Friday, April 27, 2012


I still remember the day that David, our oldest son, met his wife-to-be.  I was upstairs on the phone and Mario was downstairs, and we were listening as he was telling us about a date he had with a pretty young lady named Lennae. 

I was standing up, making the bed and I rolled my eyes.  David, an astrophysicist computer geek, had the brains of a genius, and the worst luck with women.  His last two girlfriends had drug him to hell and back and I was not expecting him to date again until he had recovered.  His story, made me stand straight up and listen.

“We got into the car and I had Blue Oyster Cult, ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ on, and she said ‘I don’t know about you, but I could use more cowbell.’”

I held the phone in my numb hand and imagined a movie camera zooming in on my face.  I thought, “Oh, no...he’s going to marry this girl.”

He did.

For those of you that don’t follow Saturday Night live religiously (like the Rodriguez family), Lennae was referring to a “Behind the Music” sketch, where the male cast re-enact the infamous taping of the rock classic, directed by a superstar producer, played by Christopher Walken.   Will Farrell imitates a 70’s stereotype rocker, playing a cowbell through the song, and messing up the taping.  The spoof had Mario and I in stitches.  Later, when we talked about it with the kids, it brought comic relief to tense times.  

Lennae knowing the sketch was one thing, but she said a line that we used to say to each other as a private Rodriguez joke – when something was ridiculous or stupid.  If a cheerleading squad did a “cheer dance with spirit fingers at the end”.  Yeah, that was good, but I could have used a little more cowbell....

Mario went before me to meet her (David and Lennae lived in the Kansas City area) and came home with pages of notes about the visit.  Mario loves taking notes about things.

“She’s been through a lot,” he said.  “Her parents are divorced and she seems like she became an adult very quickly.  She used to dance – swing dance.  But since David doesn’t dance she doesn’t dance anymore.  She loves animals and rescued two that are with them now.”  Here he looked up and smiled.  “You have to hear this story...”

He told me the story that melted my heart for her: Lennae used to live in an apartment building that was pretty small; a downstairs unit that had a door facing another tenant.  The other tenant was a dodgy individual and kept a dog chained up by the front door.  The chain was long enough to reach his food bowl and let him poop in the bushes, but short enough for the dog to have no room at all to live freely.  He was put there, mainly to guard the entrance and was pretty mean and ferocious.  At first Lennae was scared of him, since she had to pass there just to get to her door, but she soon realized that this dog had no play, no company and no love.  She began to give him attention, and when she came home, he would shake with joy in seeing her.  She once asked the owner if she could take him for a walk or play with him, but he denied her, saying the dog didn’t need anything like that.  On the day she moved out of the apartment, Lennae turned in her keys to the manager, unhooked the dog, and took him to her new home.  He was one of the most loved animals in the world there. 

“So,” I said, trying to get a picture of her.  “Is she a Cathy or is she a Janet?”  This question, for Mario was a no-win.  Cathy is Mario’s ex-wife, the mother of David and Joe.  She is a blonde, blue-eyed “girl-next-door” type that is peaceful and loving and soft.  Janet (me) is a raven-haired opinionated, passionate woman filled with fire...and repentance when I have to remove my rather large foot from my even larger mouth.  Which was Lennae?

“She is a...” he thought, lookining up in the air and scratching his chin.  “She’s a Lennae.”

Crap.  Now I had no idea what to expect.

I met her two days before the wedding, where I introduced myself and went into my nervous story-telling thing that I do in order to explain myself.  She had the greenest eyes, like our son, Vince.  It was hard not to be mesmerized by them.  Her skin was a perfect peaches and cream and she was statuesque and lovely.  She also was very affectionate with David, and he with her.  I was a little uncomfortable around the two of them, but smiled at Vince and Alicia about the whole thing. (Another Rodriguez joke? Smiling and plugging your nose around open displays of affection...) 

