Vision Quest

John (2nd from Left) and his original 2006 Team

Hope you are as inspired by John Chavez as I am. OC Makapo Aquatics Project is an amazing non profit organization that helps visually impaired athletes.   If you are in the Newport Beach area this Saturday, there will be an open house from 10-3 at Newport Aquatics Center.

For more information, directions or just to donate, visit their Facebook Page http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=250753784944216

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Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go– T.S. Eliot

Early on a Saturday morning, with a slight chill in the air and the sky a smooth sheet of steel, John Chavez huddles with his teammates on a sandy beachhead of upper Newport Bay. At an hour when most of us are contemplating that first cup of coffee, John listens intently to his coach, Kirsten Hermsted Williams, detail the next few weeks of training. A murmur ripples through the men and women of team Makapo when she throws in the fact that they are only four weeks away from the 18-mile Queen Lili’uokalani Canoe Race in Kona, Hawaii. There is little fanfare afterward. It’s business as usual and John helps hoist a six-person canoe into the water and paddles it out to sea. For the next several hours, it’s his mission to “feel the water”, as Kirsten instructs, to feel the surge of the canoe with each stroke . . . even though he can’t actually see the ocean he is paddling into, or the canoe or the paddles for that matter. Neither can most of his team, but that’s exactly how he envisioned it. John is the inspiration behind the OC Makapo Aquatics Project. Makapo is a combination of two words Maka (eyes) Po (dark). It is the Hawaiian word for blind.

“Billy told me I was crazy,” John says, a burst of laughter recalling the moment he first conveyed his idea to put a blind team in the 2006 Kona race. “Billy” just happens to be Billy Whitford, Executive Director at Newport Aquatics Center and a world-class steersman. While he may have been skeptical at the beginning, it wasn’t long before John got him to see the vision, too. Through word of mouth, they cobbled together a 5-man crew with the competitive racing equivalent of spit and duct tape, and landed in Kona with little technique and a sparse four months of training. Appropriately enough, John called that first team “The Blind-Siders” and there were only two goals that year–to finish the race and not to Huli (The Hawaiian term for flipping the canoe, which John had done with a sighted team the year before).

Well, with Billy at the helm, they finished the race under their own steam. There were only two people left on the beach when the arrived. It didn’t matter. It was enough to make John’s vision a reality—he’d become part of the first blind outrigger team to ever compete.

And boy, did they have heart. It was something that caught Kirsten when she first heard them the following year on a local Kona radio station. “I was driving; I remember it so clearly,” she recalls as we follow the practice canoes, riding the choppy surf beyond the Newport breakwater. “I actually pulled over to just sit and listen because I was so taken in by what they were doing.”

On race day, she was on the finish line. After the last team came in she noticed one more canoe way out in the distance, surrounded by a team of jet skis. “I’m like, oh my God, it’s those blind guys.”

“Those blind guys” were the newly renamed “Makapo”, and they were a good half an hour off shore when the announcer told the beach crowd they were coming in. This time the crowd waited. And waited. And when team Makapo finally did cross the finish line, it was to a swell of cheers and cries of support. “I was bawling,” she says, and as Kirsten describes it, one can’t help but a break out in a severe case of goose bumps.

To meet John, you don’t automatically tap him for such overt Chariots of Fire-style heroics, but you quickly realize that there’s not much he lets stop him. “If I set my mind to it, I’m going to try,” is his philosophy. And he’s tried a lot since cardiac arrest left him without his sight in 1984.  At 51, the former water polo player and lifeguard has tried skydiving and been on pilgrimages, he’s in amazing shape, is a partner is a busy medical supply company, lives on his own and goes practically anywhere he wants with the help of OC Transit. He’s well known at his regular market, gym and jazz club haunts, and his favorite personal shoppers keep him looking spiffy for the road. That’s not to say there have been adjustments along the way, a lot of trial and error–a few cooking incidences that have gone frightfully awry, and a now trademark pairs of tinted wraparound glasses that came from one too many run-ins with errant tree limbs.

Over the years, he’s certainly improved his rowing technique. “It’s the first time in twelve years that I have skin on my thumbs,” he announces proudly. But as a self-proclaimed “huli” champion, he would welcome a few more races without one.

His demeanor is happy, his attitude upbeat and he’s easy to laugh. There’s none of that down-on-his-luck tortured hero complex that plays so well on the big screen. Nor is there any of the bigger-than-life quality that we tend to think is required to accomplish life-changing goals. There is, by his own admission, a naïveté, which he considers an advantage. “When you’re naïve,” he says, “you don’t put limitations on yourself.”

