Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Alumni Profile They Won't Publish

"Out of our memory of the holocaust we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide.  We must harness the outrage of our own memories to stamp out oppression wherever it exists. We must understand that human rights and human dignity are indivisible."--Jimmy Carter

Or that failing...

"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest."--Elie Wiesel

          Every year the Intercollegiate Sri Lanka Education (ISLE) Program sends American students to study abroad in Sri Lanka.  The program was founded in 1982 and I was privileged to be among its first students.

          Despite well-documented accounts of genocide and the ongoing persecution of Sri Lanka's Tamil population, the ISLE program continues to grow and flourish--they have even hired a program alum as a public relations liaison and publish alumni profiles in a monthly newsletter.  These profiles feature bright, likable, idealistic young people who express their love for Sri Lanka--a love that is romantic and almost proprietary.  The profiles illustrate how the experience of spending a few months in Sri Lanka as a student has helped to forge who they become as they mature.  I read these profiles with great interest; they confirm my fears.

          An email was generated to all ISLE Program alumni inviting us to submit our profiles, according to their guidelines, for possible publication.

          I invite you to read the alumni profiles published in October, November, and December 2011. Then read mine.

Alumni Profile:  Charlotte Heckscher, ISLE '82

Charlotte Heckscher, William Smith College, Class of 1984, ISLE Program 1982

Raised in a bilingual household by my mother and grandmother, I embrace Armenian culture, although it does not fully embrace me.  I understand Armenian, I sometimes dream in Armenian, and I've been told I speak with an Adabazaartzi accent, but I am not fluent; my mother's people are darker than I am and even with my dark hair and eyes, my light skin and sharp features aren't especially characteristic of my Armenian heritage.  Armenian has a word for this condition:  odar.  The definition of odar is "nonArmenian," but the term carries baggage.  It means outsider, outcast, inferior.  It doesn't rank as a curse, but it's still a bad word.  It's ironic, because Armenians themselves are outsiders; my mother's family fled Turkey during the genocide.

My father was a generation older than my mother, from an aristocratic German family.  He fled Nazi Germany as a pacifist and was imprisoned in Canada for two years because he was German.  His letter of reference from Quakers requesting refugee status had been misplaced by the British.  His prison camp contained a small number of Jews and Communists, but was mostly comprised of German pacifists.  I don't believe any Nazis were interred; I supposed they were happier in Germany.   He eventually joined us and married my mother when I was 10 years old, and his fanatical abhorrence for nationalism, as well as for any display of ethnic pride, came with him.

I am the mother of two teenagers, a son and a daughter.  Their father, a dear friend now, is Egyptian and moved to the United States when we married.   Our children aren't quite bilingual and, like their father, they are Muslim.  Since we live in the rarefied atmosphere of Princeton, New Jersey, our encounters with blatant prejudice have been limited to a few incidents.

Before I was laid off, I was a shadow.  A shadow is a special education aide who assists and closely follows a student on the autism spectrum as he goes about his school day.  I have often regarded my work as a daily attempt to bridge two different cultures or realities--the world of a particular child with autism vs. the expectations of the world of "typical" children and adults.  A shadow isn't well paid or well-respected, as educators go, but for the right person, the job offers a nearly perfect balance of challenge and fulfillment, and the opportunity to cultivate mutually transformative relationships.

The reasons I chose the ISLE program:

It was an accident.  Semester after semester, when the creative writing courses I had my heart set on were closed, I ended up being forced to take the classes that secretly, shamefully interested me more:  and Religious Studies never filled up.  More than merely intellectual exercise, these classes dared students to contemplate the most personal, heartfelt issues from new perspectives, where we came to recognize that the personal is political.  I took wonderful courses with Valerie Saiving, a prominent feminist theologian whose work influenced Mary Daly.  Valerie had crippling arthritis so her students were forced to trudge through the towering snow drifts of Geneva, New York, because classes were held off-campus at her Victorian home. She let us smoke cigarettes and drink tea and pet her Siamese cat while we had discussions--discussions, not lectures--about our assigned readings.  Her class on goddesses led me to take a course Lowell Bloss was teaching about Hinduism.  Again, I was drawn by the warmth of the teacher and the empowerment of being both challenged and treated as an equal.  Lowell and John Holt were recruiting students for the first year of a study-abroad program in Sri Lanka that was linked with Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby Colleges.  I knew nothing about Sri Lanka, but it sounded incredibly cool and I was determined to go.

The foods I fell in love with:

I can't remember their names, or even their ingredients, but I still enjoy eating with my hands. Oddly, I remember bringing home about 20 bags of cadjunuts, spiced cashews, and rationing them to a handful a day.  I was savoring Sri Lanka, rationing it bite by bite, until one day, around the 18th bag, I decided to stop cold-turkey.  I just couldn't face the day when it was all gone.

My most memorable events on the program:

Three pivotal moments:

1.  In the pettah, the market place in Colombo, I stepped on a long rusty nail, driving it through my shoe.  I rested against the side of a building, but I couldn't remove the nail from the shoe and I couldn't walk.  An old beggar woman who, for some reason, reminded me of my grandmother (perhaps because my grandmother didn't speak English, either), pantomimed for me to give her my shoe. She was very serious, almost stern, but when she finally extricated the bent nail, we both laughed.  She shrugged her shoulders, beaming with satisfaction, as if to say, "See here, silly child, this is how it's done." I wanted to hug her, but instead I dug into my pocket to give her a few rupees. The smile dropped off her face.  Shall I spell it out?  I had cheapened her act of kindness, reduced her to a beggar when she had just demonstrated that we were equals, that human kindness is to be freely given and shared.

2.  I will never forget the extraordinary beauty of the tea country, lush and green, with hundreds of waterfalls.  Our bus zigzagged up one mountain and down another when suddenly, around a bend, we noticed an old man in a sarong selling postcards, the kind that tumble down, connected like an accordion.  The old man, frantic, would run up the mountain to beat the bus, jumping over the tea, reaching the next bend in the road further up the mountain just moments before us so he could display his cards again.  At each bend he was more exhausted, until he was finally bent over, defeated, trying to catch his breath.  I laughed with everyone else, except one girl who was sullen.  I asked her what was wrong.  She said, "Why are you laughing? Think about it."

3.  I was afraid to leave Sri Lanka because I knew I would never return.  Once we got to the airport, I realized I'd left my bag at the Ottery Inn, where we'd been staying.  It was at least an hour's drive. I expressed my gratitude to the driver who eventually arrived with my bag, a grandfatherly figure with a gray beard and a toothless smile.  He showed me photos of his daughter and granddaughter and explained how smart they were and how perfect their command of English.  He asked me to write a letter of reference for them, so they could come to the United States and have the same opportunities I have.  He had written their names and addresses on a neatly torn square of yellow lined paper and made me promise him I would write, though I knew I could and would do nothing for him.  He smiled and said, "You are a rich American--you are very lucky!"  I had heard this refrain often, and had always responded, with irritation, that all Americans were not rich and that I, certainly, was not rich. But it was my last hour in the country and it was probably my last chance to seize the uncomfortable moment of grace.  There was no more resistance; I do, in fact, have much, much more than grandfather (materially, at least). Not because of any cleverness or special merit, but by an accident of birth.  I am rich.  I just want more than he wants so I hadn't noticed.

The activities I participated in:

My independent study, the culmination of my academic work in Sri Lanka, was to be field research on the practice of exorcism.  I had done my reading and made connections and bravely set out on a bus into some remote-seeming village to interview a Sri Lankan who had himself written extensively on exorcism and would arrange for me to accompany him to an exorcism and be my interpreter.