When you are a “step-mother” at a wedding, things don’t work out as smoothly as you would think they do.  I prepared myself for the awkwardness, but was very honored that David and Lennae asked me to be part of the first row, with Mario and Cathy by my side.  The wedding was gorgeous, and Lennae was dressed in a silk, strapless gown that showed off the loveliest shoulders since Princess Di...and her tattoo on her back. 
The reception was in a stunning Victorian house, and we gave David and Lennae a copper cowbell that was engraved “I got a fever! And the only prescription is more cowbell!”  It was their favorite gift. 

It turns out Lennae was nervous about the day because she loved each and every member of her family, but they did not like each other and had a very hard time being in the same room with one another.  She had just lost her beloved grandmother, a peacemaker and a joy to her heart.  Looking back, I think Lennae was surprised that Cathy and I loved each other the way we did.  It was easy to – Cathy is a Cathy. 

They honeymooned in the wine country of California, where they graciously added us to their stay for two days.  I played a video of David and Joe singing “Kiss the Girl” to the Little Mermaid – as I promised him I would when he was ten years old and woke the whole house up with a slumber party.  Our cool, controlled computer genius hid red-faced, under the kitchen table, humiliated beyond belief as Lennae laughed her head off and held her arms open to him.  The memory is unforgettable. 

We vacationed in Kansas City with them as a family, where all of our techno-savvy kids played x-box together (we didn’t ever allow it in our house, and all of our kids had become pros).  Lennae was pregnant and unable to keep food down, sometimes even water, and I worried about her.  Even though she was in her last trimester, she never had the “morning sickness” pass, and the sickness lasted all day.  I was very worried about her and said so as we left. 

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “David takes good care of me.”  He did.  It was nice to see the marriage working so well, although they said they never fought.  I saw this as a danger sign.  I didn’t know that the word “fight” had the worst connotations for both of them. 

Laila came one day and changed our lives for good.  We were now grandparents.  The pictures that they sent us were of the birthing tub, a method of drug-free birthing that Lennae had chosen to do.  After looking at them, I felt the same awkwardness that I had felt seeing the open displays of affection that David and Lennae had with each other.  She and David were beautiful, almost sensual in the tub as Lennae gave birth to her first child.  Her face was that of a Raphael painting, not the contorted red devil face one usually associates with childbirth.

Laila Willow was perfect, with the same green eyes as her mother.  The first time she called me “Abuela” I thought I would die for joy.  It was like being fourteen and the popular cute boy says “hi” to you and says your name...but better.

Soon after Laila came Lilliana Grace, then Lauren Caroline.  All with the tub, all without pain meds.  I secretly called Lennae “Mother Earth”, mainly because of the way she championed the birthing process and breast feeding. 

Last Christmas she hosted all of us (except Vince, who couldn’t make it) and we all played Quelf and wii and drank Irish car bombs...and laughed our heads off.  We had tender, gorgeous heart-to-hearts and she showed me her pictures of each birth.  And when I got on the plane I cried....

In my mind’s eye, she is surrounded by confetti and children.  I think she is literally one of the most agreeable people I have ever met, and in a strange way, she has taught me to accept people in my life regardless of their beliefs or convictions.  She is, without a doubt, the best person in the world for my step-son – our son- David...and I would have never ever chosen her if it were up to me. 

For that reason, she is a gift and a blessing to me and to us.  Today is her birthday.  Happy Birthday, honey.   You are a delight and joy and everyone’s daughter-in-law should be like you.

Not like Cathy; not like Janet...but a Lennae.  Their own person.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012


