Friday, February 25, 2011

Nuts to You

Unless you are at least a half a hundred years old, you have never tasted the greatest nuts in the world, those of the Shah of Iran. Only the wealthiest in Iran were able to savor his Persian nuts. Do you wonder how this has any relevance to today’s political mess in the Middle East? It goes back through history, to the meddling of the CIA, to the US Military, and to several of our presidents meddling with my favorite snack food, the pistachio.
Each December, I longed for the arrival of a huge carton to arrive in the mail from the Shah of Iran’s pistachio company. This box was as anticipated as eagerly as the appearance of Santa himself. My family would purchase a case of Iranian pistachios as holiday gifts for their deserving friends. The twelve-inch bags of nuts cost ten dollars in 1967. I was the delivery girl. Those on the gift list watched by their doors for me to arrive, holding the Shah’s nuts in my hands. Everyone loved the Shah’s nuts. He had the tastiest nuts on the globe, and thanks to the great-grandson of a president, we could put them in our mouths anytime we pleased.
You see, two years after I was born, in 1953, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr, yes, his name was Kermit, completed the CIA’s first overthrow of a foreign government. Code-named, Operation Ajax, it worked just like a toilet bowl cleanser. The newly elected president of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddeq, was scrubbed away like a scum ring. Mosaddeq had upset the US and Britain, because he had nationalized the oil companies of Iran. Even though the oil did not belong to the West, we had controlled it for years. We did not enjoy playing fair. Kermit and his pals orchestrated a coup d’├ętat that began the 26-year dictatorship of the Shah. The Shah loved his western buddies and exported his oil, carpets, and pistachios to them. Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? It was nuts to Mosaddeq, and lots of nuts for me.
These happy days for the Shah and his secret police force, not dissimilar to the SS, lasted until 1979, when very much like today, the people took to the streets. In Tehran, they demonstrated against the ten percent unemployment in their country, the nasty police, the Shah, and us, the US. When the crowds got too much to handle, the Shah left on a sudden vacation and never returned. The Ayatollah Khamenei swooped in wearing a flowing white, Shiite Islamic robe, and the good times ended. Thanks to Jimmy Carter’s southern hospitality, the Shah was given asylum in the Untied States. They had a lot in common. They were both nut farmers.
This camaraderie pissed off the Ayatollah. Everyone in Iran remembered what Kermit had done to their beloved Mosaddeq. Iranian students stormed the American embassy and took hostages. The US countered with another operation called, Eagle Claw. Unfortunately, the eagle turned out to be more of a wounded pigeon, and for 444 days, Americans were glued to their televisions watching their impotent government held hostage. Nuts to Carter. His career was over. The Shiites were in control of Iran. From 1979, the power of that region remained in a delicate pyramidal balance between Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq. That same year, an embargo was placed on goods from Iran, which not only included oil, but my beloved pistachios as well.
Now as a college graduate, I had become completely addicted to yummy nuts. I only cared about the oil, because sleeping in my car with my husband, in the long gas lines in the summer of 1979, was not particularly fun. There were no Iranian nuts which to pass the time. The embargo had seen to that. However, with Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan at the helm, the California farmers began growing pistachios. As a Middle East nut aficionado, I find the California pistachio as bland as a mashed banana. Nuts to Iran, to the Ayatollah, and to me.
After many years, things began to change for Iran. That fateful attack by the Taliban on September 11th caused the US jumped in again. They ousted the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. Whoops, gone now were Iran’s two biggest regional enemies, the ones who had held them in check for twenty-five years.
In 2010, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah party forced the collapse of the pro-US government in Lebanon. And the beginning of this year, we saw Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, friend of the US, leave for a sudden vacation after only eighteen days of protests and demonstrations by his people. At this moment, Syria and Iran, who were unusual bedfellows in their hatred of Saddam Hussein, are discussing their plans for the future of Egypt over a big fat bowl of pistachios. The people of Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen have gone to the streets to protest their governments. The powers in the Middle East are currently spinning. Qatar and Oman are reported by the media, as tilting toward Iran like the moons that circle Jupiter.
It appears to me that the US and her allies in the West will have to take action again. We failed with Operation Ajax and Operation Eagle Claw. Operation Iraqi Freedom has lasted for eight years. I propose a new strategy - Operation Pistachio. We need to liberate the Iranian pistachio trees for the world. Since President Reagan’s rule, California has had its chance to earn money by growing pistachios. Their state is as bankrupt as a Donald Trump casino. It’s nuts to California now. We need to improve foreign relations with Iran by importing their nuts again. In doing so, Iran would be bound to us in a symbiotic relationship, not unlike that of Anna Nicole Smith and her octogenarian oil magnate, not for our thirst for oil, but rather for our pistachio consumption.
We need to march in the streets from Hershey, Pennsylvania to Orange County, California, holding our banners high for Iranian pistachios in all of our ice cream flavors. Ben and Jerry, are you listening? We need to replace popcorn in the movie theaters with those delicious little nuts. Make a pledge now, to never order cashew chicken for a take out dinner. Here’s to pistachio chicken instead. Our new war cry for Peace in the Middle East will be: Nuts to Us!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Water in the Valley of Clay

Not in a wide rush like the Columbia,
rather in dribbles from a palm-sized pipe,
protruding out of the hillside,
the rusty liquid spills.

