On the holidays… and change

christmasChristmas will never be like it was when I was a little girl. This is a post about how it used to be, and how things have changed. Lots go through it, and now it’s our turn.

When I was little, we didn’t have much — I will never forget one Navidad in particular in which my dad gave my brothers and I $3.00 each in a white letter-sized envelope. I wasn’t sad about the lack of toys for gifts, but felt awfully embarrassed for my father and told him it was OK. But it was awkward. I recall vividly that he handed us those envelopes on our way out to visit with family. We stuffed our stash in our rooms and piled into the car. The holidays were here and we were going to have a good time as we knew how!

Christmas time was filled with a jolly (yeah, that word describes things perfectly) times with our small, yet close, family.

My tio Raul (my father’s older brother and without question the uncle I was closest to) and tia Yolanda were always a part of it, as were my (distant? Not really, try super close!) cousins, Maria and Susy, whose mother, Mari, was my tio Raul’s sister-in-law. My aunts on my mother’s side (Mirta, Nina, Chiqui), their children/my cousins, and my maternal grandmother (abuela Esmeria) would get visits from us, as well. Gifts weren’t aplenty, but food was cooked with love, Colombian music—courtesy of my dad’s record player—filled the living room, and good times were had.

The only way we can see my abuela now is by flying to Miami.

As we grew older, most of the family moved away to warmer climates. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the late 1990s and things haven’t been quite the same every since. My maternal grandmother, now in Miami, would go on to develop Alzheimer’s, and later, my tio Raul, also in Florida, would find out he, too, had Parkinson’s.

Somewhere in there, I was married, then dealing with the spouse’s alcoholism. Then I was separated, and divorced. Throughout it all, there were no tears on my part, only would’ve, could’ve, should’ves. It’s like I lost my ability to feel.

Cousins got married, some moved away, and, as happens, life gets in the way. There are work and parenting commitments, as the next generation of children have to be raised, and so, not surprisingly, intimate family gatherings hardly take place.

Today, Dec. 23, marks four years since my tio Raul passed away due to Parkinson’s disease related complications. I got to see him at a nursing home a few months before he passed, and, honestly, I know he’s in a better place today. I miss him terribly, but Parkinson’s can be an awful disease. I say can be, because I acknowledge there are other illnesses that are much, much worse.

My Tio Raul (left in L photo, center in R photo)

But Parkinson’s eventually imprisons one in their own body. It starts with nerves and muscles, but eventually takes your voice. I remember when I visited him, I could hardly hear him. I kept a happy face and joked around, as I always do, but it is awful to see. I didn’t want him to feel that way.

The last time I saw my uncle in 2011. With my cousin Maria (L) and my tia Yolanda (R.)

Meanwhile, back home, my father was still as stable as the Deep Brain Stimulation surgery he had in 2006 could keep him. He hadn’t had the Parkinson’s tremors in a long while, but his voice and ability to speak were eroding, and rigidity was taking away his independence via walker. He became wheelchair-bound, but he was home for every holiday.

Dad at two different Christmases.

However, this will be the first Christmas without him in the home while we have Christmas dinner, for instance. Here are some tips on how to cope with grief and loss throughout the holidays, courtesy of Fordham professor Lisa Cataldo.

“People think they’re supposed to be happy during the holidays. This is supposed to be a time of sharing with your family, of positive relationships, of celebration and joy,” Cataldo said. “Many people feel alienated, because they’re not in that space, and that idealized image of the holidays only makes them feel the lack of those things more acutely.”


Two thousand fifteen has been a tough one for our little clan. My father fell and broke his hip on Jan. 21, 2015, and was in and out of hospitals, knocking on death’s door at least three times through March. Since then, he’s been in a nursing home, and it’s not easy. Sure, it’s a facility that can serve his needs 24/7, but this comes with much advocacy from us. You have to be there to make sure he’s not neglected. Any sign of a temperature or low blood pressure can spell trouble. A very bad bed sore he developed in February is only now showing signs of progress. (This after I had a very honest discussion with one of his nurses, who said he’s probably go to the grave with that wound. It wasn’t harsh; just real.)

