django on Dog Beach in Jupiter FL

Dog Beach gave us our first canine restaurant experience

When we drove with our first Lab, Django, from New York State to Florida to buy our retirement property in 2009, my husband found us a dog-friendly hotel nearby at which we could leave Django when we closed on the house. At the restaurant abutting the Holiday Inn Express in Juno Beach, we learned that we’d landed minutes from Palm Beach County’s leash-free dog beach.

Dog Beach became Django’s slice of heaven that week and in the years that followed. He would run into the surf in pursuit of a tennis ball for as long as my husband had the strength to throw it.

Django and our next Lab, Pancho, were welcomed at Juno Beach’s Thirsty Turtle Seagrill outdoor deck along with lots of other sandy paws.

On the weekends, sometimes it’s like a kennel out there on the patio.

Thirsty Turtle manager Ed Lohmann (as quoted in The Palm Beach Post article by Hannah Morse, November 15, 2021)

Kumba grew into going out on the town

When we adopted our black Lab Kumba a month before the pandemic, he had learned to protect himself during his months in a Puerto Rican shelter with aggression towards other dogs. We intervened with a muzzle, training, and love, and when he was able to be his sweet self reliably in public, we took him to Dog Beach. We thought that the ocean would be a happy recollection of his puppy life in Puerto Rico, but he was sort of “meh.” He was happiest lying at our feet with a bowl of cool water on his first visit to the Thirsty Turtle.

Kumba at the Thirsty Turtle

Juno was again the setting for Kumba’s next restaurant outing when we brought him with us for my birthday weekend overnight at our “staycation” dog-friendly Holiday Inn Express. Leaving him in the room alone was a risky proposition, given his separation anxiety, so we’d factored outdoor eating into our plans. The dinner waitress at the Seminole Reef Grill (great new place!) had no idea that there was a dog under our table until I asked for a bowl of water. After an equally relaxed overnight, Kumba and I got to Dog Beach on a morning run, where I let him off leash amidst a handful of other dogs.

Kumba overlooking Dog Beach

For Birthday Breakfast that morning, my Foreign Service family tradition, we again were outside enjoying the weather and great food at another new Juno Beach find, the Garden City Cafe.

Kumba at the Garden City Cafe

We created a new Thanksgiving tradition

When our daughter and son-in-law’s work schedules made it impossible for them to travel here for Thanksgiving, my husband and I began exploring dog-friendly restaurant options. Deck 84 in Delray Beach had outdoor dining, a Thanksgiving Dinner menu, and, even better, a Doggie Dinner menu. But would the weather cooperate? After two near-misses from Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole here on South Florida’s East coast, we held our breath as Thanksgiving week arrived.

The weather dawned clear and warm. Kumba and I did our usual Thursday run. Then it was time to get dressed up for our holiday dinner. Kumba was the most festive of the three of us.

Kumba in his Thanksgiving bandana

We were valet-parked and at our table at the quiet end of the patio by 3, with Kumba attentive but calm at my husband’s feet, so quiet that the waitress didn’t understand when I said: “We are actually three here.”

Soon, there was butternut squash bisque and turkey’n-all-the-fixin’s on the table, and chicken, rice, and yogurt under the table. We gobbled happily, all three of us.

I think he liked it!

So, that’s how we’ve kicked off the holidays in South Florida. Hope yours are as merry and silly as ours, and that every meal is shared with people and other creatures of whom you are fond.

Memoir Monday: When the Foreign Becomes Familiar, Barriers Drop

The Arab world seemed sinister

I lived abroad for 14 years of my childhood as the result of my father’s diplomatic work in Europe and Latin America—my memoir Embassy Kid is expected to be published in 2023 by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and New Academia Publishing–but there are huge swaths of planet Earth that I do not know. They remain foreign to me. This includes the Arab world.

Its people and their language exploded into my consciousness on 9/11 when we lived in upstate New York. My husband, who frequently was in New York City on business, narrowly escaped death when he decided to travel part-way home instead of staying the night at the hotel in the World Trade Centers. In the years since then, Showtime’s Homeland and countless other terrorist narratives cemented the sound of Arabic in my narrow mind as malevolent. The opening lines of the Muslim prayer—Allaahu Akbar—sent chills up my spine.

