Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dream Bird: A Bedtime Story for Parents

Up and down a cozy cul de sac that overlooked a park, sensible parents would read one or two stories to their children before turning off the bedroom lights and whispering "Sweet dreams." Some children fell asleep before their stories were finished, and these parents kissed their children's faces mid-sentence. Their gratitude was unmarked, they were sure, by any trace of anxiety. We almost never admitted that each day is a triumph over barely considered dangers, but as the days accumulated, one after another—as surely as if we were building a fortress with heavy stones, one by one—we felt protected. One by one, as the dim glow of night lights appeared in all the upstairs windows, a safe circle ringed our neighborhood.

          Some parents, though just as loving, were less sensible. Like other children, Lily demanded more bedtime stories, but instead of whispering "Sweet dreams," her mother would tell more and more stories until finally she would turn out the light and tell one last story she made up.

          Nothing would come to her at first, as she imagined dipping into a well reflecting a starry sky, but as she imagined the jumble of stars and the modest splash of her dipper breaking the water's flat surface, she would recite...

Once upon a time in a far off land, there was a great white bird the color of snow in the moonlight, maybe larger than a house, with cold, glittering feathers, a hooked beak, and razor-sharp claws. This bird flew in circles over a street where all the children slept, except one. 

          This one child who was wide awake was very beautiful and very clever. She demanded more and more bedtime stories, until finally her mother, who was exhausted, declared, "Enough!" She left the child's room without another word, closing the door behind her.

          The little girl's name was Lola, and she was furious with her mother and all her rules and decided it was time to teach her mother a lessonshe would stay up all night and play with her dolls and not sleep a wink. 

          But just then, as she sat up, before she even had a chance to creep out of her warm, cozy bed, she heard a strange sound. 

          The wind was blowing fearfully, rattling the windows, and the sky was suddenly dark and very low. Where had the big, round moon gone, and why had all the stars vanished? Lola pushed off her covers and parted the curtains of her bedside window so she could see the whole circle of her neighborhood laid out before her. And what do you think she saw?

          A gigantic white bird, bigger than Lola's house, was flapping away, covering the whole sky and stirring up a terrible wind that was sure to make a mess.

          Lola snapped the curtains shut--held up her favorite dolly and said to her "My goodness!"--and she shivered so hard the bed shook. "I must go to sleep now," Lola said out loud. "I will simply close my eyes and go to sleep and wake up in the morning, and this will be a dream.

          So Lola pulled her covers up over her ears, squeezed her eyes shut, and hugged her favorite dolly. After a while, she felt drowsy and warm and safe and was almost asleep when--what was that?

          Scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch, like mice in the wall, but it was on the roof, right above her bed.

          Why on earth didn't Lola's mother hear the racket this bird was making? How could she sleep through this terrible danger? 

          Frankly, Lola was always a little impatient. She was finally ready for a good night's sleep and this awful bird was becoming a nuisance. 

          Lola pushed open her window and whisperedso as not to wake her mother upbut very crossly, "Quit making that racket! Some of us are trying to sleep!"

          Were those diamonds bouncing off the rooftop, landing like ice cubes at her feet?

          "PsssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhtFoof!"  Instead of an answer, Lola heard a truly terrible noise.

          "Oh, for heaven's sake! Are you okay up there?" asked Lola.

          "No," squawked the bird, blowing his beaky nose,"of course I'm not all right. I'm crying, if you must know. If you don't go to sleep how will I ever be able to give you dreams? And if you don't dream how will you ever grow up to be big and strong? Oh, dear God, I am a failure and my mother will be so very unhappy with me that I don't do what she tells me to and, really, all I want is a cup of tea and a good friend."

          Lola scratched her head and blinked, wondering if she was asleep or awake. She was very beautiful and very clever, as I said before, but did I mention that she was also very kind?

          "I'll be your friend, Birdie," she said. "Why don't you come inside and I'll make you a cup of tea with hot milk and lots of sugar?"

          "Really?" asked the enormous bird. "Oh, that would be grand!"

          Birdie pushed and squeezed at the open window and finally backed his way in, with Lola's help. She tugged at his long, lustrous tail feathers until his backside filled up the entire room and Lola was squeezed against the wall.

          "But where's your head, Birdie? Oh, dear." Birdie was stuck. Lola thought he might be embarrassed about his predicament so she said, "I'll just be back in a minute with your cup of tea. Maybe I should meet you outside. Do you think you can get out?"

          "Yes, dear, I'll be fine," sniffed Birdie. "How thoughtful you are for such a little girl."

          Lola tiptoed downstairs and heated a kettle of water on the stove as she'd seen her mother do so often. She carefully stirred milk and sugar into two cups of hot tea (without spilling) and filled a plate with her favorite cookies (her mother usually allowed her only one cookie at a time) and two napkins and took all of it to the front door on a big tray. 

          When she opened the door, there was Birdie, stretching his wings from one end of the street to the other, grooming himself. Lola put the tray in front of him and they sipped and ate and laughed and whispered all night long.  When the first, weak light of day began to fade the imprint of stars and moon from the black sky, Birdie ruffled his tail feathers.

          "In exchange for being such a good friend, Lola, I would like to give you a great gift," said Birdie, bowing his head low. "Won't you climb on my back?"

          "Oh, no," said Lola, "I can't. What would my mother say?"

          "Please," said Birdie, "I promise to bring you back safe and sound and your mother will never know that you've flown away."

          "I can't," said Lola, as she climbed the enormous bird, hanging on to his feathers and pulling herself up. "I really shouldn't. I mustn't..."

          "Now wrap your arms around my neck and hold on tight!"

          Lola hugged Birdie with all her might. He smelled like mothballs and magic and his feathers were cool and stiff. She heard the great flapping of his wings as they began to lift up off the front lawn, the two of them, circling up, up, over her house and above the tops of trees, higher and higher till Lola felt dizzy and squeezed here eyes shut.

          When she opened her eyes again, she beheld a quiet neighborhood of stars high above the earth and she felt warm and safe and excited, all at the same time, just the way she felt in the summer when her mother helped her float on top of the water. 

          "Good morning, sleepy head!" The next time she opened her eyes, Lola was amazed to hear her mother's voice. There she was, our Lola, safe and warm in her own cozy bed being kissed by her dear mother.

          "I had a dream," murmured Lola, rubbing her eyes and looking around the room for diamond tears the size of ice cubes. Luckily, they were nowhere to be found, because her mother surely wouldn't have understood. Lola was relieved, but also, perhaps, a tiny bit sad because her friend had seemed so real.

          "What's this?" said her mother, picking a white feather out of Lola's hair. "Must have  come out of your pillow while you were sleeping. Here, blow on it and make a wish."

          Lola smiled. "I think I'll keep it. Maybe if I tuck it under my pillow I'll have more dreams."

          And after that night, Lola always slept with a white feather under her pillow and she always looked forward to bedtime.

