Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Tribute to a Lady

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Please press play in the box above to listen to the music I have selected to memorialize my grandmother.

Today, the world lost a great citizen; Mexico lost a Grand Dame; and I lost my grandmother, Lady Dolores Francis Hadow.

Lola (or Lolita), as she was known to her friends and Ata, as she was known to her grandchildren, was born in New York City on March 23, 1917. Her parents (both American) were living in Mexico, where her father had a mining and lumber business. Soon after she was born, my great grandparents returned to Mexico with Lolita in tow. Aside from her days in boarding school and college, Lola never lived in the United States again.

In 1939, Lola married my grandfather, Joseph Turner, in Mexico City. Two years later, my dad, Michael, was born, and eight years after that, my aunt, Gay, came along. Grandad, a Mexican national by birth, had duel citizenship with England and served in the Canadian Army during World War II. My father's first international trip was in 1944, when he and Ata flew up to New York to visit my grandfather during one of his leaves. They went on a DC-3, which was a 2-engine, 21 passenger plane that had 2 wheels under the wings and a little one under the tail. The plane cruised at about 160-170 MPH and took two full days to get from Mexico City to New York.

In 1954, Lola and Joe divorced, and a couple of years later, Lola married Michael Hadow, a British diplomat, in London. During their years together, Michael served in the Foreign Office in London, was Minister in the British Embassy in Paris, and served terms as British Ambassador in Tel Aviv, Israel and in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1972, Michael was knighted for his services in the Foreign Office and Lola became Lady Hadow. Michael and Lola divorced a few years later, and Lola returned to Mexico to live with her daughter, Gay (whom we call "Tia").

This was when I got to know her.

I loved my grandmother deeply. Even as a child, Ata always treated me like an adult. I don't remember her ever using the grandparental "baby voice" with me, and I certainly don't remember her ever really scolding me - (which is probably why, as a kid, I loved hanging out with her so much). I don't recall there ever being many toys for us to play with at her house, but she did keep three notebooks (one for me and each of my brothers) in a drawer next to a box of coloured pencils. On Sunday afternoons, I would sit in her living room and colour, while she and Tia visited with my parents. After I'd get bored with colouring, I'd wander around the house, looking at all the black and white photographs hanging on the walls.

No, Ata was not your typical grandmother. I thought of her more as a friend, a person I loved talking to and spending time with. I was fascinated with her life in Europe, the Middle East and South America. She was my living, breathing (and equally as beautiful) Ingrid Bergman. Despite my incessant questions and fascination with her life - the places she'd lived, the things she'd seen, the people she'd met - she rarely spoke of them unless asked. And when she did, it was with an almost passive voice - as if she could not understand what all the fuss was about.

Lolita loved animals, especially dogs, and had the most beautiful smile and exquisite hands. She loved watching PBS, especially "All Creatures Great and Small" and the Agatha Christie "Poirot" series. She had a very close circle of friends in Mexico, getting together often for "Ladies' Lunches", which were never complete without the standard glass of sherry or tequila (or both). She was always impeccably dressed and accessorised, even when she was dressed down, and her beautiful, long nails were always painted a light rose. Lolita had a beauty mark above her lip, which she accented with a sharp eyeliner - something I always thought was so glamorous, and even tried out once or twice myself (with little success).

I deeply regret that in the last few years of her life, Ata and I didn't see each other very much. Living so far away, with a full time job and two children made it very hard for us to visit, especially to a place like Mexico City. And Ata's health made it difficult for her to travel long distances. I'm grateful though, that although she never met my son, she did meet my daughter (whose original due date, ironically, was March 23rd- Ata's birthday). I spoke to her often, though in hindsight, not often enough. What I wouldn't give to hear her voice again.

Ata died peacefully in her sleep at 8:40 AM on April 15 2010, having spoken to Dad over the phone a few hours earlier, and with Tia by her side. My deepest condolences to Lola's friends for their loss of a great companion, to my children for not having had the opportunity to get to know my incredible grandmother, and especially, to Dad and Gay, for the loss of their beautiful, loving and devoted mother.

Godspeed, Ata. I love you.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Not unlike most people I know, I have my share of Guilty Pleasures. Guilty Pleasures are those things that we know we should not like, but do, sometimes secretly, sometimes openly. They generally fall into at least one of the following three categories:

1. Socially Unacceptable: Socially unacceptable guilty pleasures are things (and sometimes, people) that society has decided we should not like, much less admit to liking. Socially unacceptable guilty pleasures are openly mocked and ridiculed, but ironically, in some cases, may have at one point been socially (emphasis) acceptable, but have since fallen into the cruel and unforgiving unacceptable category.

