A Battle of Wills

by Karen Topakian

Nana

Nana

In my maternal family, not eating falls under the sin category. Very few experiences warrant food refusal. When someone says they can’t eat, they better have a good reason. A reason on which everyone can agree. Another trait common in my maternal family – stubbornness. Here’s what happens when the two collide.

One Sunday afternoon in the late 1960’s, my great grandmother and her older daughter, my aunt Sophie, arrived at my maternal grandparents house in Cranston, RI for Sunday dinner.

My great grandmother, Dickranhouie a.k.a Agnes, emigrated from Armenia to the US at 19 to find work. Back then it was an uncommon experience for a woman her age to travel alone to the US. She found work and eventually met and married her husband, my great grandfather, who died in the 1940’s.

My sister and I called her Gramma. Tall for her generation, topped with thick white hair, Gramma always wore a skirt and jacket or a dress, a strand of pearls and earrings.

During my lifetime, she lived with her older daughter, Sophie, a small practical woman with a quick smile and endless energy, and Sophie’s husband Eddie, until he passed away. Then mother and daughter lived together for decades in the neighboring town in a ranch house with a big front and back yard.

Gramma could out bake, out cook and out knit anyone. She didn’t boast about her efforts or urge you to eat her food. You sought it out.

Aside from her domestic talents, Gramma missed out on a career on stage.

For example, if any young woman in our family wore a short skirt, as was the norm in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Gramma would exclaim out loud, “Ah-mort,” the Armenian word for shame and shake her head.

On this particular Sunday, my aunt Sophie and Gramma warmly greeted my grandmother, Nana, in her sunny yellow kitchen. Sophie prominently placed her homemade apple pie on the kitchen counter. Gramma made her way to the couch in the living room where my parents, sister, grandfather and I sat. A moment later, Sophie and Nana joined us.

As soon as Gramma sat down, my mother motioned for my sister or me to offer her the assorted appetizers of Muenster cheese, crackers and dry cured black olives laid out on the coffee table in front of the fireplace.

“No,” said Gramma dramatically extending her arm, palm facing out, turning her head away. “I can’t eat a thing. I’m so upset, my half-cousin’s daughter in Massachusetts died.”

“Who’s that?” asked my father.

“I can’t believe you’re still upset,” said Aunt Sophie dismissively. “She died several days ago.”

She never once came to visit you!” exclaimed Nana firmly. “You’re barely related.”

“I took care of her when she was a baby,” protested Gramma.

“That was a long time ago,” retorted Nana. ““Have some cheese and crackers, you’ll feel better,”

“No, I can’t,” repeated Gramma half in English, half in Armenian turning her head to the heavens. “I can’t eat a thing.”

“Would you like something to drink?” cajoled my mother. “A glass of water?”

Gramma held put up her two hands, tilted her head and answered in Armenian, “just a drop.”

My mother beckoned my sister or me to fetched her a glass of water.

Gramma half-heartedly sipped from the glass, occasionally.

Nana left the living room to put the final touches on dinner. A few minutes later, she summoned us into the dining room. The dark mahogany table brimmed with a roast, rice pilaf, broccoli and a salad. My father carved the roast. Nana watched what we put on our plates.

“Sophie, that’s not enough pilaf!” scolded my Nana when she looked at her older sister’s plate. “Here have some more.” Piling it on to her plate. Sophie fended her off with her fork.

Everyone’s plate held Nana’s cooking except one. Her mother’s.

“Ma, you have to eat something,” said Nana pointing to the broccoli.

“No,” said Gramma dabbing her dry eyes with a handkerchief. “I’m too upset.”

”You could still eat a little something,” chided Nana. “It’s Sunday. The Lord’s day, you have to eat.”

“I can’t swallow,” Gramma touching her throat.

“You could try. Maybe you’d like a little yogurt?” asked Nana exasperatedly as she started to get up.

Gramma furiously waved her away with both hands creating a small draft.

“If she doesn’t want to eat. Stop trying to make her!” argued Sophie emphatically.

“How do you know she wouldn’t like a little yogurt?” snapped Nana.

“That’s enough,” exclaimed my grandfather to my grandmother raising his hand in the air. “Sophie how’s Dolly?” asking about Sophie’s daughter.

Gramma sat with her hands folded in her lap, sighing audibly.

We continued eating while Nana unnervedly eyed her mother’s empty plate.

After we had finished eating dinner, my mother, sister and I cleared the table and re-set it for dessert. Nana proudly brought out a plate of her homemade cookies and Sophie’s pie. My mom poured the coffee as my grandmother sliced the pie.

“Ma, how about a cookie?” asked Nana. “It’s perfectly good. It’s homemade.”

Gramma shook her head vigorously.

“Maybe I could drink a little coffee. Just a little,” whispered Gramma using her thumb and first finger to emphasize the size.

My mother poured her a cup, placed it on a saucer and slid it across the table to my great-grandmother. At the last instant, Nana slipped a cookie onto the saucer and said, “Ma, just try the cookie.”

Nana and Nixon

by Karen Topakian

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My maternal grandparents lived a few blocks away from my childhood home in Rhode Island. I spent many hours with them, almost as second parents. Since my mother was an only child, my sister and I received tons of love and affection from them both.

My Nana, a short woman with grey hair, a ready smile, a quick laugh and a refrigerator full of food, harbored tons of energy for parties and socializing. She loved to discuss the two topics one should avoid in polite company: religion and politics.