Unlike Lola, Lily often fell asleep before the story was over, but her mother always finished telling the story anyway. Although she really wasn't especially anxious, telling the story all the way through helped remind Lily's mother that growing up was not only a perilous journey, fraught as it was with unspeakable dangers, but also a great adventure.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


While my mother's pupils are dilating, she holds a newspaper over her lap and pretends to read. The magazine rack is fully stocked and untouched because no one here can see well enough to read—especially after the preliminary torrent of eyedrops. Everyone looks stupified. Maybe the magazines are intended to be reassuring. It never hurts to be reminded how to be alone in public.

          The waiting room is full and the blinds are drawn. The woman to my right snores softly but it resonates in the tiny room. Her upturned palms rest on a black vinyl old-lady handbag like she's just accomplished something exhausting. There is also something grateful about the way her head is tipped back against the finely corrugated wallpaper. That wall has a texture like fingerprints—I know because I've made a point of stroking the Braille of one square inch of wallpaper with the tip of my index finger. My nail makes an intriguing sound when I scratch lightly. Even when I dig harder, the wallpaper resists.

          This makes me think of the nursing home in Staten Island where we used to visit my grandmother's sister when I was little. There was a ward of old women, 20 beds lined up against two walls with the same kind of wallpaper. Some of the women were demented, and the rest, like my aunt Lucy, were simply bedridden. The women would call me over to their beds so they could pat my hair and squeeze my hand, saying to my mother, "So young! God bless her!" While they asked me questions about school I would blush and scratch the wallpaper. Another child might have felt aversion, but I felt blessed. My youth was something I had no control over and I wanted to grow up as fast as possible, but they craved it, as if by touching me some of my youth could rub off on them. I felt like a petite, ever so slightly disdainful, goddess. 

          The woman sitting directly across from my mother talks as if her life depends on it, like an old Scheherazade. She may have been beautiful once; she's slim and sits up very straight in her smooth cashmere sweater, with neatly sprayed white hair and lipstick that's a bright shade of coral. Her fingers and wrists are decorated with heavy gold jewelry.

          "I have to get a shot in my eye every four to six weeks. Macular degeneration. It doesn't hurt, though, just a kind of  pressure in the eye when he sticks the needle in. That's all. Do you get a shot in your eye, too?"

          My mother nods. "I was diagnosed two years ago." When I used to go inside with my mother I'd seen her upturned face and watched the doctor insert his needle slowly into her wide-open eye. She told me there's no pain.

          "My husband used to bring me here for every appointment, but now I take a van from the senior center. He was so good to me. We went everywhere together, but he died fifteen months ago. Mesothelioma, he had, from an explosion on his ship, in the Navy.

          My mother is a widow, but she says nothing at first. Then she straightens the fold of her newspaper and says, "It takes about two years. The grieving process."

          "I'll never get over this," the woman says irritably. "I have no one to talk to—everyone's busy. My grandkids are very young and people are busy. I understand. You know, even if they had time for me, it's not the same. He was always with me—we did everything together. Forty-seven years and we never fought once."

          My mother's eyebrows lift but her voice comes down flat as a frying pan, "That's uncommon."

          "He was so good to me. It was a second marriage for both of us," she unzips her handbag and pulls out her wallet. "His name was Billy Ray and my name is Anna May. A match made in heaven, right? He was from Kentucky and he said my name just like he was singing it." She slips a small photo out of the wallet and leans forward to push it into my mother's hands.

          My mother considers it for a long time but I know she can't see it. The frozen, airy hairstyles of the 1970s, hers blond, his dark, her wedding dress, his tuxedo, the softly sculpted white cake, the way they both look down so gently, contemplating their hands as they push the knife in together to cut that first, soft slice.

          "He was one of a kind, and that's what he said about me, too. When he was sick, you know, I'd wrap his feet in a warm towel and he'd say, 'You're one of a kind, Anna May.' Then I go to the Dollar Store and what do I find? A card—one of those wavy 3-D hologram cards—with a flock of white birds on a frozen lake, all white-on-white. Then you shift the angle of the card, just slightly, and in the middle there's one red bird. In big block letters the card says, 'You're one of a kind.' Do you believe it? Well, I brought it right home and gave it to him."

          My mother must be thinking that my father was one of a kind, too, but she says, "My husband and I had our own lives and our own separate interests."

          "Well, my husband did everything for me. He was a wonderful cook and he built a lot of our furniture, we even built this miniature log cabin, with a chimney that we sanded and stained to make it look old. Then he rigged this electric light to go on inside so the windows just glowed."

          My father wrote shit lists--lists of everything he hated and the consequences of any infractions, like "All athletes will be banished to a desert island and kept in tiger cages where they will be ridiculed and fed peanuts on a stick"--he studied a Latin dictionary before his daily nap, then woke up and fixed a cup of good, strong coffee for my mother and himself before eating a handful of sweets he kept hidden in the pocket of his trousers.

          "My daughter tells me to get on with life, that's what he would have wanted, but she doesn't understand what it's like." Her pupils have completely dilated, turning the pale blue irises into big, flat, inky dots--like the kind of eyes you see in movies to show that someone has been possessed. She begins to cry.

          "It's still very new for you," I say, "only 15 months. You shouldn't expect to feel any differently than you do. Don't you feel, sometimes, that he's still with you?"

          Her tears stop abruptly and she assesses me for a moment through narrowed eyes. I don't know what has made me say what I did, if it was the urge to comfort or just plain curiosity. Her face has changed; unmasked, a hidden harshness is exposed.

          "At night, sometimes. On my birthday, the kids threw a nice party for me and then I went right to bed, but I woke up in the middle of the night because someone was tugging on me, just like this—" she leans over and yanks hard at the sleeve of my blouse. "I distinctly heard him say, Happy Birthday, sweetheart. Right in my ear, clear as a bell. I don't know if you believe this, but I do."

          My mother glances at the door.

          "We collected chime clocks, all set to go off on the hour. I always wanted the kind that sounds like wind chimes, you know what I mean?—all tinkly and shimmery sounding—but we have Big Ben and Westminster and lots of nice chimes. We just never got around to the wind chimes, for some reason. But some nights, when it's so quiet you can hear a pin drop, I hear them—the wind chimes I wanted. Does that sound crazy?"

          While I try to think of something to say, the woman beside me snores and the others appear not to take any notice of us. Scheherazade leans toward me again.

          "Are you married?" she asks me.

          "Divorced," I say, just as my mother is called in to see the doctor.

I'm startled awake out of a bizarre dream by the sensation of nails on a chalkboard. Before the awful scratching, I had been bathed in a pure, liquid blue, the exact color of a Tiffany box—a perfect place to nestle a gorgeous diamond ring. Swimming in tropical Tiffany blue, popping my head out now and then into the same blue overlaid with a shimmering latticework, there was no sense of time passing. Just floating blissfully in that wordless all-knowing dream where I drifted for who knows how long, when my head bobbed up into an ugly, low, simmering-gray sky. By which I understood that my very last vacation day was ruined.

