Monday, July 30, 2007

Another World

I have lived in Midwestern cities for more than 35 of my 50+ years, and our 20-something daughters grew up in the Kansas City area. As college approached, both girls chose out-of-state schools. Our 'Arizona daughter' moved to a whole other world of climate and vegetation.

I first saw palm trees in our suburban neighborhood outside of Oakland, California, during elementary school. I loved their whispery voices, when breezes rustled the lush palm fronds. But all too soon, we moved back to a more temperate climate, far from palm fronds and ocean breezes.

Palm trees of all shapes and sizes greeted me, my siblings, and my parents in Orlando, when we attended the grand opening of Disney World. I hungrily drank in images of the tropical greenery and stored them for retrieval during gray Pittsburgh days.

At 10 a.m. on my 21st birthday, I arrived in Ft. Lauderdale from snowbound Ohio, with six friends, anticipating a week of sun and fun. My jaw dropped as we drove along a wide boulevard lined for many blocks by the tallest palms I had ever seen. It remains my most vivid memory of a memorable trip.

Thirty years later, at Arizona State, I found another ‘boulevard’ lined with stories-high palms that rustled in the slightest breeze and bowed before strong winds. This time, they flanked a wide sidewalk that bisected the campus and overshadowed my daughter as she walked to classes. And I envied her, a bit, for living in this tropical paradise.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Christopher Elbow's Chocolate Heaven

At Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolates, in Kansas City, Mo., Elbow and his staff of three create and store 10,000 to 12,000 handmade chocolates per average week. Between November and Valentine’s day, they churn out 30,000 to 40,000 pieces each week.

There are Belgian-style chocolates –with molded exteriors, a thick shell and soft fillings; and French-style, with a thin, delicate chocolate shell formed when a ‘curtain’ of chocolate pours over flavored fillings. Dark chocolate pairs with French lavender and black tea combines with citrus.

The chocolates are gorgeous too. Architectural and design magazines and individual artists inspire Elbow’s designs. Sprays of white cocoa butter splattered across Tahitian vanilla enrobed chocolates mimic Jackson Pollack’s painting style.

Everyone has specific jobs to do. J.K. cleanly cuts large slabs of ganache with a ‘guitar’ slicer and then quickly arranges it on cooling trays so her hands do not melt the chocolate. Steven paints bon bon molds with finger strokes of colored liquid cocoa butter.

Ethan fills boxes with chocolates and flavor diagrams. As 60 confections emerge from the French enrobing machine onto chilled fillings, every 90 seconds, Elbow transfers pre-printed ‘pages’ of repeating cocoa butter patterns onto the finished tray. They repeat each process dozens of times every day and I marvel at their consistency.

After I say good-bye, the scent of fine chocolate lingers on my clothes for hours.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Hidden Beauty

Early afternoon sun beats down on the familiar winding, narrow streets and warm, adobe buildings of Santa Fe. At every turn a graceful archway, turquoise window frame, or rough-hewn vigas (roof beams that extend beyond the outer edge of buildings) draw my eye. An outdoor market that occupies one street corner overflows with decorative strings and wreaths of chilies, imported kilim rugs, hand-painted ceramic tiles, and heat-infused gourmet foods.

I wander into a crowded store and discover it is the basement of another I have visited during each of five previous trips to the City Different. An indoor ‘mall’ set inside an antique, multi-level adobe structure seems smaller and less attractive than before. I commit street names and junctures to memory, in preparation for future trips.

A series of balconies that surround a quiet courtyard beckon my camera. While standing on one of the tiny overlooks I scan for the perfect shot, but no angle or view seems quite right. Dejected, I prepare to put the camera away. Suddenly the perfect silhouette appears immediately before me – and that single image perfectly summarizes everything I love about this magical city.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Ojo's Healing Waters

One copper circle inside another decorates a gushing stone-faced fountain at the entrance to Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, in rural northern New Mexico. Ojo offers a unique collection of four geothermal mineral springs in a single location. The logo represents this ‘hot eye,’ as it mirrors a petroglyph found in nearby ruins.

From 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., guests enjoy high desert beauty as they escape from the rat race and to the quiet, natural world that is Ojo. Cell phones don’t work here, so birds flying overhead, flowing and lapping water and muted conversation provide a gentle sound track.