I have read about harassment in other alumni profiles.  I was the only Caucasian in the bus, with the added oddity of being a young female traveling alone.  I sat next to a woman and her little daughter, feeling quite brave, but safe.  She pulled my hair and touched my skin while her mother giggled.  The mother asked me something I didn't understand.  Then she tugged my hair and laughed, too.  I felt I was being gracious by allowing strangers access to my body.  I felt I had no choice.  The men sitting behind me poked their fingers under me, between the wooden slats of my bus seat, so they could get a feel, too.  The bus had become crowded inside and out, with standing bodies pushing against me and a number of people hanging off the sides of the bus.

The exorcism specialist was rather handsome, with a soft, soothing voice and uncombed black hair that was pushed back from his brow.  In my imagination he was always the exorcist.  His wife followed us to a tiled veranda and instructed servants to bring tea before she withdrew into another part of the house.  I sat before him in an elaborate wicker chair, taking notes and answering his questions, as if facing a foreign dignitary.  He gesticulated grandly and I observed that he had an extra thumb, a little appendage which bobbled along as he waved his arms before me.  He waved extravagantly.  It was as if he wanted to display it, and try as I might to be polite and avert my eyes, I couldn't take my eyes off it. He had learned of an exorcism that was to take place in a few days and was writing the information for me when he stopped.

"I've never seen this before!"  The floor was covered with tiny red ants and they were all headed for me.  He watched while they crawled over my sandals, stinging my feet with their bites.  "This is very unusual."

Later on, as I waited on the dusty road for my bus back to Colombo, mosquito bites welted up on my arms.  It was a mosquito bite that infected me with Dengue Fever, a tropical disease that's also known as Break-Bone Fever.  Within a few days I was delirious, hospitalized with a fever of 104, with broken capillaries creating a delicate lacework pattern under my skin.  I never saw my exorcism but I wondered, in my delirium, what may have possessed me.

What I miss most:

Naturally, I miss the smell of Southeast Asia, the smell of Sri Lanka, the smell of Colombo streets, the smell of the ocean crashing down furiously at the end of Melbourne Ave., Colombo 4, the ocean that disgorged single sandals and flip flops onto the sand without their mates, the smell of incense at shrines, the smell of chilies and ground cumin, the smell of wood burning, garbage burning, diesel fumes and jasmine.

I miss the particular heat of Sri Lanka in August, the rare pleasure of taking a shower that starts off cold and bracing as the water falls on your face, but is warmed traveling down your body.

Of course I miss the particular light, the audacious bright sunlight blazing off the Indian Sea, the dark breadth of the sky at night as seen from the balcony of the Ottery Inn, pierced by stars, the fractured shimmer of moonlight on the sea, a surprising gust of wind, salty and damp.

I miss Rajah in every memory; he is everything for me in Sri Lanka. I miss being 20 with Rajah.  I remember his brown hands, how the white shirt of his uniform was too big, the sleeves rolled up and the improvised cuff still falling against his wrist bone.

I think of his bones, and the bones of all the others, when I remember him cupping my cheek with his hand, pushing a tear away before I left him.  I left him.  You see?  I left him there and now he's gone.

In every memory I feel his presence, and his absence.

How has the ISLE experience translated beyond my college years and changed my worldview:

I don't think we ever fully recover from the reverse culture shock, the trauma of returning home with our self-perception forever altered.  I remember dreading the ubiquitous, "What was it like in Sri Lanka?" Almost 30 years on, I'd like to reframe the question and ask, "How has the experience changed me?"

Rajah and I corresponded for many years.  His last letter, after he fled up-country from Colombo, written in his meticulous, old-fashioned print with a blue ballpoint pen, said, "These are trouble times."  The rest of the letter was written in Tamil, which I neither read nor understand.  I never heard from him again.

As the years went by, I read more about Sri Lanka's escalating problems and began to wonder why all this was becoming so important for me only after leaving the country.  We had been warned about ethnic tensions when we visited Jaffna (the stronghold of the insurgent Tamil group known as The Tigers).  We were cautioned that we would see military police with machine guns and that our bus would be searched.  It all seemed very exciting and even a little silly at the time, guns and searches.

When I read in one of the recent alumni profiles that an ISLE student had decided to walk to school in Kandy every day "after an exploding bus incident" I wasn't surprised by her attitude, which struck me as one of casual amusement and dismissal.  It's not our war, after all; we're there to study religion or dance or the Sinhalese language.  We Americans (or perhaps it's human nature) are able to draw a safe circle around ourselves by which we are buffered from myriad realities other than our own. We are in Sri Lanka to further our studies, not to stand witness to genocide or insurgency. We are not here to take a stand.

But we are.  Whether we know it or not, we are taking a stand.

That's how the Sri Lankan experience has translated beyond my college years.  I have a responsibility to Rajah, not just to myself, and I have a responsibility to you to take a stand on behalf of the disappeared, the dead, the oppressed.  It may sound grand, but it's simple, really.

Edmund Burke said all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Such a simple equation, not lofty at all.  Ask yourself, Is it true?  Ask yourself, Who am I?

I am like you.  My love for Sri Lanka is romantic and proprietary.  So many of my experiences there have become parables for me, transformative and moral.

My unquestioned assumptions were the nail in my shoe--the grandmotherly stranger was Sri Lanka herself, piercing me like a nail, wrenching out my fixed, stuck notions of place, class, and identity.

What is really so absurd about the old man in the mountains?  Is it that we prefer to see only the physical beauty of Sri Lanka, the picture-postcard images?  Why do we find the dirty old man racing up the mountain, breathless for a few rupees, absurdly funny?   What is it about his humiliation that tickles us so? What's funny about his poverty? Why is it amusing for us to glide up the mountainside in our air-conditioned tour bus and leave him behind, just because we can?

That embarrassing little appendage on the exorcist's hand, like the open secret of the persecution and genocide, seems like a distraction.  It inconveniently coincides with our studies--we feel it's almost rude to look.  I went to Sri Lanka as an outsider to study exorcism, but the fever was all mine, the demon was inside me.  I didn't do the field research--I fell in love with Rajah.  I lost and found myself.  And it didn't happen overnight--it took decades.

Do we use our experience of Sri Lanka to confirm our self-satisfaction?  Are we applauding ourselves for being better people, more tolerant of other cultures, do we now see the harmony in diversity?  Are we still congratulating ourselves for giving rupees to beggars?

If I am like you, then you are also like me.  Imagine us at 20, you or me or Rajah.  Imagine his aspirations, his opportunities, his laughter and his struggles.  Imagine the warmth of his hand, how his callouses sting your cheek when his finger brushes away your tears. Imagine what it means to disappear, to have no one look.  Imagine his bones when you look at his smiling photograph.  He is somewhere, if only in your memory.

Stand up.  Love Sri Lanka in your own way, but protest in your own way, too.  Know what it means to shrug off the "incident of the exploding bus."  Know that you are always a witness and stand up.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Orgasmatron Postscript: Damn You, Roy Orbison

On the other hand, maybe I wouldn't be stimming so much if I just got laid.

Where does love fit into the orgasmatron paradigm?  In the world of orgasmatrons, good tension-release enables us to re-engage the challenges of the world with fresh energy and enthusiasm whereas bad tension-release simply means we're absent without leave (AWOL). But where is love?

I was so pleased with my analysis and vindication of the orgasmatron world--it only stung a little that no one agrees with me. But then, by mistake, I heard "Crying," where Roy Orbison sings with k.d. lang.