I don’t know which she loved more the Armenian church or the Republican Party.

President Eisenhower’s photo adorned the bookshelf in their den along with an “I Like Ike” button and banner. Because she spoke about Mr. Eisenhower as frequently and as affectionately as she did about her beloved brother, Mark, I thought she knew the president. Much later, in life I learned she didn’t.

“Nana, have you ever voted for a Democrat?” I once asked her.

“Of course not,” she answered.“There wasn’t one worth voting for.”

After Eisenhower, she loved Nixon best. After his mid-office resignation, she continued to display a photo of the Nixon family on the wall in her cheery yellow kitchen – Pat, Tricia and Julie standing around a smiling Dick playing the piano.

One Sunday, when my father was driving my family, including my grandparents, on an excursion, Nixon’s pending resignation came up in conversation.

“He’s a criminal,” said my mother disgustedly

“He ought to go to jail,” muttered my father.

“He’s a crook,” said my grandfather with conviction.

“Say what you will, he’s still a good-looking man,” said Nana with pride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

by Karen Topakian

 

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go to Livermore, California in August. It’s crazy hot.  And it’s scary dry.

But I don’t go to Livermore for the weather.

I go because nuclear weapons are created, developed and tested at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  I go in August to commemorate the dropping of the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945.

I go to risk arrest because I cannot stay home and let the anniversary of this event go unmarked. Go unnoticed.

Though Robert Oppenheimer and his gang developed and tested the atomic bombs dropped in Japan in New Mexico, Livermore Lab continues the legacy.

Plus Livermore flourishes in my backyard. My ‘hood. Staying away feels like I’m permitting them to conduct business as usual in my backyard.

And so I go to Livermore. To step in. To say no. To use my body against the further creation, production and testing of nuclear weapons.

The Lab and I have a long history. I’ve made this journey on this day and others, for more than 25 years, Sometimes wearing my Greenpeace campaigner hat, sometimes wearing my Western States Legal Foundation board member hat or my Agape Foundation executive director hat. This time, wearing my concerned citizen hat. Always with other nonviolent activists and people of faith, young and old, organized by Western States Legal Foundation, Tri-Valley CARES and other local anti-nuke organizations.

Under the baking mid-morning sun, I risk arrest lying on a hot black tar road at the entrance to the Lab’s West Gate. My body and my fellow protestors’ occupy the pavement.

The sun bears down on my back. On my arms. On my legs. I can feel sweat forming on my face. I don’t wipe the beads away. The smell of hot road fills my nostrils. Flies land on my hands. I don’t swat them away. I don’t move. I’m lying there, feigning death. In a mock die-in. To replicate the lives of those who fell on the streets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on two August mornings when the US chose to unleash the unthinkable.

Fellow protestors outline our bodies in chalk on the pavement. Mimicking the effect of the Japanese people whose bodies, seared by the impact of the bomb, only left a shadow outline on the street.

A white piece of paper, proudly pinned to my chest, bears the name of Hiromu Morishita, a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. Mr. Morishita, president of the Senior High School Teachers’ Society and the Hiroshima Peace Education Institute in Japan, was one mile from the atomic bomb explosion, which severely scarred the left side of his face and blew off his ear.

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I think about all the lives lost on that day. And about the lives of those lost most recently in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. I don’t distinguish between innocent lives and the lives of the not so innocent. I’m saddened by my inability to stop those deaths or to stop these weapons.

Committed to nonviolence, I haven’t seen a war I’ve liked or supported. They all end in bloodshed, trauma and destruction. They weigh heavy on our souls. Making us small and inhumane.

Eventually an Alameda County Sheriff approaches me, tells me if I leave I won’t be arrested. If I stay I will be. I don’t move. I can’t. And still remain true to myself.

I rise from the ground when the officer tells me I’m under arrest. Escorted by an officer in camouflaged riot gear, I walk past the phalanx of heavily uniformed police. The officer asks for my ID, then handcuffs my hands behind me. One hand holds my California drivers license.

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A female officer pats me down, looking for weapons, sharp objects. The only item in my pocket, a pin of Greenpeace’s ship, the Rainbow Warrior III. To remind me of one more reason why I am standing on the other side of the law.

Another officer helps me into a waiting van, already occupied by my fellow protestors. We introduce ourselves. Some I have known for decades. Others I meet for the first time. All friendly. All here for the same reason. The last person to join us, a nun in her 80s who attends religiously. We total 30.

The van drives a short distance; officers escort us out of the van into a warehouse, set up to handle the booking. Two women record the information on my license on two separate forms. I sign them both. I ink my thumbs for fingerprints. I receive a copy of my citation for blocking a roadway.

Since we are the last arrestees, the guards quickly escort us out the gate.

No officer asks us why we spent our morning remembering this day of horror for more than 200,000 Japanese people. But we all know why.

This wasn’t my first trip nor will it be my last to the scene of this crime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hard to Find Good Help

by Karen Topakian

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My father had an uncanny knack for hiring people. The wrong people.

Like the man from the pest control company who spent more time making a deal with my father about the TV in the basement than exterminating rodents. Or the roofer who preferred picnicking on our front lawn with his buddies to fixing the roof.

Almost universally, everyone my father hired wouldn’t merit a recommendation from the Better Business Bureau.