Along with the naïveté there is a sense of inner strength that is comprised in part by his faith and his family, and in part by quite simply what my grandmother would have called “pluck.” At the same time he seems fueled by what his journey has taught him about human nature. “People, even strangers, are friendly, they’re kind, they’re generous,” he says. “That’s been the most encouraging–seeing the average person is basically a good person and wants to help.”

His journey, of course, shifted dramatically after his cardiac arrest, when everything in the then 24-year-old’s life was unceremoniously turned upside down.

A graduate of San Diego State University, he had turned down a job offer from Ford Aerospace in order to travel to the South Pacific when he broke his ankle in a scooter accident. During the routine surgery that followed, his heart began to miss beats and he went into cardiac arrest. Between repeated Lidocaine injections and attempts to revive him, the lack of oxygen resulted in a coma, the loss of his sight and the arduous task having to learn everything over again.

John recalls his recovery with vivid detail that is [frankly] amazing given his state at the time and the years that have passed. He describes his coma like feeling “like I was in a small sleeping bag and couldn’t get out,” and the realization that he would never see again as some of the darkest days he’s ever experienced.  “I don’t know when I stopped crying . . . days probably. It was as if my life had ended.”

There were other challenges, too, like learning to walk again, to eat and get dressed–so many challenges, the list could go on and on. At first that was where his energy went, but eventually the reality became apparent, and one night in the hospital he turned to God and said he couldn’t handle it any more. “This warmth came over me,” he remembers, swearing he was fully conscious. “I thought, ‘I’m dying. I must have really ticked-off God!’”

Along with the warmth, came a voice that told him not to worry about his sight. “It was crystal clear. Mind you, I’m panicking. I can manufacture a lot of stuff, but ‘don’t worry about your sight’ would not have come from me.”

Divine intervention or not, it was one of Oprah’s famous “Ah-ha” moments, where disbelief meets acceptance, but by no means equals surrender. “Folding is not an option,” He says, and to this day he continues to tell that to kids he counsels. “There are always options.”

His coaches were known to drop by the hospital and encourage him to get back into the water. He specifically focused on advice they used to give him to get him moving in the pool. His high school water polo coach, for example, had a saying posted to his wall: Pain is the price. Anything good isn’t cheap, and anything cheap isn’t good. He’s always remembered it.

In the end, he credits his support system for getting him through. “I don’t know how people who don’t have that support do it. I thank God for the people who came.”

Post hospital, John heeded his coach’s advice and headed back into the water, finding what had been there all along and was still waiting for him: peace. He relied on the Braille Institute and Coastline College’s Acquired Brain Injury program for support and to regain occupational skills. Along with his sight, he lost some of his tactile memory and it prevents him from reading Braille. It also presents a particular challenge in this day of touch screen technology. He manages by leaving himself messages, using his answering machine as a calendar to keep his appointments.

He’s learned to rely on his wits, his ability to walk into a situation and allow people to see him and not the white cane that he carries. He’s not afraid to ask for help, and he’s quite comfortable to pop in on prospective customers to his medical supply business. “They’re not expecting to meet a blind guy,” he says with what might be a hint of slyness. If catching people off-guard provides a little entertainment, he doesn’t admit it, but result is usually positive. They rarely turn him away.

But with all he has going in his busy life these days, its easy to see that his home is on the water with his team and supporting his vision.  With Kirsten, and his friend and fellow blind paddler, R.J. DeRama at the helm with him, he houses O.C. Makapo Aquatics Project out of the Newport Aquatics Center. They rely on grants and donations to keep it going and it’s out of sheer passion that it continues to grow. They have expanded to three full crews heading to Kona this year–two adult teams and a youth team, with some sighted members (family and friends) added to the mix. They also now have outreach programs and a Los Angeles club coming to Marina del Rey. And they are not finishing last anymore.

To Kirsten, it’s about breaking down barriers. “These people are changing lives every single day. They are changing how they see themselves. They’re changing how the community sees blind people.”

For John, it’s about keeping the faith. He’s been asked if he would take his sight back if offered, and his answer has been “I don’t know.” Most people couldn’t conceive of that answer, but maybe John knows a something we don’t. Even if most of his teammates can’t actually see where they are paddling, John has vision enough to imagine there’s no limit to how far they can go.

