Day 147 – A Different View

by Karen Topakian

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Today was unlike any day I have had in months. Today, I saw something other than the four walls of our home. Today, we spent the morning ocean kayaking in Monterey Bay, where marine mammals call this piece of heaven, home.

At first, I noticed I could see for miles and miles and miles without walls, buildings or vehicles to mar my view. I could cast my eyes wide open across the dark blue, flat calm water dotted with buoys, boats and the occasional other kayakers.

With a guide to lead us and share his knowledge, Peg and I paddled around the coast past muscular, barking sea lions vying for a sunny dry spot on a jetty of jagged rocks and crusty pilings to thermoregulate their 800-pound bulk; past crook-necked dark-as-night cormorants occupying the opposite side of the jetty seemingly undeterred by their pinniped neighbors; into tangled brown kelp beds where female otters and pups rested safely and snugly.

We learned that female otters often seek refuge in kelp beds near sea lions, to mask their own scent, which male otters can detect a mile away. When the males smell a female, they will travel to her to mate even if she’s caring for a young pup. The sea lion smell protects the female from exhausting herself through another pregnancy.

Our guide led us to a flock of seagulls sitting atop the water in a loose mass, which indicated a feeding frenzy nearby. Within moments, a sea lion crashed through the surface, thrashing an ocean sunfish to break apart its 2-ton bulk. The seagulls stood at the ready to enjoy the fish bits that flew by.

We paddled near but far enough away from resting brown pelicans, standing in complete stillness amid rocks streaked with their foul smelling poop.

These creatures can now survive and thrive because they inhabit a National Marine Protected Area where fishing and removal of plants and marine life are strictly prohibited.

The two-plus hour paddle, reminded me that these creatures know nothing about COVID and presidential elections and institutional racism. And for that I was grateful.

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Day 146 – More About General Plating

by Karen Topakian

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My dad, my Uncle Ted and Al lived by the clock at the family business, General Plating Company (GPC). They spent their days electro-plating costume jewelry – earrings, bracelets, rings, necklaces, chain – by putting it a tank of gold or rhodium solution for a specific period of and applying electricity so the solution would turn the dull base metal into sparkle and shine.

The longer they left the jewelry in the gold tank, the more gold affixed to the surface. With costume jewelry the price point was intentionally low. The manufacturer wouldn’t pay GPC for extra gold nor would the customer buying the jewelry. So timing was literally everything. It saved them money because the price of gold was always high and every penny counted.

The frenetic atmosphere meant conversations never lasted longer than a few seconds. My father a man of few words by nature used even fewer at work.

“Dad, there’s a salesman here to see you.”

“Can’t talk, got a job in the tank!”

“Dad, Grammy needs to talk to you about an unpaid bill.”

“Can’t talk, got a job in the tank!”

“Dad, I don’t feel good. I have a headache from the fumes.”

“Can’t talk, got a job in the tank!”

Almost everyone at General Plating was in a hurry; everyone but Jenny, an older married woman, one of two non-family members employed at GPC.

Wearing full face make-up every day to the gritty downtown costume jewelry manufacturing district, Jenny snapped her gum as she hung earrings and rings on metal racks in preparation for electro-plating. She never adjusted to the pace embodied by everyone else. She actually slowed down, specifically, before lunch.

Lunchtime at GPC came at noon. Or at least noon by the big round clock that hung on the rough wood walls. The clock at GPC ran 5 minutes late. Not sure if it were intentional or accidental. Regardless no one ever changed it. Along with the small outdated calendar tacked to a post

“Dad, how come this calendar says May 1963 when it’s July 1970?”

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Have you finished that job I gave you 2 hours ago?”

Someone in management at GPC – my father, uncle or grandmother – decided to offer hot soup at lunchtime. Making the soup somehow became Jenny’s job. At about 11:30, she stopped working to boil water in a dented pan on a small white metal hot plate where she stood vigil. When the water boiled, she poured in a packet of dry Knorr soup and stirred it religiously until the clock struck 12.

“Jen-ny, can you rack these?” asked my Uncle Ted holding out a small stained cardboard box of metal hoop earrings.

“Ted, I can’t, I’m making the soup,” answered Jenny as she turned back toward the pot and stirred it with a bent spoon.

Al, the other non-family member employee, sneered behind her back as he walked to the rest room. He mumbled to himself, “She gets away with murder around here.”