When my parent’s modest brick front ranch house needed painting, my father looked no farther than a neighbor’s hire to do the job. And that was good enough for him.

“Hey Alice, see that guy walking up the street?” asked my father pointing through the kitchen window on a spring day. “He’s painting the church. I’m going to ask him to paint our house.”

“How do you know he’s a good painter?” asked my mother wiping the counters.

“The church hired him, didn’t they?” replied my father.

“You don’t even know what he charges,” said my mother shaking her head.

“That’s why I am going across the street. I’ll ask him.”

And he did and he hired him. Then the trouble began.

My father saw the painter walking, because he came from the bus stop. The painter didn’t have a car. He didn’t have any tools. He didn’t have a ladder.

My father drove him to the paint store to pick up the paint. My father provided the ladders.

In May, the painter started scraping the clapboard sides and back of the house. When the temperature climbed, my mother offered him cold water. She let him inside to use the bathroom. They chatted briefly. She left him alone to do his job.

Then he disappeared.

A few days later my father asked when he returned home from work, “Did the painter come today?”

“No sign of him,” replied my mother standing in the kitchen with her hands on her hips. “It’s been days. Don’t you think you should call him?”

“I can’t call him,” responded my father shuffling through the mail. “He only left us an emergency number of some woman.”

My mother declared, “I think this is an emergency.”

“Okay. I’ll call tomorrow and leave a message,” responded my father reshuffling through the mail.

The next day my father left a message.

A week later, my father asked my mother the same question about the painter.

“Does it look like the painter came?” answered my mother. “Why don’t you call him again?”

My father left another message.

Every few days, my parents repeated the same conversation. My father left one more message. With the same results. No painter.

For six weeks, the outside of their house stood in the same raw unfinished state. Every time my mother went in the back yard to hang up the laundry, she saw the reminder of the half-finished job and seethed.

One day in July, my mother spied the painter walking up the street toward the house. She darted out the kitchen door to meet him on the front lawn. “Where have you been?” she demanded.

“I got another job,” the painter answered matter-of-factly.

“But you had a job…here. Painting our house,” said my mother dumbfounded.

“I got an offer for another job,” he argued. “You wouldn’t want me to pass it up?”

“Yes, I would.”

My mother glared at him and went back inside. The two never spoke again. She never offered him water or the use of the bathroom.

He finished painting the house.

The next time my parents needed their house painted, my father spied a tall lanky guy painting the neighbor’s house.

“Hey Alice,” said my father. “I found someone to paint the house.”

“Did you check first to make sure this one had a car?” asked my mother.

“Yes, he has a car,” said my father sarcastically. “He’s painting the Miller’s house,”

“What’s the hitch?” asked my mother. “Because I know there is one.”

“No hitch,” answered my father. “He’s just a house painter.”

My father was right.  Sort of.

A few minutes later, my father walked into the kitchen followed by a young man standing roughly 6’5”. He introduced him to my mother as their new house painter. They sat at the kitchen table as the guy pulled out a piece of paper from his back pocket to fill out the bid.

“I never did this before,” said the guy. “I never priced a job.”

My mother kicked my father under the table.

My mother saw the words, Customer Pays for Paint, at the top of the page.

He presented them with a bid of $1,500.

“Looks good to me,” said my father excited about the low price. “Where do I sign?”

Both men signed the paper and discussed when he would start.

After the guy left my mother said to my father, “He bid too low. He didn’t add in the paint costs. He doesn’t even know how much paint he’ll need.”

My father shrugged.

“But then again he probably won’t need a ladder,” added my mother.

Within a few weeks, he finished the job and my father paid him the $1,500.

A few months later, when my father came home from work, my mother ushered him into the back yard.

“Look at this. The paint’s already peeling,” proclaimed my mother pointing to the back corner of the house.

“I’ll scrape it and touch it up with some leftover paint,” retorted my father.

As they walked back into the house, my mother stopped. “While you’re at it, here are a few more. Here, here and over there,” my mother announced gesturing at several places on the back of the house.

“Armen, you got what you paid for. A lousy job.”

“I can’t call him back to fix it,” admitted my father. “He might remember I never paid for the paint.”

 

I Should Have Listened to You

by Karen Topakian

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My father rarely wanted things. He could not be defined as acquisitive. Unless he saw some kind of an angle. A deal.

That’s when he decided he wanted a leather jacket. At the time, they didn’t have the extra money to buy one off the rack. Then he saw an ad. Probably in TV Guide. For leather jackets from Finger Hut. Two jackets, his and hers, for the price of one.

“Hey Alice, look at this great deal,” said my father. “We can each get a leather jacket.”

“What kind of leather jacket?” asked my mother who purchased her clothes carefully.

“I don’t know what kind. A leather jacket,” said my father. “Does it matter?”

“It does to me,” answered my mother as she walked over to my father to see the picture of the jackets.

“I’m going to order it,” said my father. “And look it also comes with a handbag. What a great deal.”

My mother rolled her eyes.

Several weeks later, the jackets arrived.

“Mine fits,” said my father calling my mother to the full-length mirror in their bedroom. “Try yours on, Alice. Let’s see if yours does.”

After taking one look at hers she announced. “I’m not wearing it. The leather’s so thin, it feels like cardboard. Plus the color. It’s hideous.”