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All Hart

Recently, I had the great opportunity to participate in the  inaugural project, The Old Friend’s Writing Club. The collaborative effort was a labor of love from the brilliant mind of my friend, Gabrielle Yuro, and was established to connect writers with senior citizens in order to preserve their amazing stories.  In the beginning I rather egotistically thought I was “making a difference” in my “old” friend’s life by  allowing her family to see her through another’s eyes. But I have to admit, in the end the tables were turned and it was this tiny 88-year old who made the difference.  So because of that, I thought it was fitting to start my blog series out with my story “All Hart”.  Thanks for allowing me to share her with you and I hope you enjoy meeting Shirley Hart as much as I did.

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“You’ll want to put this in your paper.”

Shirley Hart shakes her finger like she is about to reveal a juicy bit of gossip, and then bubbles with a smile, spilling over with stories before I have the chance to pull out a notebook or turn on my recorder. A pixie of a woman, petite and slim, she’s still pretty with perfectly shaped brows that no doubt benefit from four decades as an eyebrow specialist with Aida Gray’s Beverly Hills salon. Her smile, while it holds traces of the aches and pains that are part of being, well, 88, it’s one of those smiles that simply commands you to smile back.

Just glance around her immaculate Tarzana home and you’ll see her optimism and cheerful personality everywhere.

“I love it here,” she tells me. “I wake up in the morning to this and it makes me happy.”

And it should. Her property drips with orange and apricot trees, sweet peas and roses. Inside, flowers, delicate and flowing in muted pinks and greens embellish wallpaper, chair coverings, and tiles. Delicate porcelain, hand-painted by Shirley herself, adorns every part of her house and attached art studio. And her small music room, filled with family heirlooms, pays tribute to all she holds dear.

When she speaks, there are details she can’t quite remember and it frustrates her, but she doesn’t let it stop her. She plows forward with an exuberant cadence, like she has to purge these memories before the moment passes and she looses them again. Even so, she treats each one like a gem, like good or bad there is not one part of her life experience she doesn’t treasure and she wants to make sure her guest enjoys it just as much as she has.

We’ve fallen into a routine, Shirley and I, like friends on coffee break as we chat on her lush back patio or in her den, slouching in comfortable chairs, surrounded by family photos. We usually end up at her kitchen table as she offers coffee and homemade Mandelbrot or whatever sweet she has on hand. I figure she can tell just by looking at me, I’m a sucker for sweets. And I know by the way she reminisces, the way a glint of light comes into her eyes and music plays in her voice. I know by the way she asks if there will be a tea party at the end of this journey we are taking. Shirley Hart was born to entertain.

Uh, no, by that I don’t mean she breaks into song and dance whenever the feeling strikes her–although that particular trait does go back as far as her mother singing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” while making Challas to sell at the church festivals. I mean she enjoys entertaining people, making them happy, whether it be singing at the piano or decorating the perfect cake, learning to paint and fire porcelain simply to give a special gift to a dear friend or hosting makeover parties for the senior ladies from the Jewish Home for the Aging. It’s an art form to her, and it’s something she comes by quite naturally.

“I had a wonderful childhood.” She says in a light New York accent. “I have really beautiful memories.”

Her family owned the Drucker’s Overlook Hotel, a kosher resort in the idyllic Catskill Mountains of New York. In the early-to-mid 20th century, the Catskills became a Mecca for New York City’s Jewish community who took respite from the sweltering summertime metropolis and migrated upstate to vacation among lush trees and sprawling lakes. Many of the resorts formed tight-knit communities, and families became yearly guests drawn by orchestras and casinos and rumba lessons by the pool.

“What was the name of that movie?” She wants to know.

Dirty Dancing,” I guess.

“That was in my area. Right there! It was all about these hotels.”

Yes, immortalization accomplished in the film “Dirty Dancing,” a coming of age story in which Baby, a 17-year-old high school girl from an affluent Jewish family, falls for Johnny, the dashing resort dance instructor, when she spends the summer at Kellerman’s in the Catskills.

Despite some of my best prodding, Shirley manages to avoid revealing any Baby and Johnny romance stories. No, this story is a little less complicated: Father, Louis, and mother, Rose (or Mom and Pop Drucker as the locals knew them) ran the Overlook Hotel (aptly named because all of its 86 acres looked out over the small village below). Louis, a former tailor, took care of the business side of things, and Rose handled the cooking. In the wintertime, when the tourist season wound down, close family and friends stayed on in the one building that was steam heated, and the Drucker kids traveled by buggy to the village for schooling and came back to hot cocoa and ice skating in the frozen-over resort pool. But soon enough, the weather warmed and the ice was cut from the pool, stored in an icehouse and packed in sawdust to keep it cold. Families returned, and the six siblings worked the hotel, staying very busy helping the staff with whatever was necessary, including putting on nightly shows for the guests in the dining room.