Bathe in the 105-degree arsenic pool to heal a variety of skin conditions and decrease arthritis and stomach ulcers. At 109 degrees, the iron pool improves blood flow. A dip in the steamy, enclosed, soda pool improves your digestion, while a cup of 104-degree water from the Lithia spring improves digestion and boosts your mood.

Guests also may reserve a private outdoor mineral pool. After dark, each one becomes a grotto with an otherworldly quality. Brilliant stars sprinkle across the deep black sky and a blazing piñon-wood fire burns in the small adobe fireplace. Back-lit cliffs send shimmers across the water. Dash through the chilly night air, feed the blaze, and return to enveloping warmth.

Monday, June 18, 2007

10,000 Balloons

A sea of people already fills seats throughout the basketball stadium, half an hour before the ceremony begins. Shades of maroon and gold mark sections filled with new graduates, as their loved ones create a cacophony of color and style nearby. Each person wonders where four, or five, or six years of study has gone - how it has come to an end in the blink of an eye.

Thousands of balloons shift in a secure net, high above the crowd, awaiting the final congratulatory comment and student processional into the ‘real world.’ Large video screens spring to life, as Arizona State University’s president introduces esteemed colleagues and guests that share the stage. We gaze at Jessica, whose fuchsia floral lei makes it easier to find her amidst the throngs, hold each other’s hand for a moment and grin, before returning our attention to the festivities.

Two hours pass with amazing speed, despite the 6,000+ graduates on the floor. After the speeches, masters and doctoral candidates, and a handful of distinguished undergraduates cross the stage to receive their diplomas. The president then congratulates students from each department of study within the university, and they stand together as they celebrate ends and beginnings.

A maroon and gold cloud rains down on the graduates as the overhead net drops. The crowd disperses into scorching heat, hundreds of hugs, and a flurry of photographs.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Ancient Dwellings

Sheer talus cliffs, pock-marked by hundreds of caves, rise majestically before us as morning heat builds. We follow a narrow path that winds like a serpent’s tale between natural curves of low rock walls and ancient cave dwellings, at times with barely enough space to walk through. Strangely shaped rock outcroppings thrust themselves upward at varying intervals.

Reconstructed talus homes cling to canyons and mesas all around us. Smoke smudges from fires used for cooking and heat half a millennium ago still color the walls and ceilings of some caves, while primitive petroglyphs adorn others. The girls scurry up a 10- to 12-foot long wooden pole ladder and enter a wide cave that could easily seat a dozen people. They mug for a photo as they back down the ladder.

This is Bandelier National Monument, located 48 miles northwest of Santa Fe. The Anasazi people inhabited this area from approximately 1000 AD to 1500 AD, and their ancestors reportedly still live in the present-day pueblos of San Ildefonso and Cochiti.

Cochiti residents guided anthropologist-historian, Adolph F.A. Bandelier, here in 1880. In 1916 archaeologist Edgar L. Hewett helped establish the monument. Now part of the National Park Service, Bandelier includes 32,737 acres and 70 miles of trails. Vehicles may travel on only three miles of public roadway and wheelchair access is limited.

Stomachs growling, we wind our way downward along the narrow rock walkways, heading for air-conditioning, new adobe and lunch.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Chicago's Fairest Wheel

A dozen cousins’ shoes and sandals lie in a jumbled mass on the warm sidewalk as we sunbathe beside the sparkling expanse of Lake Michigan. Its time for a break from our walk along the congested, bustling Navy Pier.

An enormous, 150-foot Ferris wheel lifts upwards of 200 riders through steamy August heat and high above the crowds, with a clear view of Chicago’s John Hancock building and surrounding business towers. For the kids, though, it’s the novelty of flying without a plane and watching family members on the ground shrink to the size of ants.

Younger children in our group rush the musical carousel, scramble aboard and pick out the perfect animal on which to sit; each horse or frog or one of several dozen other creatures hand painted to resemble the carousels their grandparents rode as children. The ride slows and children beg for snacks.