          There's no vacation—there hasn't been one for years. I awaken in my own bed, in my mother's house, where I have been living since she started to go blind. I wake up with a headache that matches my mood so, before I shower, I go down to the kitchen to take my vitamins with a Motrin and a mug of coffee. I brew enough coffee for my mother, who won't be up for another few hours, but because she's recently lost her sense of taste and smell she won't notice the bitterness. I've started taking Vitamin A and Lutein on her doctor's recommendation. There's no proven way to ward off hereditary age-related macular degeneration but, he says, the vitamins can't hurt.

          I pinch the blubbery liver-colored pill between my thumb and index finger, pop it to the back of my throat and think of the vitreous—the clear, jelly-like substance that fills the eye—into which the needle is pushed. I lift the mug to my lips and try to imagine how fragments of blood vessels, overgrown and leaky, drift apart and eventually crash into the macula, the part of the eye responsible for central vision. The imagery is cosmic, fragments colliding in space, dire consequences. The injection slows the disease process by dissolving some of the broken fragments, but I can't help thinking it's already too late.

          The first time my mother read a line of text from the specialist's eye chart she complained, "but the letters keep moving—see, it just dipped down again—and I can't focus because everything is wavy." She was frustrated with the nurse, who seemed unwilling to accept my mother's premise that she can see alright, her eyes are just playing tricks on her.

          We are alike, my mother and I, and we chafe against our similarities. We're both small and round, both bookish and plain, dislike physical exertion and love to eat. Worst of all, we both  fight our innate, reckless romanticism with severe, almost puritanical, pragmatism. We may fool others but, at the end of the day, the struggle leaves us bereft and uncertain about which is the disguise and which the real self.

          My mother married the man of her dreams—a handsome, unconventional and charming womanizer who could be, nonetheless, remarkably intuitive and gentle. He was glamorous, desirable, and elusive. (His marriage to another woman had made him more so.) But in the end, she moved up from the status of  'other woman' to 'wife.' They must have cherished the idea of marriage, each for their own reasons. I think the institution of marriage must have made each of them feel absolved, in some way. When my mother says My husband and I had our own lives and our own separate interests, she is as likely to have been alluding to his double-life—the mistress he had for 20-some years—as to the way she mostly chose to overlook it. Marriage makes it possible to endure what is unbearable; within marriage anything is tolerated, if not forgiven.

          I divorced someone of average attractiveness and high energy, a passionate lover and gratuitous liar who was always in trouble. He was charming, warm, funny and generous to a fault when he wasn't psychotic. He didn't talk to me for a month after I winked at a bald man in a red convertible. (There was no man, no car, and no winking.) When he was hospitalized during a psychotic break his doctor put him in a locked ward, where he was calm and charming. The nurses apologized and allowed him extra cigarette breaks, because he so clearly didn't belong there, and he was released after 24 hours. Another time, after we divorced, my mother gave him money to go abroad, to be at his mother's deathbed. He blamed me because he said he kept calling me in his time of need but I never answered my cell phone. But there were no missed calls and, as I found out by accident years later, his mother was fine. He'd gone abroad to remarry.

          It wasn't that I was able to overlook his psychosis during any time in our marriage, although it might seem that way. As long as I was married to him, we led a double life. The private hell was covered by public displays of charming domesticity. We knew what the marriage was supposed to look like and we could mimic the roles of husband and wife. The public displays were sometimes more excruciating than the interior drama. Now our relationship exists in that peripheral zone where we can be lauded as 'amicably divorced.' Meanwhile, our central drama hasn't been resolved--it can't be and we've demonstrated through years of marriage that it's pointless to try--and so it carries on behind the scenes, in an infinite loop, without our conscious participation. Still, we care about each other.

          Is this what happens when you can see, but you can't see what's right in front of you? Is marriage a kind of divorce from oneself?

          This lifetime accumulation of experience, analysis, and questions goes down in the time it takes me to swallow the livery pill--which only sticks in my throat for a second.

          By the time I take my second sip of coffee, I'm thinking about how much I miss sex and wondering if I will ever, ever in my life make love again, and why can't we make love to ourselves, why the fuck is masturbation so inadequate, every time, it's just so depressing. I even miss bad sex.

          No, I don't. I take my coffee upstairs and get back into bed so I can stretch out luxuriously, close my eyes and press my fingers hard against that shimmering, slippery pulse between my thighs. My head pounds even harder, so I give up after a minute and pull the covers up around my face.

Anyone can be your husband, sweetheart.

It's the old lady from the eye doctor's office, Scheherazade. In my dream she sits at my bedside in a white chiffon nightie with princess sleeves, but she's still wearing all her make-up and jewelry. She has the same narrowed black eyes and imperious gaze, and she's tugging at my arm again.

          When I go downstairs, my mother is at the kitchen table in her nightgown, waiting for coffee.

          "I dreamt of that old lady from the doctor's office," I say. "Remember? The one with the dead husband and the dead mother?"

          "I don't remember the dead mother," she says. "I dreamt of your father. Well, it was supposed to be Einstein, but I knew it was your father." My mother dabs her cheeks with a tissue; her eyes are streaming eyes because she just used drops.

          "What happened?" I ask.

          "I was just telling him off. He was all wrong about something and I was correcting him."

          "Did Einstein listen?"

          "No, sweetie. That wasn't the point. I was just telling your father off because he was wrong."

          "Well, my old lady told me to get married."

          "She was weird," my mother says, and takes a sip of the coffee I've warmed up for her. "This tastes good. I just couldn't stand a marriage like hers. I'd feel stifled, being with someone all the time and doing everything together. Who could stand that kind of oppressive relationship. It's neediness. I'd want to scream."

          "I guess."

          I didn't tell her what woke me up for the second time this morning, not the tinkle of chimes, but the shiver of scratching nails, or ask her how the coffee could taste good when she can't taste it. I put a couple of black olives on my mother's plate, slice some feta and rub it on toast for her. Sometimes I feel like I'm married to my mother. To change the subject I say, "What freaked me out was the idea of that log cabin."

          "You mean that thing they made together? Why would a grown man make a dollhouse for his wife? Weird."

          "And what does she do with it now that he's dead? It's like a tomb, isn't it? Like looking in at some warm, cozy place but you can't go in. Or the other way around, it's like she's stuck inside alone and she can't get out."

          "But she doesn't look at it that way," my mother says.

          What if Dream Scheherazade is right, that it doesn't matter who we marry--or what we see or don't see? If marriage isn't really about individuals or love then it might as well be any imaginary partnership based on a blind mutual commitment to—to what?

          "She's the kind of woman who has no identity of her own," my mother continues.