And now I'm AWOL.  Even the lonely, pathetic fantasy world of unrequited love is more beguiling and magical than the solitary charms of Orgasmatron.

How could words as plain as this undo me?

I thought I was over you
But it's true, so true
I love you even more than I did before
But darling, what can I do
For you don't love me and I'll always be
Crying over you

Does it help to arm myself with reason?  Let's make a list:

1.  Sports are icky and he's an athlete; ergo, he's icky.
2.  He'd laugh at me for using the word "icky" (not "ergo"); but I like it when he laughs at me.
2.  He's too good looking so I can never relax.
3.  Everyone says he looks gay--he's run the gamut from "clean-cut" to "metrosexual" to "nice and gay" all the way to "latent."
4.  He's too young.
5.  He's too conventional.
6.  He's too anxious.
7.  He only dates Russian supermodels.
8.  His hands are always cold.
9.  He cares what everybody thinks.
10.He knew I loved him and he sent me love poetry he wrote about other women.  Correction:  he texted me.
12.He reminded me of a clown whenever he wore his brown Converse cause they made his feet look like giant bowling pins.
13.He has no scent whatsoever, which makes me feel like a frustrated animal.
14.He drives a gay car, a tiny, teal convertible that's way too small for him and he always has to have the same parking space, otherwise he whines.  Hmmm, that still cracks me up, but it does show how weird and rigid he can be.
15.He eats dry oatmeal straight from the box because it's healthy but he doesn't have time to cook it.  Only I love to laugh at him when he's neurotic like that.  Makes me want to sit down right next to him with a steaming bowl of freshly cooked steelcut oats, lavish it with butter and brown sugar and cream, and MOAN while I tongue the last dribble off my spoon.  I can just hear him crunching his oats now, pretending to ignore me.  God, I want him.
15.When I called him "anal" he didn't know it, but his face would pucker when he answered, "Am not."  Only that makes me laugh, too.
15.He likes the Beach Boys.  He has all their music on a playlist on his iPod called something embarrassing like "Summer Tunes."  (But he also likes Joni Mitchell and Dylan, Madonna and Bowie, the Beatles and U2, Dionne Warwick, and a song by Elvis Presley called "Wooden Heart" that makes me want to cry every time I think of it, even though The King was unable to pronounce the German language to save his life, so whenever I think of it I also picture my Teutonic ancestors rolling over in their graves.  Regardless, Beach Boys still suck.)
16.He can be so immature, like when he has a crush on someone else.
17.I can't mention him to my friends without incurring the silent treatment, because they're so fearful of triggering a full-on psychotic break.  (It can't be because they're bored, can it?)
18.We both seem laid back to outsiders, but scratch the surface and we're both a bundle of raw nerves.  We have to take turns being nuts.
19.His friends are puerile and boring.  ("Did you really just use the word puerile?")
20.And he doesn't love me and he never will.

I'm so AWOL.  This love is like OCD; it's good stimming gone bad.

The best thing I can do for this is immerse myself in chores like cleaning and cooking and making appointments for plumbers and electricians and doctors, and bundling a vast array of toxic waste containers for municipal pick up.

I'll wear procrastination inside-out.  I will avoid my broken heart by perseverating on domestic tasks and stimming up some sugar cookies and lasagna and pot roast and mushroom soup at the stove, and then maybe, just maybe, I'll allow myself a single Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

They're his favorite.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Orgasmatron of the 21st Century

Stimming is a repetitive body movement that self-stimulates one or more senses in a regulated manner. Stimming is one of the symptoms listed by the DSM IV for autism. Common forms of stimming among people with autism include hand flapping, body spinning or rocking, lining up or spinning toys or other objects, echolalia (the involuntary repetition of words spoken by another person), perseveration (the tendency of an idea, impression, or experience to persist or recur, or of an individual to continue a particular mental activity without the ability to easily shift to another at a change in stimulus, and repeating rote phrases)...and sometimes flapping a pencil in front of your face while gazing at it with awe and reverence and thereby tuning out the entire world and its stresses. 

Instructional aide (me): So, you have any big plans for this weekend?

Nine-year-old (apple-of-my-eye) student:  Ms. Heckscher, I'm going to Stimmy Island, and you're not invited. It's just me and my pencil, baby!"

My student--Apple of My Eye--had a superb week.  We kept an elaborate behavioral chart in which tick marks were made for each stimming incident.  If my Apple did well, he would be rewarded over the weekend.  That particular week, my Apple did extraordinarily well and I thought he'd earned a well-deserved stim.  

A good "shadow" (that was my official title) would have turned Apple's witty remark into a teachable moment to drill in the message stimming is bad, not-stimming is rewarded, and never, under any circumstances, call your teacher "baby."  I, however, laughed and said, "Apple, you are just about the most creative boy I know and I like the way you think.  And I don't know anyone who's worked harder for a good stim behind closed doors."  

Apple said, "Thank you, Ms. Heckscher."

I was laid off because of New Jersey's statewide budget cuts, not because of philosophical differences.

Let me be the first to present this truly original hypothesis--and all of you who practice applied behavioral science as a religion, without question, can go straight to hell:  A good stim is a form of healthy meditation. 

Am I putting a value judgment on meditation--is there good meditation and bad meditation? Omigod, you know what?  I am judging.  I'm just that radical.  You know there's a difference, too, but maybe you're just too dogmatic to admit it.  (Yes, I'm in a pissy mood again.) 

Intention is everything.  It's okay to meditate to de-stress, but not to escape your responsibilities or emotions because they make you uncomfortable.  Sometimes, the fine line between the practice of detachment and the practice of escapism is invisible.  Sometimes, don't we need to check out briefly to "get some perspective" because only then can we return to a problem with a fresh outlook, fresh energy, new ideas?  And sometimes, don't we just call out sick to avoid the inevitable, consequences be damned?  One is good, one is bad. You know it.

I want to go to Stimmy Island--just me and my vibrator.  

Is that so wrong? 

Is it wrong that I'm perseverating on Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House"?  Or that all day long I mutter "When a problem comes along/You must whip it?"    

Or is it healing?

Masturbation is often sneered at or pathologized, even though it's done privately, in the same way stimming (even when it's done privately) is labeled taboo, without consideration for its contribution to personal well-being.  Solitary sex is considered deficient, immature, selfish, embarrassing (even though we all do it), while even the most disappointing mutual sex is something we can brag about.  We don't normally swagger and glow after a self-pleasuring session, but no one ever fakes an orgasm when they're all alone.  Masturbation may be inspired by another person, but it's unabashedly all about numero uno.

Good stimming, good sex, and good meditation share a common trajectory which can be described like this:  tension build-up, single-pointed focus that disengages us from everything else,  release of tension, followed by a sense of communion and a fresh re-engagement with the world.

Did you ever see the old Woody Allen movie "Sleeper"?  The story begins in 1973, when a dorky guy is hospitalized for minor surgery that goes awry and he ends up being cryogenically frozen, and awakens in the year 2173 to a world of total conformity ruled by an evil dictator with the demeanor of a TV anchorman and where bananas are the size of row boats. In this programmed atmosphere, libido has been crippled (except in Italian males) so every house has a proper orgasmatron, a kind of phone booth that accomodates one or two people and induces instantaneous orgasms. People go into the booth looking crisp and starched and come out with messy hair and crooked smiles.

When we're stressed and repressed, we need an orgasmatron in order to function optimally. The orgasmatron of the 21st century could well be meditation.   It's widely socially acceptable and appeals to spiritualists and scientists alike for its measurable benefits, and you can do it alone or as a shared experience, but no one can do it for you.  We're not encouraged to think of meditation (or sex) as being selfish, but ultimately we do it to feel better.