A hundred conversations and the smell of popcorn fill the air as we jostle through crowds on the way to purchase plump, juicy, Chicago hot dogs and tart, frosty lemonade. We finally escape the din and board a Shoreline Sightseeing boat. A welcome breeze takes the edge off summer heat as the engine roars to full throttle and the skyline shrinks behind us.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Going Home

Thirty years after my family left the San Francisco Bay area, my friends and I dined in a glass-walled restaurant under a bright blue sky, with an uncluttered view of the sparkling Pacific. Satisfaction wrapped me like a warm blanket.

After lunch, we headed towards my old neighborhood outside Oakland, in suburban Walnut Creek. None of the streets or buildings looked remotely the same as my 12-year-old memory recalled. Only the old-growth trees on sun parched hills behind the houses remained similar, though larger.

I finally asked a neighborhood teenager, “Where is 273 Lombardi Circle? I lived there 30 years ago and we can’t find it.”

“That’s where I live. I bet my mom would let you see the whole house.” Half an hour later, we thanked the girl’s mother profusely for allowing me to revisit my childhood for a brief moment.

The next morning, our California counterpart took us to Half Moon Bay. Our feet sunk into lightly chilled sand as mist broke above the hillsides and low breakers sped toward the beach. After touring the tiny town, we turned our rented convertible towards the Golden Gate Bridge’s rust-red span.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Quiet Beauty

Author, William Least-Heat Moon, memorialized Kansas’ Flint Hills in his bestselling book, PrairieErth. But those who consider only majestic mountain peaks or shell-strewn beaches beautiful may initially have difficulty comprehending its subtle beauty. A trip to the Flint Hills can change all that.

Located approximately two hours southwest of Greater Kansas City, the Flint Hills create a slowly undulating, cow-dotted landscape, where prairie grasses and cultivated fields stand side-by-side. Old-growth oaks, elms and walnut trees accessorize the land. Here coyotes meander and buffalo graze near winding dirt and gravel roads.

Sundown sets the sky on fire, wildflowers grow profusely and the star-laden canopy seems to go on forever. In springtime man ignites fires across the hills, a decades-old tradition that simultaneously clears dying vegetation and paves the way for new growth.

When winter takes hold peaceful beauty wraps the landscape. Boots crunch through several inches of snow, snapping twigs along the way, and wildlife tracks appear as frequently as human tracks do. An occasional hawk soars and swoops overhead, his raucous cries piercing the quiet. For a brief moment, time stands still.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Higher Learning

Yesterday afternoon, blustering wind and icy rain buffeted our umbrellas and soaked our shoes as we navigated the unfamiliar campus to meet a university counselor. We’d unpacked every coat, sock and scarf in the car trunk to guard against nature’s onslaught.

This morning, fog lifts along the highway. A collection of buildings with rust-colored tile roofs and natural stone walls characterizes the Spanish-style village before us. Fall foliage bursts into riotous color against a backdrop of impossibly blue skies and rugged mountain peaks.

The University of ColoradoBoulder is a stunningly gorgeous place where quality education meets ‘Rocky Mountain High.’ Only 15 minutes from campus, an easy hike ends at a breathtaking precipice and bird’s eye view of snow-capped peaks. Further up the mountain pass, rushing falls plummet several stories to a deep, chilly stream.

When higher learning in the classroom becomes a grind, UC-Boulder students seek respite and renewal in the mountain terrain that defines their natural environment.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Sedona Sunrise

By 9 a.m. morning’s chill has already begun its surrender to Arizona heat. Beyond the parched earth and scrub grass, vistas of pastel rock jut into the pale spring sky. Several jet streams gradually fade, becoming indistinguishable from high cirrus clouds.

The aroma of wild sage filters through opened car windows. We finally reach Sedona, a quaint town that is not yet open for the day’s business. We sign up for a jeep tour and then wait in the quiet.

The tour finally begins - a bumpy ride beneath blazing sun. Deep red rocks surround us. Through a random rock window the size of a tanker truck we view dark green foliage. Striated ‘hoodoos’ cluster together, thrusting hundreds of feet upwards from the desert floor.

Heat intensifies and water bottles empty as a stunning chapel appears, its floor-to-ceiling glass wall accentuated with a full-length cross. The chapel occupies a high rock crevice as if it were a natural piece of the millennia-old landscape. A flurry of camera clicks ensues.