          "Marriage is an imaginary partnership based on a blind mutual commitment to the monument of every truth and lie we construct." That's what I tell my mother in a loud, pompous voice—but she doesn't hear me because her back is turned as she stands at the sink, running water over the dirty dishes. I'll be sure to tell the same thing to Scheherazade if she ever turns up again.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Love Poison

"I suppose we all have to live with our contradictions. I don't know, sometimes I feel like debates are a waste of time and then sometimes I think they are a fun pastime. What gets me out of this conundrum is that there are always two opposite sides and, like a magnet, we can push and force but they just won't connect." Julie Morris-Leveque

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Albert Einstein/Chinese fortune cookie
I used to have a fatal weakness for charming, handsome, absurdly unattainable men. (I'm trying out the past tense here, but who am I kidding?) Skip the analysis and cue the metaphor: these men are snakebite with no antidote. These men are spiked punch at an AA meeting. A Trojan horse, the gift that keeps on giving, Russian Roulette, an itch that can't be scratched--and I absolutely must stay away or risk my sanity.

          For example, the quotations above were supposed to lead to a complex exploration of the futility of coercion and war in all its forms (including the self-righteous war of opinions). It was supposed to culminate in praise for an apolitical grassroots movement that brings together Israelis and Palestinians by inviting them to share their stories with each other in a safe space, outside violence and ideology, face-to-face, as individuals sharing their common personal experiences of grief and love.

Two-Sided Story is a documentary of this most radical peace movement and is, perhaps, the biggest threat to both Hamas and the Israeli Defense Force. Godspeed, y'all.

          Huh? So why are those quotations about attraction, repulsion, and the insanity of repetitive failure suddenly about the toxicity of charming men?

          I'll tell you why.
          Because I love the way their dazzling, absurd sense of entitlement rubs off on me. It's like gazing into a reflecting pool but instead of seeing myself, I behold my dream self, who is also entitled to all things good and beautiful. Dream Self is even entitled to five minutes of Dream Man's precious time, and she's grateful because that's five whole minutes of perfect—wait for it—five radiant minutes in which she herself experiences Perfect Entitlement. Oops, I just had a little orgasm.

          It's not their fault they're gorgeous and the world is eager to grant their every whim. Cary Grant complained about living in the shadow of his own mythology, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."

          Nor is it our fault that we respond to beauty with such wild abandon.
          And let's face it, you think you're finally done with them, the heart breakers, the irresistible charmers, you think you've outgrown your own tiresome bullshit, when before you know it you're scratching that familiar itch and you realize you're having the same awkward conversation, more or less, and making the same excuses, just with a different Prince Charming.

          Now, none of this is fair to poor Prince Charming, who thinks he's just a guy—a really great guy, with great hair, who has, perhaps, never given much thought to why the world revolves around his blinding countenance, he just knows that it does. Not fair, but it's my job to get the hell out of his way, and away from every new incarnation of this guy.

          How do I recognize the diabolical Mr. Wonderful? This time, his guise is an unassuming writing instructor/international top model. Can he help it that he's beautiful and smart? (Yes, he's really working on a memoir called "Mannequin.") Does it matter that I don't prefer blonds with perfect hair? Certainly not. There are only two or three main ingredients necessary: he must be strikingly handsome and know it, and he must be in a position to judge me.

          Mr. Wonderful innocently suggested we conduct our private writing instruction sessions via Skype rather than by mail. I told him I would only do Skype if I could hide behind a cardboard cutout of Angelina Jolie or Keira Knightley. That's when I knew who I was really dealing with. Not the heart breaker, not the shameless charmer, but my own weakness for humiliation and reflected light. That's my true love poison.

          Mr. Wonderful helpfully suggested that I disable my webcam so he wouldn't have to see me, but I would still be able to see both him and his marked-up copy of my manuscript. You just can't make this stuff up; I'd be hard-pressed to find a more clever metaphor for losing myself in submission to a beautiful, charming, narcissist.

          My solution is pretty low tech: never lay eyes on him. As long as I don't see him, he's just my writing instructor—a capable editor who can cut the extraneous garbage, simplify, refine, and show me where something needs to be developed.

          Or, in this case, not developed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Leifur's Crystal Ball

Internment Camp, Southern Québec
Lately I keep returning to the image of my father as a young man standing at attention for hours in a snowy field in Canada wearing nothing but his underwear. He stood in line with all the other internees, mostly German Jews, but also Communists, pacifists (like my father), and one or two Nazis. Farm women would come from their homes and gather to watch the men through barbed wire; some would laugh.
German POWs playing chess,
Farnham, November 1945
          My father was known to embellish freely, so only a few details can be confirmed. The name of the prison camp in Southern Québec was Farnham, for example, and the Commandant of Camp Farnham was Major Eric Kippen, who had himself been a POW during the first World War.

          We know, for instance, that four ships transported internees from England to Canada in 1940. The second ship, the Arandora Star, sailed from Liverpool with 480 passengers on July 1. The ship was sunk by a U boat on July 2, and the survivors were returned to England. The third ship, the Ettrick, left a few days later with my father and some 1,300 other prisoners who were bound for Camp Farnham. Along the way, the Ettrick stopped at Halifax to pick up lumber.
The SS Ettrick, 1940
          The first camp school was pioneered by my father at Farnham in 1940. Realizing that there were at least 100 boys between the ages of 16 and 20 in need of guidance, education, and belief in a future, he requested a meeting with Commandant Kippen to voice his concerns, as well as his worry that the boys were an easy target for the Communists and their propaganda. After consideration, my father was given the use of a hut for the prison school, which was taught by volunteers, like my father. Eventually, three or four other prison camps started schools based on the Farnham model and outside speakers from McGill were invited to give guest lectures.
Farnham, Class of 1941
          The camp's war diary justified the school from the perspective of controlling the prison population.

"The idea behind this is to give internees as much mental activity as possible, as it takes their minds off their many worries and makes them that much easier to control. After all in the running of an internment camp, the expedient thing to do is to run it with as little trouble as possible from the prisoners. If they are given considerable amount of freedom concerning internal affairs in the compound and as much self-government as possible, it has the effect of making them that much easier to control and govern." 

Regardless of who was benefiting more from the school, the project was a success. The results of the matriculation exams enabled a high percentage of prison students to be accepted to McGill University. (Prisoners of the Home Front, by Martin F. Auger, UBC Press, 2005.)

          I wonder, though, if the deepest truth isn't best expressed in fiction and, if so, why should we trouble ourselves over details like facts? Don't the stories we tell about our lives reveal an inner truth and quickly become our lives?

          He shivered, wondering if he would die, worrying his secret would be discovered, not yet knowing that in two years he would marry a lovely Canadian girl who adored him—slim, fragile, blond, fresh and nearly transparent with hope—who would give him two astonishing, beautiful daughters.

          The prisoners received mail but it was almost unreadable because it was so highly censored, thick black stripes drawn sometimes at random across the lines of every page. The romantic girl he would marry happened to be fluent in German and worked at the censorship office. She fell in love with him reading his letters.

Farnham to Hamburg, September 1, 1945

          As soon as he was freed from the camp, he delivered a lecture at the university. A beautiful blond girl sat in the front row, the first woman he'd seen in two years. She introduced herself afterwards, shyly, as his censor.