In late August, I had to put my best friend, my 14-year-old black lab mix, Skunky, down. A cancerous tumor forced me to put him down and I still can’t believe I live without a dog!

Me and Skunky in Washington Heights.

Thanksgiving was sad, but no one talked about it. In addition to the fact that my older brother, wife, and nephew moved down to Orlando, the house was quiet. My mom and I visited my dad in the late afternoon/early evening. My younger brother stopped by as late as visiting hours would allow. Out by 8 p.m.

Christmas 2014, my dad’s last one in his house!                                              With my nephew, RJ, and my mom, Maria. 

My younger brother’s girlfriend’s mom and brothers came over, which was nice, but it was very low-key. When the patriarch of the family isn’t around, and can’t even eat due to Parkinson’s related swallowing problems, it’s just sad.

Happier times, despite the Parkinson’s.

To make things worse, we have not quite dealt with our feelings. In one of the bad hospital stays, where a very bad pneumonia caused ICU doctors to have to intubate him, and even insert an I.V. of antibiotics through his carotid artery, my mom and I cried a little, but something about our family of five prevents us from outwardly displaying our fears and general grief. Again, it’s like we’ve lost our ability to not be numb.

There are frequent spats between us, about who doesn’t visit, or visit enough, and the person who is doing the most, of course, is my mother. She is trying to live her life, joining a YMCA and attending classes, and doing better at not spending all day at the nursing home, which is draining.

It’s draining because my father tries to speak to us and we can’t understand him. It’s draining because there are so many residents who don’t get visitors and look to you for any little conversation. It’s draining because there’s a certain smell, a certain way the staff there is overworked and stressed, and, most of all, because we know he’ll be there for the rest of his life.

It’s also disheartening to recently read about nursing home employees sharing pictures of themselves mocking or abusing patients on social media. It just adds to my guilt that I need to be there more. Working in New York, living across the river in Jersey City, and having to drive further north to the home in which my dad now lives.

There’s a lot of wondering what life would be like had he not gotten sick, or remembering what he was like before he was diagnosed. It’s pointless, but it comes up in conversation a lot when we get visitors.

With my brothers. I miss my sister-in-law (third from left), now in Florida.

I think a lot about possibly getting Parkinson’s myself. I dream vividly; I always have, but telling my mother about how it can signal Parkinson’s really upset her. But I’m just being realistic about the fact that it can very much be genetic. I spend a lot of the time at the gym because of this, since exercise has been shown to slow the progression of the disease, something we did not know when my dad was first diagnosed.

My nephew, RJ, lives in Florida now, and I miss him so!

I was never really big on winter holidays. I always liked the Fourth of July and summer in general. I dislike the cold, the dark coming early, and having to stress out about gifts. But we’ll do it. Christmas will be fine, but figuring out how to be with my dad when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1 is another hurdle. (We’re not sure if visiting hours will be strictly enforced or whether we’ll disturb his three roommates.)

If I could have one wish for 2016, it’s that we deal with this better. It doesn’t seem like my younger brother and I have time for support groups or therapy with the full-time jobs and side gigs, and having to drive to visit mom and dad. But I’ll suggest it. We’ll see.

I am EMPHATICALLY grateful that my father is still with us. He doesn’t seem to be in pain many times, but as his nurses aide sometimes says when I’m in his room with her wonderful Haitian accent, “He seems miserable.” (I think it’s more aches that come with being bed-ridden most of the time.)

I pray 2016 brings us some better days.

The Bronx Zoo saved a cobra!

Julie Larsen Maher_5262_Indian Cobra_BZ_12 18 15
Photo via Julie Larsen Maher

Via WCS: Two Bronx Zoo herpetologists rescued an Indian cobra (Naja naja) which was a stow away on a container ship destined for the APM Terminals at the Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal in New Jersey.