The jeep heads downward again, large pebbles clinking and popping against over-sized tires. Red rock majesty fades from view as we descend to the now bustling town, craving water and shade.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Not Cancun

Long before someone coined the term ‘Mayan Riviera,’ Puerto Aventuras beckoned with open-air breezeways instead of enclosed halls, the ocean’s roar rather than the roar of Cancun crowds, and pristine talcum-powder beaches interspersed with rugged rock shoreline.

The smell of fresh paint lingers in the hotel, as future retail shops rise from newly poured foundations. Luscious bougainvillea and feathery palms dot verdant lawns that morph into quiet coves. Iguanas as long as your arm dart across random boulders and then pause to bask in sticky summer heat. Dolphins glide upright through the water, playfully taunting vacationers eager to grab a fin and hitch the ride of a lifetime.

At 7 a.m., sparkling pale turquoise water – agua turquesa - enfolds you in refreshing 70-something warmth. By 7 p.m. you’re sitting, barefoot, in a grass-roofed restaurant, while devouring gargantuan crayfish. A waiter delivers another round of ice-cold margaritas as sunset ignites the sky and high tide crashes into the beach.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Taos Pueblo's Timeless Tradition

For more than 1,000 years, men from Taos Pueblo’s Red Willow tribe have run the Santa Cruz Foot Race in May and September, pitting those from the north side of the river against those from the south side. The race has no winners or losers. Rather, it is a religious ceremony and a kind of prayer for those who live on pueblo lands.

Runners congregate at either end of the race path. They wear multi-colored loincloths and ribbons wrap some of their braids and ponytails. Feathers adorn other jet-black flowing tresses. Wispy feathers cling to their skin, painted in geometric patterns of white, ash, and clay.

Pueblo women draped in brilliant fringed shawls stand tall, along second and third floor rooftops, in their white moccasin boots. They create a patchwork blanket of color against warm adobe, misty blue mountain peaks, and a cobalt sky. Sterling silver sparkles and turquoise blinks from handcrafted bracelets and necklaces.

Runners of all ages travel two-by-two. Bare feet slap the dusty path. Few men break a sweat in the chilly morning air. A steady gaze and single-minded focus etch their faces as chests heave, legs pump and hundreds of neighbors and visitors watch.

The women signal approval and encouragement with high-pitched trilling sounds that split the air – sounds as old as the race itself. Village elders flank the path, waving small leafy branches behind the passing runners, like gatekeepers at a horse race. One tiny participant hesitates to run through the noisy crowd, so a gray-haired village elder takes his hand and runs with him to the finish line.

Individual runners pass the enraptured crowd once, twice, three or four times before they stop. As the last runner finishes, participants from both teams gather for a celebratory procession through the pueblo.

An original, longer version of this piece entitled A Timeless Ceremony appeared in Potpourri, A Magazine of Literary Arts, Summer 2003, and won Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Journal Travel Contest.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Endless Night

Because my husband, Mark, and his coworkers sold enormous quantities of a product line, the wholesaler paid for all salespeople and their significant others to spend two nights in Las Vegas, at the new MGM Grand Hotel - plus airfare, ground transportation and meal costs. All we needed were suitcases and gambling money.

We arrived at the Grand in stifling heat, its vibrant blue glass forming angular outer walls. Graceful palms rustled and swayed in a slight breeze. We entered the hotel through the belly of a multi-story carved lion with enormous turquoise eyes.

Lights blinked at every turn. Insistent ‘ding-ding-dings’ rang as delighted gamblers eagerly cupped their hands below slot machines that regurgitated hundreds of tokens. Cheers rose and fell when blackjack players showed their lucky hands and craps shooters rolled winning dice. Cigarette smoke and clinking ice permeated every foot of the casino. And female gamblers still wore cocktail dresses from the previous night at 6 a.m.

With only two hours remaining in our whirlwind trip, Mark and I decided to try a slot machine renowned for high payouts. Our last few tokens rattled into the heart of the machine, he slowly pulled down on the golden handle, and we held our breaths. The first round of pictures stopped at a pair of cherries attached by their stems. Seconds later, we had another pair. Finally, the third cycle ended with a third pair of cherries.

As the dinging began I cupped my hands below the machine and Mark scrambled for a token bucket. We’d won back every bit of our cash, just in time for our airport departure.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

International Relations

In the mid-1960s, my family moved to a suburb of Oakland, California, for what my parents called our ‘California vacation.’ Two years later we moved to Pittsburgh, Pa. Thirty years later, I revisited the Bay Area with a close friend.