The Apple of My Eye once told me candidly, "Ms. Heckscher, you love to laugh.  Of course, I like to laugh, too, but I like stimming a lot more."

My friend Kim shared a quote from "A Joseph Campbell Companion:  Reflections on the Art of Living,"

As you proceed through life, following your own path, birds will shit on you.  Don't bother to brush it off.  Getting a comedic view of your situation gives you spiritual distance.  Having a sense of humor saves you.

The value of my vibrator is self-explanatory, but what about my other perseverations?  I may, in fact, be so frustrated that I secretly wish to burn down this house--which should be condemned--instead of fixing it, or step on a crack and break my beloved mother's back--rather than cajole her into our twice-daily physiotherapy sessions.  I'm not exaggerating when I proclaim that the combination of perseveration (on the songs of Talking Heads and Devo) and humor (the lyrics of "Burning Down the House" and "Whip It") are life-saving and energizing for me.  I detach by submerging in music, I may also engage with the uncomfortable truth of my darker, taboo feelings, and the humor and pleasure of the music enables me to integrate, to return, reinvigorated, to the tasks at hand.

Isn't humor another orgasmatron?  The best laughter/orgasm comes from something taboo, something we're maybe a little ashamed of or embarrassed about, something very private that we're rarely inclined to acknowledge publicly.  (Like sex, humor tends to lose potency with critical analysis, but I'm not trying to do stand-up or have sex, so what the hell.)  The trajectory of humor can also be described as tension build-up (our inner struggle with an uncomfortable topic) single-pointed focus that disengages us from everything else (full identification with what is taboo), release of tension (laughter), followed by a sense of communion and a fresh re-engagement with the world.  Some people like comedy clubs, while others prefer more solitary (one-on-one) pleasures.  It's a big world, embrace your own style and your own stims.

Which brings me back to my point about stimming and intention.  As long as the activity doesn't seek to permanently divorce you from the world and rob you of energy--which it can if you stim to excess--stimming, et al., can be a healthy outlet.

Of course, if you're reading this, you're participating in my very own, personal orgasmatron. When you write, isn't your whole attention focused upon a single idea to the exclusion of everything else?  After the act of writing, on completion, don't you feel gratified, steadied, energized for the large and small tasks of the day?  When you read something that interests you, you are also fully engaged.  And if you leave a comment or begin a dialogue on this blog, then there's an explicit communion between us.  Darling.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What a Broom, a Laptop, and Buddha Have in Common

          They say you can't go home again, but here I am, at 49, back in my childhood home so I can take care of my 85-year-old mother after her bypass and valve replacement surgery.  I might be here for a month or I might be here indefinitely.  In my fist is a psychic compass whose needle whirls around and around.  If I was in the farthest reaches of outer space, I'd know where I was because the needle wouldn't move at all, but here, each familiar landmark means vertigo.

          We know ourselves by our relationships, by the predictable magnetic pull of their names, like mother and daughter, or adult and child.  But when you go home again, as a grownup, the compass whirls, meanings change or become ambiguous.  Being my mother's caretaker changes a lot, but not everything.  Underlying power struggles are reconsidered and rearranged, but they are there, none the less.

          My mother has never asked anyone for anything, which has been her source of strength but also prevents a certain intimacy.  My mother is vulnerable now in ways she would never willingly allow herself to be, and while she's frustrated, I think I see her delight, new, miniscule and guarded, in this simple ability to ask and receive.  Her delight, as much as her vulnerability, make caretaking a source of pleasure for me, even when I'm tired and cranky. Especially then.  Her openness is my inspiration.  But I can't imagine how I'd feel (or react) if she openly resented my presence in her home.  That's always the question mark swirling darkly in the background.

          Privacy, for all of us, is a thing of the past.  My son, Omar, just looked over my shoulder and disapproved of my title.

          "What the hell do a broom, a laptop and a buddha have in common?  Is your blog like some kind of fortune cookie and you're a wannabe Asian--?  Oh, that's right, you can't be Asian, cause you can't do math and you don't have a job..."

          In all fairness, 15 is the age when he and his friends are all about what my generation meekly referred to as "appropriating the language of the oppressor"--he calls his Asian friend who struggles with math a "wannabe Asian" and that friend tells Omar, "Shut up, terrorist."

          I've been attempting to seize Omar's attention for the past five minutes so he'll take out the garbage, but he responds right away to Leila when she says sweetly in pig Latin, "Hey, UpidStay, Mommy's talking to you."

          We're all sitting around the tiny, ultra-mod Saarinen tulip table my mom's always had in the dining room, where I used to sit down for countless dinners with my father and uncle and grandmother--all dead now.  Gathered around the white table are my very own childen:  my laptop's bumping against Leila's and Omar's elbow is in my face whenever he flips a page of his magazine.  We're awkwardly reestablishing our family narrative within this tight, new setting, which was also the ancient theater for my own uneasy role as The Child.

          How's it going, so far?  A bit feral, actually.  We're like animals in a zoo, attempting to adapt to a weird new habitat that approximates our own, but doesn't quite cut it.  And that's just us humans--my mother's aristocratic Siamese cats, Boris and Zelda, are aghast at Pablo, my enormous tabby cat who eats their food and sprawls in front of them while they hiss and grumble.  He's twice their size but still a kitten and doesn't know to hiss back, just how to roll. Or maybe he's just playing the big galoot to ingratiate himself, while our other cat, Mia, hides under the bed all day.  We all have our coping strategies as we struggle for position.

          We know who we are, too,  by our possessions--by what we hoard and what we discard--and we are always in a relationship with our things.  Among the things in my mother's dining room were an old sewing machine in a dirty plastic case and an old dehumidifier with dusty coils (both acquired from garage sales and never used), a broken chair, two cardboard boxes of photos which the cats use as a scratch pad, piles of newspapers, and stacks of empty frames.  All this I banished to her living room which, since we are forbidden to enter it anyway, is serving as storage space.  I cleaned away cobwebs and thick, greasy dust motes, the inky soot clogging the gills of the old air conditioner are now scrubbed clean, the rug has been vacuumed, windows shined, each tchatcka washed and dried and put back into its exact place:  yet neither of us is satisfied.

          My mother paces through her dining room on her daily exercise route, back and forth from her bedroom, like a caged creature, looking neither to the right nor the left.  I sense that my presence in the room has diminished hers.   By cleaning I took something of her away, or implied criticism; by removing some of her nonessential objects, I made bits of her nonessential.  Did the unused sewing machine represent the possibility of perhaps making a dress for the first time in 40 years; what might those empty frames have held some day? Surely, she would have gotten around to cleaning her own dining room when she wanted to, in her own time, when she felt up to it.

          I'm mortified by the giant framed arts nouveau poster of two bare-breasted nymphs that hangs in the room that Leila and I are sharing.  Not because of the breasts, but because it was a gift from my father's lover, as a reminder of her breasts.  (My mother isn't bothered by such details; she likes how its sunset palette matches the room's decor and, she says, "it has some value.")

          The room belonged to my grandmother and the bed is where she died many years ago, when I was 21 and she was about the age my mother is now.  I had been calling my grandmother down for dinner, over and over.  We were having lamb chops and creamed corn, her favorite American food.  When I came upstairs, the door was shut and no light came from underneath.  I yelled at the door, waiting for an answer; I yelled over and over. Each time, the silence was deafening. Then I yelled for my mother.  That silence meant death I must have understood--there was never really any question--but I wouldn't open the door to it.  When my mother opened the door and turned on the light, my grandmother was lying on the bed with her eyes slightly open, as if she was on the verge of waking.