My socially unacceptable guilty pleasure are the Bee Gees. Everyone (at least everyone who was alive in the 70's) know who these chaps are (or were, as the case may be [RIP, Andy Gibb]), and most of those people probably even liked them (or knew the words to at least one of their songs). In fact, the Bee Gees record sales have totaled more than 200 million, making them one of the best selling artists of all time.

So what happened? How did the Bee Gees go from being so far on top to being a socially unacceptable guilty pleasure? The answer , I believe, lies in the deadly combination of feathered hair, revealing shiny man-pants, impossibly hairy chests, a falsetto voice that could crack a window and, the killer of all things cool, disco.

But I love them. When their music comes on, my hips start swaying, my fingers start snapping, my head starts boppin' , and if it’s “Jive Talkin’”, I’ll pull out my air synthesizer for good measure. And for the record, most of you people secretly like The Bee Gees, too. You're just too cool to admit it.

(PS- In September 2009, Robin Gibb revealed that he and Barry Gibb would reunite and perform again. And when they do, I’ll be there.)

2. Unexplainable Attraction: Guilty pleasures, by definition, are embarrassing. Otherwise, why would we be afraid, ashamed or otherwise hesitant to admit having them? But sometimes, we can't help it. Sometimes, there is something about whatever our guilty pleasure is that inexplicably draws us to it, like a gravitational pull that we cannot fight. Movies, I find, are the easiest of guilty pleasures to classify in this category of unexplainable attraction. How often have you found yourself liking a movie but not really understanding why it is that you like it so much? Or seen a movie that you know is so silly, so ridiculous, so utterly BAD, that you would rather die than to be seen owning it, but have it secretly recorded on your TiVo so you can watch it over and over again in the privacy of your own home? My two guilty pleasure movies could not be more different. One is a cheesy 80's musical (and a sequel, at that), and the second is a 70's B-rated horror movie about nature gone wild.

Grease 2: When I was 12 years old, my friends and I used to watch Grease 2 and act and sing it out. Sandy, the cute blonde in our group, always got to be Michelle Pfeiffer's character, Stephanie, which pissed me off to no end. I always got stuck being Frenchy, the funny, loyal and loving, but definitely NOT cute, Pink Lady. I should've asserted myself and demanded to be Stephanie, but I didn't. And I'm still bitter about it.

25 years later, I still love Grease 2. I know the words and dance steps to every single song. I can recite all of Michelle Pfeiffer's lines and I still have a crush on Michael Carrington (the heartthrob). The story line is similar, of course, to that of the original Grease, but it is the girl this time who is cool, and the guy who is the dork. There are numerous great song and dance sequences (including "Reproduction" and "Let's Do It For Our Country" both of which are about (wink wink) sex) and to this day I cannot go bowling without wanting to sway my hips, do a little jig at the end of the aisle and belt out "we're gonna bo-o-owl tonight." I do not own a copy of Grease 2, but I will stop whatever I'm doing when it comes on Cinemax, and I will not rest until I find myself a gen-u-ine shiny Pink Lady jacket.

(Brief Digression) Every year, I go to a very exclusive "Bad Movie Party," hosted by my husband's best friend's parents. The guest list is extremely limited, with the same 10 or so people invited every year. The premise of the party is quite simple. Every person picks his or her entry for what he or she believe is the worst movie. The only rule is that the movie must have been shown in some sort of a theatre at some point in time. Everyone presenting a film shows up in a costume representative of their film (see right). Entrants show a five minute clip of their worst movie and discuss why they believes it is worthy of "The Andre,' (see left) which is the name of the award for the best bad movie (named appropriately for the original bad movie, My Dinner with Andre). The winning movie (which is decided on by blind vote of all participants) is glued to the bottom of the stack of prior films, and the winner gets to keep The Andre, prominently displayed of course, for the entire year. I myself have won the Best Costume Award three times, and the Best Worst Movie award only once.

I mention the Bad Movie party because my next guilty pleasure would most certainly win if it were entered. But year after year, I refuse. Although The Andre is calling my name and I long to have it back on my mantle, I cannot bear to see my movie publicly ridiculed.