We sought a lunch spot in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and one block seemed hauntingly familiar. I remembered eating Chinese food there with my elementary school Girl Scout troop. Our waiter taught us how to use chopsticks correctly and I tried in vain to pick up bits of chicken and vegetables. But, by the end of the meal, I had abandoned my fork.

My elementary school had a sister school in Japan, so I joined a singing group that learned and performed Japanese songs. I loved to wrap my tongue around the unusual syllables and know my words made sense in another country. I used those words again, a decade later.

While I worked towards a master’s degree in speech pathology, I lived in an international dormitory. As my Japanese roommate moved into our room, an Iranian friend repeated the words of ‘Sakura,’ a popular Japanese song, through the intercom – under my direction. The year I spent living with students from Japan, Quebec, Canada; Micronesia, Thailand, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq and China taught me more about life than anything I’d ever learned in a classroom.

Six years ago, a Pakistani friend from the dorm and I rekindled our friendship via email. He later visited our home and cooked for me, my husband and our teenage daughters.

Last week, my husband and I hosted ambassadors from U.S. embassies in Japan and Pakistan for Sunday dinner. As we talked and laughed throughout the evening, I once again felt at home.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chasing Butterflies

My family already had used Echinacea as medicine to treat upper respiratory illnesses for many years when we added the plant – often known as a purple cone flower – to our backyard garden. Although I first thought of planting these flowers so we could make our own medicine, I quickly learned the work involved to convert plants into usable product was not worth the expected yield.

But, by that time, I’d fallen hard for the daisy-like flowers with several twists. Down-turned petals, in a stunning pale purple, surrounded dark brown and slightly prickly-looking centers. During our second summer growing these lovely perennials, they bloomed profusely, filling nearly one third of the garden with riotous color.

Little did I know that purple cone flowers also are one of the top 12 perennials for attracting butterflies. The next summer, they became a Monarch magnet, the striking black and orange wings a perfect visual counterpoint to lovely blossoms. The fragile creatures flitted from one flower to the next and one day to the next, until my camera beckoned me to capture the magical scene, only steps away from my kitchen. I zeroed in on a single butterfly and followed him with my lens for a quarter hour, seeking just the right shots.

Six months later, one of those images graced the Nature Conservancy’s Natural Events Almanac.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Riding the Colorado Rails

About six months before our summer vacation began I wanted to schedule one new and different activity, particularly for the sake of our young daughters. Our neighbors had once taken a train ride through the mountainous terrain between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. Although the trip cost more than $100 for three of them, it was the highlight of their vacation. Marsha recommended making reservations as soon as possible so I ordered our tickets the next day.

Before we knew it, we were on the road to New Mexico and Colorado. After we had climbed amidst cliff dwellings, bought Indian jewelry from Santa Fe street vendors, and eaten plenty of Mexican food, Mark turned the car northward, towards the tiny mountain town of Durango. We arrived at the antique train depot in mid-morning, picked up our tickets and boarded an open-air car.

The temperature plummeted as the elevation climbed, and we snuggled together while we traveled through impossibly deep canyons and acres of undisturbed pines. Our enormous train click-clacked upwards as thick gray-black smoke poured from the engine car. The rock-strewn Animas River rushed far below us and several magnificent wooden homes grasped the hillsides on sturdy stilts.

Suddenly, Mark pointed to a tiny figure. We followed his finger to see a grizzly bear, standing straight up from his forage. A rickety, abandoned mine shaft rose from one hillside and dilapidated, wooden freight cars on the parallel track were almost close enough to touch. As our train approached flatter land, a two-seater biplane flew beside us within only a few feet of the ground.

It was worth every penny to ride those rails.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Looking Up

Some moments become etched in memory for days, weeks or even decades, yet remain as clear as if they just happened. I’ll never forget one early June evening in 1982.

My now-husband, Mark, and I had dated for three short months. Things were finally looking up in the ‘love’ department as the adrenalin of our young relationship infused every second we spent together. Mark’s birthday was imminent and I wanted to celebrate, impress and surprise him in one fell swoop, without spending a lot of money.