          The mattress is so soft that to sit upon it means one's ass sinks nearly to the floor. For two people to sleep on it requires desperate clinging, even in sleep, because the sides sag like a pitched roof.  Leila woke this morning with one foot already on the floor.  I woke up gazing at Justin Bieber, whose face is on the calendar Leila hung up.

          I miss the open flow of rooms in our house.  You can see from one end of the house to the other and outside to the forest through big windows that stretch up to high ceilings; I used to complain because our house had no privacy.  This house was built in 1910 and each small room closes off, yet the walls seem constructed to transmit sound from one end of the house to the other.  Every window looks out on another house, impinging itself on us.  And I don't remember the toilet seat being so low, or the doors not being able to close shut.

          When I woke up last night clinging to the bed--I don't know what time it was cause I don't know which bag my clock is in--I remembered a game I used to play with my friends. The game was supposed to reveal your true nature by pinpointing what you value most.

Say you're stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue--name three things you'd want to take with you.  They can't be practical instruments of survival--no fair calling knives or matches or a generator--the objects must have personal significance for you.

          Omar brought his X-box, his entire collection of manga, and Axe Twist (cause the smell attracts hot chicks).  Leila brought everything but the kitchen sink, but the first things she placed around the room were framed photos of her and her dad and one of me holding her infant self, there's also enough makeup to sink a ship, and assorted Bieber paraphernalia. But what did I bring?

          The first thing I brought into the house was my broom.  You see, my mother's broom is taller than I am and the bristles are made of straw or boar bristles that fall out as I sweep, so in the end, I have to fetch a little dustpan and squat to brush everything up.  My broom is shiny and white and light, with uniform synthetic bristles that are angled for optimum sweep, all this and it fits into its own dustpan with a long handle for maximum efficiency.  If I can control the dirt--and control it on my own terms--then there is still at least something I can control.  This broom, then, is my most coveted object.

          I do sweep a lot, but come on.  I must have brought something else.  I brought my iPod, but couldn't find the headphones and didn't want to take the iPod dock because I still go back to feed the plants in our own house and I love to be able to crank my music at will, which I can't do here.  What else did I bring?

          I brought my laptop.  It's been with me since the beginning and I made sure we had internet connection before we moved in, but I haven't had time to write.  Of course, I shouldn't be writing now; there are easily 15 important things I should be doing right now that trump blogging.  With the laptop, it's a bit like my mother's sewing machine, it's more about promise than fulfillment.

          Since nothing else of significance came to mind last night as I hung on to the edge of the bed, I recognized a golden opportunity to define myself by whatever I chose to bring next. One of the first things I've seen every morning for the past 15 years is a Japanese wood carving, a masklike sculpture of the Buddha.  Made of a soft, green-gray wood native to Japan, it has a dusty suede patina, which the shopkeeper told me could be polished to a high sheen, if I preferred.  Buddha's eyes are half closed and his expression is serene, the lips almost curved in a smile, but enigmatic, like the face of Mona Lisa.  It was carved by a novice monk as a form of contemplation.  When the monastery burned, the Buddha was salvaged, but there is a black, heart-shaped scorch mark on his temple, beside his left eye.  That's how I got it cheap.  What others perceived as an imperfection alludes to a mysterious, sublime truth I can discern now.

          I always mean to meditate.  When I look at my Buddha every morning, I'm transfixed by his enduring tranquility, even while he's on fire.  His eyes are on the point of opening, his smile is on the point of breaking, and he's on the point of burning.  This has always been his secret and I want to know it.

          So today, my Buddha is beside the pitching bed, on a defunct antique sewing machine table that's covered by a torn paisley shawl, under the light of a bulb that's partly exposed by a torn lampshade in the room where my grandmother slept and died, where there is now a picture of Justin Bieber, and a graphic reminder of the lovely breasts of my father's mistress and everything else in the world I can't control.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Another Day in Paradise: Life after Genocide

The war in Sri Lanka is over and now, at last, healing can begin.  This is propaganda from the murderers, seeking to justify decades of racism and genocide to the outside world, as well as to mollify Sri Lanka's own, wary inhabitants.

What I, as an outsider, find as outrageous as the Sri Lankan genocide is the efforts of outsiders to excuse the genocide.  

The study-abroad program that sent me to Sri Lanka 30 years ago is now selling this propaganda under the auspices of The Asia Foundation's LankaCorps.  

LankaCorps is a unique new opportunity for Americans of Sri Lankan heritage to professionally engage in social, cultural, and economic development activities in Sri Lanka. Three young leaders will be selected to live and work for six months in Sri Lanka as Asia Foundation LankaCorps Fellows from April 1 to September 30, 2012. The program's intent is to foster the involvement of young members of the diaspora who have limited in-depth experience with the country.

Kiss my American ass.  What kind of olive branch is used as an instrument of rape?  Involve young members of the diaspora in what, exactly?  Will these young refugees influence policymaking in the new Sri Lanka?  Are these young members of the diaspora allowed to talk about the past so that history is not doomed to repeat itself?  What can their participation produce, other than support for the status quo?

I feel myself shaking with rage as I fight with a stubborn flicker of doubt and hope.  Nothing is so simple, even if we want it to be--what if good can come of it, out of the aftermath of genocide?  Why not forgiveness?  If peace and harmony can be achieved this way, then why shouldn't the end justify the means?  

And that's a question I can answer simply, without a flicker of doubt:  the end can't justify the means.  

We can't build a nation of multi-ethnic harmony on top of an open grave.  Healing does not happen when we turn away from the source of our pain; healing happens when the source of pain is acknowledged.  The only way to rebuild and to heal is for the government of Sri Lanka to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

Last night, when I visited my mother in the nursing home, we argued after I read a portion of the New York Times book review to her, about a biography of Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun (the review by Dorothy Gallagher of "Eva Braun:  Life with Hitler," by Heike Gortenmaker, in the November 20 issue of the book review).  

At first, we chuckled at Eva and Adolf's familiar domesticity, "At meals, she sat at Hitler's left. She felt secure enough to rebuke Hitler for being late to dinner, and to indicate when she thought he had talked enough."  The author suggests that the demonization of Hitler has prevented a full understanding of the Nazi phenomenon, along the lines of Hannah Arendt's concept of the banality of evil.  Unlike Arendt, Gortenmaker seems to find a measure of comfort in Hitler's banal domesticity.  

The reviewer, however, concludes, "Or do we know, as we have always known, that evil walks among us; that no monster (or his friends and lovers) thinks himself monstrous, no madman thinks himself mad; and that, as the filmmaker Jean Renoir once said: 'The really terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons.'"

My mother declared that she believes Hitler is the archetype of psychopathic evil.  I found myself playing the fuming role of devil's advocate.

"Why should Hitler get to be the archetype?  Or why does he get off as a psychopath? Genocide happens in every country.  Every generation has its genocides.  Maybe he's just the only one the whole world agrees to hold accountable."

My mother purses her lips and blinks.  "No, Charlotte.  Hitler is different."

"The Germans were made to apologize and stand in a corner, now they even have an Auschwitz theme park or whatever, where people can tour the green meadows and smoke stacks and observe a moment of silence.  Germany got over it because they were punished--they fessed up, accepted collective guilt, and moved on.  The difference is Germany was made to atone."

My mother looked down at her fingernails, which I interpreted as her waiting for my tirade to finally be over, which only fueled my flames.