Even my father had to agree that the rancid butter color offered no appeal.

“Are you going to send it back?” asked my mother.

“Try it on Alice, just try it on,” begged my father.

My mother refused.

“Look at yourself in the mirror,” said my mother pointing to the sleeve length. “It doesn’t even fit right.”

My father examined himself more closely.

“I guess you’re right, Alice,” said my father as he doffed the jacket, folded it up and put it back in the cardboard box from whence it came. “I should have listened to you.”

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On a warm summer day, my father read an advertisement for a mail order fruit tree, which he couldn’t resist.

“Hey Alice, where’s the checkbook? I want to order a fruit tree to plant in the backyard,” said my father to my mother. “It’s a great deal.”

“Here we go again,” muttered my mother. “What kind of a fruit tree?”

“A fruit cocktail tree. It grows all different kinds of fruit on one tree,” said my father pointing to the advertisement. “It says here you can harvest bushels of fruit from the same tree – nectarines, peaches, plums, and apricots.”

“I’m not harvesting anything,” said my mother after glancing at the ad. “Do you really believe one tree can produce all of those different fruits?”

“That’s what it says,” said my father as he hunted for a pen.

“I have my doubts,” said my mother. “Honestly Armen, when will you learn?”

Fast forward to January. The front doorbell rings. My mother opens the heavy wooden door. A gust of arctic wind blows in her face as the mailman hands her two spindly tree trunks with a few branches grafted to it. The small root balls covered in burlap. She signs for the “package,” closes the door and marches to the phone.

“Hi Annette, can I please speak to Armen?” asks my mother to her sister-in-law who worked at the family business, General Plating.

“What do you want, Alice. I’m busy,” said my father when Annette handed him the phone.

“Your trees arrived,” said my mother. “In fact, two trees arrived. Why did you order two?”

My father removed the phone from his ear and yelled to Al, one of the two non-family member employees. “Alice is on the phone. Our trees finally arrived.”

My father instructed my mother to put the trees in the garage,

When he returned home from work, he immediately examined the trees standing in the back of the unheated garage.

“What am I supposed to do with them now?” asked my father. “I guess I’ll have to wait till spring to plant them”

“I can hardly wait,” said my mother.

Once the frozen ground had thawed out, my father dug a hole in the backyard to plant his “orchard.”

“You’re laughing now, Alice. But you just wait and see what happens next.”

And wait they did. But the tree never flowered nor fruited.

“Armen, I’m going to the market, do we need any fruit? Or are we about to harvest?” asked my mother.

My father didn’t respond.

“Admit it Armen, you fell for it again,” said my mother.

“Maybe if it hadn’t arrived in the dead of winter,” offered my father in excuse.

My mother shot him a withering look.

“I guess you’re right,” said my father. “I should have listened to you.”

Which he did until he spied the next “good deal.”

Three for the Price of Two

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Nana – Sarah Asadorian

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Grampa Charlie – Charlie Asadorian

 

by Karen Topakian

One Friday night in the 1960’s, my maternal grandparents (Charlie and Sarah) invited my family for dinner to their home a few blocks away from ours in Cranston, RI. A common occurrence. Conversation at dinner usually ranged from news about the Armenian Church, the family or the costume jewelry industry.

Because both sides of my family worked in costume jewelry.

My father, Armen, his brother Ted and their mother owned an electroplating business in Providence, RI on Richmond Street, officially called General Plating, which we all referred to as, “the shop.” They employed a cast of interesting characters including the long-standing Al and Jenny.

My grandfather had owned a jewelry manufacturing and sales business with his brothers. When it closed, he started a small jewelry sales business, which he ran from a small office in his basement. He installed a rudimentary desk probably from my father’s stash of salvaged wood, plugged in a desk lamp and stored his jewelry in a floor to ceiling safe. The only missing item – a telephone.

During the 1960’s, AT&T was THE phone company. And they owned your phones. You paid your bill based on the number of phones in your home or business. My grandfather already paid for two in his modest ranch house and didn’t install a third because he thought paying for three was extravagant. Grampa Charlie didn’t like to spend money foolishly. Paying for another phone seemed foolish.

My father’s family business operated under a similar mentality. General Plating ran on sweat, grit and hard physical work. My father said their motto was, “Why buy it, when you can make it.” It should have been, “Why buy it, when you can scavenge it.”

“Charlie, guess what Al and I picked up today from a business that just moved out of Richmond Street?” asked my father grinning.

Whenever a tenant moved out of their building, my father and Al hightailed it to the newly vacated space, looking for items left behind. They were quite adept at moving and removing anything they could use – desks, chairs, file cabinets…

“What?” asked my grandfather, a man who loved hearing General Plating stories.

“We picked up a few telephones to use down the shop. We’ve got an extra one,” said my father. “Let me know if you can use it.”

The vacating business had left the phones behind because they belonged to the phone company but that didn’t deter my father.

The wheels in my grandfather’s head started turning.

”I need a phone in my office” said my grandfather, finally finding a solution to his problem. “But I don’t want to pay for it.”

“I’ll bring it by tomorrow,“ said my father.

Both men were pleased with themselves for finding a thrifty solution.

The next day, my father rigged up the illegal phone by dropping phone wire from the bedroom phone to the basement and hooking it up to the newly pilfered one on my grandfather’s desk.

A few slaps on the back and everybody was happy.