The approximately 18-inch long snake was found in poor condition, dehydrated, cold and exposed to oil residue in one of the cargo holds of the MV Maersk Sana.

The cobra, which is a protected species, was taken to the Bronx Zoo where it is being treated by veterinarians. The snake’s condition has improved since its arrival at the zoo.

Said Kevin Torregrosa, one of the two Bronx Zoo staffers who rescued the animal, “When we located the snake deep below the deck of the container ship, it was in very poor condition. We are cautiously optimistic regarding its recovery.”

The ship was heading from Singapore to the United States when the crew discovered the cobra in the hold on Dec. 10th.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contacted the Bronx Zoo on Monday, Dec. 14 to help remove the cobra from the ship when it reached its New Jersey destination.

Torregrosa responded to the request for help along with fellow herpetologist Avi Shuter.

Once the ship docked, Torregrosa and Shuter, equipped with snake tongs and hooks, a snake bag, headlamps, and antivenin, boarded the vessel, descended eight stories below the deck, and began their search where the highly venomous snake was last seen by the crew.

Julie Larsen Maher_5332_Indian Cobra_BZ_12 18 15.jpg
Looks SERIOUS. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher

It took approximately half an hour to locate the cobra and it was placed in a snake bag, hoisted back to the deck and brought to the Bronx Zoo. Torregrosa estimates the cobra is about one year old, and its sex is unknown at this time.

The Indian cobra’s native range is Southern Asia, including in India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It can be found in urbanized and rural areas, as it preys on rodents.

“We have not yet determined if the cobra will remain at the zoo permanently” said Jim Breheny, Bronx Zoo Director and WCS Executive Vice President of the Zoos and Aquarium. “At present, the snake is in quarantine and under treatment at our wildlife health center. Our main concern is to restore it to good health. We were happy to assist the ship’s crew and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with this rescue.”

The Bronx Zoo is occasionally called upon by local and federal agencies to assist in situations with exotic wildlife due to the expertise of its staff.


#JCFridays & JC’s West Side Holiday Craft Market!

Jersey City’s Twiddlin Thumbs 

My effort to discover (or rediscover, as my ex-husband grew up there and I’d spent much time here in the early aughts) the city I live in continues.

On Dec. 4th, I attended #JCFridays, a city-wide celebration of the arts in chilltown included different exhibits and more throughout the different neighborhoods.

In true ‘I’m-gonna-get-to-know-this-city,-damnit’ fashion, I rode a Citibike from my corner of the Heights to the Grove Street area, where I saw art by Janyewest, Awol, Denai Graham, and Cheese (who, no shit, was written about in the New York Times back in ’96!), at the very spacious and chic Blow Out Society salon.

Later, I mozied (via LYFT, using one of my five free rides via a promo when I downloaded the app) to the JC Fridays event put on by the folks at “A West Side Story” over at the New Park Tavern. I checked out a photography exhibit by Scott Sternbach. Chatting with the photographer and filmmaker, I learned he’s attempting to document as much of the West Side as he can before it gets changed through gentrification. Let’s face it: that time can’t be too far away.

There were also two cool bands: the Penniless Loafers, a ska band, and the Twiddlin Thumbs, a folk band featuring a washboard and a banjo!

So, what’s next? It is December, so I might as well shop at the JC West Side Holiday Craft Fair.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 4.33.42 PM

The cool think about this market is that it’s in a neighborhood outside of the uber-popular downtown area, and it aims to serve all, since it was very reasonably priced for vendors to join. I have to believe this means lower prices on items, which is better for shoppers!

