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6 Dec 2016

Observations from Panama

Posted by emily. No Comments

The last few days in Panama have been illustrative. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to do a workshop here for a large multinational company. All I knew was Manuel Noriega, the Canal, and the Panama Papers.

What I have learned is that Panama City is cosmopolitan and sophisticated — when your client laments that she got the wrong chai latte at the cafe, you know you’re not in a back water.

It is an international city of business. The people here come from all over Latin America and work for multinational companies like Samsung, Halliburton (Richard Halliburton — apparently no relation — swam the entire length of the Panama Canal, 80 kilometers, in 1928), and, of course, lots of banks. Panama used to be considered the the “Switzerland of the Americas” due to it strict banking privacy laws — that is, until the leaked Panama Papers.

Panama has no military. Instead they have a form of militarized police. Panama has a somewhat complicated relationship with the United States, which is easy enough to learn about on Wikipedia so I won’t go into it here. But it’s hard to believe that the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989.

Here are a few of my observations.

There is an insane amount of construction. High-rise, luxury apartment buildings are going up everywhere. Many of the units are already sold out. I asked if many of the buyers were foreigners or locals. There seemed to be a mixed answer. Most of the existing high rises have gone up since 2000, when the U.S. handed the Panama Canal back to its people and Panamanians reclaimed control of their land (President Carter signed the Treaty in 1977).


The F&F Tower in Panama City.


Luxury residence building in the Costa del Este in Panama.

There are several ghettos embedded between the high rises. What is striking is the landscape of satellite dishes dotting the tin roofs.

Panamanian food can be bland. I ate the one of the most popular Panamanian restaurants in the city. The food was OK. Considering their proximity to two oceans, seafood doesn’t seem to play a prominent role in the diet. Instead, there is a reliance on starchy vegetables like yuca (cassava), plantain, corn and yam. That said, there is an excellent selection of restaurants that serve cuisines from around the world. Last night I ate some perfectly prepared sushi, tuna tartare, etc.

Sushi in Panama

Sushi in Panama

This is not a wine town. Even at the Westin, where I have stayed, the wine list just says “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Chardonnay.” No vintage. No winery. Not even an area. This is beer country sounds like a perfect market for small batch, artisanal, craft brew.

For its size, Panama City is considered safe. All the locals have been clear that Panama is safe, particularly in the tourist areas. Of course, they are probably talking about personal safety (no risk of kidnapping). That said, I have felt safe everywhere I’ve gone. It is still an enormous city and using common sense is the rule of the day.

Hot. Hot. Hot. Man, it’s hot. Even for me. But I love it. I love the warm nights and have enjoyed sitting outside for dinner, enjoying the people-watching. I’ve tried to be outside at every opportunity, but will admit that even I have avoided being in the direct sun.

During the rainy season, which is from March to the end of November, there is a thunderstorm every day around 2:00 PM. The skies open up and a deluge falls on the city. Then it clears up and the mugginess permeates the air. I’ve been lucky, being here at the end of the rainy season. Yesterday while I was doing the training I saw the storm approach from the Pacific Ocean and was treated to a pretty wicked storm. My clients were amused at my reaction. The electricity in their building was knocked out, but within seconds the generators kicked in and we continued on our business.

Even though most of their history is dominated by the United States, they are trying to retain their historical recognition. Casco Viejo, and old quarter of town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are meticulously repairing this area to retain its character. It’s become a centerpiece for the tourism trade. It is reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans, with iron balustrades on colonial buildings.

Overall my impression is quite good. I’ve really enjoyed being here and meeting locals. It’s a small country but they are making an enormous impact on international trade. There is a true sense of pride of what they have been able to accomplish once they were able to get out from under the U.S. They are in the middle of a region of great turmoil, with an influx of illegal immigrants fleeing the collapsed Venezuela and sandwiched between two volatile markets — Mexico and Brasil. But they feel stable and confident. As one client told me, “Nothing happens here.”


4 Jan 2016


Posted by emily. No Comments

I used to be an avid photographer. I took classes. I traveled with my SLR and worked in a darkroom. Over the years, as photography became easier with digital cameras, I slowly dropped the habit from taking “serious” photos to catching snapshots…to…sadly…group selfies.

Recently I bought a new DSLR, which I’ve only managed to get out of the box and into its travel case. My hope had been to do a deep dive with it over the holidays. But I never pulled it out. In any case, it’s one of my “skills” that I hope to learn this year: not only how to operate the camera technically, but also to re-capture moments of my life.