In the house where I grew up, there were things you were not allowed to joke about: the Virgin Mary, the Holocaust, and John F. Kennedy (and then maybe all of the other Kennedy’s, except for Jackie who had gone off and remarried a Greek tycoon).  Now and then you could joke about prison, but my father worked at the local correctional institution, and it better be funny if it was going to be about that subject. 
My dad was a Boston- Irish-Catholic man (in that order),a graduate of Boston College, and the proud father of five well-schooled  fledgling democrats.  Growing up, the saddest portion of my life was Watergate, the whole mess when Nixon (a nut who my father didn’t like anyway) hijacked the local television for weeks... It was an especially difficult time for me, since my TV schedule was interrupted.  It was then, I am pretty sure, that I began to read.  Anything was better than watching the Watergate hearings.
I didn’t understand the whole thing, except that there were some tapes that no one was releasing, and that everyone thought would solve the whole case.  In the whole affair, I remember hearing the names Erlichman, Haldeman and Colson.  Apparently, they were the Republican Nazis who started the whole thing: a bunch of crooks lurking in the swamplands of Washington D.C.
My father felt particularly victorious when all of Nixon’s staff started bailing, and began to turn on each other.  Nixon resigned the presidency, and the TV was again filled with my programs. 
Years later, after I had two children and an incredible life change, I was shopping in a book store and saw a book by Chuck Colson: Loving God .  I picked it up and began to read it.  It was then that a flood of memories came back – was this Charles Colson, as in Watergate Colson? 
Quoted once during the campaign to re-elect Nixon, Colson reportedly said he would do anything to renew a Nixon White House, even "walk over my own grandmother."   Seen during the Nixon administration as a "darkly brilliant political strategist," he had a reputation among his friends for "dirty tricks" that left his adversaries on the stairs while he made it to the top floor.  Not a guy I thought I’d ever warm up to... or buy a book from. 
It was this that made me buy it: the person who wrote the book was no longer the hatchet man that would step over his own grandmother – he had been transformed.  The most touching thing about it was that the same thing had happened to me.  Minus Nixon.
To have been (pardon my language here) a selfish prick most of one’s life, and then be transformed into a loving, forgiving servant of mankind can only be done by God.  I was halfway through Colson’s book when I realized it was one of the best I had ever read.  Since then I have read two others that he wrote, and bought Loving God for friends as gifts. 
I don’t love Colson because he was a good person; in fact, none of us are truly that.  I don’t love him because he was a good Christian writer; in fact, he wrote some things I’d disagree with.  I do not even love him because he started “Prison Fellowship”, a non-profit organization that ministers to prisoners  all over the USA; even though I see it as one of the greatest things for inmates and their families today. 
I love Chuck Colson because he was a perfect example of how someone can be a total idiot (like me) and then become filled with the Love of God and compassion for others. 
It is the same reason that I love the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, in a way.  It is the redeemed person that gives us hope that God has the desire and the power to change a person; to exchange their heart with His. 


After his release from prison, Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, which today is "the nation's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families".Colson worked to promote prisoner rehabilitation and reform of the prison system in the United States, citing his disdain for what he called the "lock 'em and leave 'em" warehousing approach to criminal justice. He helped to create prisons whose populations come from inmates who choose to participate in faith-based programs.
In 1983, Colson founded Justice Fellowship, using his influence in conservative political circles to push for bipartisan, legislative reforms in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


A twenty-five liter bucket is the main unit that people use to store water in their homes in the township of Diepsloot.  Since most areas have only community water that residents share, most water comes from a spigot outside that provides water for bathing, washing and drinking.  Residents will fill a 25l bucket outside and take it in to cook dinner, wash the dishes, heat for bathing and brushing teeth later.  

Today, Diepsloot looked like a third-world country, with women carrying these buckets on their heads from great distances outside of the township for one reason: their tap water had been contaminated.  

Greater parts of Diepsloot, the township in Northern Johannesburg,  have had no running water since Thursday.  Several “news”papers here in Johannesburg (more editorials that facts) have reported on the situation, citing bits and pieces of reports given to them about how the problem came about.  While Johannesburg Water had made no formal statement until yesterday about what went wrong, it didn’t matter: the damage had already been done. 

Speaking with Johannesburg Water spokesperson, Milicent Kabwa this morning, and then later this afternoon, she said, stoically that the department is set upon “Rectifying the problem” but gave no answer to how long the process would take. She advised me that water trucks had been journeying in and out of Diepsloot in order to fill the community tanks, placed strategically all over the township.

Kabwa cited that the problem began when “one  contractor working in water, crossed drinking water  lines with sewage lines” accidentally.  The cross resulted in the mass contamination of the townships drinking water. 

