February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I bought Darcey Steinke’s novel Jesus Saves at a warehouse sale, I hoped that her words would speak directly to me, and they did. It’s a rare thing to find that sense of total communion with another writer. Set in a suburban malaise, Jesus Saves is about two girls. Sandy Patrick, who has been kidnapped, and Ginger, who suffers disillusionment at the crossroads between her struggling pastor father and a boyfriend intent on obliterating his own life.
Sandy Patrick escapes her brutal conditions into an imaginary world with a bear and a butterfly and a white unicorn that comes to try and save her. She protects her mind from trauma by staying far away in the land of make-believe, but in the meantime, her body is falling apart.
“The powerful scent shrunk her tiny as a figurine left under a doll house bed. He wouldn’t need the van now; he could carry her in a velvet flute case, or in his pocket, like a Barbie doll, her tiny toes brushing his leather belt, her head resting against a copper penny warmed by his groin (Steinke, 64).”
For the characters who haven’t been kidnapped by the man referred to as the troll, there is a different sort of prison. Grown women who dress like children; department stores with rooms made up of facades; fast food; and mega-church pastors who tell feel-good stories about television, sports, and success.
The shiny veneer of suburban life masks the constant sense that there is a troll lurking behind every little girl’s back. And in the avoidance, blood and gore pervade around make-believe land. Pretend becomes the only savior until the game is over. No one seems to know how to fight back. No one but Ginger, who refuses to buy into the trap – whether it’s in church or in fairytales or suburban facades.
“On Sundays, the wafers on the sterling plate and the wine in the medieval-style goblet took on an aura and import, became what they called holy, but backstage their glamour was diminished, no more important now than saltine crackers and Boone’s Farm wine. Holiness was like that, you could never trap it or examine its uncanny elements (Steinke, 75).”
When I was nine years old, we moved from a suburb of Chicago to Woodinville, Washington. Compared to our 1960’s era ranch house in the Midwest – which was nestled between the train tracks and the highway – our brand new house in the Northwest seemed like a mansion. It’s two and a half stories high with four bathrooms, a twenty-foot foyer and a pond with lush forest in the back. The house was part of a new development where all of the homes looked rather similar with small variations on layout and finish.
The community surrounded an older house tucked behind high hedges at the end of a dirt road just down from us. Attached to the corners of metal link fencing were surveillance cameras, which seemed completely bizarre in such a low-key neighborhood full of people going to jobs at Microsoft.
I only remember going down that road once in all the time Mr. Anderson lived there. A seven-year old girl at the end of our street made an attempt and received a nasty letter to her parents. In it, he demanded that they never allow her to walk down that road again, or else. But he didn’t own the road, and there was another house across from his.
Sometimes we heard shots ring out. The old couple across the street, who served us tea and displayed their knick knacks in glass cases, told us that one time Mr. Anderson’s bullet barely missed the head of an old guy eating breakfast in the nook of his kitchen. I pictured the nook as being exactly the same as ours, except maybe facing to the east instead of west. I saw the window shatter, and imagined the bullet lodged in the man’s wall – the shock on his face, the realization as he inspected the damage. There was talk of banning gunfire in the neighborhood. But I don’t remember if anything ever came of it.
I didn’t like the world of people when I was young. I enjoyed sitting in the forest at the back of the pond, hidden by one hundred-year old stumps and nurse logs, stroking my Dutch rabbit while smoking rolled up bits of newspaper. Life seemed real in the forest, in a way that it never did in school or inside the sterile house where I was under pressure to do certain things and act a certain way. The forest was the only place where I was allowed to be myself, and simply be. The rabbit listened to my diatribes against humanity for hours. Sometimes she made snorting sounds like a pig. Even though she hated people just as much as I did – truly dangerous with her sharp buckteeth – she felt safe with her soft chin and tickly whiskers nestled between my chin and collarbone.
One day I was walking along the deer trails alone, further out than I normally go. I saw Mr. Anderson in the distance with his rifle strapped across his shoulder. He was large and frightening and seemed more like a shadow than a person because I never saw his face. I sensed that he was coming right towards me. I turned and started to walk as fast as I could back to the clearing. His steps grew louder and faster as twigs broke beneath his boots.