It was Shirley and older sister, Lucy, who were the most musically inclined.  “She was fabulous,” Shirley says of her sister, who passed away barely a year ago at the ripe old age of 100. “She danced and she sang. She played the violin. We’d sit down at the piano and she’d play the right hand and I’d play the left hand.”

The two were so close that when Lucy married and left the resort for Brooklyn, Shirley became intensely lonely. “We were all close, but she was like a mother to me,” Shirley says. “I was the little one and my mother and all the kids had jobs to do. My sister raised me.” So at the age of 14, Shirley picked up from the Overlook and moved to Brooklyn to live with Lucy. Her mountain, of course, was never far from her heart, and she continued to go back on weekends and during the summer. When in Brooklyn, she went to high school, and she and Lucy continued to play the piano and sing together. She was good. So good that her brother arranged for private singing lessons at Carnegie Hall, which expanded her range and opened up her voice even more.

Being all of 19-years-old, with singing talent, and living in the era of swing and in the heart of Broadway, one (okay . . . me) wonders if she ever had dreams of stardom. Well, if there was an answer to that question, I never heard it. But you know what? For all of her pluck and all of her energy, I’m not sure she thought in those terms.

She did audition, once for the slapstick song and dance trio, The Ritz Brothers, and again for the owner of the Gloria Palace (pronounced Pa-leeze), a small club on the Upper Eastside of New York City. Both came quite by chance and completely out of the blue: The first while casually walking with friends and singing on a New York street; and the second, when she was pulled onstage by friend at a band rehearsal and overheard by the club owner.

“I was very nervous,” Shirley says of her audition with for the Ritz Brothers at Radio City Music Hall.  After being invited to audition by one of the Ritz Brothers himself, she’d borrowed Lucy’s fur coat and went with her accompanist. She sat through many other auditions and when it came time for hers: “I lost my voice. I was so nervous. I flew off that stage. I never went back.”

She actually got the job at The Gloria Palace and sang for a time, but stardom was not in the future, a fact that doesn’t faze her one bit. For Shirley, it wasn’t about fame; it was only about pure enjoyment. She is one of those people who take her moments and opportunities as they come, relishes the good and moves on from the bad.

It’s a good philosophy, and it would serve her well over the next several years, years that would define her more than her charmed life at the Overlook Hotel or in Brooklyn under the watchful eye of her beloved Lucy. It was called growing up, and Shirley was about to do it.

When the subject of her first marriage comes up, she addresses it briefly with a couple of comments, but quickly deflects to happier memories, like when she flew to South Carolina to see her then boyfriend, Ed, get his wings in the US Army Air Corps and ended up being escorted to a party by Clark Gable. “Can you believe it? All I can remember . . . his big hand. He gave me his hand . . . It was huge!”

The story goes on: a cigarette case he had that was inscribed by Carole Lombard who had recently died in a plane crash. “She was my very favorite;” a Colonel who sang with her in the great room of the plantation house while Mr. Gable retreated with one of the many female admirers who appeared; and the crowd that gathered and sang when word spread that a movie star was in their midst.

The fact is, deflection or not, many good things did happened in the fifteen troubled years she was married to Ed: the birth of her two children, for example, Steven and Kara, whom she counts as her greatest achievement and are still very close to her. In fact, Kara is someone she considers her best friend and she has donated many hours to Kara’s Glamour Project that helps disadvantaged women find their inner strength by discovering their outer beauty.

The family’s move to the West Coast is another example, which led to a chance meeting with celebrity make-up artist Aida Gray and marked the beginnings of a 40-year career. In the salon’s waiting area where Shirley had gone as a patron, Aida Gray saw something in the inexperienced, young mom. Aida offered her a job on the spot and took her under her wing at a time when the salon was in its prime. Since then she’s spruced, arched and sometimes recreated the brows of some of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities such as the Gabor sisters and Debbie Reynolds. She was so popular, her appointment calendar was jammed months in advance.

However, despite all that was good, it wasn’t enough to save her marriage. She was successful at Aida’s. She had two beautiful children. She took pride in her ability to make a lovely home with limited resources. But she was unhappy. She’d been unhappy for years though she never wanted the children to know. She never smiled. Ed didn’t have much of a career after the Air Corps and she gave him every penny she made. She was miserable.

And then one day, she had a job to do makeup for a bridal party. She finished the job, collected her check and went out to Ed, waiting in the car. He held his hand out for the check and she stared at it, made the decision right then and there to say “No.” That was it. She left.