Second to hurrying was yelling. The men yelled to each other constantly all day whether while hurrying or standing still. Not by choice but by design. GPC rented space slightly below ground level where all the machinery didn’t just hum with noise it rang loud and clear. Constantly. The jangling belts, the whirring tanks all contributed to an endless loud din.

“Who’s got a job in the tank? Isn’t it ready to come out?” bellowed a male voice from the back of the shop.

“Who’s in the dryer?” hollered Al referring to the spinning barrels of warm sawdust that quick dried the wet jewelry.

“How did that job come out?” yelled Uncle Ted to my father pointing to a rack of bracelets.

The yelling and hurrying provided five families with a good income – three owners, two employees. Plus my father and uncle sent five children to college.

 

 

 

Day 145 – My First Summer Job

by Karen Topakian

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about summer jobs. A ritual; a rite of passage for many young people. Often for the money and the experience.

During COVID and a major downturn in the economy, I fear many young people will miss out on this important life and wallet building experience.

My first paid employment took place in the summer of 1970, when I was 15 years old. My sister and I shared one job working alternate days at General Plating, my paternal family’s business. Neither of us liked the work very much because the grit and smells from the electro-plating could prove slightly nauseating. Plus our father was our boss. Our paternal grandmother and uncle also worked there, too, which presented challenges.

Here’s one of my memories from that summer.

“Hey Al, it’s almost lunchtime. Want anything across the street?” yelled my father to his co-worker Al Giblin, one of two non-family members who worked at General Plating Company, GPC. “I’m sending Karen.”

I cringed waiting for Al to answer. I knew the one food item I didn’t want to hear any one order. A meatball sandwich.

“No thanks Armen,” yelled Al.

Yelling ruled at GPC. My father, my uncle Ted and Al all yelled, even when the heavy machinery and spinning tanks weren’t piercing the air with a deafening drone.

I exhaled audibly.

On the days my mother didn’t make my dad’s lunch, Mike’s Lunch across the street filled in.

My father hadn’t asked me if I wanted to go to Mike’s before he bellowed to Al but I knew that as a 15 year-old working at GPC, you did what any adult asked. Whether you wanted to or not.

“Karen, here’s two dollars go across the street and get me a… let me see do I want a turkey sandwich or a…?”

“Please don’t say meatball sandwich,” I said to myself.

“Meatball sandwich. Yeah, get me a meatball sandwich.”

I shuddered. Then stuffed the two dollars into the back of my jeans, walked up the stairs out of the shop, crossed the one way street, pulled open the screen door at Mike’s Lunch. Entered quietly, desperately trying to fade into the woodwork.

Mike’s Lunch may have been owned an operated once by a Mike, but at this point, husband and wife John and Edie Vartanian owned and operated the small mostly take out restaurant. A few ripped vinyl covered stools hugged the short counter where Edie stood taking phone orders and ringing up sales. A grease pencil in one hand, and the phone in the other, she wrote the orders on the back of a paper bag.

Edie, a once attractive woman, applied her full-face makeup with a trowel. Despite the dirt and grime sailing through this costume jewelry-manufacturing district, Edie was always made up down to the bright red nail polish. She wore a fabric headband to keep her jet black dyed hair away from her face.

Slews of big beefy men dressed in their blue-collar work clothes piled in before 12, anxious to place their order and start chewing.

Buster, the short order cook, occasionally emerged from the back wearing a knitted ski cap and a stained white T-shirt while he wiped his greasy hands on the apron tied around his waist.

Edie kept track of her customers, she knew who arrived when and called on them in order. All while filling coffee cups, answering the phone and kidding with the regulars sitting at the counter.

She didn’t know me by name but by association. When I arrived, I doubled the number of females in the place.

She leaned across the counter and said, “Liz’s granddaughter, right?”

“Yes, Armen’s daughter.”

“What’ll you have?” she asked while checking her nails for chips and cracks.

“My dad wants a meatball sandwich,” I answered softly.

She smiled. “Tell your grandmother I said hello.”

I nodded.

And then she placed my order in a voice that could summon the troops.

“Hey Buster, two balls on a roll. Traveling.”

On cue, every customer laughed and hooted, loudly. They looked at me and kept laughing. They pounded their feet and applauded.

I desperately looked for a corner in which to hide but none existed. My face flushed, I waited silently for her to hand me the paper bag holding my father’s dreaded lunch and ran back across the street.