However, I was jarred out of that disappointingly jingoistic mindset three years ago when a Muslim family adopted me in a Dutch hospital. And two recent television encounters—the U.S. Open women’s final tennis match and a new Netflix comedy—have made realize that the Arabic language is not so foreign after all.

You are our Florida family

On May 5, 2019, my heart stopped as I was being rolled into an Amsterdam ER. The cruise ship my husband and I had been on sailed for Oslo as the Dutch doctors got my heart beating. Within minutes, the team had sealed a ruptured aneurysm in my belly.

However, the slow leak had filled my body with so much blood that I hovered between life and death for a month in that Amsterdam ICU while my husband—and daughter and sister, who flew in from the States the next day—sat at my bedside.

They were supported in their vigil by an amazing Turkish family whose father was also in the ICU. From sharing food to trading updates, Yasemin and her family took my family in as their own. The men greeted my husband with the traditional Muslim hand over the heart, and the women simply enveloped them in bear hugs. When I was finally out of danger and was moved to another hospital unit to begin the process of recovery, I got to know Yasemin and her family myself and cheered when her father was able to go home.

That was three years ago. The ties between us have only grown stronger thanks to social media. When Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September, Yasemin was relieved to know that we were safe.

You are our family in Florida.

Yasemin

Just as they are our family—our Muslim family—in Amsterdam. We hope to return to see them in 2023.

Yalla, habibi!

My more recent awakening happened this fall.

Tennis is the sport our television is often turned to. From the Grand Slam January kickoff at the Australian Open in Melbourne through the close out at the U.S. Open in New York City—and loads of smaller tournaments all over that pop up on The Tennis Channel—we know we’ll find someone remarkable to cheer on.

Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur came into our consciousness a couple of years ago when she made it into the quarter finals in Australia, a feat that led her to be described—as she probably almost always is—as “the first Arab/African woman to …”. She is also described by fellow players on the tour as the nicest person they know. Somewhere along this year’s tournament cycle I saw this in action when her opponent cramped up and Jabeur was the first at her side with ice. It’s easy to like Ons.

Yalla Habibi, Ons Jabeur

And what pulled me across the line to think of Arabs as friends I haven’t met yet was the slogan on Jabeur’s team at the U.S. Open women’s final.

Yalla, Habibi!

Ons Jabeur’s team t-shirt slogan

“Let’s go, my dear.” Or, in Midwestern lingo, “C’mon, kid!”

You have got to love that. Well, I did. Ons did not win the match, but she won my heart and that of a whole lot of folks like me who are learning to overcome prejudice.

Prayer becomes familial

The new Netflix dramedy Mo, a quasi-autobiographical series by standup comedian Mo Amer about a Palestinian-American family in Houston. The Arabic woven into the episodes includes lots of my new vocabulary word habibi.

Although it’s a refugee story, an immigrant Palestinian story, it’s also a love letter to Houston. It’s also like an everyman struggle (story) — people who are working paycheck to paycheck, they’re trying to take care of family, people that are dealing with addiction. It has all these layers to it.

Mo Amer, as quote by Gary Gerard Hamilton, AP

Among the storylines is the loss of the family patriarch. I shed another layer of my prejudice during this scene, when the Muslim prayer—Allaahu Akbar—became a deeply personal declaration of faith by three adult children standing over their father’s grave.

A scene from Netflix series Mo.
A scene from Netflix series Mo.

Bringing Muslim and Middle East stories to the masses.

I’ve been speaking Arabic all my life

The character Mo’s longtime girlfriend is Mexican-American and Catholic, and it’s the difference in religion that he struggles with, not the cultural difference. As he explains in this clip, 700 years of Muslim control over Spain has left Arab DNA in Latinos’ language, food, and culture.

Clip from Netflix’s Mo.

Spanish was my first language, learned as I emerged from babyhood in 1955 on the lap of Josefina, the Galician woman who lived with our family during my father’s four-year Foreign Service post in Caracas. My Spanish skills were reinforced during subsequent posts to Colombia and Spain, and the language feels deeply personal. It was an immediate connection between me and my Puerto Rican husband when we were dating, and it now links us with our daughter’s new Latino in-laws.