A few months later, on a Friday night in the 1960’s, Charlie and Sarah again invited my family for dinner.

Earlier that day, an AT&T employee had come to the house in response to a complaint from my grandparents about their phone service.

“How many phones do you have?” asked the repairman when he first arrived.

“Two,” said my grandfather quickly without looking at Nana.

“Two,” repeated the repairman. “Where are they?”

My Nana showed him the black phone in the kitchen and then led him to the powder blue princess phone in their bedroom.

Nana returned to the kitchen where my grandfather sat at the table reading the newspaper.

After a few minutes, the repairman walked back and asked if they had a basement. Nana said yes as she opened the door to the stairs and flicked on the light.

Now my grandfather could only stare at the newspaper too nervous to concentrate.

In what seemed an eternity, the repairman ascended the cellar stairs back to the kitchen,

“Did you know there’s another phone in the basement?” asked the repairman.

“I don’t know how it got there,” said Nana as she chopped parsley for dinner.

“We hardly ever use it,” said my grandfather with his eyes fixated on the newspaper.

“You have three phones and you’re only paying for two. I’m going to have to charge you.”

Nana didn’t like the sound of this and she knew my grandfather didn’t either. She needed a solution, quick.

“Do you know Harry Vartanian? He works for the phone company, too,” asked Nana. “His mother is my cousin.”

“No,” answered the repairman. “Lady, a lot of people work for the phone company.”

Nana glanced up at the clock as she continued chopping. “It’s almost five o’clock. Would you like something to eat?” Nana believed she could solve all problems with food. “You must be hungry after a long day. Why don’t you have a little something to eat?”

When he didn’t respond immediately, she opened the refrigerator and said, “Let’s see. I have cooked chicken, a big piece of apple pie, homemade yogurt, orange Jello, a few slices of pot roast. I could make you a nice sandwich.”

The repairman began to smile. And she smiled back.

“Charlie, move your paper. Make room for this nice man.”

 

 

 

 

 

Underwear Wars

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by Karen Topakian

It was hot day. It was a sunny day. It was summer in New England. The grass was long and my father needed to cut it.

He returned home from his job, donned a white v-neck T-shirt and a pair of baggy grey shorts. He walked into the garage, pulled out the power mower and started to cut the grass in the back yard of my parent’s suburban ranch house.

Before he finished, my mother yelled that dinner was ready. In he walked to the kitchen, washed his hands and sat at the table ready to eat. Tiny beads of sweat had formed on his upper lip, his stomach growled ever so slightly. He was ready to eat.

My mother glanced over at him from the stove and asked, “Armen, what are you wearing?”

“Why?” he asked. (My family often answers a question with a question.)

“A T-shirt,” he said. “I was cutting the grass.”

“I know you were cutting the grass,” she said. “But you’re wearing that to dinner?”

“What am I supposed to wear, a suit?”

“Are those my only two choices?” she asked.

In a few moments, she placed a platter of ham steaks and sliced pineapple rings on the table..
 My sister and I served ourselves. My parents ate without any further discussion about his attire.

A week later, after the rain poured and the sun shone, the grass had grown. My father returned from work, tired and hot from a long day, changed into a v-neck T-shirt and the same pair of shorts. He pulled the power mower out of the garage and proceeded to cut the backyard once again.

When dinner was ready my mother called to my father to come inside. He entered from the backyard, washed his hands, sat at the table ready to eat.

Again my mother asked, “Armen?” pointing at his T-shirt.

“What? I’m cutting the grass,” he said.

She shook her head, “Do you have to wear that to the dinner table?”

“I’m not changing my clothes to eat. I’ll be outside in another 20 minutes. I just have to cut the front yard and the side.”

She sat down at her seat carefully unbuttoned the five buttons on her white cotton three-quarter length sleeved shirt. Removed it. Hung it over the back of her chair and began to serve us our dinner: spaghetti with meat sauce and salad with Italian dressing.

“Alice, what are you doing?,” asked my father.

“I’m serving dinner,” she said.

“But you’re in your bra.”

“I know. If you can eat dinner in your undershirt, then why can’t I can eat mine in my bra?”

And that’s exactly what she did. And no one said another word about it.

 

Three New Schools Open Their Doors

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by Karen Topakian

Interested in new ways for your children to learn? Look no further: three new elementary schools will open in Noe Valley this September.

Hands Off Learning is based on the time-honored principle that children should look but not touch.

At Hands Off, students learn by watching teachers read, write, paint, sculpt, solve math equations, and exercise in the gym. Team sports, including touch football, will be played by teachers while students observe their actions.

Each teacher will be supplied with an iPad 4 with retina display, Google Glasses, a Leica microscope, a Celestron NextStar telescope, Swarovski binoculars and a puppy.

“We spent a lot of money outfitting this school with the latest gizmos,” said school principal Mario Nontocare. “We don’t want these kids breaking things.”

First-grade teacher Sin Manos believes that when children learn by doing they tend to share…germs. “Sharing leads to illness, disease, pestilence, epidemics, and possibly extinction,” he said.

At Hands Off, the only safe physical activity approved for children will be thumb twiddling.

Just Google It: This school, founded by Nikolai Gogol, is a favorite among tech-savvy parents and students.