I spent most of yesterday going through very old photos of the family and scanning them so I could share them with my cousins. I want to make sure my generation of first-Americans can access their family’s pictorial history. After my mom died and I was packing up photos, I realized that I gravitated to two types — the kinds that documented familiar places in time, and those of people. My mom took a lot of photos of places she traveled, but what I really cared about were the photos of her in those places. I also loved pictures of our home and garden, of our previous cars and our neighborhood. I could see how things evolved, and certain details in those photos evoked great memories.

As I consider my photography moving forward, I’m realizing that I don’t need to take a photo of another icicle hanging from a tree branch, or of another sunset at the beach. You can download those ad nauseum, often by far better photographers than I am. What I need to focus my lens on is my own life and that of the lives around me. Those are the photos that will interest people. At least I hope.


4 Jan 2016

2016 Intention: Balance

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Every year, companies ( particularly in the diet, finance and house organization fields) promote their goods and services that appeal to the most common new year resolutions — lose weight, save more money, get organized. Meanwhile, the news media remind us of the failure rate of new year’s resolutions.

For years I have looked at different approaches to the turning of the calendar year. Rather than making resolutions, I have tried to give up something (an idea that holds me back, a bad habit, a recurring internal dialogue, etc.). I have tried to commit to learning one new skill — a particular cooking technique, photography, the beginning of a language.

This year, my approach is focused on intention. Often before a yoga class, the instructor will ask us to reflect on our intention for the class that day. I like morning yoga and I have used this to set my intention for the day. In this same spirit, I have decided on my overall intention for the year.

The end of the year gives us an opportunity to reflect, and to adjust our course. I often do this around my birthday, as well. (Some argue that’s actually more meaningful than a calendar year. But I’m not listening to them.). If I look back on 2015 what I feel most is a sense of imbalance. Too much work, not enough fun. Too much worry, not enough relaxing. Too much social media and not enough real reading or actual *doing.* Too much of what I must, and not enough of what I want. Too much food, not enough exercise.

So for 2016 my intention is to focus on balance. This will manifest in a variety of ways. In a literal sense, I am going to increase my “balance” poses in yoga and exercises that focus on my core strength. This, I hope, will be a physical manifestation of strength and stability that will reflect out in other things. In a less outwardly tangible sense, I am going to be mindful of my inner sense of well-being…listen more to what I want or what feels right, and put the “should’s” and admonishments in their proper place. This is much harder, but I figure if I just work toward awareness and listening inwardly, I may be able to make some adjustments along the way. Basically, it’ll be an exercise in “course correction” with the hope that I don’t end up at the end of 2016 scratching my head and asking, “Wow…how did I get here?”

I’ll post periodically here to report on how I’m doing.

25 May 2015

Up-cycling and the “Maker” Bug

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For the last several months I have been pouring over landscaping plans. I’ve been debating between simply removing and replacing the concrete patio, or installing a new deck. I’ve debated between going basic (cedar) or upgrading to ipe. I’m seriously considering installing the deck right on top of the existing (ugly) concrete patio and creating a flush-mounted deck. The wood will provide a nice variation of surfaces and “warm” up what will end up being a contemporary landscape.

I love this look:


Of course, I’m not planning on lawn, but instead a mix of drought-resistant plants and Mediterranean food–citrus, olive trees, figs, quince, etc. I plan to have various “pour in place” concrete pavers, also.

Up-cycling two folding chairs

All this will be a big investment. I was getting antsy to do *something.* (Patience not being a virtue of mine.) So I decided to tackle an up-cycling project I’ve noodling around my mind: extending the life of some old, ugly and sad metal folding chairs.

chairs before

I dug up some old fabric in mom’s garage, spent the afternoon taking the chairs apart and spray painting them a glossy ivory, and “reupholstering” the seats and backs. I am lucky not to have a callous on my hand from using the manual staple gun. I could have done a better job on the back, but stretching the fabric at an angle was tricky. The seats look pretty, in my humble assessment.

chairs after

I have four additional folding chairs up in Napa, which my mother kept in pristine condition. Unfortunately they are just “meh” in terms of styling. I’m tempted to do the same to them.

Meanwhile, I’m plotting out the outdoor furniture. I want to create two lounge, or conversation, areas. One will be on the deck itself and one will be further out around a “fire feature.” I also want a dining table & chairs. There are so many options, in a wide range of styles. I’m leaning toward a contemporary Mediterranean, wine-country-vintage-modern-chic look. Similar to the interior of the house.

I already bought some fabulous fabric at Joann’s Fabric for 40% off, which I’ll use for pillows and possible dining seat cushions.

The Bug

I have experienced such great satisfaction when I complete these small projects. In cleaning out my mom’s house, I decided to keep her sewing machine. I am considering taking a sewing class so I can make my own cushions for outside, or to make simple things like outdoor curtains or a tablecloth.