So, it turns out that I’ve been imbued with the Arab culture my whole life.

It’s so easy to find differences between us that we overlook all we humans have in common. Let’s keep talking.

Wellness Wednesday: Top Ten Reasons to Do WECOACH [Water] Workouts

Founder Laurie Denomme’s WECOACH Workouts draws on 30 years of water exercise teaching experience to create member-exclusive programs that include: water workouts, land workouts, tips to help us feel our way to better results, and success trackers to help us recognize our progress. Here are my top ten reasons to subscribe to this unique, results-focused exercise program.

10. Using a pool is like going to the gym (only without the dreaded mirrors)!

Buoyancy and resistance combine to make the water a place we can move with total ease. Water workouts can also improve heart health, make muscles stronger, and even improve bone health. Pool stairs are great for stretches and pushups, pool walls help with resistance and balance work, and shallow to deep water depths target specific fitness results. All you need is a coach.

Laurie Denomme, founder of WECOACH Workouts

9. There’s loads to choose from!

Subscribers to WECOACH Workouts can choose to follow the schedule of classes organized within each monthly program—Move Better 2.0, Everyday Strong 1.0, and Everyday Mobility 1.0 are all available now, and Laurie is always at work on the next program. You can also pick and choose your classes a la carte to suit how your body is feeling—whether you want to work on your core, back, shoulders, hips, or knees, you are sure to find the experience you’re looking for.

8. When you jiggle, no one sees it!

Water gives you the freedom to move without being scrutinized. Our submerged bodies can wiggle and jiggle happily out of sight. Luckily, our WECOACH Workouts coach Laurie demonstrates the class with underwater and above water video that makes the classes easy to follow.

7. You get to know your classmates!

Water promotes relaxation, laughter, and friendship, sometimes in unexpected ways. As our newest recruit, R, was learning how to use a pool noddle, she suddenly found herself belly up and flailing. I quickly came to her rescue, leading to a moment of togetherness. You can’t hug a person for dear life without becoming MUCH better acquainted. Our Spanish-language friendship instantly jumped from usted to tu, and we are now amigas sirenas—mermaid friends—for life!

6. Your confidence gets a boost!

The smiles that bloom on the faces of people who have just learned a new skill are contagious! When R mastered bicycling on a pool noodle, there was no stopping her. And when E realized she was doing a side plank, wow, a complete Cheshire Cat, ear-to-ear grin!

5. You can talk back to the teacher.

During a WECOACH Workout, we feel as if Laurie is talking to each of us individually via the screen of my iPad, and we act as if she can hear us, too.

E retired from a robust career as an educator in the Palm Beach County Schools, where, she says, she was known for silencing rowdy students with a powerful look. Oh, how those students would enjoy hearing their teacher laughingly talking back to Laurie as she leads us through a class. Laurie: “You got this!” E: “I don’t think so! Is it nine o’clock yet?”

In fact, Laurie DOES encourage comments and questions from WECOACH Workouts subscribers, and she answers them personally.

4. It feels good!

Water supports the joints while pushing back against the muscles, providing a near-perfect workout environment.

I can feel every muscle moving! If I were in the gym, I’d be feeling pain all over. But here, I am taking care of myself while I exercise.

C, who has returned to water exercise after being away for several months

3. You can learn another language.

Oops, that’s just my neighborhood pool class! E doesn’t speak much Spanish, and R doesn’t speak much English, but as they work out with Laurie they are each picking up a word here and there.

Muy bien! Very good!

E and R encouraging each other during WECOACH Workouts

2. It’s fun!

When I tell the people at the senior center that I’m having fun in a pool, they just kind of look at me. They know what fun is and what a pool is, but they can’t see how they go together!

My neighbor E, a retired Palm Beach County Schools educator

E has taken the initiative of talking to the center about getting a water exercise class going in their underused pool. She may just show up in her suit and do a demonstration of the ease with which you can move in the pool, especially for seniors who are mobility-impaired.

And you’re never too old to play in a pool.

1. The time flies by!

A couple of days a week, I get some laps in while E and R take a WECOACH Workouts class. It reminds me of when I would put on a Barney tape to keep my toddler busy while I did some household chore. My daughter was in good hands back then, and so are E and R now. The time moves quickly by, and then we’re doing the last few minutes of the class together.