Frogs: I am willing to bet that at least 99% (if not 100%) of you have never heard of Frogs. It was made in 1972 and stars Ray Milland, Sam Elliot and Joan Van Ark (of Knots Landing fame). The movie is about a family of wealthy Southerners who suffer horrible, gruesome deaths at the claws and teeth of their private island's reptilian and amphibian inhabitants (salamanders, crocs, snakes, and yes, frogs). One poor guy even gets it via tarantula, a scene so horrific that even I have to turn my head. Sounds awful, right? Arguably, yes, it does. But it is so campy and so ridiculous that it has been on my list of top 10 movies since I first saw it, 20 years ago. It's not for the squeamish, especially those who cannot handle seeing snakes and the like, and it is most certainly full of terrible acting. But it is a classic B movie and one that I proudly and unapologetically own. Oh, and yes, it is available on Netflix (so go ahead - you know you want to).

3. The Gross Outs: My daughter Vivian came home the other day begging me never to pack an avocado in her lunchbox again. Avocados, especially the way I prepare them (cut in half, pitted, and swimming in a sauce made with lime juice, Maggi (a Mexican soy sauce-ish condiment), Worcestershire, pepper and salt) are among her favorite snacks. I grew up on them and was proud to have passed the taste for them down to my children. As it turns out, liking avocados, especially the way I make them, is evidently an invitation for playground ridicule.

My daughter is a normal and well-adjusted 8 year old little girl, but all the "Eeewwww, what is that?" and "Does your mother not like you or something?" comments had simply become too much for her. She asked that I pack her "normal food, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches” - stuff the other kids wouldn't make fun of. Problem is, Vivian hates peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Which leads me to Guilty Pleasure Category Number 3: The Gross Outs - quite simply, the stuff (or foods) we love, but others hate. Not unlike Vivian's avocado, my gross out guilty pleasure is straight out my childhood: Corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise, crumbled Mexican cheese and chili powder. I fully recognize that it sounds vile, and as a result, I usually won't ask my host or hostess to pull out a jar of mayo at a barbecue, but I have invited many a friend to try it in the comfort of my own home. Admittedly, most politely (and sometimes, not so politely) decline, opting instead for the standard melted butter and sprinkling of salt. Believe me, it is their loss.

I'm also a huge fan of tuna noodle casserole, something that doesn't seem to me should be a guilty pleasure, but apparently is. I've done some research on this and have polled several friends. With very, very few exceptions, the general consensus is that hot tuna smothered in mayo and cheese, is quite simply, vomitous. I honestly cannot see why - after all, my mother used to make it for me when I was a child and it is was then (and now) the absolute best comfort food.

Fear not though, dear friends. While I am not ashamed to share my gross out guilty pleasures with you and invite you to try them out, I promise you I will respect the unspoken rule of formal dinner parties, and never, ever put them on the menu.

(P.S. - For the record, I counseled Vivian to tell all those kids who were making fun of her avocado to take a long walk off a short pier. So she still gets avocados in her lunchbox. And she eats them every time.

In Closing: I mean no disrespect to the writers, producers, directors and actors of The English Patient and Eyes Wide Shut. I'm sure they are good movies in their own right. But damn it, I wish more people would own up to the fact that they'd rather watch The Three Amigos or Friday the 13th, Part II. Those of you who secretly love ABBA (especially "Dancing Queen" and "Super Trouper"), I guarantee you are not alone. And to those who will drive for two hours to a carnival three counties away to anonymously buy a deep fried Twinkie, remember that most people who claim to love caviar would rather choke on a chicken bone than to admit that it makes them gag.

I hope I have inspired you to admit to your Guilty Pleasures. If only one of you is willing to stand up and shout “I LOVE AIR SUPPLY!”, or invite a friend over to sing “If I Were a Rich Man” while watching Fiddler on the Roof, then I have done my job. And if not, well, I encourage you to go make yourself one of those lychee-tinis you know you love and drown your sorrows away.

Monday, April 5, 2010


In 1995, one year after I’d moved to California, my two best friends from college, Sung and Cristina, came out to visit. I was working at Ann Taylor at the time, trying to make ends meet while looking for a “real” job. A day or two after Sung and Cristina arrived (and admittedly, after a night of drunken debauchery) I was at work waiting to be picked up for lunch. Outside the store, a car came peeling around the corner and screeching to a halt. Sung jumped out of the front seat, ran through the door and, yelled at me to get in the damn car. Quickly

I have to admit that for a fleeting second, the crazed look on his face and the idling rental car at the curb made me wonder if my two best friends had just done the unthinkable and robbed a bank. But I went with it, grabbed my bag, and got in the back seat.

“What the hell is wrong with you guys?” I asked, slightly annoyed.