Pulsing with invisible flatworms,
the precious fluid pools and lazily crosses
sparse fields of rice, which shelter
mosquitoes and malaria.

Silent children stoop to fill discarded bottles-
drop by drop. This is what they do each day.
I use their water to flush waste down my toilet,
or rinse off the dinner I was too full to eat.

My clothing is named for that great
Northwest River, which flows down from the Rockies,
but hid in my pocket are snapshots of children
who bear heavy burdens in the Valley of Clay.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Mink Brigade

Linda made me promise to behave. My reward would be a placemat sized, engraved invitation for the Inauguration of George H W Bush. I would be attending the biggest Texas party since Lyndon Johnson propped his boots on the Oval Office desk. I packed my Stetson and shredded my Democratic Party ID card. I was on my way to Washington with Linda.
I met Linda at Girls Raised In The South meeting held in Seattle. We stood around the buffet complaining about the Northwest, while we stuffed deviled eggs into our mouths. We became fast friends. Linda was from Texas and had big blond hair. At SMU, she was the head majorette. It earned her a gold sequined outfit that accentuated her Texas sized boobs. Even though I had no big hair, I had lived in Dallas. I knew how to say, “Shit howdy,” with the best of them. My favorite line from a jukebox was, “Don’t cry down my back, baby, you might rust my spurs.” My twang was twanging up like a banjo in anticipation of the Inauguration. I could hardly wait to be in DC with the Texans.
We packed our chiffon evening gowns, curling irons, and a Brinks truck full of jewelry. We arrived at the posh, private University Club. We were knee deep in velvet, polished mahogany and American flags. Our first stop was Linda’s friend’s suite. They had personally seen that Bush had crushed Dukakis in every state but ten. Shit howdy. They were pleased as punch to see us.
They handed us our inauguration tickets, and explained that we had responsibilities. We were to work the event. We would seat the diplomats right below the presidential podium.
The next morning, we dressed in our knit suits with the fancy buttons and cloaked ourselves in mink. Linda took the command. She would stand in the center aisle and personally guide the guests to their seats. I would wait at the left side of the grand marble steps that led to podium. I held in my hands the list of all diplomats allowed entrance into our secure area. We were very important. We were the mink barricade.
I was drawling out, “Welcome to Bush’s Inauguration,” to a silver haired man with glasses and his aide.
“May I see ya’ll’s invitation please?” The embarrassed aide stated that he had forgotten their invitations.
“I’m sorry. This area is reserved for diplomats. Ya’ll can find seating in the public area.” I pointed to the tiny dots of people, about a mile back, standing behind the television trucks. Both men looked perturbed.
“Madam, this is Javier Perez de Cuellar.”
“Why that’s nice.” I smiled at the older man. “But rules are rules, and you must have an invitation. I can’t let just anybody in.” I stood firm in my fur coat.
“Madam, this is Javier Perez de Cuellar, the Secretary Gen-er-al of the United Nations.” He stressed the word general by slowly pronouncing every syllable.
Cuellar? I had never heard of this guy. What happened to U Thant?
I looked at my list. There he was. In my best southern Spanish accent., I said, “I am ever so sorry Seen-yors.” I pointed them to Linda who was staring in our direction.
Later, I noticed there were papers on the marble steps blowing in the breeze. I snatched them up and stuffed them into the trashcan by the center aisle. There was a man standing near the trashcan.
“Excuse me sir, you’ll have to move.” He did not speak, so I continued, “You’re blocking the view.” I pointed behind me to Cuellar.
“I’m CIA,” he said with no expression.
“I can’t help that. You’ll simply have to move.” It’s impossible to argue with a lady in a mink coat. “Do you see that man there? That’s Javier Perez de Cuellar, the Secretary Gen-er-al of the UN. He cannot see because of you!” Everyone knows that in Texas Hold Em, a general trumps an agent. As he slid off to the side, Linda charged up.
“What do you think you are doing?”
“What do you mean? That guy was in front of our area.”
“No. You let someone in without an invitation.”
“That was the…”
“Nobody gets in without an invitation.”
“But, he was on my list.”
I looked at my hands. I was holding no list. I had lost my list! I remembered the trashcan and picking up papers off the steps. Had I thrown it out? Maybe that CIA guy did a sleight of hand and stole it. He was pissed off that I made him move.
“Forget the list,” she said,” Just make sure that, from now on, everyone has an invitation.”
That’s when a man with twinkling eyes walked up to me.
“Welcome to the Inauguration. May I see your invitation?”
With a deep voice and a smile, he said, “I don’t have an invitation.” His thick black eyebrows and matching mustache made him look like Groucho Marx without the cigar. He was obviously a gatecrasher.
I went through my rehearsed dialogue, pointing to the tiny crowd of people in the distance.
“I’m on the list. I am Saddam Hussein.” The twinkle in his eyes became knife sharp.
“I’m sorry, Mr.-Whose Sane?”
“President Hussein. I am the President of Iraq.”
No, no. Hussein was a king from Jordan. I knew that. Did he think I was stupid?
“That’s nice,” I said, “but you must have an invitation.” I bristled my mink.
“Let me see your guest list,” and he grabbed hard at my coat. I heard the stitches pop in the seam of my sleeve. He had ripped my mink! This was war.
He began to shout in a weird language. The CIA man rushed over. He threw himself between Hussein and me.
“What’s the problem?”
“This man was not invited, then he assaulted my coat! ” I stared at Saddam.
“I’m leaving. You’ve not heard the last from me!” Saddam shot me a glare.
“Oh, go hide in a hole,” I muttered under my breath.
I thanked Mr. CIA, who was whispering into his lapel pin.
Linda came running up. I told her about the gatecrasher and being saved by the CIA. We seated ourselves on the front row and watched Ronald Reagan hand George Bush the reins of power. Ronny’s neck was wrapped in a good guy white scarf, and George sported a silver tie. I turned to Cuellar behind me and gave him a big thumbs up.
Later that afternoon, while we looking for ourselves on television and getting gussied up for the Black Tie and Boots Ball, we heard Dan Rather talking about an Arab man at the Inauguration. Apparently he felt snubbed and had stormed back to Iraq in his private jet. Could that have been same the man who claimed to have forgotten his invite? What a pissy guy.
Saddam Hussein was like a toddler begging for attention. After the Inauguration, President Bush gave him attention. He blasted the hell out of him in Desert Storm. Perhaps if Saddam had been a bit more responsible and held on to his invitation, he could have danced the Texas two-step like the rest of us.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Running into Joe