Great workout!

Laurie Denomme

Amen!

Retired Palm Beach County educator E

Memoir Monday: Home Leave Territory is Still Sacred Ground

For the first twelve years of my childhood, America was not home, but rather the place that we visited every few years from Europe or Latin America and the cities that WERE home: Caracas, Bologna, Rome, Bogotá. Foreign service officers, like my father was during the Cold War, are required to take what the State Department calls “home leave” — travel to their designated home and 30 days within the USA — to refresh their allegiance to the country they represent.

The background on the home leave rule is the concern that diplomats might become overly sympathetic to whatever culture they’re in and forget about their American roots. Those 30 days were designed to re-Americanize those of us who’d been overseas.

My father, Robert C. Amerson, United States Information Agency

For my midwestern family, home leave was travel to the farmland of eastern South Dakota, where my father was born and raised. Along the way, we’d also visit Winona, Minnesota, the Mississippi River town that my mother came from, and the Twin Cities, where my father’s siblings had settled.

Home Leave Territory

These locations—where we had grandparents, aunts and uncles, and scads of cousins—became to me Home Leave Territory. It was a world in which it was always summer, our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in the same homes year after year, and we were the celebrated visitors. Here’s how I described a 1962 trip.

Home Leave Territory takes up most of my childhood mental map of America. My memoir EMBASSY KID (coming in Spring 2023 from the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and New Academia Publishing) includes this telling illustration.

The World According to Jane, Embassy Kid, publication expected 2023

My home leave connection remains in my 68-year-old marrow. Postponed for three years—first, by my 2019 illness and, then, by the pandemic—I traveled with my sister to Minnesota in mid-July to for a weekend of family time, an echo of the huge gatherings that would erupt when we visited “the home sod” every few summers from 1957-74.

My 2022 visit

Our first stop was at Firefly Farm, my cousin Ricka and husband Josh’s tranquil retreat amidst acres of sweet corn and soy fields, where her sister Becky at This Old Horse manages Wells Creek Wild Mustang Sanctuary, an awesome forever home for these rescued horses. Ricka and I are the oldest cousins on my mother’s side of the family, and we still huddle when given a chance.

Baker Medlock sculptor
Baker Medlock sculptor

The very cool horse sculpture is by nephew Baker Medlock, cousin Eve’s son. You can find more of Bake’s work here.

Then, we were off across the farmland and big open skies of Minnesota to see my father’s side of the family in the Twin Cities.

Amerson family reunion St. Paul MN
Amerson family reunion in St. Paul MN

Seated in the St. Paul backyard of Uncle Carl, we raised a glass to Aunt Jeanie, who passed in 2021, and to her daughter Shannon, whose birthday my sister and I celebrated with her in Colorado just days before.

Cousin Shannon, sister Sue, and me
Cousin Shannon, sister Sue, and me

On Sunday, we got one-on-one time with Dad’s surviving sisters, Aunt Snooky and Aunt Elaine, both in their nineties and sharp as tacks. Snooky leads the book club and takes calisthenics at her senior living facility in Minneapolis.

Elaine, who lives alone in St. Paul, does a daily workout routine she created 20 years ago. We felt her strength as she whirled us through the polka. My sister and I come from good stock!

Polkaing with Elaine

Family ties that bind FS kids

I feel very lucky to have known these people my whole life, and to share memories with my cousins that go back two generations. Although it’s not nearly the same as having family down the block, or even in the same country while you’re growing up, the State Department’s home leave paved the way for longterm relationships with the people who I treasure.

A current Foreign Service family recently wrote on their blog that they are sad that their children have so few opportunities to be with their extended family.

And the truth is that our kids do not spend enough time with their cousins. They should be engaging in the kind of cousin hijinks that form lasting familial bonds and undergird close relationships into adulthood. This is part of the price we pay for serving overseas.

Towels Packed, Will Travel

My Amerson cousins are still laughing about the time in South Dakota that we kids hopped off the hay wagon into the corn field, leaving one cousin driving the tractor alone. Silly prank. Meaningless, really. So why does it bring us all so much joy?