And then, Sung and Cristina lost it. They cracked. They howled with laughter, unable to talk, pointing wildly in front of them. Pointing, it would seem, at a blob of brown matter that was smeared on the passenger’s side of the windshield.

“What the…? What is that? WHAT THE HELL IS THAT??”

“That,” said Sung, “is shit.”

An hour earlier, Sung and Cristina had dragged themselves out of bed and headed down to their rental car, which we’d parked the night before in one of the unreserved spaces in my building’s parking lot. It was not until they got closer to the car that they noticed something peculiar hanging from the tree branches above the car. It appeared to be white paper. White toilet paper?

Hmm. That’s strange.

Then something else caught their attention. They cocked their heads to one side. They squinted their eyes and leaned forward.

They looked at the windshield;

they looked up at the tree;

they looked back at the windshield;

they looked at each other.

Yes. As God is my witness, it's true. Someone had, quite literally, defecated on the windshield of their white Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.

“We cannot go to LOZANO’S, Cristina,” I yelled, appalled that she'd even consider going to the car wash around the corner from my place. “Dude, I live here. I go to Lozano’s all the time. THEY KNOW ME. We can’t get the car cleaned THERE!! Sung, TELL HER!” I pleaded.

Sung howled with laughter.

“Liz, I have (emphasis) shit all over my rental car. I don’t know who or what did it and why. But that’s sick. Sick! And I am NOT going to drive around Palo Freakin’ Alto with THAT (pointing at the windshield) all over my car. YOU GOT IT?? Now tell me how to get to the nearest goddamn car wash! Sung, TELL HER!!”

Sung couldn’t talk. Tears streamed down his face...


Later that evening, long after we’d found a car wash where (Thank GOD) no one knew me, Sung, Cristina and I pondered the day's events. Who would do such a thing? What could we possibly have done to provoke such a bizarre and uncivilized attack? We dismissed the notion that the culprit had been a dog or a wild animal (last time we checked, animals don’t squeeze the Charmin), and we massaged the theory that it had been a disgruntled apartment building tenant whose parking spot we’d inadvertently taken. Unfortunately, my friends, this story does not end with a satisfactory answer. Because the truth is, we never did find the culprit. The only thing we were able to ascertain for absolute certain is that, albeit completely unintentionally, we chose the wrong guy to piss off.

P.S. - for the rest of the trip, the white Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme slept peacefully on the street - vulnerable to thieves, but safe from disgusting, defecating lower life forms.

Friday, April 2, 2010


The Smell of My Childhood
My grandmother’s house is in an old colonial neighborhood in Mexico City called San Angel Inn. Carved wooden doors and wrought-iron windows look out onto cobblestone streets , and bright pink bougainvillea and ivy vines cling to the sides of virtually every stone wall. Occasionally, a street vendor will wander by carrying balloons or pushing a cart steaming with hot, buttery sweet potatoes. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

Being a typical Anglo Mexican family, we had afternoon tea almost every Sunday at my grandmother’s house. And like clockwork, every Sunday afternoon, it would rain. The rain would come out of nowhere, darkening the skies and blocking out the tick tock of the grandfather clock. The sound of the torrential downpour on the cobblestones made it impossible to speak without raising your voice an octave or two. But it wasn’t the sound that I loved; it was the smell.

Rain has different smells, or feels, depending on where you are. Hawaiian rain smells sweet. Mountain rain smells musty and feels heavy. And Mexico City rain smells, well, for lack of a better description, earthy. It’s that earthy smell that reminds me more of my childhood than anything else. Despite all the places I’ve visited, despite all the places I’ve lived, rain has never smelled the same as it does in Mexico City. Last weekend, while I was sitting out in my garden, it started to rain. Perhaps it was the way the sky darkened so quickly, or the way the rain sounded as it hit the limestone patio, but for a fleeting second, I felt like I was Mexico. And then, just as quickly as it had come, it was gone. I was back in the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of miles from Lolita’s house in San Angel, felling nostalgic and, yes, a little bit sad.

The Sounds of Silence
I went to boarding school and college on the east coast (Maryland and Connecticut, respectively). Having grown up in Mexico, I was not used to the snow. In fact, before my first year in boarding school, the last time I’d seen snow was when I spent Christmas in Upstate New York - when I was 5. The first major snowfall my first year away from home was, in a word, magical. The night before, as we were walking to the dining hall for dinner, my roommate Samantha commented that it smelled like snow. I remember putting my nose in the air and inhaling deeply. But all I could smell was the food Ma and Pa (the kind, elderly African American couple that ran the kitchen) were cooking. But Samantha was right; a blizzard was brewing over the Chesapeake.