At Just Google It, every child will sit in a hermetically sealed white room equipped with a state-of-the-art iPad programmed with Google’s latest search tool, Google Penguin. Upon arrival in the morning, each child will receive a list of questions to answer and problems to solve. They may only use Google to complete their assignments. Any child caught with a pencil or paper or who attempts to access Bing will be released in the wild without GPS.

“Eventually you will use Google for everything,” said teacher Al Gorhythm “Why not start now?”

Extreme DIY School: Parents and children who prefer to learn by doing will find a comfortable home at Extreme DIY School.

Youngsters will be required to build their own desks, write their own textbooks, sew their own school uniforms and grow their own food.

One of the founding parents credited her childhood DIY school with solving a dental problem—uneven front teeth. “I had to make my own chair. Without having the strength to operate a saw properly, I gnawed on the chair legs to make them even,” said Polly Dente, displaying her perfect incisors.

A co-founder also learned valuable skills at a DIY school. “In third grade, I told the teacher I couldn’t read the black- board. She told me I needed to report to shop class to grind the lenses for my own eyeglasses,” said Ms. Ne Pas Voir. “I’ve saved tons of money on eyewear ever since.”

My Father’s One Protest Sign

Alice and Armen

Alice and Armen

by Karen Topakian

Despite my parents’ very traditional separation of tasks, on Sunday mornings, my father would readily head off to go grocery shopping.

It was the 60’s, when RI blue laws didn’t allow major supermarkets to open on Sunday. But a small market in our neighborhood, Mal’s Market, somehow stayed open until noon.

Every Sunday my father would grab his coat from the hall closet and yell , “Alice? Where’s the list?”

My mother clad in her bathrobe and continually caught off guard, would quickly rise from the kitchen table, put down the Sunday paper, reach for a paper and pen to scratch out a list. She would have liked to check the refrigerator and the cupboards to see what she needed. Except she knew she didn’t have time. My father stood in the doorway; hat in hand, keys jangling, ready to go. All he needed was the list. And she knew the rules: keep it short. Three items max.

The ink barely dry on the list, he was out the door in a flash. If my sister or I could don our coats fast enough, we could join him. But he would never wait.

When my dad entered the market with the black and while linoleum tile floor, he offered a big hello to Sue, the owner’s daughter, working at the sole checkout stand. He walked briskly past the bins full of fresh produce – iceberg lettuce, hothouse tomatoes, cucumbers, onions. Past the low aisles stocked with canned soups, mostly Campbell’s, clear bags of white rice and small boxes of jell-o. Directly to the back of the store in front of the big gleaming glass case full of freshly butchered meat where George Tashjian, the owner’s son, and a hearty thick waisted fellow bellowed hello in Armenian, which my father answered in kind. Then he’d ask, “What’s Alice’s got on the list this week?”

My father rattled it off: pot roast, lamb chops and ground chuck. George carefully selected the cuts and wrapped them up in big sheets of white butcher paper. While my father waited for his order, he joked with the other men who appeared most Sunday mornings to hang around the meat counter too; sort of the husbands’ Sunday ritual.

After George handed my father the last package, he wiped his hands on his stained white apron and asked, “What about bacon? See how lean it is,” said George, holding up a slab. My father answered, “It’s not on the list.”

“Sausage?” asked George pulling up a necklace of fat links of pinkish red meat.

“It’s not on the list.”

George tried a third time. “Armen, you didn’t say chicken. What kind of Armenian household doesn’t buy chicken?” My father repeated his stock phrase.

George gave my father a look. A pleading look. My father smiled but didn’t budge. “Alice can make chicken and pilaf,” said George. My father resolute, laughed as he shook his head no.

“I’ll give you a good deal,” said George. Bingo

My father, not one to ever pass up a bargain, nodded yes.

“I’m going to have hell to pay when I go home,” said my father to the other men as George cut up the chicken into parts, wrapped it in butcher paper and handed it over the counter. Some nodded, some shrugged.

One responded, “My wife would kill me if I came home with something she didn’t want.”

On the drive home, my father muttered under his breath about my mother’s likely unhappiness.

When he arrived at the kitchen door, my mother was standing at the sink, washing the dishes. He handed her the bag and kept walking. To the bathroom in the back of the house.

My mother, always genuinely interested in the lives of others, started to ask about George and Sue but my father had quickly retreated out of earshot.

It only took a minute for my mother to discover why. “Where did this chicken come from? Chicken wasn’t on my list. Where’s your father?”

We pointed to the bathroom.

Carrying the wrapped chicken, she stalked him to the bathroom. “What is this?” she asked through the closed door. Holding it up and shaking it.

“Why did you buy this?” asked my mother. “I asked you for three things and you bought four. And one that I didn’t want.”

“George gave me a good price.”

My mother laughed then caught herself. She wasn’t surprised, she knew my father well.

“I didn’t put chicken on the list because I’m tired of eating it.”

She walked back to the kitchen muttering under her breath.

The next Sunday, at 10:30 again my father announced his readiness to go to Mal’s. But this time my mother was ready. She had retrieved a piece of shirt cardboard from my father’s stack of dress shirts, pulled out a marker and written a sign in big bold letters: “NO CHICKEN.”

She instructed my father to take this sign to Mal’s and show it to George.

My father, a man who loved joking around, gleefully snatched up the sign and her list as he sailed out the door.