Supplying water to the over 190,000 residents (who formally answered latest census) in Diepsloot, Johannesburg Water has had more failure than it has had success in providing dependable drinking water to the township.   

Last year, water outages were a common occurance, something the African National Congress promised to rectify if they were elected to take office.  Residents are still waiting for the ANC to keep this and many other promises.  Diepsloot had more disruption in water service than any other formal community in JNW’s district . 
E. coli and related bacteria can quickly enter a community, with  fecal-oral transmission (sewage water mixed with drinking water) listed by the Center for Disease Control as the major route through which pathogenic strains of the bacterium cause disease. Cells of active E. Coli are able to survive outside the body , which makes them ideal indicator organisms to test environmental samples for fecal contamination.

When asked whether the guilty contractor that crossed drinking with sewage lines would be hired to work for Johannesburg Water again, Kabwa was unable to say, but told me that the department was “investigating internally”.

 Today Extension 2 was declared  safe and residents in the area were told that they could drink their tap water.  As for extensions one and 3-13... Police cars patrolled the area today, making public announcements on a loudspeaker warning residents to not drink their water. 

I asked Ms. Kabwa, in the most polite way I knew how, if this would ever happen in an area that was more developed and perhaps valued than Diepsloot.  She quickly dismissed my question as nonsense. 

“Obviously, this was a human error, and human errors can happen anywhere.”  She then assured me that Dainfern and Sadslebrook, two of the wealthiest areas that neighbor Diepsloot, have had no interruption in water service, and are operating as normal.   

Waiting for water...since Thursday.
Police will continue to alert citizens until Johannesburg Water can determine by its daily testing if Diepsloot’s drinking water quality is alright.

Today in Diepsloot, tanks that Johannesburg Water said would contain drinking water for the people stood empty at extensions 1,6,7,10,11 and 13.  I did not see one water truck come into Diepsloot while I was there (all day), but did see a paraffin truck come in.  I started to cheer, but realized the tank had a flammable sign on it.  One of the women at the water filling station who had been waiting in the sun for the water tanker to fill it, began to laugh at me. 

“We can recongize the difference now from far away,” she said. 

I smiled. 

At least I made her laugh. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Sudanese Kids carry bricks to help us build the school base in Padak

There is a feeling that you get, albeit a fleeting one, when you have done a lot of work in another country and you hear about the country in normal conversation somewhere else.  The feeling is a nostalgic, un-belonging homesickness that you have no rights to for your “adopted” country, but you do.  For us, the feeling accompanied Sudan, a country that our team has poured great time and resources into.  The year we were there had remarkably tattooed our hearts with the color of Sudanese earth.

It may sound odd, but I felt like we were a part of helping stitch together broken things while we were there: maybe even the hearts of the people.  

It was last January, when I last felt the feeling of missing the Sudan tug at my heart as I saw the reports about a crucial vote that would split the country in two: a referendum where South Sudanese were set to vote on whether or not to break away from the northern Khartoum government and form their own country.  It was a risky referendum:  it could mean the end to civil war that had lasted more than 50 years.  If it failed, it would increase tension between the North and the South.   The vote passed, and in July, the Sudan and South Sudan were formed. 

Today, in the gym, I saw another report, but this one reminiscent of the civil war in the past.  As I stopped what I was doing, I felt like I was seeing the stitches being torn out of the fragile patched peace that had just been made.

Fighting along the north-south border has been near constant over the past two weeks. On Thursday, South Sudan accused Sudan of bombing the capital of their Unity State, Bentiu.  Soon after, aircraft belonging to Sudan dropped five bombs on a bridge linking Bentiu to neighboring Rubkotna. The two towns comprise Unity State’s most populated area.

This indiscriminate bombing, reckless by its nature and reaction, killed one civilian and wounded four.  The U.N. and the United States called for an end to clashes that threaten to spark a full-blown conflict.
While it is easy to see that the immediate conflict is over oil rights (South Sudan owns the oil fields and refineries, Sudan owns the pipelines that transport them), the Civil War’s groove worn into the back of Sudan seems to pull them back into the old ways of solving conflict.  Watching, from a distance it is heartbreakingly easy to say that the dysfunctional way that the North and South are used to solving problems will dishearten and kill more of its people. 