          These stories flowed into each other, backwards and forwards, during dinner parties, while my father smiled, perhaps a little mischievously, and his second wife—my mother—poured more wine into the guests' empty glasses.
           Sometimes they were awakened  in the middle of a winter night, called to stand at attention in howling wind under a sky riddled with stars. At the feet of each man was a crumpled heap of empty clothing he had been ordered to remove. A bullseye was imprinted on the back of every prison uniform so the guards posted in the four watchtowers would have an easy shot. Like a lighthouse, the watchtower's bright beam revolved, illuminating pale skin and white snow, the scene almost snapping into momentary darkness, again and again, for hours.

          He used to put cardboard over the windows of his study in our house in Princeton, and tacked handkerchiefs and towels over a window in the dining room where the sunlight was particularly unpleasant. He had tantrums whenever a candle was blown out because the scent was disturbing. The sound of fireworks caused migraine.

          He shivered for hours beside the other internees, teenagers and young men, Jews, Communists, scholars, factory workers. His expression, the stretched cheeks giving him an air of haughty resignation, was a result of the pocket watch he hid in his mouth. Its long gold chain was roughly bunched, bitten between his back teeth, but the golden disk of the watch itself was smooth on his tongue. The ticking, resonating like a beating heart, was inaudible outside his head.
Huts at Farnham
          While the men stood outside for hours, the guards inspected the inmates' belongings and stole with impunity. The pocket watch in his mouth had belonged to his father. I have a formal portrait of my elegant grandfather, from the late nineteenth century--painted in oils some 50 years before Farnham—seated at his desk, wearing an ascot and pince-nez, the gold chain of his timepiece fleetingly visible, just a shimmering glimpse of golden paint dabs on the front of his dark suit.

          I have a photograph of my father, taken perhaps 20 years after Farnham. His blue eyes convey calm, alert intelligence but his hand clutches at something we can't see, something round and graspable, and the gold chain is there, visible over his heart.

              Wilhelm stood in line at night in the snow. Behind him was the small child called Wilhelm who grew up in Hamburg and Utrecht with a maid and a nanny. Wilhelm had a naughty little brother, Heinrich, who looked up to him, and an older sister Wilhelm revered, and after whom I was named. He was Wilhelm but his mother, with whom he shared the same piercing blue gaze, sometimes called him Schwein! Ass! or when she was feeling more affectionate he became Bübing. His mother wrote exquisite poetry in Italian and English as a young woman. As an old woman she was taken into police custody and beaten for refusing to perform the Nazi salute. It was Wilhelm who had taken his father, dying of Parkinson's Disease and confined to a wheelchair, on a world cruise and procured women and pet monkeys for him. Wilhelm left Germany after his mentor, a famous Jewish art historian, had been dismissed from the University of Hamburg and fled the country. Wilhelm stood in line with all of that, and more, behind him forever, blacked out like the censor's line, or maybe just trailing behind him and fading like a ship's wake, merging with an overall pattern.

          But the man who left Farnham was called William, which is the official name printed on his Canadian passport. It's William who married the lovely Canadian girl who spoke fluent German. Brother Heinrich would become Henry, with an American passport, and interrogate Nazis at Nuremberg. Later, in the States, it was Bill who was the Director of Duke University's art museum, Bill who married my mother.

          When you change your name, what else do you change? Can you reinvent yourself? Do you change how others relate to you when you are not Wilhelm nor William, but Bill? What does it mean when you no longer dream in your native language, when brothers call each other by foreign names?

          He stood at attention obediently—silent, naked, afraid and cold—but what defiance! No one ever found out his secret, a watch in his mouth hoarded like treasure: memories linking themselves into an unbroken chain, ticking off like time itself, reaching forward and back, into dreams, across continents, over the bodies of all the women he would ever love, inside each one who would ever cherish his memory.

           As a very old man, he told this story, in his elegant English accent, of being held captive and forced to stand at attention for hours, stripped and freezing cold. Afterwards he chuckled at "the idiots" who thought they had controlled him or stolen something from him. He sat back in his chair at our dining room table and seemed quite pleased with himself. Captivity had somehow enabled him to take back stolen time, to behold the future as if it was something solid and round, like a crystal ball, that could be grasped and seized. It was so tangible for him that others (students and captors alike) were persuaded.

          After his death, I kept the portrait of his father. The pocket watch was given to my sister's son, whose family lives in Iceland, along with the story of the watch. In time, our watch will be passed on to my father's great-grandson, Leifur, perhaps without a story, but with a secret history that spans all of time, if we wish it to do so. Wind it and it still ticks, connecting all of us like the points of a vast constellation on a heavenly map.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Abashed Pelican

Perhaps looking inward is not the same as procrastination. When I started this blog last year, I was paralyzed by the psychic fallout of unrequited love, being laid off from a job I dearly loved, and moving with my teenage kids into my childhood home to live with my elderly mother. I felt cut loose, adrift, with no reference points--bewildered but curious about my inability to take any kind of decisive action. My first blog entry was titled "What I Did Today" and featured photos of me stroking my cat Pablo senseless, and was very low on text, asking only this:

I wonder, if I meticulously document examples of procrastination with photos and text, will it add up to a life of action?  How does a life of conscious procrastination differ from other lives?  When does consciousness lead to change and when is consciousness an end in itself? Is consciousness without action enough?

          Without realizing it, I began to answer that question in my second post, "Mission: Rescue Rajah," which was about being haunted by the war in Sri Lanka and my fleeting personal connection to genocide in a land far, far away, that's been largely disregarded by the global community. I've written about many different things that interest me, but I always return to this: Saving Rajah is my salvation.

          I fear my friend Rajah is one of the tens of thousands who have vanished in Sri Lanka, tortured or, by now, buried in a mass grave, but sometimes I don't believe it. Quite often, I imagine that we simply lost touch and he is living his life, middle-aged now, hidden away in the hills of the tea country, making a meager living and staying out of trouble. But in his last letter to me, more than 20 years ago, he said he was in trouble. If I learn that Rajah is alive and well, or simply alive, I will rejoice; but in Sri Lanka his disappearance is always possible, every day it is possible for Tamil people and their supporters to be taken away in a white van and simply disappear.

          I am still unemployed, but perhaps I'm no longer as paralyzed. I'm still bitter about the job loss, but my center of gravity has shifted to the broader question of how I want to spend the rest of my life. I was ferocious and unsuccessful in my attempts to kill my attraction to someone completely unsuitable and disinterested in me, until in exhaustion I turned my attention to other questions and now that phase of obsessive love is finally in the past. Some of the feelings and questions I've explored have had to do with childhood grudges which reared up anew when I moved in with my mother. Those ferocious, primal grievances are now also largely exhausted. The sensation is almost magical--now you see it, now you don't--so I have to remind myself that it's not just a trick, I've really worked for it and when old grievances flare momentarily they are more manageable, more gently and compassionately observed before they extinguish.

          I've indulged myself for a whole year in reading that nourishes the spirit, finding meaning on my own terms, writing about what has meaning for me, and reaching out to friends and strangers with a sense of urgency and hopefulness, answering a deep need to connect. I've often felt, and do still feel, selfish and guilty about this period of my life, but lately I also feel more empowered and sure-footed.