In he walked to Mal’s, shot a hello to Sue, marched to the back of the store and waited his turn. When George asked, “What’s Alice got on the list this week?” My father proudly held up his “NO CHICKEN” sign.

“Hey, look he’s holding up a protest sign,” shouted one of the regulars.

“I caught hell last week, George,” said my father. “Alice isn’t kidding. No chicken.”

George doubled over laughing. The other men joined in. George put down his meat cleaver, came out from behind the counter, grabbed the sign and waved it around the store, telling the chicken story to anyone and everyone who would listen.

In moments, my father was a celebrity. “Did your wife really write this?” asked one customer. “What a good sense of humor,” said another.

When the laughter died down, George announced, “That’s it, Armen, I’m never selling you chicken again. Never.”

Everyone laughed — but George kept his promise.

A few weeks later my father arrived at Mal’s with chicken on the list. George stuck to his guns. My father begged him. “George, Alice really wants chicken this week.”

“No,” said George folding his arms across his beefy chest.

“I’m going to get in trouble, if I don’t show up with chicken,” said my father.

“I will only sell it to you under one condition,” said George. “Alice has to call me up and apologize.”

And Alice did just that. And my father and his protest sign became legendary.

Three Days Before the Mast

by Karen Topakian

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If I were still onboard the Rainbow Warrior III by 8:30 a.m. I wouldn’t be reading a Paul Krugman NYT column. I would have already eaten breakfast and spent the last 30 minutes cleaning up in the mess.

Life on board the Warrior runs by schedule.

The written instructions on the wall of the mess list the 8 a.m. tasks that everyone chips in to accomplish. Wipe the tables. Sweep the floor. Wipe the counters. Put the full rack of dishes in the sterilizer. Push the button. Wait 90 seconds till the big button turns green. Empty the rack of steaming dishes, cups, glasses and silverware into their respective bins. Take the trash and recycling to the garbage room. Make sure everything lands in the proper bins. Or you will anger the resident garbologist.

Once the crew and staff complete these morning chores, it’s time to work scrubbing decks, repairing lines, charting the course.

I found a workspace at an empty desk in the campaign room. Sitting at a computer while at sea requires mastering the art of wedging yourself into a spot where you won’t roll across the floor. Avoiding nausea while reading computer lines that undulate with the waves. And then, of course, remembering to look up and look out that glimmering sea.

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At 10 a.m. the crew assembles in the mess for break. The deck hands and crew deserve this break because they undertake physical labor all day. My labor could hardly be called such but I took the break anyway to show solidarity and because I was told I should.

This break time as in every break time, includes the making of “toasties” or grilled cheese sandwiches. Bread and cheese assembled and placed inside the two paddles of the Panini machine. Coffee and camaraderie. Everyone cleans up after himself or herself. By cleaning off their dishes in the tub of hot soapy water and placing it in the sterilizer rack.

Break time ends and it’s back to work.

In the kitchen, Ronnie, the cook, and Chris, his assistant, prepare lunch, served exactly at noon. Music from the galley wafts through the mess and the lounge. If you know the lyrics, you can join in. I rarely heard a song twice except for Bill Withers, “Lovely Day,” which the kitchen crew sang joyfully at top volume.

The galley sports a sign that changes daily indicating the number of days the crew of the RWIII stand in solidarity with their brother and sister crew members of the Arctic30, taken at gunpoint by the Russian military in international waters for protesting arctic drilling by the Russian owned Gazprom oil company.

By the time I left the ship, 28 of the 30 had received bail. Leaving 2 behind bars waiting for a bail hearing or in the case of Colin, waiting for an appeal to his denial of bail.

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The crew of the RWIII remains acutely aware and ever vigilant about the status of their fellow crewmembers. The captain of the Arctic Sunrise, Peter Willcox, should be joining the RWIII in January to start his 3 months at sea. Instead, he waits in St. Petersburg on bail but still charged with piracy and hooliganism which combined equal a sentence of 22 years in a Russian prison. Until they are all released, the charges dropped and our ship the Arctic Sunrise returned to Greenpeace, the sign in the mess will remain. Ronnie will return to the Philippines soon, taking the sign with him. Changing the number daily.

At noon, Ronnie and Chris lay out on the sideboard a hot meal of vegetables, pasta, rice or potatoes, sometimes meat, sometimes tofu and a big pan of salad. Every thing carefully labeled vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free.

Crew and staff grab plates and silverware walk down the aisle filling their plates as much as they want. Grab a seat. Everyone sits with everyone else. If you didn’t know Joel Stewart captained the ship, the seating order wouldn’t indicate it.

Joel, a man of quiet strength with a passion for environmental protection, strong beliefs in the innocence of the Arctic 30 and love of the sea, nature and sailing. His personality does not dominate the ship nor does anyone’s. At meal times you find yourself next to the folks in the engine room, the deck hands, the boson or anyone else on board. All equal. All interesting. Conversation drifts to ship life, to the best form of mass transit, to tips on avoiding nausea. Kindness extends to those new to ship life. After lunch, another clean up. Then back to work. At 3, break time and cleaning time occupy everyone on the ship.

Crewmembers work in shifts to cover a 24/7 schedule. In the cabins below deck, someone is always sleeping. So quiet prevails. Any chatting and socializing takes place in the lounge adjacent to the mess or on the deck.