I’ve also loved these “furniture” painting projects. A few weeks ago I built and painted a shelf from IKEA, which is now an etagere (seen in this photo):


I still have my old dresser from childhood and have had my eye on it as a potential “big” project. I may have to invest in a paint sprayer rather than buying can after can. Stay tuned!!


20 Apr 2015

The past, the future and being present

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A few weeks ago I discovered and joined an online Facebook group focused on Azores genealogy. It’s a very active and helpful group with some very knowledgeable people. Years ago I asked my mom to write down as much as she could about my Nunes & Avila ancestry–names, dates, places. I still have her hand-written notes in a folder as well as some anecdotal information I wrote down from her stories.

I’ve managed to have some interesting leads, possibly tracing my maternal lines back to 1560, the birth of “Capitao-Mor” Tome Gregorio!

My paternal lines have been more difficult, and I am painstakingly reviewing baptism records trying to find and decipher hand-written ledgers. It is time-consuming, and I figure this will be a slow process over a long time.

This process has also led me to read some interesting books on the history of the Azores in general. It struck me when I could see my maternal family history go back that far in the same land, often in the same village where I have walked. I realized that I and my cousins are an anomaly by being here in California, a strange turn in centuries of history. No wonder I am drawn back!

Perhaps this renewed interest in my ancestry comes from my desire to re-connect with my heritage or my sense of who I am in the world. Being an only child, with no living parents and no children, has left me feeling a bit disconnected and isolated. I mentioned soon after my mom died that I felt I’d lost my compass. That has subsided a bit, but I sometimes feel slightly disoriented.

Those facts–being a childless, only child, orphan–have also led me to wonder about the future. My mom had friends dropping by and her brother nearby, but I was the primary person to help her out in her later years. I read documents, made phone calls, ran to the pharmacy, took her to doctors’ appointments, made her food, advocated for her, etc. I did this with pleasure and purpose. But I will also selfishly admit that during that time I was wondering what my later years will look like.

I’ve never believed that one should have children in order to secure a caregiver later in life. It often doesn’t work out that way, anyway; kids move far away and start their own lives. In general, I don’t regret not having children. The freedom and additional financial resources have given me more opportunities to do other things.

Which brings me to now. The present.

I feel perhaps I’m spending too much of my prana focusing on either the past or the future. And my intention is to center myself more strongly in the present. What is now.

Granted the past informs me of the forces that make me who I am now. And I was born with the “planning gene” so there will always be a part of me that is looking at the road ahead. But in that process I do not want to lose sight of being fully present here. Now.

The question is how this intention translates to real experiences. To real meaning in the present.



8 Feb 2015

In Between

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There is a cherry plum tree outside our window that is flowering early this year. The unusually warm spring-like January has confused a lot of the trees and flowers. As soon as the pink blossoms appeared, though, the weather cooled down and we’ve had several days of high winds and heavy rain. This happens most years: as soon as the delicate pink blossoms come out—the tree is at its prettiest then—the winds kick in. This conspiracy of the weather gods tosses the branches as the blossoms cling to their precarious hold on the tree. But inevitably, a pink carpet of blossoms covers the sidewalk.


It was two years on February 5, 2015 that my mom died. As soon as I start to feel I’ve recovered from another holiday season without her, and my life has slumped back into its daily plodding routine, I am faced with the anniversary of both her death and her life (her birthday is Feb. 14). A beginning so close to an end seems like a cruel conspiracy.

I took the afternoon off and went to Napa, bought some flowers and a small Valentine’s balloon to put at her grave site. At the house, the retreat, I was able to reflect and spend some time alone, away from the distractions and demands of my life.

I have felt out of balance, which is not a good thing for a Libra. To correct the imbalance I have tried to streamline possessions, to clear out physical space in an attempt to create “psychic” space—more room for the soul and the mind. I’ve been hoping that the removal of physical clutter will help alleviate the mental clutter. I have a long way to go before I feel I’ve made an actual dent in either.

The remodel of the house in Napa was cathartic as I started from scratch in re-filling it, curating only those things that had real meaning or purpose. Those things that haven’t made it into the house are in the purgatory of the garage, awaiting their fate.

I feel in purgatory, too, stuck between the acute, chest-crushing stab of grief and what I hope will be a blossoming of my former interests and hobbies. Now, though, it’s just a dull, chronic bruise of malaise. I shuffle from one week to the next, a blur of to-do lists and appointments.

Entering the third year of life without mom, with a fresh cottage retreat waiting for new memories to be made, I hope the winds won’t toss the delicate flowers off.