It isn’t the amount of time together. It’s recognizing that any time together is precious. And that Home Leave Territory is still sacred.

Wellness Wednesday: The Restorative Power of Love

Amsterdam ICU
Amsterdam ICU

The presence of my husband, daughter, and sister around my bed in the Amsterdam ICU—holding my hand, stroking my face, speaking to me even when I was intubated and under heavy sedation—is one reason I did not succumb to the ruptured aneurysm and my body’s six-week fight to live in 2019.

There is a restorative power to love that I experienced then, and that I continued to experience throughout my recovery and rehabilitation.

And I’ve seen the healing power of love in the transformation of our rescue black Lab, Kumba, from vicious attack canine to the calmest, sweetest dog in the neighborhood.

Traumatized rescue

Kumba pawshake
Kumba pawshake

When he was flown from a shelter in Puerto Rico to South Florida in late 2019 by Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, Kumba was so thin and sick that the LRRoF vet was surprised he could even stand. It took two months of medical attention—and foster family love, including being in the pack of the foster household’s two other black Labs—to get Kumba back to health. We just happened to be the lucky family that was first in line when Kumba was ready to be adopted.

Per LRRoF requirements, we brought our daughter’s Lab (and our daughter) to meet Kumba during V and Pancho’s visit from Florida’s west coast. Kumba was a little nervous around Pancho, but a complete soulful sweetheart around us. The match was made, if we could wait another month while Kumba completed recovering. On Super Bowl Sunday 2020, we brought Kumba home.

Kumba becomes Cujo

That’s when we discovered that Kumba was Cujo.

On my husband’s first walk with our new dog, Kumba lunged at our neighborhood’s friendliest dog, snarling, teeth bared and eyes wild. It was a shocking behavior that his foster had not seen. Perhaps being in the pack had given Kumba a sense of protection, but now, alone on a leash in a new environment, Kumba did what he probably did in the shelter fending for himself. Or maybe this is who he was. We had a choice to make: take him back, or help him. We looked in those soulful eyes and knew we had to help. Or at least to protect him and other dogs from this menacing behavior.

Kumba snuggle
Kumba snuggle

We brought in a trainer, Alison Chambers, who confirmed that we had a very good dog who was anxious about other dogs. In our first lesson we learned how to read Kumba’s behavior and how to begin forging the relationship with us that might just lead him out of anxiety and vicious self-protection. We had just one lesson before the pandemic locked everyone down.

Over the next month, I did my best to avoid other dogs on our morning walks, reinforcing positive behavior, but Kumba tensed, pre-attack, any time he saw another dog. Worse yet, he shocked us by dashing out open doors to attack unsuspecting dogs who were doing nothing more than walking by. He snarled, teeth snapping, at our neighbors’ friendly golden, Lexie, when she approached too quickly. There was never blood drawn but the psychic damage and our neighbors’ anger was real. We needed to protect him, ourselves, and others. We bought a muzzle.

The muzzle helped. The social distancing imposed by the pandemic helped— being kept a safe distance away from other dogs (and their people) gave Kumba reassurance. The gentle, sweet dog who loved nothing more than curling up at our feet (or next to us on the couch) began letting go the anxiety and the defensive behavior.

Kumba makes a friend

Then, Kumba made his first dog friend—Reese, the dachshund-golden mix who is the self-appointment goodwill ambassador of our community. Hallelulia! Other small dogs followed—Adam the French bulldog, Cookie the Shitzu—but it was when Kumba greeted German shepherd Myla that we knew he was getting better. Well enough to invite Pancho back.

The first few hours were tricky, but Pancho and Kumba soon established self-protecting force fields that allowed them to share a space without crossing personal boundaries. Another huge step forward for our sweet boy!

Labs Kumba and Pancho
Labs Kumba and Pancho

Finding his people gave Kumba confidence. Finding his bliss—retrieving—gave him a purpose. He was a fragile four-year-old dog who didn’t know how to run, catch, and retrieve when we adopted him. The hours of that pastime have added physical and psychological resilience to our six-year-old happy dog, as I wrote in a post about the magic of finding the thing you were meant to do. Our pup is happiest with a ball in his mouth.

Kumba laser-focused on retrieving

But would this new-found confidence help Kumba over the hurdle of re-making the acquaintance with dogs he previously snarled at?