The cabins line the perimeter of the ship, providing everyone with a porthole plus 2 bunks, storage cupboards, a bench seat and table, a shower and small sink. Communal toilets, a one-bed hospital and a laundry room occupy the center of the lower deck. Crewmembers personalize their cabins with photos and posters.

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The only crewmember who doesn’t share a cabin is the captain who sleeps above deck behind the bridge.

At 5 p.m. deck and crew work ends. Time to grab a beer and hang out. Cross training often occurs at 5 on the deck or in the helicopter hangar. At 6, Ronnie and Chris lay out dinner. More food. All labeled. All delicious. Many crewmembers enjoy a wine or beer with their meal. After dinner, another round of clean up. Then on to one’s own personal activities or watching news related to the Arctic30.

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On my first night at sea, I couldn’t face sitting in the mess. My stomach churned at the sight of food before me. Penny, the bosun, ushered me outside to the fresh air on the deck. She drew her big warm coat over my shoulders as I sat in the threshold to her office (a room neatly filled with tools and repair equipment), handed me a small bowl of white rice and asked if I wanted a little soy sauce. She carefully poured a few drops on the top. I mixed it in with a metal soupspoon turning the white rice brown and ate it with gusto. She sat with me while I gobbled it up. Next she handed me an apple. “Take this to your bunk,” she said. “It’s always good to have a little snack in your pocket.”

I left my bowl with her, pocketed the apple and descended to my bunk to sleep for the night.
Once I lay down, I felt the nausea abate. The ship rocked me to sleep and rocked me awake. Many hours later, I awoke, reached for the flashlight under my pillow aimed it at my wristwatch, 2:50. After turning off the flashlight. I reached for my apple wedged in the top left hand corner of my bunk and ate it, lying down in the dark. Penny was right. I could feel it absorbing the acid rolling around in my stomach and filling up the empty spots.

I fell back to sleep and didn’t awaken until early dawn.

The next afternoon, I descended to my bunk with a churning stomach. Instantly I fell asleep until a loud horn blared followed by an all ship announcement – fire drill. I scrambled out of my bunk, grabbed clothes, shoes, eyeglasses and a coat. Forged up 2 flights of stairs to the helipad for muster (Emili, the 2nd mate, gave us a thorough orientation on the first day of sailing that included where to go and what to do in case of fire or any other emergency).

Crewmembers snaked flat fire hoses on the deck and through the ship. The rest of us stood in a semi-circle braving the thick pea soup fog until we heard the all call to return to our bunks or work. Once delivered, I lumbered back to my bunk shed my clothing and lay back down.

That same evening I went to bed again during dinner, unable to keep my fluttering stomach from erupting. Another all call sounded around 7:30 p.m. announcing, “Dolphins on the bow.”

Once again I threw my clothes on over my nightgown, donned my boots and jacket and headed to the bow in the inky dark night. Emili led me to a spot on the starboard side of the bow to see phosphorescent dolphins cavorting, slicing swimming in the bow wake. (Phosphorescent plankton clings to the dolphins’ skin.) We cheered. We whistled. We laughed as they clearly enjoyed the rushing water from our bow. After a half hour of watching with great delight, I returned to my bunk to sleep for another 11 hours.

On Thursday night, Hettie, the 1st mate, announced, “Dolphins on the bow.”

This time I was awake and ready to stand for 90 minutes cheering on our fellow mammals under a clear starry night. Not knowing whether I should look up to admire the bright star filled sky or look below to the scores of illuminated dolphins cascading through the water in perfectly choreographed movements. Swimming fast toward the hull, making a quick 180 degrees before slamming into the ship. They swam over, under, and next to each other. Streaming away from the bow toward the open water in formations of 2, 4, 5 or 8. Then swimming back. Someone yelled, “incoming” when we could spy in the night light a few swimming in to join their brethren in this nighttime game.

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect moment. Leaning over the bow with the crew of the Rainbow Warrior. Everyone laughing, smiling and enjoying the beauty that surrounded us. I don’t know who enjoyed the experience more, we mere mortals or the dolphins. I’m convinced that marine mammals know Greenpeace. And know that we are there to protect them and their habitat.

Scientists tell us seeing these glow in the dark dolphins occurs once in a lifetime, and I saw it twice, two nights in a row.

The dolphins swam with us all night long until the morning light.

That same night, I hung out in the bridge with Adrian, the 3rd mate from Panama who lives in Russia. He told me about his life outside of Moscow with his wife and little boy. So many of the crewmembers leave families behind for 3 months at a time. Keeping in touch online, with Skype and by satellite phones. After 3 months, they hop off and return to their homes where they receive shore pay. Then back on board for another 3 months at sea. At every port, crewmembers arrive while others leave. Always rotating. Always changing. Just like the sea and the weather.

The next morning, on Friday as we headed to our final stop on the US west coast, San Diego, I felt well enough to work on my computer on board the ship. Deep in thought, I heard the call for more dolphins. In the shining daylight, I leaned over the starboard side to watch our grey and white friends swim next to the hull with grace and speed.

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My three days aboard the Rainbow Warrior will last a lifetime. When I left the ship on Sunday night, I hugged the crew and said goodbye. Joel repeated his standing invitation to come aboard again.

As I sit at my desk on solid ground in San Francisco, I know no one will call me to watch dolphins or see whales spouting far in the distance. It doesn’t matter, I’ll always hold deep inside me the magic of the Rainbow Warrior III.

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