"Does the world make Turkey admit to its genocide of Armenians?  Did the Armenians get handed prime real estate of their own, like the Jews, as payback?  No one really believes that piece of shit poghotz in Russia that's not worth fighting over is really Armenia.  Armenians are still stateless and we don't heal because Turkey is allowed to deny its crimes."

My mother looks at me and clears her throat.  I'm feeling a little self-conscious, but that's the worst time to back down.

"You think if German Jews had fought back like the Palestinians, would they be called terrorists or heroes?"

I want to be convinced that these vague overtures towards multi-cultural harmony in Sri Lanka signify hope.  Why shouldn't we all want to believe in a fairytale ending, "and after the genocide, they all lived happily ever after.  The End."  

Like I said before, kiss my American ass.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Importance of Sauerbraten and a Free Bird

St. Mary's Hospital in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, is defiantly situated right across the street from The George School, a venerable Quaker institution established in the mid-nineteenth century. St. Mary’s pedigree is a little dubious. The waiting room is festooned with crucifixes of all sizes, and some are quite graphic. The receptionist hands out big, round vibrators that go off when it's time for pre-op—like the buzzers they pass out at Panera and South of the Border to let you know your table is ready.  The mixed message suggests Medieval Times meets Red Lobster.

          Pre-op is a narrow, windowless corridor, a civil-war-style sick ward with curtained partitions where the beds, nevertheless, bump up against one another in the restless, fluorescent gloom. My friend, Deb, who accompanied me, asked sotto voce, "Is this where they do it?"

          Our nurse-escort laughed a little tightly, "Of course not!"

          Once I was captive in bed, a plump, kindly chaplain appeared. The Sister said she had undergone my procedure, cardiac catheterization, a few years earlier, and it had been lifesaving. She held my hand, leaning over my bed rail, and asked if she might pray for me.

          "Please protect your daughter, Charlotte, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet." (Her eyelids fluttered—no fair peeking!)

          "Well," I glanced at Deb afterwards, "that was kinda nice, right?" I may have been blushing.

          "Yeah, it was okay.  You look nervous.  Maybe it's just cause your eyes are bloodshot."

          I felt suddenly panicked.  The prayer had brought forth a sudden, nauseating fear for the welfare of my son and daughter.  If I died, it was suddenly imperative that they knew they meant everything to me, that nothing and no one was more important.  I wanted to tell Deb, but some instinct for self-preservation prevented me from speaking.             

          The chaplain introduced herself to the patient directly across from me, not more than 10 feet away, a scruffy guy about my age who spoke in the distinctive dialect of South Philly. She took his hand in both of hers and fixed her green eyes on him.

          "Now, what brings you here today, son?"

          "Well, awhile back I had radiation treatment for lung cancer—"

          "Oh!" cooed the chaplain, "I'm also a lung cancer-survivor."

          Do chaplains lie?

          I admit it; I was suspiciously recording every detail, the same way the loop recorder about to be implanted in my chest would record every single heart beat. Skipping over about nine hours and 1,024 suspected abuses, after having lain perfectly still to facilitate a secure seal on the stigmata at either side of my groin, a nurse adjusted the angle of my bed so that I was in a sitting position. This was the precursor to my leaving—if the stigmata remained sealed during the positional shift, I could pimp my ride.

          Just as my bed was being raised, Deb told me, “Everything is fine. It’s fine—but R just called to tell me your mother was admitted to the hospital. They’re doing some tests on her heart.”

          Her words opened a floodgate of nausea with a heavy, burning sensation in my chest.

           “Tell them to put my bed down," I groaned, "I think I’m gonna pass out.” My mother was 85 years old and attributed her excellent health largely to the fact that she had refused to see a doctor for eight years.

          This up-and-down routine continued for two hours before it occurred to someone that it might be thoughtful to drip an anti-emetic into my IV to quell the nausea that was, apparently, a bad reaction to anesthesia.

          This is a digression, and so is the fact that I came home that night with a fever and an infected chest and no instructions whatsoever, and that, by the next morning, I felt weaker and the metal shard in my chest was heavy and burned like a comet. Advances in modern medicine had enabled the invention of a spray-on adhesive bandaid through which my incision glared like a pink, oozing, shrink-wrapped eyeball. The better to seal in the germs. Halloween is Monday and I’m ready with my costume five days early.

         Digressing further, I picked up a prescription for antibiotics which, in turn, caused an itchy rash to spread, like a curse, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Thanks a lot, Sister.

          Did I mention that New Jersey had declared a State of Emergency due to massive blackouts caused by the first snowstorm of the season?  Trees whose branches had reached upwards, their leaves still flushed with bright autumn color, were sagging under the weight of wet snow and ice.  Limbs snapped and trees fell, transforming the landscape overnight.

          Did I mention the big, honking herpes lesion that transformed my lower lip overnight?

          Our power was restored this morning, and with it, my gratitude and a triumphant urge to kvetch.

          But none of this matters.  My mother knows what matters.

                                       *                              *                             *

It's Halloween morning here at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  Instead of crucifixes, some of the staff are dressed as witches. My mother is having open-heart surgery. Her surgeon, Dr. Bavaria, who nevertheless hails from Italy, is tall, dark, and sexy.  My mother and I agreed on the sexy, but I was convinced he was Bavarian while she vigorously argued on behalf of Italy.  (She made a point of asking him before they started her anesthesia.)

Pauline at the Surgical Family Lounge
          By my mother's second night in the hospital, less than a week ago, she was unable to shift in bed without becoming breathless.  Her blood pressure fluctuated wildly, so nothing could be prescribed to control it.  I sat with her that evening and her expression had set into a kind of hard, peevish mask.

          The words emergency bypass surgery were cast about, experimentally, by doctors who were still waiting for conclusive test results.  I had brought the New York Times and her mail. She had me practice paying her bills and balancing her checkbook, examining my work for neatness and accuracy.  Only after she was satisfied with my competence did her own soft face begin to show through the peevish mask. Her large eyes narrowed, but with her eyebrows raised a little, at least she looked hopeful.

          "Did you finish making the sauerbraten?"

          Great emphasis was placed on this question.  She had started the sauerbraten four days earlier—it had already been marinating in its complex brine of red wine and vinegar, bay leaf and juniper berries, a day too long.

         "The brine was in a separate container," my mother continued.  "I told R how to wrap the meat in paper towels, to absorb all the excess—did he remember to bring it to you?"

          "I swear I've never seen such a complicated recipe.  I know it's delicious, but it almost doesn't seem worth all the effort."

          "You just make it."

          The night I came home from St. Mary's, feeling flayed and still a little queasy, R had greeted me with a smile.

          "Your mother told me to give you something very important."  He opened the fridge and produced something that looked like an enormous heart wrapped in damp, pink paper towels.  "This is the meat your mother wants you to make.  It's all she talked about—I think she cares more about this than her heart.  She says you have to make it tomorrow or it goes bad.  The cookbook's next to the stove."

          The next morning, weak and feverish, I hoisted the damp slab of meat onto the kitchen counter and carefully opened the pinkish wrapping.  It still reminded me of a giant, purple heart and provoked an uncomfortable mix of emotions.  I was grudging and resentful and revolted, yes; but I was also undeniably pierced through with tenderness.

          Two tablespoons of lard I did not have; I'd substitute butter.  The meat sizzled in my red enamel pot (a little too small, but adequate) and I carefully browned each side before removing it to a platter and adding the chopped vegetables.  The rich fragrance of browned meat and onions filled my kitchen.