Love restores

The answer is yes. The power of love restores. Kumba is now completely relaxed around Lexie, the Golden up the block who he snarled at, and he is the dog in the neighborhood who gives nervous dogs and their owners the confidence to approach us. He is such a good host to visiting dogs that he’ll even allow a guest to make herself at home on his bed. ”Mi cama, tu cama,” he is saying to Lila, the sweet girl who hangs out with us on the weekends while her mom works.

Lila on Kumba’s bed
Lila on Kumba’s bed

And around the newest pup in the block, Kiwi the tiny powerhouse? Kumba just kind of smiles and shakes his head at this bundle of confidence. Can you see the thought bubble over Kumba’s head? ”I don’t understand girls, but they’re fun to have around.”

Neighbors Kumba and Kiwi
Neighbors Kumba and Kiwi

Yes, love is a powerful thing, inspiring the best in us all.

Memoir Monday: Life is a Carnival!

In 1955, I learned how to walk to a Latin playlist

The earliest tunes I remember hearing were the Venezuelan rhythms of música criolla which the radio stations in Caracas played at night. Dad had an affinity for music—part genetic, his farmer father was a self-taught fiddler, and part born of listening to songs streaming across the South Dakota prairie night sky from Texas radio stations—and strummed Venezuelan tunes on his guitar. Mom, who had danced professionally in New York City and made every cha-cha partner look like a pro, played the smaller triple guitar, and even I got in on the act with maracas. This was our 1955 holiday card family photo. Looks like I was the lead singer, too.

Caracas trio 1955
Caracas trio 1955

I was just six months old when we arrived in Caracas for Dad’s first foreign service post and almost five when we left. With our maid Josefina as my doting caretaker, Spanish became my first language, and Latin American music became my first soundtrack, Mom’s cha-cha and rumba inspiring my toddler dancing. Apart from four years in Italy, the remainder of my childhood abroad was in Spanish-speaking countries—Colombia and Spain. Spanish is my intimacy language, the words coming from the deep well of home.

I was hard-wired to find a Latino husband, and tremendously lucky that he is kind, funny, loyal, and passionate about life. He’s also a drummer—maracas, bongos, and timbales occupy a corner of our family room, and salsa is the López soundtrack. Even our black Lab, Kumba, is tuned in—he was rescued from a Puerto Rican shelter and is completely unfazed by loud crashing and banging when my husband rocks out to music on his headphones.

In 2019, I re-learned how to walk to a Latin playlist

I learned to walk in Caracas in 1955. But I also learned to walk in Amsterdam in 2019 after a ruptured abdominal aneurysm and six weeks in the ICU sapped my body of the ability to move. Again, it was Latin music that inspired the movement, specifically the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. I downloaded the African singer Angelique Kidjo’s album, Celia, onto my iPhone, and my Amsterdam physiotherapist Gemma plugged it into the rehab gym’s sound system during my sessions. Gemma held me closer than my high school boyfriend’s slow dancing bearhug as I took my first steps.

La Vida es un Carnaval, Life is a Carnival, became the anthem of my recovery, its syncopated rhythm lifting my spirits as the lyrics gave me hope.

All those who think life is unfair need to know that it’s not like that, that life is a beauty, it has to be lived. All those who think they’re alone and it’s bad need to know that it’s not like that, that in life nobody is alone, there’s always someone.

La Vida Es Un Carnaval, composer Victor Daniel

Watching Celia herself singing this song of triumph in the face of challenge brings me a new understanding of its meaning. A black woman without the duplicitous attribute of beauty, she made her way to the top of the charts in a male-controlled business despite a macho culture. When she points to heaven while singing ”there’s always someone,” you know she’s been propelled by an inner strength fueled by strong faith.

Today, I listen to Angelique’s version at least once a week while I walk Kumba. With every step I take, I give thanks to the higher power that kept me alive in 2019. Every day since I woke up in the ICU wonderfully thin (“Gosh, I can wear my wedding dress!” was my first thought, honestly) but unable to move (my second thought), I’ve been working my way back to life. Today, I am running, swimming, dancing. I am living life.