I had just arrived in Albany, New York from the Deep South. With the help of my best friend, Trudy, I found all the things I needed for a good life up North, a drycleaner, a hairdresser, and a cheap manicurist. However, on this day, my baby’s infected ears were redder than my nail polish, and I needed to find a pharmacy. He had been wailing since we left the doctor’s office. The prescription for his eardrops was in hand, but where was I to go?
It was 1988. I grabbed the yellow pages, but they were useless. The print was too small, and I was getting eyestrain trying to decipher it. I threw the book out. I couldn’t dial directory assistance either. My husband had put his foot down on 411. I had called the operator so often that the phone company mailed me a free T-shirt. No one gets freebies from the phone company. I had also received an engraved thank you for being such a wonderful 411 customer. I was thrilled. My husband was not amused. He explained that I could have purchased a lot of T-shirts with the fifty dollars they charged for happy dialing. I was wearing my free fifty-dollar shirt, when I realized that I should call my buddy Trudy for help finding that pharmacy.
I met Trudy at my “welcome to the neighborhood” dinner party, that I threw in honor of myself. My transition north of the Mason Dixon Line had been horrible. No one brought me brownies, deviled eggs, or came over to say, ”howdy.” I decided to welcome myself. My party was a huge success, mostly because of the cocktails. Yankees can drink like fish. When it was all over, I had a new best friend- Trudy.
Trudy was at work. As I waited on the phone for her to answer, I realized that I had made a huge social faux pas. I was makeup-less, and my hair was in a dirty ponytail. I was dressed in sneakers and sweats. What would my mother have thought? In the South, judgment would be passed with a, “poor dear,” but only for non-family members. Like all southern belles, my mother could cuss like a convict. She would have had a hissy fit, if she had seen how I looked that day.
The secretary told me that Trudy was on her way. Trudy was the speechwriter for Senator Joe Bruno. He was an important guy. He was second only in prominence to the governor of New York. He was tall and good-looking, with grey hair and flag pins on his lapels. He looked like a senator. This was all that mattered in politics. Coming from upstate New York, being an Italian Republican didn’t hurt him either.
Trudy looked good beside Senator Bruno. She wore tight suits and high heels. With the exception of her accent, she could have been a southern gal, an executive from Atlanta or Richmond. She knew how to bat her eyelashes. The wind from those lashes could knock a full-grown man down from a hundred paces.
In a breathless whirl, Trudy finally picked up the line.
“ You have got to come down here and meet the Senator.”
Every time I talked with Trudy, she wanted me to meet Senator Bruno. I am a democrat, a donkey, and had moved into a republican town. Trudy was trying to teach me how to embrace my inner elephant.
“I can’t. I got a kid screaming in the background.”
“Joe’s not in today anyway,” she said, and continued with, “…the senator this, and the senator that…” until she finally gave me the directions to the pharmacy at the Mall.
I crammed my son into his green snowsuit, and wrapped a blanket around him. With his sweating red face and his green outfit, he looked like a martini olive strapped into a car seat.
We were finally off to the Mall. I sang in the car to amuse him. I burbled to get him to smile. He retaliated with his bottle; a quick left to my head. Formula spilled down my jacket. I could smell myself, and it wasn’t Eau de Channel. There were only five more miles to the Latham Circle Mall. I tried to think of happy thoughts, of a palm tree and a sandy beach, or wait, perhaps a job in a suit with high heels. I needed to tell Trudy that I could write speeches too.