          The sauerbraten recipe was written like a novel, in long, ponderous paragraphs. Somewhere on page two, well after eye strain had set in, the vegetables, brine, and meat were finally united with some flour in the red pot and left to simmer under cover for several hours.

          Before she told me she needed bypass surgery and a valve replaced, she asked me again.

          "Did you make the sauerbraten?"  By now I was ready for her.

          "It's simmering as we speak.  All that's left is to add the gingersnap crumbs."  She sat back in her hospital bed, clearly impressed.

          "Just remember to press that sauce through a sieve to get all the lumps out.  You really have to push to get out as much as possible.  Don't forget."

          "I was thinking about putting the sauce in the food processor to blend it.  Don't you think that would work, too?"

          "I've never done it, but I don't see why not."

          "I'll freeze it and we can have it together when you come home."

          Then she told me about the state of her heart, the severe aortic stenosis, the blocked artery, the valve that needed replacing, and added, "You know, if I survive the surgery, I won't be able to eat the sauerbraten.  You eat it with the kids."

          A litany of instructions followed, which she insisted I write down on a yellow legal pad, such as where to find important documents, various keys, financial and other advice, and why it's prudent to obtain exactly 12 copies of a death certificate.  I took notes, obediently, hoping to convey reassuring qualities, such as calm receptivity and courage.

          "If I die, I want you to look into having the body cremated in Philadelphia and then having the ashes sent to Princeton.  Why incur the added expense of shipping the body first to Princeton, and then shipping it back out to a crematorium...? You're glazing over, but this is important—you have to face these things now."  Her huge, dark owl-eyes were fierce, but not without compassion.

          "Um, I was fine up to the dead body," I grinned.


                                    *                              *                             *

          The night before her surgery the nurses set up a cot for me beside her bed.  There was a sliver of sky visible through the wide window beside us.  Above the snowy rooftop of Penn Tower, across 34th Street, was a radiant half-moon and, on our side of the street, something reminiscent of a lighthouse, which must have been used to guide aircraft to the helipad on the hospital roof.  The intermittent sigh of a train whistle from the station two blocks away reminded me of a fog horn.  

          We reclined, facing each other, on our separate beds, nibbling banana-walnut muffins and sipping apple juice through straws we'd poked into tiny foil-covered containers. She read the New York Times and from my laptop I searched the web to unearth precious nuggets of information for her about the two sons of Gloria Vanderbilt and conductor Leopold Stokowski—the half-brothers of her hero, Anderson Cooper.  

          "I noticed you filled the legal pad with your own notes," I said as nonchalantly as possible.  "Anything you want me to read now?"

          "Oh, no!  They're mostly just notes to myself and—well, some instructions for you, but there's nothing you need to know now.  Except there is something.  Let me see."  I passed her the legal pad and she flipped through several long pages until she found what she was looking for.

          "Here it is—this is it."  Her index finger traced the line of text as she read.  "If you spend $300.00 before November 24th, you can get a free turkey at Shop Rite."

          She looked at me over the rim of her glasses.  We do a lot of laughing at my mother's peculiar strain of bluntness and stinginess, but only after I take pains to point out the humor to her.  After all, 'blunt' and 'stingy' are like juniper berries and gingersnaps, they're her secret ingredients; they impart her wisdom and legacy, and they are my inheritance.

          My mother's room in the ICU is full of strange noises from all the machines and computers that are keeping her alive.  Her breathing tube was removed 11 hours after surgery, and one of the arterial lines in her neck was just removed, but she's still connected to an external pacemaker and more tubes than I can count.  We know that her recovery is very much a two-steps-forward-one-step-back endeavor, but each setback demands a giant leap of faith.  Now that the surgery is behind us, I can tell my mother I love her again without fear of betraying emotion and endangering our carefully calibrated composure. 

          Meanwhile, the sauerbraten's in the freezer and I'm one shopping trip away from qualifying for my free bird at Shop Rite.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Deep Thoughts Before Heart Surgery

"Everybody's got a plan until they get hit in the mouth."
--Mike Tyson

To Do List:

1)   Clean the house so, in case I die, it's clean.

2)   Ask Julie if she can drive the kids to school tomorrow.

3)   Make beef stroganoff to fulfill Omar's dream of having it for dinner tonight; make potato soup so there's something good the next day in case I die and can't make dinner.

4)   Wash everyone's bedding so we start off with clean sheets in case I die and no one remembers to ever do laundry again.

5)   Make all the bathrooms sparkle so, in case I drop dead, people will think I care and admire me.

6)   Wonder why I can't be inspirational.

7)   Don't send $756 check for November health insurance payment, in case--

8)   Or do send it, cause it'll bounce, anyway.

9)   Make fun of Occupy Wall Street one more time, just because.

10) Take Leila to ballet at 5:30.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mojo and the Myth of Aging Gracefully

Imagine aging 50 years in a few days.

This is what happened to Nguyen Thi Phuong, a lovely 23-year old woman from Vietnam. For three years, she wore a mask to go out in public because she was so ashamed of her appearance. Now 26, she and her husband have decided to publicize their ordeal so that media attention might encourage a sympathetic public to help pay for the expensive treatment Phuong hopes will restore her youth.

Doctors have yet to determine what has caused this rapid aging process, which may have been triggered by an allergic reaction to fish or to the cheap remedies she took to stop the itching.  Some speculate that she has lypodystrophy, which causes a layer of fatty tissue beneath the skin to disintegrate, or mastocytosis, a rare disorder caused by the presence of too many mast cells, or a bad reaction to steroids, which are often spiked into the sort of cheap traditional medicine Phuong used to treat her fish allergy.

In interviews, her boyish husband sits quietly by her side, looking more like Phuong's devoted grandson than her mate.  He has said, "I married Phuong when she was a beautiful woman.  I have followed her through her disease and have never been shocked at all.  It's not easy to tell everything about one's own marital affairs.  Just simply understand that I still love her very much."

Would you wear a mask to go out in public?  Do you wear one now?

I became vain in my early 40s when, overnight, I appeared to have aged 20 years.  The corners of my eyes had puckered and soft pleats appeared at the corners of my mouth. Freckles morphed into overlapping liver spots to form a drab floral design over my arms and legs. While my lashes and brows were thinning, two black pubic hairs were sprouting from turkey wattle that had replaced the smooth column of my neck.  And white hair was growing in faster than I could yank it out.  How could I ever have taken that lush, dark mane for granted? How could I have taken my youth for granted?

I was 20 years old.

Once.  I was 20 years old once.

I still feel like myself, more or less, but who the hell is that senior citizen in the mirror?  And where the hell is my mojo?

Because, ladies and gentlemen, that's what it's all about.  All this fuss about aging gracefully really is about our willingness to make the transition to asexuality.  When you have white hair and wrinkles, you should be sure to put everyone at ease by 'owning it'--which means make yourself invisible and pretend your genitalia have dessicated--or you have surgery and color your hair so you are entitled to your sexuality.

Phuong's husband is simultaneously a martyr and an embarrassment.   Does he fuck his wife?  (Are you cringing?)  She's healthy and robust and they're in love, but she looks like grandma and that is possibly more difficult to overlook than any other physical deformity.  We can't really expect Phuong's husband to want to fuck her.  We can easily imagine the young Phuong taking the initiative and joyously riding her man, but how can we imagine Phuong as a passionate woman taking her pleasure now--or picture her husband taking pleasure in her--when her skin is sagging?