But I am also easily lulled into forgetting how close I came to not being here, taking my health for granted, letting life feel like a ho-hum grind.

Last weekend, I danced to La Vida Es Un Carnaval with my husband in my arms to the live music of Tito Puente, Jr. and his Latin Jazz Ensemble at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach. Gratitude. Joy. And a determination to live newly aware that every day is a gift. That every step is the beginning of a dance.

Life is a Carnival!

Wellness Wednesday: Know Your Breed, Find Their Bliss

When we met our rescue Lab in early 2020, a tick-borne illness had worn him down to barely 50 pounds. The folks at Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida weren’t sure how Kumba was still standing. I, too, was thin and weak, just seven months into my recovery from a near-fatal illness in 2019 that had depleted my body of the ability to move. 

Kumba and me on a long walk in 2020
Kumba and me on a walk in 2020

We became each other’s support system on the road to full recovery. Morning strolls became long walks that improved our strength and confidence with each step, and now we run two miles several times a week.

Finding what we are meant to do

Thanks to steady exercise over the past three years, I’m back to swimming, an activity that floods my brain with endorphins that float my entire day. Submerged with the bubbles of my breath as my soundtrack for thirty minutes of rhythmical movement, it’s as if I’ve found what I was meant to do.

Kumba, too, has found what he was meant to do. Those frail 50 pounds are now a robust 80 pounds of bounding joy for whom catching and retrieving has become the highlight of each day. And there’s a big lesson in this. 

Biological fulfillment

As a Labrador retriever, it’s in Kumba’s DNA to feel incomplete without holding something in his mouth. Initially, chewing was his way of releasing anxiety when we left him alone. Over time, however, Kumba’s separation anxiety lessened, and his confidence in us and in himself grew. As dog trainer Alison Chambers recently helped me to understand, a huge piece of this change is the result of my husband’s daily catch session with Kumba. 

It’s called biological fulfillment.

Dog behavior expert Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training in Boca Raton, FL

At first, Kumba would run after the ball but not bring it back. Gradually, Kumba discovered the joy in the game, and today he runs fast and far and returns the ball at Ray’s feet over and over. When he’s had enough, he holds onto the ball and turns toward home, tail high and wagging. Labs retrieve. That’s their job. 

Kumba and the ball take a break
Kumba and the ball take a break

Find your dog’s bliss

We forget that dogs used to have jobs.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

Work like minding the children, herding sheep, hunting kept dogs engaged. The transition to indoor pets — what Alison calls “cuddly at-home figurines” — removed the work dogs were bred to do, leading to behavior problems.

Alison has three dogs. She treats them to different activities that make their breed happiest. Ruka, her Belgian malinois — a breed Alison describes as “a German shepherd on crack” — is a ring sport dog, bred to excel at personal protection. Sundays are “biting days” at a local training facility. Jett, Alison’s terrier, is a fearless pursuer — “He is not afraid to die,” Alison says — and has become Number Two in the nation in barn hunting, a sport that mimics rat hunting. Otto, Alison’s pit bull mix, goes along for the fun but is happiest laying in the backyard.

Jett, Otto, and Ruka
Jett, Otto, and Ruka

It’s amazing to see a dog who is genetically predisposed to do something light up when you give him the chance to do it. It’s like he’s saying, ‘Wow! How did you know?’

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

 So, folks, find a ball, go to the pool, or head out for a spring walk — find what lights you and/or your dog up, and do it!

Memoir Monday: ”I am from Kyiv.”

Remembering the Cold War face-off

The last time that a Russian leader faced off with the West — the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — the Cold War made clear the battle lines: it was the Communist USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev versus Free World leader President John Kennedy. Khrushchev had outmaneuvered the president, still smarting from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, at their 1961 Vienna Summit, and constructed the Berlin Wall. However, Kennedy prevailed in forcing the Russians to stand down in Cuba in 1962, and Soviet containment continued to frame American foreign policy.