When I turned into the parking lot, I blasted by the handicapped area, covering an old man with a cane in a spray of snow. That’s when it happened. My car began to skid. It had been years since I had been in an accident. I resorted to a string of expletives. I have always wondered if my language at that particular moment impacted my toddler. I am sure that both of our mouths were rounded into the shape of the word “Sheeit!” which we were screaming simultaneously in southern accents.
My beautiful, unscratched, wood paneled station wagon was fishtailing down the parking lot toward the mall. We could have slid easily through the entrance doors to retrieve the eardrops, drive thru style, if not for the large white Mercedes sedan that stood in our way. “Sheeit!” my baby and I screamed as we careened closer to the fanciest vehicle in the parking lot.
We bounced off the Mercedes like a billiard ball, slamming back into the bumper like a banked shot, and then came to rest around the corner by the curb. I jumped out of my car to survey the damage. The side of the Mercedes was streaked with black gashes and a huge dent. I had really done it now.
I knew how snooty people were about their Mercedes Benzes. You always knew if they owned one. They pontificated about S-Classes or C-Classes, and God help you if they went to Germany to buy the thing. They would never shut up. I had just crunched the magnificent CL-Class Coupe, the biggest Benz of all. My husband would be furious. My insurance would skyrocket. I would be in the papers in the morning as the Mercedes murderer.
Three tall grey haired men, dressed in identical cashmere overcoats, emerged from their battered sedan. I could see that things were getting worse. They looked like attorneys. I had hit a carload of attorneys. I needed to take control. I grabbed my purse and rifled through its contents for paper. There was none to be found. I tore out a deposit slip on which to write. If push came to shove, the men in cashmere could drop some money into my bank account. After this, I would need a bundle of cash to pay for the accident. I scrawled my name and contact information on the back of the slip.
With lightening fast wit, I initiated a preemptive strike. In my sweat pants and formula splattered jacket, and with as much bravado as I could muster beneath my dirty ponytail, I shook hands with the driver and thrust him my note.
In a rapid fire I began, “Hi. It’s all my fault. I’ll pay for everything. Here’s my information. I have to go. My baby’s in the car. Sorry. Bye.” Then, I fled in my sneakers. I don’t remember any of the men saying a word as I ran back to my car, slammed the door, and drove off.
Later that afternoon, when life had returned to normal, the telephone rang.
“Hi. This is Senator Joe Bruno. I am calling to see if you are all right after the accident this afternoon. You left so quickly. I was concerned.“
Senator Bruno! My friend Trudy’s Senator Bruno? I had not only killed a luxury car, but I might as well have hit the governor! I began apologizing profusely.
He also apologized for my ramming into him. Boy was he smooth. He chatted on and on, concerned for my kid, and asking questions about me. As he talked, I felt my eyelashes begin to bat. I was helpless to his powers. In one short conversation, he had turned me into a Republican. Weak kneed and giggling all over myself, I was ready to write a check to the Republican Party.
As soon as I hung up the phone with the Senator, I called Trudy. With great glee, perfect timing, and in my thickest southern accent, I said, “Trudy. I ran into Joe Bruno today.”
“Really? Where?”
It was easy, like shooting an elephant at close range, but I delivered the punch line with style. It was the well-timed closing to the joke of my day.