I would plan something outdoors for this nature lover, but after summer heat abated a bit. That meant evening. I would impress him with a picnic of easily portable, homemade food – quiche, salad, birthday brownies and a good bottle of wine. That meant cooking ahead without him knowing about it. Finally, I would give him driving directions to an enormous field to watch hot air balloons lift off near sunset, without telling him our destination in advance.

By the time we arrived at the launch, a riot of color filled the sky as the whoosh of air filled balloons that awaited lift-off. We ate our picnic and sipped our wine, and Mark blew out candles, as we stopped every few minutes to capture a perfect image on film.

Twenty-five years, two college-age daughters and a lifetime later, a photograph from that evening hangs on a wall in our home, reminding us to always ‘look up.’

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Good Vibrations in Chimayo

Torrential rain followed Ellen and me from Santa Fe to Chimayó, leaving six-inch puddles on the highway. Waves of water slapped against the windshield as each vehicle passed. Hillside runoff in the tiny town created deep pools stained with red mud.

We finally arrived at Santuario de Chimayó, a tiny antique chapel reputed for miraculous healings. Visitors prayed silently in the sanctuary. An anteroom housed several dozen discarded crutches. Religious artifacts lined the walls of a second anteroom where a dusty border of red brick encircled a hole in the floor, filled with a pile of dirt and a small trowel.

We next stopped for lunch at Rancho de Chimayó, a 40-year-old family-run restaurant, where we ate what Ellen called the best meal we’d had during our four-day trip. For the first time since our journey began, she felt like a million bucks. And then the vibrations began. I felt them from touching the blade of Ellen’s knife as she held the handle. She realized she had inadvertently stepped into sacred dirt in the floor of Sanctuario de Chimayó, and the chapel’s miraculous powers seemed very real.

We finished lunch and headed towards Taos. Tentative sunshine pierced the clouds and gradually brightened. A magnificent rainbow arched across several miles, with the highway as as midpoint, a beautiful finale to a memorable afternoon.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Morning in New Buffalo

My extended family had arrived in New Buffalo, Michigan several days earlier, to celebrate my mother’s 75th birthday. From the moment we set foot on Lake Michigan’s sandy eastern shore I felt at home. I recalled countless summer Sunday afternoons spent beside the huge lake during my childhood years, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, eating tuna salad sandwiches, basking in the sun and shooting the waves. I burrowed my toes deeply into the warm evening sand.

Contented smiles etched my parents’ faces as they watched my siblings and our children talk and laugh together after a year apart. Sunset painted the sky with a kaleidoscope of pastels as impatient waves rushed the beach, the force of high tide drawing them ever closer to blankets and lifeguard chairs.

Our three day vacation was a whirlwind of activity, designed to keep restless teens and preteens well-occupied. We played miniature golf, saw a movie together, shopped, and had a big birthday dinner, leaving only a few afternoon hours for another beach visit. Although my sister-in-law took one long walk with me along the gentle shoreline, it didn’t nearly satisfy my craving for time beside the lake.

On the final morning of our trip I awoke early, tiptoed past my sleeping family, and walked several blocks to the beach, with camera in tow. Sail boats and motor boats bobbed gracefully in the harbor waters. A lone fisherman cast his line over and over again, the horizon barely visible behind him in the early morning mist. Suddenly, flaming orange light edged dark clouds beyond the dunes, as sunrise emerged.

I breathed deeply, savored the fine sand that squished between my toes one last time, and slowly made my way back to the hotel.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Frank's Folly

I had arrived in Tempe, Arizona a day earlier, and played with my camera on the Arizona State campus as I waited for my daughter to finish her classes. Through a spray of palm fronds the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium appeared in my viewfinder. It looked something like a single adobe layer of wedding cake; at once, graceful and otherworldly, a curiosity and a beauty.

I'd loved Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural design since childhood, and this building was no exception. Measuring 300 feet long by 250 feet wide and 80 feet high, this final public commission by Wright, also features 50 concrete columns that support the roof and an architectural pattern of interlocking circles.

The auditorium opened in 1964, 25 months after the first spade of earth was turned, and following the deaths of Wright and ASU President, Dr. Grady Gammage. It seats more than 3,000 people and has hosted events as diverse as Broadway musicals such as Rent to organ recitals, lectures and the final debate of the 2004 presidential election.