 

Day 144 – Looking for Joy

by Karen Topakian

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Yesterday, my colleague Duff Axsom said he found joy when listening to stories and testimonies from peace activists who have committed their lifetime to this passion. Whereas I found sadness and depression because we’ve fought for so long and still haven’t achieved nuclear abolition.

His comment made me think about why it’s been so hard for me to find joy in anything these days. When it’s so much easier to find the negativity. So I decided to look for it today. From my home and on my endless zoom calls. Here’s what I found.

During an online exercise class, I chose to not focus on the parts that challenged me but on the planks, which I held for more than 1 minute more than once.

When I discussed a few missteps in an online facilitation project with a colleague, she gave me good advice about how to avoid the same scenario in the future and urged me to trust my instinct.

As two colleagues and I interviewed representatives to serve on a committee, I heard complaints and concerns about the current organizational situation but mostly a commitment to volunteer their time and effort to improve it for the future.

Yesterday, I would have focused on the inability to complete the exercises, the missteps and the complaints. But not today.

Finding joy takes more time and effort, because it’s not so obvious, so straightforward. And it’s not because the joy was about something I did but about finding and feeling the positive, the supportive, the rewarding.

I will try my hardest to seek it out daily. I can’t guarantee I will find it. But I will report back when I do.

Day 143 – 75th Anniversary Commemoration of the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

by Karen Topakian

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Today, I attended the 75th anniversary commemoration of the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, virtually.

Instead of marching from the rally site to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory gate (where nuclear bombs are designed and tested) and lying down in the road to block the gate, I sat at my dining room table watched the live digital rally, bowed my head and cried.

Cried for the 90,000 to 146,000 people killed when the United States of America dropped a uranium bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.

Cried for the 39,000 and 80,000 people killed when three days later, the United States of America dropped a plutonium implosion bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.

Cried for the hibakusha, survivors of the US atomic bombs, who live with the long-term physical, mental and social effects of radiation.

Cried because we live in the only country on the planet to have launched and detonated nuclear weapons on another country.

We all live under the nuclear legacy created by the United States of America where our financial and natural resources contribute to global destruction.

We must make the United States of America end the nuclear age.

We must not let another generation grow up under this cloud. The costs are too high to our planet and to our people and to our democracy.

If not nuclear abolition now, when? If not us, who?

Day 142 – Weak Ties

by Karen Topakian

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In Tuesday’s NY Times, health columnist Jane Brody wrote about the casual connections in our lives, the ones that can help us feel we belong called Weak Ties.

The ones we miss out on during COVID or find harder to maintain. She gave examples of the barista at her local coffee shop that fills her order, the person at the front desk at her Y or the people she bumps into at her local supermarket.

It’s these connections, these interactions, these encounters that help us feel a sense of community particularly in a large city.

After reading this article, I decided that the term Weak of Weak Ties wasn’t the right term. But loose felt more appropriate. More accurate.

Then I thought about the people with whom I have loose ties and sadly haven’t seen in months.

For example, the friendly folks who greet me from the front desk at the Embarcadero Y. Calling out my name with a smile and a laugh.

The cashier at Duc Loi, the local Asian market, with whom we always exchange pleasantries.

The many women and men from my 7:30 a.m. dance class, whose names I barely know but whose place on the dance floor and movements remain fixed in my mind.

The lifeguards at the Y who advise me which lane to join for my swimming style and speed.

I miss seeing these people. Appreciating their hard work. And living in the same community.

 

 

Day 141 – Trash Night Reminds Me of My Paternal Grandfather

By Karen Topakian

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Grampa K

Tonight is trash night. One of us in our little 3 unit Home Owner Association wheels out the blue, green and black bins on to the side walk for pick up on Wednesday morning. As I roll them out, I’m reminded of my paternal grandfather and his commitment to protecting the planet. But not in those words.

My paternal grandfather, Grandpa K, an Armenian emigree who arrived in the US at the age of 16 to escape conscription in the Turkish military, embodied the word inventive. A thin man with graying hair, a fair complexion and a soft sometimes high-pitched voice, he worked for his in-laws’ electro-plating business, General Plating, until 1949, when he suffered his first heart attack. And then he rarely worked again.

Instead, he kept himself busy for the next 30 years growing vegetables in his backyard garden and flowering houseplants throughout his two-story, four-bedroom house in Cranston, RI. While his wife, my grandmother Liz went to work everyday at General Plating, Grandpa K read books, magazines and newspapers in English and Armenian, taught himself French from a daily public television show and volunteered for Armenian organizations.