Her marriage was over.

If there are turning points in life, watershed moments that transform our thinking, our actions, then this was the mother of them all.

Now ladies, this is the time to listen up. You’ll also want to repeat these two words: COCONUT CAKE.

In the late 1950’s when the divorce rate in the U.S. was two in 1,000 people, Shirley was officially one of the two: a single, working mom living in a small apartment in Beverly Hills instead of at her family home. “I was so ashamed,” she said of the time. “If a man asked me out, I was ashamed I’d be seen by some of my friends with another man.”

And there were other men who wanted to date her. Why not? She was vivacious and attractive, and she met plenty of people from the Beverly Hills shops around Aida’s salon. So she did date. But not long after her divorce was public, a client introduced her to a friend. His name was Hank and from that moment on, no one else held a candle to the tall Texan builder with an infectious smile. Shirley instantly fell. They dated for a few months until Hank decided to break it off.

“It’s not that I don’t care for you,” he told her. “I do, but I’ve never been around children. I’m scared.”

She couldn’t blame him. “He was such a gentleman.”

She let him go. And then a girlfriend who lived in Hank’s building in West L.A. asked to stay with her for a night.

An idea formed in Shirley’s head and she stopped at the store on the way home from work to buy the ingredients for a fresh coconut cake, Hank’s favorite. Her plan was to send the cake back with her friend the next day.  “Being the Southern gentleman he was, I knew he was going to call and thank me,” she said.

Which is exactly what he did.

They were married three months later, and they stayed married until his death five years ago. Almost fifty years.

It took twelve-year-old Steve some time to come around to his mother’s new situation, and he made the decision to move back east with his father. Shirley and Hank took him to the airport.

“Hank said to him, ‘you’re leaving because you want to, not because we want you to. I will never try to be your father. You have a wonderful father. I will always try to be your friend.’”

And he was, according to Shirley. It took several years of patience. “He was impossible when he was with us,” she says, but eventually he turned around. In fact, when Hank died, it was Steven who served as Rabbi at the funeral.

With Hank, she flourished. They played tennis and bridge with friends and she invested her time in her children, and her grandchildren. She continued to enjoy her career.

And a new passion was born. Her artistic expression took a different turn when she was looking for a gift for a friend. Her housekeeper and dear friend, Alma, had become very ill and it came time for her to move into assisted care. “I loved her so much,” Shirley says, and after personally moving her from facility to facility, she found her a place that she felt was able to care for her properly. She wanted something personal and special to take to her, and she noticed an antique looking pin worn by a client who came into the salon. She discovered it was hand-painted and she asked to be introduced to the client’s art instructor. Shirley’s passion took off immediately–to the point that she spent hours upon hours painting. Hank built her a studio on the back of their house and they bought two kilns. She’s sold much of the china she painted (she has perfected the Royal Copenhagen pattern Flora Danica, fired three to four times), and at the holidays she painted mugs for her friends and bridge groups, and filled them with her signature Mandelbrot. “It made me happy . . . giving something that I made. That they’ll look at it and think of me.”

When she wasn’t painting or spending time with Hank, she was heavily involved in philanthropic efforts. It’s clear she has a strong belief in helping people, something she inherited from her mother, she thinks. Wednesdays were reserved for the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda. She’d gather the residents up on sunny days and take them outside for chats. From time to time, she organized parties for them in her backyard, complete with tea party hats and gift bags (courtesy of Aida Grey, of course).

Since Hank’s death, she hasn’t been able to bring herself to paint as much and hip problems prevent her from doing the gardening she loved to do. But she continues to play bridge twice a week and she lunches with her old tennis friends when she can. Mostly, she spends time with her family and she enjoys the home she loves so much.

“There’s no place you could put me where I would be happier than I am here.”

And that’s what it’s all about to Shirley Hart. Making people happy.

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Welcome to my blog!

Hello world and welcome to my new blogsite. My goal here is to from time to time post articles I’ve written about normal, everyday people who lead extraordinary lives (at least they are extraordinary to me). More than likely, they will be people you’ve never heard of. But everybody has a story, I figure, and my aim is to tell it.

In between, I’ll post little musings about things that I find interesting and hope  you’ ll find them interesting, too.  Comments are always welcome and I have only three ground rules: be thoughtful, be adult, and be productive. (Example: name calling = not at all productive and definitely not adult.)

I’ll have my first article up soon, so stay tuned and thanks for stopping by.

Virginia

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Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!

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