But this architectural showpiece is reputed to be on the ASU campus only because of a gambling debt. According to legend, Wright and then president, Gammage, were not only good friends but also gambling buddies. The story goes that Wright originally created this design as an opera house for Baghdad, Iraq. However, when Wright ran out of funds, he put the opera house blueprints down as collateral. Wright lost the bet, and Gammage gained a signature structure for his desert campus.

How I wish I could have seen the look on Wright’s face as he handed Gammage the blueprints…

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Miracle on I-35

The Wizard of Oz is set in rural Kansas for good reason. The state’s wide open spaces provide a perfect breeding ground for tornadoes and violent storms.

It only takes a few hours for us to travel I-35 from our home in the Kansas City area to Wichita, Kansas, where much of my husband’s family lives. Usually a smooth and easy trip, it can become unsettling and downright scary when the spring and summer storm season is in full swing.

At 2 p.m. on a steamy afternoon the sky grows black as midnight, lashing the landscape with sheets of rain that are so dense you can’t see the road more than one car length before the windshield. Seemingly endless banks of angry clouds rise from the horizon and brilliant jagged lightning rips through the sky. Each of these powerful storms may emerge or calm down within several hours or several minutes, creating a predictable path of destruction or surprising gift of nature in its wake.

During one trip to Wichita, we received such a gift. From far across the prairie, we saw a break in the mean-spirited sky. Blinding sunlight cut a swath from high above, gilding the parched ground and electrified air. As I grabbed the camera, my husband cautioned there was no way I could take a good photograph through the car window as we traveled at 70 miles an hour.

But weeks later, when I finally developed the film, I found a perfect photograph of the spectacular light shaft – our own miracle on I-35.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

7,000 Cranes

During summer 2003, my extended family celebrated my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in Washington, D.C. Since New York City was much closer to D.C. than our hometown near Kansas City was, my own family took a side trip to the Big Apple. We shopped along 5th Avenue, checked out the theater marquees that lit up Broadway, and viewed the entire city skyline from atop the Empire State Building.

One afternoon we decided to visit the World Trade Center site. Thanks to a city map, we knew when it was only a few blocks away. From the moment we caught a glimpse of the surrounding buildings, I felt a palpable sense of many spirits in this place. By the time we reached the site the air seemed heavy with their presence.

The placid hole where those magnificent buildings once stood belied the horror of 9/11. But remembrances left by family members and friends of those who died there left no doubt of the trauma suffered by so many. Amidst the countless handmade memorials, one particularly stood out for me.

Tucked in beside heartfelt notes of loss, lovingly framed photographs and miniature American flags were 7,000 brightly colored origami cranes. The accompanying inscription read:

“Students from Junior High Schools in Matsue, Japan made more than 7,000 paper cranes to symbolize their sadness over the events of fall. In Japan, Sebatsuru, or 1,000 cranes, is typically a symbol of healing, but in recent times has come to also represent a wish for world peace. These cranes represent over 7,000 individual wishes for this difficult yet attainable goal.”

Peace be with you.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

No Teddy Bears Allowed

Our tour guide at Taos Pueblo was a young woman with raven black hair, a soft voice and regal posture. She pointed to Rio Pueblo, a small stream that flows from the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, through the pueblo, and has served as a life blood for residents for upwards of 1,000 years.

The woman told us that individuals who inhabit these ancient adobe buildings – the focus of countless professional and amateur photographs – still live without electricity and running water as did their ancestors. Other residents of pueblo land, who live beyond the most famous and photographed structures, are not required to do so.

Finally, our tour guide stopped in a spot where we could clearly see the mountain range that formed a serene backdrop for the pueblo buildings that she called home. “No Teddy Bears are allowed at Taos Pueblo,” she said, “because of the land that Theodore Roosevelt stole from us.”

The Roosevelt administration designated the stolen land the Carson National Forest, in 1906. Far from a simple story of land grabbing by the United States, the taking of this mountainous area dealt a major blow to the psyche of Taos Pueblo. According to legend, Blue Lake, which is found within the 48,000 acres returned by President Nixon in 1970, is the spiritual source from which pueblo natives originated.

I thought of the Teddy Bears my daughters had left at home, before our vacation began, and realized I would never look at them the same way again.