Grandpa K believed in the maxim, “Waste not, want not.”

“Dad, where’s your trash? I’ll empty it for you while I’m here,” offered my father on a typical Saturday afternoon visit.

“Look in that waste basket,” answered my grandfather as he pointed to the slightly dented round red metal can in the corner of their smallish kitchen.

My father peered inside. “There’s only an empty plastic bag that held oranges. And a wax paper wrapping from a butter stick,” exclaimed my father.

“That’s our trash,” claimed my grandfather. “You know what I’ve said to you boys, America is drowning in trash.”

My father shook his head, picked up the can, walked down the back stairs to the backyard, unlocked the black wooden garage door and emptied the two items into a 10 gallon steel drum with the words “potassium cyanide” in big red letters emblazoned on the side of his parents’ trash can, one that had previously stored said chemicals at General Plating.

Grandpa K’s desire to not waste led to him invent things. Things already invented by others.

When my sister and I slept overnight at my grandparents’, we ate breakfast in their kitchen seated at the wooden table overlooking my grandfather’s garden. My grandmother set our plates and glasses atop a flattened white paper towel encased inside a clear plastic bag, the open end sewn up with white string.

My sister and I exchanged quizzical glances while I traced the stitches with my forefinger, “Grandpa, did you make these?”

My grandfather answered in the affirmative.

“Did you know you could buy them in the store?” I responded.

“Wellll,” declared my grandfather in a slow high-pitched voice. “Why would I buy them when I could make them?”

An avid newspaper reader, my grandfather made it a point to save and preserve his favorite items: a syndicated advice column called, “Ask Uncle Ray,” a mash-up of Dear Abby and Hints from Heloise or any articles about Armenia. He needed a scrapbook. So he fashioned one by flattening an empty Ritz cracker box and slicing it in half. Each half formed the scrapbooks front and back. He saved church flyers or other odd pieces of mail and laid those 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper in between the covers. Then glued his articles onto the pages. Punched two holes on the book’s left hand side, threaded a spare shoelace through the holes and tied the ends in a bow.

We didn’t realize the extent of his archiving until we cleaned out the basement after my grandparents passed away. These “books” filled a few shelves.

Grandpa K grew a blooming menagerie of African Violets, gloxinias and gardenias on every available windowsill and flat surface. When he needed a flowerpot, he made one himself by cutting off the top half of a Hood’s dairy cardboard milk carton and planting a seedling in the squared-off bottom.  These flowerpots added a touch of whimsy and charm to his plants’ splendor.

In mid-August, my family celebrated my grandmother Liz’s birthday by eating cake, ice cream and watermelon on her screened-in front porch. My father and his brother, my Uncle Ted, corralled a few webbed lawn chairs from the backyard onto the front porch to accommodate the 11-member family. One chair stood out. The one my grandfather sat in.

“Dad, what’s that wrapped around your chair?” asked my uncle, pointing to the loose graying strands of torn fabric tied around the chair arms.

“Welll, when I sit outside in the afternoon to read, my arms hurt from resting on the metal,” answered my grandfather, holding up his thin, white arms. “Sooo I ripped up an old pillowcase and tied them around. Now my arms don’t hurt anymore.”

“Dad, why didn’t you say something?” challenged my uncle. “We would have bought you a new chair.”

Rubbing his forearms on the roughly tied fabric, my grandfather grinned from ear to ear. “I fixed it the way I like it.”

 

 

Day 140 – The Downside of Democracy Now!

by Karen Topakian

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This morning I felt on the verge of tears for really no good reason.

Except I had just finished listening to the first 15 minutes of Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman.

The drum beat of doom.

I so value her reporting and analysis but it’s unrelenting bad news. A hurricane. A tsunami. A cyclone (I’ve run out of storm words) of horror. All negative. All necessary to know. All nefarious deeds performed by various government agents/agencies and corporations.

Often, I only listen for the first 15 min while I clean up the kitchen and make the bed. But that’s all it takes for me to become angry, frustrated, overwhelmed by the mad men, some women, running and ruining this country.

On some days, I need this caffeinated jolt of “everything that’s wrong in the world” news to launch me into my next task.

Today, the news report just dragged me down. I can’t even remember what she said but she pulled me to a very low place. I felt overwhelmed, sad and not motivated to do the necessary work to overcome these monumental barriers.

Maybe I should avoid a daily dose unless I feel super positive and invincible. Otherwise, I fear the reports will render me less effective. Less capable. Less motivated. Less useful.

