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

Monday, October 3, 2011

Road Rage

You know how there are times when everybody and everything pisses you off, and then eventually, after battle fatigue has compromised your defenses, you realize it's you?

Well, it's not me.  (He started it.)

Imagine it like this:  You're driving to some destination (Newark Airport, say) and your passenger is Rambo.  You are driving (say he asked for your car keys but you politely declined) and you believe that this gives you a small advantage.  The road is straight, the traffic is light, there's time to spare, and then it happens.

One of the kids in the backseat coughs.  A sip of water went down the wrong pipe.

Your options are to ask the kid if he's okay (he was), or you might say "pipe down, Drama Queen," or if you're Rambo, you scream at the top of your lungs and accuse the boy of trying to ruin everything.   Once the boy stops coughing, he yells back.

"I'm choking to death and you're mad at me?"  And then, fueled by the sound of his own righteous indignation, the F-bomb is deployed.  "I'm fucking choking to death and you're insane!"

The car windows present a 360-degree panorama of immaculate white clouds suspended in a sweet, blue sky.  They dangle suggestively above the oil refineries, which spew their own toxic clouds.  They tease and taunt and blur together.

Does Rambo really try to climb over his seat?  Does he lunge at the nervy, F-bomb dropping kid and yell at him to "Smack me!  Come on, big boy.  Smack me right now!" Is this even possible?

The driver looks out at the clouds. Weightless and blameless, the white clouds take up the whole sky so you hardly notice the road.

"You need to be quiet right now so I can drive," our driver says to no one in particular.

But Rambo wants out.  "Let me out of this car--pull over right now and let me out of this car!" The speedometer reads 70.  Maybe 80.  He repeats his demand again and again. Is he really trying to open his door?

You, the driver, chant soothingly, perhaps to yourself, "I can't pull over.  I have to keep driving."

Naturally, the return trip seems to go much quicker; the clouds are just clouds again, and a kind of exaggerated calm has been restored.  Until about 20 minutes later, when the cell phone rings and it's Rambo.  His tone is casual.

"Turn around and pick me up."  He just checked his ticket and it turns out Rambo's flight is really tomorrow.

Have you noticed that if you don't deal with something on the spot, it will happen over and over and over again?  Often, even if you believe you've handled a problem, the same kind of thing will come back again to bite you on the ass, just so you can prove you learned the right lesson.  Some folks call this karma.  And sometimes it happens in a car.

                                                  *                    *                    *

If you were my passenger and I had you all to myself in a fast car, this is what I might scream at you:

Please don't even think about telling me to get rid of all the toxic people in my life.  Please don't spew verbatim from some whorish,  simplistic self-help book that you paid for just to make you feel good.  Often our lives are enmeshed--for a variety of sound reasons--with the lives of others whom we cannot control.  We can't agree with them, we can't manipulate them, we can't reason with them, and we can't avoid them.  That's right, we can't avoid them. Because we have to consider the competing needs of others who are dependent on us, who we love most dearly, and to whom our own needs are subservient.  Yep, I said it.  Our own needs are fucking subservient.  Sometimes, we have to choose the lesser evil.

Or I might ask you to lean over so I can whisper in your ear:

So I'm driving, big deal?  When that 18-wheeler has a blowout, baby, it won't matter who's behind the wheel cause we're all roadkill.

Or if there was no car, and we were lying in a meadow chewing blades of grass, we might look up at the shimmering, empty clouds and tell each other which one looks like a rabbit and which one looks like a horse.  Then we might be able to say to each other:

I'm doing the best I can.