10 Nov 2014

Kitchen Reveal

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So here it is.



8 Nov 2014

Living Room Before & After

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Living room before (I was already packing)

Living room before (I was already packing)

Dining and living room after

Dining and living room after

8 Nov 2014

The Road to Urzelina

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Sign to Porto da Urzelina

It’s been three weeks since the contractor completed the last of the punch list items, and I’ve been slowly, very slowly, moving things back into the house in Napa. In packing up the house, I purged a lot of things for charities. And now, in moving back in, I purge once again. I have tried to be discerning about what goes back into the pristine new surroundings, “curating” my way through my mom’s belongings.

Nearly all the old furniture, with the exception of the two beds and my dresser, have been donated to Habitat for Humanity. I also kept the two kitchen chairs and the chair she had in the living room. I hope to re-finish or paint them into something fresh and modern. I had tried to figure out way to keep other items, but when M. and I tried moving my bookcase into the house it was immediately clear it simply no longer belonged. It was too “heavy” for the lightness of the space.

Creating this new home from my old home has been an interesting psychological exercise. Before I started the transformation the house was frozen in time. My mother’s presence, and absence, was in every item. By cleaning the slate, literally, it has given me an opportunity be mindful of the intention for the new space. Just like the visual weight of the bookcase, the emotional weight of all these things was taking its toll. I wanted to use this home as an exercise in minimalism—clean, peaceful, easy to maintain and clean. My vision for the house is for it to be a retreat, a place to “re-charge the batteries.”

A couple weeks ago the new furniture arrived. It’s modern, with clean lines and natural tones. It looks beautiful. And it’s sparse. People who have visited have been surprised how much roomier this 900-square-foot cottage looks. Indeed without so much furniture and bric-a-brac there is a spaciousness that was not there before.

But it did not feel right. It was too clinical, without soul. It looked like an executive suite in a hotel.

So this weekend I have been tipping the balance back, somewhere between the minimalist ideal and having it still feel like “home.” I still needed the house to honor its past–our past.

Urzelina is the village in the Azores where my parents were married. My father’s expansive property was above it and reached all the way up the ridge. There he grew oranges of all types. My cousin now owns the property and the house. Although much of it has been renovated, a lot of it is original. It was an amazing experience to walk through the house and on the property, knowing my father had walked the same steps. Not having known my father, who died when I was three years old, meant I have virtually no memory of him. So I have to experience him in different ways.

In some deep ways, the Azores feels like “home.” My parents came here to find a better life. I was born here and raised here. But from the moment I stepped foot on the Azores, when I first went with my mom when I was 21, I wanted to be there. I don’t want to live there, but I have longed to spend a sabbatical there, at least three or four months.

The question of what makes a house a home is an interesting one.

T.S. Elliott said, “Home is where one starts from.” And of course, we all know the quote “Home is where the heart is.”

On our last visit to the Azores (the marvelous vacation we took with friends, and the time I often reflect on as the last time I felt pure “joy” without the twinge of grief), G. took a photo (above) of an old sign pointing the way to Urzelina. I decided to have a diptych on canvas made from this image and the main artwork in the new living room.



Every time I walked by it this weekend it felt like a window back to the Azores. And suddenly the space had “meaning” and I felt more grounded there. I was home, looking to the road to another home.

Granted, I have yet to spend a weekend in Napa just “being” in it and enjoying it. I do look forward to sharing the space with friends, and thinking of “the road home.”

20 Oct 2014

Contractor crews officially *finished*

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I received word this morning that the contractor has completed my punch list and I’m fully ready to move back into the house! I did manage to get a little jump start last week with the sofa, a floor lamp, dining table and chairs, and a media stand being delivered. MA went up with me last week and helped me move the beds back. I debated with the other furniture that’s left…finding it still hard to let it go. So we tried the bookcase in mom’s bedroom. I instantly knew it wasn’t going to work. The old furniture is visually heavy for the new decor scheme. So we moved it back into the garage, where it awaits a pickup by Habitat for Humanity.

The interior of the house is completely transformed. My aunt and uncle came by to check it out and were surprised how “spacious” 900 square feet could look. Indeed without any clutter and with furniture that is visually lighter (on metal legs) it seems more open.

There are a few more items I want to purchase to finish it off. First, however, I have to undergo the task of culling through the boxes of “stuff” that await me in the garage. From there I will curate what goes into the house, and what will be donated.

At the end of the day last week, MA and I sat on the new sofa and just soaked in the feeling of the space. It feels very serene and calm. It felt like what I’m trying to achieve—a calm retreat.

Pictures will be coming soon.

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