We drove up to Sudan from Johannesburg.  The journey was unforgettable.  It was also unforgettably long.  It took us eight days, though Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya  (I’ll never forget the night that I saw the Big Dipper in the same sky as the Southern Cross)   to get to Lokichokio, on the border of Kenya and Sudan.  There, we bathed with hot water, swam in a pool and slept on beds for the last time in a long time. 

The day we left Loki, we picked up armed guards (that we were instructed not to call soldiers) and crossed into Sudan. 

We noticed something surprisingly unusual as we left Lokichokio.  At the north end of Loki, beyond the noted dry river bed, the Kenyan military has set up a border checkpoint. This is considered the "true" border between Kenya and Sudan. Beyond this point lies a road leading to Nadapal, the Sudanese checkpoint which is about thirty km’s away. The area known as "no-man's land" is situated between these two checkpoints. So technically,  for thirty km’s we are in between Sudan and Kenya where our “guards” watched the hills for bandits.  We crossed during a peaceful time, but were still advised to be on high-alert .  The women were not allowed out of the car, and we had to move to back seats, where we were supposed to make no eye contact with anyone outside, once we did get to the Sudan border. 

The long road to Juba was not nearly as bad as the road to Padak, where our base was.  To reach it, we went through unusual roads, some of which had not yet been swept completely for mines.  When we did have to use the toilet, the four “girls” had to find an obliging bush and follow our leader’s footprints to make sure we weren’t stepping on any mines.  All the while, we were guarded by our...ahem, bodyguards.

In Sudan the people were tall and lean and dark - gorgeous to look at.  At first, they had little of what we call  “African friendliness”, but seemed  guarded, untrusting, and suspicious.  Knowing their background, it was easy to understand why.  The children were only allowed to move back into the village about two years before, after the fighting had stopped.  We were in the South, and the soldiers (whoops!  Bodyguards) seemed at home. 

Besides the blazing heat and the biting flies and mosquitoes (we were not far from the banks of the White Nile), the experience was amazing and we had the time of our life. 

Grace and I
At camp, a local girl named Grace (the native Southern Sudanese are the Dinga tribe) was especially attached to me and nearly drove me nuts as she followed me around, wanting to help.  Because her words didn’t include the “J” sound, she called me “AAA-SSHH-aa-neeess” (my name is Janet).  Everyone else’s name she could pronounce properly, but mine... made me nuts when she said it.  Even though she was helpful and wonderful and lovely, she stuck to me like glue and always followed me too close.  My camera was something she always wanted pointed at her, so that she could see herself (the village had no mirrors).  At the end of our trip, I gave her a pair of earrings I had been wearing: small amethyst studs to go in one of her three ear piercings.  She smiled shyly, and I almost cried.

There was a group of kids who always were getting into trouble nearby, and knowing they only wanted attention, we decided to have a party and invite them.  The only problem was that we didn’t have toys and only had one ball.  We decided to pass balloons in a circle using only our elbows.  The melancholy left the camp and the kids’ faces were unforgettably filled with smiles.  After this, they invited us to dance with them, and as we clapped, we were stunned to see some really suggestive New York style hip-hop dance moves come forth! I didn’t know how to hip-hop so I showed them my robot moves, which they loved and kept asking me to teach them.  I could only imagine that a few of our team before me showed them the hip-hop....  

So, it is not a nameless, faceless country teetering on the brink of another civil war.  It is these, locked into the recesses of my heart that I carry everywhere.  Sudan is filled with “children of war” – ones with classic signs of what we call PTSD; they usually do not possess anything that can’t be taken away in a suitcase.  They follow people, especially their parents, very closely, because they know the pain of separation.  

At the gym, I remembered all of this.  I remember Sudan, and hope and pray for peace that will last beyond today.