          My tendency to get pissed off and despair, while honest, has begun to feel counter-productive, like a betrayal of hope. In my reading, I have come across Anais Nin, whom I used to mistake for a narcissist--certainly more diarist than activist. But isn't exposing oneself the beginning of a most sincere and daring declaration of self, an invitation to a more authentic relationship, one that requires tremendous vulnerability and the courage to be deeply known? In her essays, Nin writes at length about the importance of the refusal to despair and how art has the power to transmute even grief into broad, positive change, and how a personal vision can reach into the collective consciousness.

          Then again, there's reality. In "The Audacity of Hope" Barack Obama seems to contradict himself, musing,

I wonder, sometimes, whether men and women in fact are capable of learning from history--whether we progress from one stage to the next in an upward course or whether we just ride the cycles of boom and bust, war and peace, ascent and decline.

          I wonder, too. But does it help to ponder in this way? Either way, hope is always audacious.

          Junot Diaz, the acclaimed author who writes from his particular perspective of the Dominican Republic's diaspora, offers this loving critique of Obama in a 2010 essay in The New Yorker titled "One Year: Storyteller-in-Chief."

All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric...

But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all...

Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing...

A President can have all the vision in the world, be an extraordinary orator and a superb politician, have courage and foresight and a willingness to make painful choices, have a bold progressive plan for his nation—but none of these things will matter a wit if the President cannot couch his vision, his policies, his courage, his will, his plan in the idiom of story. It is hard to feel invested in a terrible story or a confused story or, in the case of the current Administration, no story at all. 

          Eureka and Amen. (And, dear God, please let Obama win.)

          Naturally, the way to engage people is to tell a compelling story, a story in which great obstacles are overcome, in which we care desperately about the outcome, where we root for the victory over tremendous odds of a protagonist with whom we solidly identify. And we need a story that points us in a hopeful direction, fueling a commitment to care passionately about our collective future. A tragic story, a purely political story filled only with statistics and gruesome photos, couched in the objective, distanced jargon of the news media fills us with ennui. If we are to care, we have to be personally invested, and we need hope.

          The personal stories of Sri Lankan exiles must be told directly and in their own unique voices, in a lyrical narrative that is the story not only of tragedy, but of hope and determination. Who can resist the suspenseful story of an ordinary hero--someone like ourselves--a story in which readers are on some level complicit because the story is true and, while hope certainly remains, the story has yet to be finished? Because we read a true story still in the throes of its unfolding, we are in some tiny, fierce way implicated as coauthors. There needs to be a homecoming for the exiles of the world, if not yet literal, then in a profoundly imagined, shared way. Each exile must demand the right of return by imagining vividly what that might entail.

           I want to collect and present these stories, for people to love and care about. Why shouldn't I be the catalyst--not the storyteller, per se, but just a fellow outsider pointing the way irresistibly in?

           I've been thinking lately about--wait for it--keyholes. As a metaphor, keyholes are pretty corny, pretty stupid, pretty obvious, but nevertheless I've been taking pictures and they tell a very simple story of fear and redemption, banishment and welcome.

          Is this procrastination or fruition? I don't know who decides; but it's probably me.

          The painting of the pelican and the egg was given to me recently by my sister for my 50th birthday, and was painted by her son, the artist Duncan Mitchell. I don't know what it means to Duncan, or to you, but I smile every time I look at it because it seems plausible that I am, in fact, the abashed pelican who has laid this impossibly, agonizingly huge and beautiful egg.

          So, if I was pushed now to answer the original question I asked here over a year ago, "Is consciousness without action enough?" I would have to say No. No, but have patience and be persistent. It's like the old chicken-and-egg conundrum--which came first and who cares?--except consciousness is the pelican and action is the new life that hatches out of that big-assed, audacious yellow egg with the orange polka dots.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


I considered changing my Facebook cover, just for today, to the book cover of Fifty Shades of Grey. But in the end I left my ubiquitous cloudy sky in the background; I was nervous no one would get the reference to my age and natural hair color.

          The October sky is overcast this morning. Leslie, the friend I've known longest, says, "Looks like someone shook the Etch-A-Sketch." I'd been thinking of gray TV static, but an Etch-A-Sketch best captures the flat loss. And the dumb uneasiness of a blank screen.

          I'm 50, which isn't the same as saying I'm 50, which I've been doing all year to prepare myself for this day. Yesterday I finally decided to be 49, and that was hard because I had to squeeze the whole fucking year into a day. So now among my regrets is skipping 49. Fifty is no big deal, except now I'm thinking of 60 and then 70. It's not that I have trouble living in the moment, but the moment slides so fluidly from future to past to present. It's all over the board. Who keeps shaking the damned Etch-A-Sketch? 

Monday, October 1, 2012

What If Gandhi Was An Asshole?

Gerhard Richter, "Strip"

Conventional wisdom encourages the invention of role models to inspire self-improvement through example--because our heroes provide us with hope and guidance, motivation, even salvation. But what if these idealized constructions compromise our wholeness and humanity or our aptitude for compassion? There is no hero without a villain, but what if the two are indivisible? Should we then question the practice of what amounts to hero worship in the cult of role models? My analysis is based on field data that is purely subjective and limited to a single case study with multiple digressions. Variables were neither controlled nor measured. My results indicate that role models are as capable of harming as helping us. In conclusion, it may be beneficial to resist the urge to dehumanize our role models by compassionately acknowledging their flaws, as well as our own, in order to live more authentically.


If you believe Curt's Facebook profile, you'd think he lives in a small city in Southeast Asia.

          There are no people in his profile picture, just a public swimming pool with flat, blue water surrounded by a square, cement border and a margin of grass that looks like it needs watering. The edge of the diving board is just visible in the corner of the frame, but there is no indication of Curt, though he must be on the high dive snapping the picture.

          Most of his Facebook friends come from the Southeast Asian city, mostly young girls posing in bikinis, or in karaoke bars with big, icy drinks.

          Curt's "Likes" include one sad Country Western love song, two porn sites and a massage establishment in the Southeast Asian city.

          Posts and comments are infrequent.


She imagines Curt's Facebook page as the empty stage for his alternate reality, where he can picture himself with a sexual buffet of pretty young girls from a city that is 9,000 miles away, where his favorite--a girl 30 years his junior--can frolic and pose in the empty pool, just for him.

          When she asks if he took any pictures on his vacation, he emails five or six photos from his iPhone. Asian girls with big, juicy smiles and smooth black hair, posing on a bed in sexy negligee. She thinks they look like they're having fun posing, that the cotton cover on the bed is at odds with the red lacy thongs and lewd poses--the quilt looks cozy enough for a child's room and is a nice example of that country's artistry. There's an innocence about these girls, too, that Wendy can't dismiss. It makes her uneasy.