The following morning, the campus was covered in a white blanket of snow. I followed Sam’s lead and bundled up in more clothes than I’d ever had on at one time. I put on my brand new pair of Eddie Bauer snow boots and headed out to class. As I walked out the front door of the dorm, a blast of frigid air hit my face and I immediately felt a shiver run down my spine. Not because I was cold (though I clearly was), but because I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. From one day to the next, the campus had been transformed. All around us, teenage girls squealed with delight, throwing snowballs at each other and whooping as they slipped down icy stairs. Gone was the typically silent and sleepy trudge to 8:00 AM class. By the time I got to the academic building, I was freezing, but giddy with anticipation for the end of the school day, when I would be free to join in on a snowball fight.

The next day, I woke up to more snow. But unlike the day before, the snow was still coming down. As I made my way across campus, I was suddenly struck with how quiet it was - unusually quiet, even for that time in the morning. It was almost as if you could, quite literally, hear a pin drop. And you could.

And so that sound, the sound of snow falling, the sound of absolute silence, engrained itself into my memory. Winters in Connecticut were harsher, longer and colder, but the sound of absolute nothing followed me. I was able to hear it every snowy morning walking from my dorm to the art building, clear on the opposite side of campus.

The Sound of the Ocean, the Smell of the Sea
A nautical mile or two west of Utila (one of the three Caribbean Bay Islands belonging to Honduras) lies a small privately owned island appropriately named Little Cay. Little Cay is no bigger than half a football field, is covered in coconut palms and surrounded by a coral reef second only in beauty to that of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Getting to Little Cay requires a couple of commercial flights, either a four-seater airplane or a catamaran ferry, and a tiny little speed boat. All in all, almost two full days of travel.

There are two docks on Little Cay – one on the windy side, one on the calm side. In the middle of the island is a modest house that, though a bit run down and in dire need of a facelift, is charming in its own way. The house runs on a generator that is usually only turned on at night. There is running water, but no hot water, so showers are typically very cold, unless you use the outdoor shower and let the tropical air keep you warm you as you wash away the sand and salt. There is no television, no telephone, and the only way to communicate with anyone off the island is by ham radio.

I went to Little Cay for the first time two years ago with my husband Jess, my best friend Cristina, and her husband, Mark. This was my first real vacation and long trip away from my children, who stayed at home under the care of their grandfather. Because of my morbid fear of orphaning our children, I asked Jess to travel to Honduras on a separate flight and even went so far as to rent a satellite phone (the kind used by the US Army) so that I could call home every day to check in on my little ones. Needless to say, my fist day on Little Cay was riddled with a mixture of anxiety and unnerving silence.

The morning after our arrival on Little Cay, I woke up as the sun was rising. Jess and Cristina were still asleep and Mark had left an hour earlier to go fishing with Barry, the island’s “innkeeper” who lived on Pigeon Cay, a couple of islands over. The first thing I did, before making a pot of coffee on the gas stove, was check the satellite phone to make sure I hadn’t missed any calls from home (I hadn’t). While the water was boiling, I looked out of the open air kitchen at the ocean waves crashing a few yards away. Seagulls were dive-bombing into the surf, more times than not emerging with breakfast in their beaks. Although the sun was barely rising, I could see how clear the water was going to be in just a few short minutes. After I poured myself a cup of ridiculously strong Honduran coffee, I went outside, grabbed a chair off the deck, and dragged it on to the sand, close to the shore. I sat down, leaned back, took a sip of my piping hot coffee, and took a deep, deep breath. And then another. And another. As long as I live, I will never forget the smell of the sea that morning. I grew up spending summers in Acapulco. I went to school on the Long Island Sound and I live a few miles from the Pacific. I am no stranger to the ocean. But I have never, ever smelled the sea as vividly as I did that morning.

That Which Takes Us Away
Our lives are filled with the sights and smells that remind us of people, places and events. Drakkar Noir reminds me of boarding school and the teddy bears sent to us by boyfriends from the Blue Ridge School in Virginia. The smell of old, stale beer reminds me of keggers in college, and snowy, winter mornings at our cabin in Bear Valley remind me of school on the East Coast. But while not all smells can be duplicated, and there may be only one place on Earth where I will see a pelican dive head first into the ocean while on my Own Private Idaho, I find it rather comforting that there are a few such sights and smells that belong only to me.