My father was there

My father, Robert C. Amerson, worked the press tent at the Vienna Summit as a Foreign Service officer with the US Information Agency. My mother, sister, and I saw President Kennedy waving from a balcony at the Summit’s conclusion. Dad was the Embassy’s Press Attaché in Rome during the missile crisis, but it was his experience at the Embassy in Caracas, our first post, during the 1957 Venezuelan revolution that really informed his understanding of the power of democracy, the threat of communism, and the iron fist of dictatorship. His 1995 book, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, tells the story. Both of my parents found honor and personal fulfillment their teamed 20-year career in personal diplomacy in Latin America and Europe. You can read Dad’s interview about his foreign service career in the oral history files of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST).

The Cold War faded into history

I’ve recently completed my own book about this life, Embassy Kid: An American Foreign Service Family Memoir (ADST is presenting it for publication this year). Until the events of the past week, it seemed like long-ago history. The end of the Cold War, marked by the 1989 toppling of Berlin Wall, saw the dissolution of the USSR and the emergence of democratic governments in the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine. The Iron Curtain was gone.

Russia’s invasion has solidified the West

However, Russian president Putin carried Mother Russia’s loss of dominion and territory as a personal grievance. His unprovoked military attack on Ukraine this week, which could be just the first salvo in Putin’s goal of rebuilding the former Soviet empire, has garnered the 30-year-old democracy the support of the world — and solidified the partnership between the United States, NATO, and the European Union —  while the aggression of the former KGB agent has condemned and isolated Russia. Even the US Congress rose united in solidarity with Ukraine during President Biden’s State of the Union.

We stand with Ukraine


Strongmen cannot prevail against the winds of democracy. We stand with the brave people of Ukraine, as President Kennedy did with the people of Berlin in 1963, saying ”I am a Berliner.”

We are from Kyiv.

American and Ukrainian flags hands clasped
American and Ukrainian flags hands clasped

Wellness Wednesday: Why I Won’t Sail Again

When we retired to Palm Beach County in 2013, my husband and I discovered the pleasure of getting on a cruise ship, unpacking once, and seeing the world from a balcony over the water. We began with the crystal blue Caribbean, then branched out to the Hawaiian islands, the sun-drenched Mediterranean, and the chilly Baltic. Each trip left us happy to have ventured out and eager for the next one.

But, two weeks into a three-week cruise in 2019, I was medically evacuated from a cruise ship minutes before it departed Amsterdam, and my heart stopped as I was wheeled into a Dutch ER. A ruptured aneurysm was to blame: had it happened during our sailing across the Atlantic crossing and Norway fjords, I would have lost my life. A ship medical office is simply not equipped to handle trauma. An infirmary is not an ICU.

This very close call made us hyper aware of the cruise industry’s limited capacity to handle illness, something that the Coronavirus pandemic has only made more critical. 

Cruise ships pandemic ground zero

In April 2020, I wrote about cruise ships unable to dock as hundreds of passengers [and staff] were sickened by COVID-19. The industry ground to a halt for more than a year, only last summer beginning to pack ships and sail the seas.

Precautions have not eliminated COVID risk

Nearly two years later, despite masking and vaccines and social distancing protocols, cruise ships are again in the crosshairs of the Coronavirus.

Almost every cruise ship operating in US waters reported COVID-19 cases among passengers or crew, despite extensive precautions to guard against the spread of the virus, including vaccinations, testing and face-covering requirements.

Dave Berman, Florida Today, January 4, 2022

Sick passengers placed in quarantine dungeon

The CDC says the chance of getting COVID-19 on board a cruise ship is very high, even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose. And, if you do get ill, you’ll be in quarantine, but not in your swank suite.

The comedian Jen Murphy was hit with COVID on the first day of a 8-day sail. She’d been hired by the cruise ship as the talent. Instead, she was escorted, like a prisoner, to a tiny room below the waterline where she spent 8 days in isolation, incommunicado other than the knock on the door with chow, and nothing but lozenges to see her through. Here’s her story.

Think twice before you sail

You’re safer on a cruise ship than you are in a grocery store.

Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray

Maybe, which is why we mask up when we go indoors, keep our distance from others, and wash our hands. We don’t seal ourselves into a store and let it take us — and everyone else in the building — away from the rest of the world for a week or two. The omicron surge caused Norwegian and Royal Caribbean to cancel January sailings. My grocery store remains open.

As of mid-January, reports USA Today, the CDC guidelines are optional for the cruise industry.

Buyer, be very very aware.

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