          For a moment, she tries to imagine what it would be like to have a pretty, young girl of her own. Imagine: Her only concern is to give you an endless variety of orgasms, she offers her body to you like a delicacy, and makes you feel important and happy, a posable, untroubled girl, one without guilt or demands and totally uncritical, who believes what you want her to believe, who is flattered by your attention and impressed by your wallet, enthusiastic about every aspect of who you are, who makes you feel carefree and vital, and young. Better than Prozac, she reckons. Imagine each girl is a reflecting pool, your own private swimming pool, onto which you can project whatever your heart desires and then simply dive in.

          On the third day, after the fifth or sixth photo, she finally lets Curt know she has seen enough pictures to get the idea, that maybe "less is more."


1.  Thirty years ago, Curt was her first love.
2.  Thirty years ago, she was Curt's first love.
3.  They had no other common interests and rarely spoke to each other.
4.  They were together for eight years.
5.  They have had almost no contact with each other since they split up, about a quarter of a century ago, until recently.
6.  She is divorced, with two teenage children.
7.  Curt never married.
8.  They have both taught in public schools, but she is currently unemployed.
10. Both have indicated a wish to establish and maintain cautiously friendly relations in their middle age. Their contact is largely confined to infrequent, casual emails and Facebook messages, and the occasional exchange of online articles.

Transcript of Emails Between A Middle-Aged Woman and Her Ex,
Hereafter Referred to as X

Middle-Aged Woman: Thanks for the great article...Just had a huge fight with my son,  who slammed the door on me yelling, "You suck! You're the worst mother ever!"

X: Maybe he has a reason to be angry. I see it every day on the job. Teachers are supposed to fix the results of messed up emotions of other people's children brought on by adults' self-centeredness and bad choices, people who don't pick partners who are role models for their kids, who are too interested in their own personal satisfaction and happiness. Maybe it's too easy to judge other people. I certainly don't like being judged on my lifestyle...

X: People should stop blaming teachers for their own personal issues. Most important is to be a parent, step up to the plate, be a role model thru your positive work ethic, thru the example you set, thru your actions, not just the words. Children notice these things...

X: Have a nice day.

MAW: Role models are important, but they're not real, three-dimensional people. Martin Luther King cheated on his wife and Buddha abandoned his wife and son. Both men are role models, but they weren't perfect. We don't often remember them for their imperfections. I don't blame teachers. When I was an instructional aid, I observed that teachers--in general--believed themselves to be superior to their students' parents. And the reverse was also true, parents blamed teachers. It's important to try to see the big picture, but also to live in a particular moment and engage with each other as honestly as is constructively possible.

The best teacher I've ever known was a terrific role model--a coach in the best sense. But his personal life was a wreck. He was real for his students, but outside class he's like a cardboard cut out, maintaining an image rather than a life. (I wonder whether I was more drawn to his perfection or to his carefully guarded imperfections.) Seems like there's always a gap between who we are and who we want to be.

X: I guess I am reacting to the hypocrisy I hear from them. Why get married and have children if you're not willing to work? I see too much of this garbage, whining and complaining from parents when their child self destructs in front of them. If you don't defuse the bomb early enough it will blow up. Don't be surprised when your child gets to high school, the anger was building maybe???? Easy to be critical and judgmental of other people's lives when you don't know the facts, and hard to take criticism???? Nice chatting. Stay open minded and positive.

MAW: Not quite sure what happened here. Did you feel judged by me? I didn't think I was commenting on your lifestyle, just setting some boundaries before when I said "no thanks" to the porno pics of your girlfriends--I'm not comfortable with it for myself, but I have no problem with what makes you happy. I assume we can be friends without criticizing each other, right?

X: I hope we can be friends without the judgement of lifestyles, etc. I tend to walk away from people judging me and my relationships. Nothing to do with the pictures, but I feel you make too quick a judgement on my relationships without knowing all the details. Maybe I felt you didn't have a right, like I don't have a right to judge you as a parent. I don't know the story day to day. Maybe I was trying to show you how it felt. I'm sick of all the bullshit judging. Hopefully we both learned something from the situation.

Fictional Journal Entry

We never talked because to know each other would have been a violation of an unarticulated romantic pact. I projected everything my heart desired, all that I lacked or desired, onto the screen of his beautiful face and into his touch. He mustn't interfere or the spell would break.

          Was my earliest erotic truth a lie? Do I use the same magical chemistry in my subsequent relationships, willfully overlooking undesirable traits and withholding information to induce a love-trance, a romantic sleight of hand, and then wonder why I'm disappointed?

          A magician and his audience are accomplices in a bogus relationship. The audience wants to be duped--you can't cut someone in half and then snap your fingers to make him whole again--it's all about distraction, illusion, to make the hard work of deception look like easy magic. There's no reason to feel duped, especially if you're the magician.


I'm so full of shit, invoking Martin Luther King and the Buddha, for God's sake--and what was all that crap about 'living in the moment and engaging honestly'? Naturally, he was more full of shit. Motherfucker was attacking me for no reason. So do I fight back? Hell, yeah, I do--with moral superiority, baby!

          The truth is I do judge him, but I don't want to see myself as judgmental. And when I judge him--checkmate!--I make myself feel superior and avoid judging myself.

          Perhaps my relationships aren't much more substantial than his appear to be. Who decides to marry someone from another culture after 10 days and expects happily-ever-after? What about that agonizing crush on a coworker who was far too young, and with whom I had absolutely nothing in common?

          What if, rather than tallying off a checklist of acceptable qualities, relationships were about mutual discovery? What if there was no happily-ever-after constraint against which to constantly chafe?

          Why do we need to be perfect, or partial, for each other?

What if Gandhi Was an Asshole?

Gandhi used to have dark hair and wear clothes, and also, he was an asshole.

          What I mean to say is that Mahatma Gandhi is a human rights hero who transformed the world with his system of non-violent civil disobedience, and dismantled the Indian caste system, and should be revered globally for his positive influence, and he was also a racist, who early in his career was offended at being imprisoned with Black people, and who neglected his wife and son and consigned them to poverty.

          Martin Luther King, another human rights hero, cheated on his wife. Siddhartha Gautama, aka Buddha, whose teachings lead to enlightenment through compassion, abandoned his wife and son. And Michael Phelps, the 18-times Olympic gold medalist, smokes doobies.

          Nobody's perfect, even heroes fail. When their human flaws emerge, as they always do, we either vilify our role models or insist on denying the truth. Why did people get so worked up about Michael Phelps, who was dopey from the word go? Were they afraid that if they continued to like Phelps they would be regarded as potheads by association? Does liking the music of Richard Wagner automatically make you an anti-semite? Are we that undiscerning?

          Forget heroes and role models, we dehumanize each other with our unrealistic expectations and fantasies; our relationships often fail because we are unforgiving and judgmental, insisting that the other person stand in as an idealized proxy for ourselves.

Gerhard Richter's "Strip"

I don't want to be the kind of person who likes Gerhard Richter, a contemporary German visual artist. His work seems cold and overly intellectual--inhuman, really. I want you to think I'm soulful, earthy and sensual.

          I like Richter's "Strip." In fact I can't get enough of it. But what I see is not necessarily something that he or the critics see.