139 – How I’m NOT Like My Father

by Karen Topakian

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Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which I have adopted a few of my father’s habits. To set the record straight, here are three examples of one habit I have no intention of acquiring.

My father frequently asked my mother to locate standard household items if they didn’t stare him in the face and wave. Here are three examples of said behavior.

“Hey Al, where’s the stapler? I need to drop these off at the lawyer’s office today,” he yelled to my mother while waving a sheaf of papers.

“Where it always is,” called my mother calmly from the bedroom. “In the top desk drawer.”

He gave the drawer a slight tug, a cursory look and then announced, “I don’t see it.”

After a few minutes passed, she inquired if he had found it. When he didn’t answer, she strode into the den, to find him looking intently into the drawer. She yanked the drawer out farther and stabbed with her finger at the black Bostitch stapler nestled in the back.

“You didn’t say to pull out the drawer,” exclaimed my father.

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My father stood in front of his dresser, while rubbing his hand rapidly over the back of his bald head. “Hey Al, have you seen my white tennis shirt. I need to get going.”

“In the top drawer,” answered my mother from a few feet away as she hung up his ironed shirts in his closet.

He pulled out the drawer, looked down at a blue tennis shirt and announced, “I don’t see it. Are you sure you washed it?”

Those were fighting words to my mother, who made it a point to keep on top of my father’s laundry and clothing needs.

As she marched over to him, he took a wide step away. She lifted up the blue tennis shirt high in the air and pointed to the white shirt in question.

“I didn’t know it wasn’t on top.”

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“Hey Al, do we have any blueberries?” asked my father as he opened the refrigerator door with one hand and held a bowl of corn flakes in the other.

“Yes, we do,” answered my mother, seated at the kitchen table reading the Providence Journal. “Where do you think it is?”

He opened the refrigerator door a little wider, glanced briefly at the interior and said, “I don’t see any. Maybe it’s all gone.”

My mother grunted, “I know it’s there.” She pushed her chair far back and walked to the refrigerator. He jumped aside when he saw her approach. She moved a large cantaloupe  to reveal a plastic container full of blueberries.

“You didn’t say it was in a container.”

Day 138 – Becoming Like My Father

by Karen Topakian

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During my teenage years, my friends who knew my mother called me “little Alice,” because they thought I was like her in so many ways. Photos of her in her teen years looked remarkably like me in mine. I didn’t appreciate the comparison. What teenager wants to look like her middle-aged mother? Not I.

When I became an adult the comparisons continued. I did tend to favor her more in looks and personality than my dad. But I knew he was in there. Lately I’ve seen more of him emerge.

1st, my father did not like to bite into a piece of fruit. Any fruit. He preferred to eat it with a fork on a plate, sliced or cut up. This habit irritated my mother because it meant two more things for her to wash – fork and plate. No, he didn’t have dental or teeth problems, he just preferred his fruit cut up.

If my mother held out an apple or peach for him to eat, he would decline. If she offered to cut it up, he would accept it.

My mother, known for her instant sarcasm, once offered him a bunch of grapes. Before he could answer, she asked if he wanted it cut up.

Lately, I have taken to eating my fruit on a plate with a fork – mangos, peaches, nectarines… Not sure why I’ve changed my fruit eating habit, but I have. It’s easier and less messy. When I eat it this way, I do think of him. Of course, I wash my own fork and plate.

2nd, When my father rifled through the day’s mail, he would open each envelope read the contents, then put the letter back in the envelope. “Why are you saving the envelope?” asked my mother as he placed it on the end table. He never gave an answer. He just liked putting it back in its envelope. If he didn’t want it, he would recycle it. If he did, he would put it on his desk.

I now find myself doing the same thing with my mail. I open it. I read it and put it back in the envelope and either recycle it or place it in pile on a table in my desk area. Why I don’t know but again I think of him.

3rd, in his retirement years, my father took weekly piano lessons from a lovely young woman who came to the house. In between lessons, he practiced. Everyday at the same time. After breakfast, he would walk into the living room, sit down at the piano and practice for a good 30 to 45 minutes. Nothing interfered with his discipline. He committed himself to learning and playing. Everyday.

I now follow his path with my writing. Immediately after breakfast, I sit down to do my daily writing assignment. I can feel my writing muscles bunch up and cramp if I start a different task. My body is telling me to stop everything else to write.

I never asked my father but his hands may have told him the same thing – time to practice.