Taking place Saturday, Dec. 12th and Sunday, Dec. 13th in the Gallo Center in Lincoln Park in Jersey City, this fair will feature over 20 local vendors selling food, crafts, and holiday presents.
Visitors can expect a festive atmosphere, and offerings from vendors such as Hot Lollies (who will be selling packs of homemade candies made from daring ingredients like tamarind and ghost peppers), Metal, Cloth and Wood (who will be showcasing their elegant women’s jewelry), and Type A Fibers (who sells handspun yarn from local wool providers, along with knit and woven items).
Plenty of ready-to-eat food will be available from Andy’s Modern Kitchen and other vendors, making this not only a shopping event, but a complete and fun afternoon for everyone who attends. WMFU personality and poet Jim Behrle – from the show Sportsy – will be in costume and handing out free candy canes to children of all ages.
West Side Community Alliance (WSCA) president Jodi Drennan says, “It’s really exciting to welcome more events like this to our neighborhood! We’re delighted to give our residents more opportunities to shop locally and support independent artists and artisans, and at the same time spend a fun day out in our community.”
Event co-organizer Amy Wilson notes that she’s put together several such events in NYC, but is “thrilled to finally bring this kind of creativity and experience to my neighborhood.”
The fair is sponsored by WSCA, Rising Tide Capital, and the Jersey City Parks Coalition, this fair will present a fun and festive holiday celebration that is free to attend and open to all, inside beautiful Lincoln Park’s Gallo Center.


The JC West Side Holiday Craft Fair wants to see you!

New music: J Hacha De Zola’s ‘Strange’


I met musician and artist J Hacha De Zola in October during Jersey City’s Art and Studio Tour (#JCAST) because I was intrigued by his snappy dressing and asked if I could take his picture for my Instagram. I’ve been following his music ever since.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 12.16.39 PM
J Hacha de Zola

He’s set to release his album Escape From Fat Cat City on Jan. 8, but has released a couple of tracks in the meantime for our listening pleasure.

Grab a free download and stream of new track “Strange” (yes, I thought of ‘People are Strange’ because I get some Jim Morrison vibes, idc idc) via Magnet, which calls the song “a moaning, drama-filled showstopper complete with xylophone solos.”

Our friends at CMJ premiered “Let it Go” (no, nothing to do with that Disney movie) in late November.

“… way in the back yelling and way in your face horn blurts toss you back and forth, with Hacha De Zola reigning it all in then letting it splay out again,” is how they describe it, and we tend to agree. Check out the video for “Let it Go” below. I won’t spoil it for you, but there are children’s party characters (?) in the story. And keep up with all things J Hacha De Zola on Twitter.

Marimba music is Intangible Heritage of Colombia and Ecuador

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 10.35.49 AM
Herencia de Timbiqui


Marimba music from Colombia’s South Pacific region and Ecuador’s Esmeralda province have been declared “intangible heritage” by Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, a specialized agency of the United Nations system.

According to Colombian newspaper El Heraldo, Unesco stressed that these musical expressions are “part of the social fabric of the community of African descendants of the South Pacific region in Colombia and the province of Esmeraldas in Ecuador.”

This achievement comes on a day in which UNESCO also announced that vallenato, the traditional accordion music from Colombia, is an “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.”

Via Colombia Reports:

According to the global cultural organization, Vallenato music “faces a number of risks to its viability … notably the armed conflict in Colombia fueled by drug trafficking.”

However, the organization also said that “a new wave of Vallenato is marginalizing traditional Vallenato music and diminishing its role in social cohesion.”

I must highlight a couple of musicians I am fans of to celebrate the addition of marimba music to UNESCO’s all too important cultural heritage designation, and to help preserve Colombia’s vallenato.

Herencia de Timbiquí’s “Amanecé” (Sunrise), which you can read more about via Sounds and Colours.

And to help keep the tradition Colombia’s vallenato alive, listen to fun artists, such as Latin Grammy winner (2014) Jorge Celedón and Silvestre Dangond.

Also listen to New York’s Gregorio Uribe, who puts a big band and jazz spin on things. Uribe will play in Bogotá’s Teatro Colon on the 12th and 13th of December.

His new video for “Cumbia Universal” (the title track off his album) is not a vallenato, but it features the accordion, and more importantly, Panamanian salsa legend, Rubén Blades.