Shall I call a press conference?  Should I grow a beard and stop dying my hair so philanthropists will be more inclined to help fund my face lift, breast augmentation and liposuction?  Would it help if I made a Powerpoint presentation?  "There I was at 20--it seems like only yesterday--looking perfectly acceptable in a bathing suit."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Total Recall

"I twist the truth to sound like a lie,"  William S. Heckscher
My father's life mask
We are what we remember--agreed?

          But when you suffer trauma-induced amnesia--the kind where personal details are irretrievable, where you blink at your own children and say, "Do I know you?"--then who are you? The Person Formerly Known as Me?  Or have you actually become somebody else?

          If my middle-aged female brain, containing all my particular memories and unique associations, is transplanted into the 20-something body of a smokin-hot male, am I him or am I me?

          Let's agree that memory trumps everything.  Let's imagine that our identity is fixed in our personal set of memories and strung together along the clothesline of a perpetual present. We'll call this construction Perpetual Me.

          The problem with that (go ahead, pour yourself a drink) is that memory is notoriously unreliable.  Eye witnesses can be wrong; repressed memories can turn out to be inaccurate or suggested; and sometimes we innocently recall only what best serves us or is most pleasing, which we call 'selective memory.'  You say tomato and I say tomato.

          What's a fact, anyway?  One plus one always equals two--except when it equals one (picture the beast with two backs), or three (the two beasts come together to produce Baby Beast), or zero (two beasts kill each other).  The Israelis use a very different history book from the Palestinians, and Al Jazeera and Fox News often tell contradictory stories about the same event.  Sometimes Fox doesn't even report an event so, for most of us here in the U.S., some stories don't even exist.  You know the drill.

          In order to function as a society we collectively agree on some very bizarre, unspoken rules and call them reality.  For example:  men who run for public office can't wear stilettos; we view our map of the world missionary-style and the United States is always on top, never down under; green scraps of paper are equal in value to a hat or a car or a house; skin color affects how we feel about ourselves and each other; and each of us is a Perpetual Me.

          Gurdjieff talks about those thousands of "I"s all vying for dominance at any given moment within a single human being--taking turns or being jostled and overthrown in each new circumstance, chaotic and without conscious will, reacting but never acting--poking holes in our notion of the continuity of a fixed self.  Buddhists dress this vacuous horror up as Nirvana, but they share the same core belief that the ego is a misleading concept.  Behind the mask of Perpetual Me is Contiguous We which, in turn, masks...what?

          The dark fairy tales I prefer are played out in existential sci-fi movies like "The Matrix" with Keanu Reeves, or in "Total Recall," featuring our hero, the King of Kitsch, Arnold Schwartzenegger.  In both stories, reality and memory are rapaciously challenged.  Keanu ends up as an invincible messiah whose message is Question reality and make your own choices.  By the time the closing credits start rolling, we all want to be on Team Keanu.

          Arnie's character is ultimately (wait for it) more complex.  He's haunted by a recurrent dream about a journey to Mars and feeds his obsession by purchasing a holiday at Rekall, Inc., which sells implanted memories.  (Who needs to go to Mars when you can just remember it instead?)  Something goes awry and he catches glimpses of his real life, which takes him on a dangerous odyssey to save the world, while he's never quite sure if he's the good guy or the bad guy or a figment of his own imagination.  Is he who he was or who he thinks he is now?

          I just did an online search for a synopsis of "Total Recall" (which began as a short story by someone named Philip K. Dick), just to check my facts, but each synopsis differs radically from my memory of the plot--which might be the best way to illustrate my point.

          What really matters is how we attribute meaning and our interpretation of memories rather than the memories themselves. This can be very liberating because it means we can reinvent ourselves without being shackled to the past.

          For instance, Malcolm X is most often remembered for being a violently anti-Caucasian proponent of civil rights, but that was only the first book of his life.

In Book Two, he makes his life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, where everyone--all races and nationalities--dress in the same humble cloth, their socioeconomic and racial differences dissolving as they are united as brothers and sisters under God.  It's this new, peaceful Malcolm, who dares to diverge from his own past, who is murdered.  Sometimes love appears to be more subversive than hate because it really pisses people off.

          More difficulties arise, however, when our determination to believe only what suits us is at odds with someone else's truth. Take the millions of Armenians who were slaughtered in the early 20th century by the Turks in a surprisingly well-documented genocide.

          I have relatives who fled and others who died on the death march, during which hundreds of thousands of Armenians--men, women, children, the elderly, the infirm--were made to walk the desert.  Some were shot, beaten, stabbed, hanged, raped, or set fire to, along the way. Those who were too frail died walking.  My grandmother had nightmares about a pregnant woman who died with a bayonet in her belly.  Mothers buried their dead babies when they could, others abandoned ailing relatives and kept walking. Intellectuals were rounded up and exterminated.  The lucky ones made it out.

          Although 20 nations have formally acknowledged the genocide, the United States is diplomatically silent on the matter.  The Turks, as a nation, officially deny the genocide and the Turkish government harshly punishes any citizen who begs to differ on the grounds that they are "insulting Turkishness." Don't laugh!

          The Nobel laureate and Turkish author Orhan Pamuk denounced the government for suppressing its writers and mentioned the murder of a million Armenians, although I believe he was careful not to say outright that the Turks were responsible or that the murders were government-mandated.  The government had its hands tied, so to speak, because prosecuting and punishing such a high-profile figure would be as damning as admitting the truth, so the charges against him fizzled out.

Takouhi Tutunjian, my great grandmother,
fled to Greece before joining my grandmother in the Bronx
          What is most chilling to me is when people believe and promote propaganda without checking the so-called facts. It's one thing to be ashamed and flinch from a painful truth. That the kindly mother of my daughter's Turkish friend had no wish to discuss politics with me was a relief. That the 70-year-old Turkish grandma felt it was her privilege to tell me, "Some Armenians are alright--the nice, quiet ones, I don't have a problem with them--just not the crazy, radical ones who throw bombs," that was unforgivable.

          I'm magnanimous enough to forgive her for something she had no part in, but as soon as Granny divided us into good Armenians and bad Armenians, she made me choose sides. She radicalized me.

          I looked at her daughter, who was gazing out the window as blankly as if she'd stuffed cotton in her ears, and then back again to Granny.

          Then I said something impossible, that both was and wasn't true.

          "You remind me of my grandmother."

           In my memory, she was left speechless, her blue eyes as expressionless as marbles, although I realize it's possible my sequencing is off and her provocative remark was made after mine.  The two Turkish women likely have no recollection whatsoever of our exchange. I read somewhere that our minds record everything that ever happens to us, it's all there, but we're only able to access a fraction of it. The retrievable fraction is supposed to be what's necessary.  (Which doesn't explain why I can't find my car keys.)  I wonder if we make the whole thing up?

Moltkestrasse 29, 1945
          My father told such exaggerated stories that it was difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.  He often told my mother, "Bitte keine Details" (easy on the details) and was unnerved by what he delicately referred to as her "complete recall."  Conversely, my mother was sometimes exasperated by his tall stories and failure to be logical or stick to the facts.  But how we remember says as much about us as what we remember.

          When my father was dying, the middle of the night was his time for soliloquy and swan song. From his hospital bed, cast adrift in the darkness of my parents' bedroom, he would speak in German, or in Latin, but rarely in English.  He'd start by reciting his full name and where he was born:

"Ich bin Wilhelm Sebastian Martin Hugo Heckscher, Moltkestrasse Neun und Zwanzig, Hamburg..."

          He was invoking himself for as long as he could, which is all any of us can do.

My father in 1911 (dangling his legs),
posing in front of Moltkestrasse 29