          As soon as I saw it, I saw my whole life flash before my eyes. Yes, really! Remember the Three Fates, in Greek mythology, who determine a human lifespan by weaving and cutting a tapestry? Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis measures it out, and Atropos cuts it with shears. "Strip" is the tapestry of a human lifespan, with thousands of different threads signifying a lifetime of events, ideas and emotions. There's a linear sense of time, but we can also experience the whole at once, the experience of now--good and bad, past, present, and future, all simultaneously. Get it? But I can only look at it for a second or two before the image splits into separate lines and a kind of vertigo makes me look away.

          It's damn near impossible for us mere mortals to appreciate the totality, to regard with compassion the seemingly contradictory jumble of pros and cons contained within each and every one of us. Worth a shot, though, right?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Letter to Oliver Sacks

A few nights ago, when I was lying in bed reading a novella by Georges Simenon about the transformation of a boring man who lives on autopilot, doing only what's expected of him, without any self-consideration whatsoever, I whiffed the loveliest cologne; or maybe it was aftershave. The scent was distinctly masculine, prickly, deep and warm. At once arousing and comforting.

I was drowsy, enjoying the fragrance while engrossed in the text--Act of Passion is the English title, but the French translates literally as Letter to a Judge--when it occurred to me that something must be terribly wrong.

My bedroom is romantic and feminine, bordering on virginal, with a strictly tranquil sensuality. The room is large and spare but surprisingly cozy: the hardwood floor is covered by an enormous, old oriental carpet whose sweeping, pale pink background is filigreed with sky-blue and golden arabesques that perfectly capture the mood of a late-summer sunset. There is a huge, old fairy tale mirror I especially like because of the curvaceous lines of its frame, which is a glowing, dark-blond wood. The long, loose curtains, a muted Vermeer-blue,  feel as stiff as raw silk, but if I opened the window I would expect them to billow.

Who could have been in my room? No one--no man--just me alone night after night. Perhaps it was the laundry soap. I sniffed at my pillows and closed my eyes, allowing the weight of my head to sink into the soft feathers. My last thought as I drifted off was that it wasn't impossible to recreate, I could still buy myself a bottle of aftershave and use it as room scent.

In the morning I was embarrassed, as if I'd been caught masturbating. Yet the idea of substituting the scent of a man for a flesh-and-blood man was not easily dismissed.

The next night, I continued to read my book in bed. The docile Alavoine had awakened, finally, to his brutal passion for Martine, an ordinary girl who happened to be a total stranger. She was a blank slate; actually her passivity was a bit like how Alavoine had been up to that point. Martine could have been anyone at all, really, except for her extraordinary quality of submissiveness. She was equally as receptive to his closed fist as to his tenderest caress. After they made love, Martine lit a cigarette.

Over a decade ago, I gave up smoking so I'm very sensitive to the odor. I don't like the way it impregnates my clothing and hair, the way that toasty, thrilling scent turns rancid so quickly. At that moment, cigarette smoke filled my nostrils, distinctly cloying and choking, as I lay on my bed. A few weeks ago, I'd seen my neighbor's teenage son blowing smoke out of his bedroom window, which is across from mine. The boy was probably at it again.

I sipped from a bottle of water on my bedside table before turning off the lamp. In the sudden darkness, I panicked. I thought I made out a tall, familiar silhouette. I still dream of him now and then. He always wore a denim jacket that smelled of Marlboros, and because I had thought I loved him, all those years ago, the smell had excited me. That smell of smoke on my pillowcase was like his deepest kiss. It was soothing to remind myself that we hadn't loved each other, after all, as I found out long ago that he had died in a motorcycle crash.

The closed book was still in my hand as I pressed my cheek into the pillow and inhaled. My mouth was a little open, like a fish. You know how sometimes you can only see something in your peripheral vision, something you can't catch when you look directly? I was doing that with the odor of the smoke. Eyes closed, not thinking of anything in particular, only breathing shallowly: then he was in the room with me.

When the alarm rang at six I had already been awake for an hour, feeling perfectly refreshed. I tried to recall the strange dreams I'd had, but all that remained was a lingering physical sensation of shame (and pleasure), which I eventually traced to the little game I'd played the night before. It was silly, really. It wasn't love, it wasn't him, but it was disturbingly real. Surely there could be no harm in a casual fantasy.

Tonight I sit at my desk, in front of my favorite mirror, having finished Act of Passion a few minutes ago. The end did not exactly disappoint me--shall I give it away or do you know it already? In order to erase any distance between them, after tirelessly pursuing the details of his lover's life from before they met, Alavoine violently delivers Martine from herself so they can be together safely and completely; which is to say the climax was a murder-suicide. The lovers live on through the judge, to whom the book is a confession, and so through us as readers. Put another way, Alavoine's spiritual faith in the immortality of their transcendent love is realized in the ritual of storytelling.

No, I'm not disappointed, yet I suspect the protagonist could have attained his ideal, impervious union with less fuss, and certainly less criminality. He never needed a flesh-and-blood Martine in the first place; he proved that by killing her.

Might not a fantasy-Martine have sufficed? More than sufficed! Fantasy-Martine would have given him everything, tailored to his design. She could never fail. No crime, no divorce, no disruption to his outer, day-to-day automaton existence, but the self-directed transformation of his inner being would be complete.

Like it or not, human beings are unreliable, even with the best of intentions. Physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, we are barely there for ourselves most of the time, let alone for others.

My minor acts of passion--because my fantasies are transgressions rather than crimes--are relatively harmless. I don't commit murder. On the contrary, I give life.

The problem tonight is that I smell neither aftershave nor cigarette smoke but chocolate. At least I thought it was chocolate, rich and dark and sweet. But I'm sure now it's hoppel poppel, a special treat my father used to make for me when I was a child, and which his mother had made for him when he himself was small.

I find myself sitting here at my desk, an antique rosewood table with brass lion-claw feet, before my reflection in my favorite mirror, and simultaneously sitting here and now at the very kitchen table of my childhood. I feel his proximity, even hear the spoon's clopping as my father, long gone, beats the yolk of four eggs in a coffee cup with sugar and a generous splash of Benedictine. Of course it must be the neighbor boy banging on something, yet it's exactly that hollow, cozy rhythm I recognize from childhood.

I'm slightly embarrassed to tell you this--you, a world-renowned neurologist and psychologist who has published numerous esteemed case studies, such as "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"--but none of us successfully separates our fantasies and misunderstandings from our day-to-day life.

I lived with my ex-husband for many years, both here and abroad, and the more we knew about each other and our different cultures the less we seemed to understand each other--the less we liked one another. Isn't the idea we have of 'knowing' one another and the possibility of being in an 'authentic relationship' a little presumptuous? It presumes first that we can know ourselves and next that we can know the other. Intimacy, really, is probably nothing more than assumptions based on random clues, our desires and fears. I had once believed I loved the man in the denim jacket, and now I'm just as certain I did not love him. Which is more true?

Although I am neither physician nor philosopher, I submit to you, with all due respect, that an invented character is no less real than you or I.