When I made it back, I turned to look, but he was nowhere to be seen – like the mirage he always was. He represented the wild danger of what this place once was – a last frontier. Our suburban houses were whitewash over pine trees, cougars, coyotes, old farmsteads, and the Native American tribes that I still felt in the ground and the remaining trees. The present and the past were so at odds with each other that Mr. Anderson finally moved away – hopefully into the mountains where his breed was the norm. We could all breathe easier after the troll left.
They clear-cut the forest when I was seventeen. Men climbed the trees like monkeys, and chainsaws roared for hours. They left it raw and ripped to shreds. The only thing left was muddy tracks from the trucks that hauled the trees away. Wildlife destroyed, coves and crannies and a century of growth – since the last forest fire – gone. There was a strange law that said after a clear-cut, you had to wait seven years to build a new development. But seven years came and went, and no one ever built a thing. The government came to the rescue, purchased the land and made it a forest preserve with nature trails. So now you can walk muddy trails, gazing at nondescript saplings that all look the same for miles. It’s been about eighteen years, and I’ve enjoyed watching nature take the land back.
If I was the bear, I’d head for the Cascade Mountains like Mr. Anderson should have. But the bear still hangs around and catches salmon in a nearby creek, and balances his enormous weight on the railings of back decks, stealing bird food.
“The bear sighed as if he were made out of caramel, a quivering baritone that intermingled with the prickly static moving in and out of the troll’s lungs (Steinke, 117).”
I went the opposite direction. I’m rarely ever in a place where the air feels wet and naked and the quiet hangs over you like a shroud. Somehow, I ended up right back next to a freeway in the city.
My mother drove by and saw an ambulance in front of my building and called me when she got home. “Are you okay?” Her voice wavered and I could hear the urgency in her voice. She’d worried for the last twenty miles and forty-five minutes.
“Mom, you’re so suburban. There are ambulances here all the time. At the halfway building across the way, there’s an ambulance almost every day.”
I live in a mass of humanity, and in masses, people are dying all the time. If not dying, they’re falling, breaking bones, having a stroke, or threatening to commit suicide. One man in our building had a stroke, didn’t realize it, and was so out of sorts that he only ate ice cream for a week and lost a ridiculous amount of weight.
I’m not afraid of death. I like to be reminded that life is short because it makes me work harder and love stronger. There’s only one shot to give life everything that I have, and playing it safe is just another way of being half-dead. I’m inspired by people that are fighters – the ones that never give up. Like my ninety-year old neighbor who still walks up steep hills even though her knees are bad and her bones are literally falling apart. The only reason why she’s still going is because she’s too stubborn to give up. I don’t think she gives trolls a second thought, and when you’re old, it seems, your value to trolls decreases.
If I have a child, we might read books about magical bears and hookah smoking caterpillars and flying ponies. But I won’t shelter them from reality. I’ll teach them to be strong, fully present, and ready for any twist in circumstance. I won’t sugarcoat the facts or lead them to believe that life is easy. When I was young, I thought I could map my whole life out, but it doesn’t work like that. I’m glad that it doesn’t.
Dodging trolls has made me stronger, and no matter where I go, the world is always like the forest. You have to stay alert, allow yourself to be fully tapped into your intuition, and listen for the sound of crunching leaves. In the midst of that, the world is also so beautiful that at times it’s too much to handle. A gift that could be snatched away at any moment. All we have to do in the meantime is be alive in the best way that we know how – work hard, love strong, give all.
December 26, 2013 § 16 Comments
In my first year out of college, I joined a writer’s group that met in the attic of a coffee shop. In the brightly lit wooden eaves of the building, free coffee flowed till midnight. Our minds turned to over-caffeinated mush from the hours of pouring over chapters and poems.
A few of the people there inspired me tremendously, but like any average group, most of the writing was boring and repetitive. One of the members that I suffered through was a guy who looked like one of the dwarves from Lord Of The Rings – short and squat with a grisly beard and a flat nose. He wrote as though we were living in B.C. rather than A.D. In his mind, we were all still using weapons made from stone, building fires by friction, and living according to mythologies that represented our heroic struggles.
He confessed to us, that he found nothing even remotely satisfying about the modern world. He didn’t want to be a part of it, and would rather disappear into the classics. We all had the sense that when not with us, he was in a cabin on a river somewhere, reading Homer by candlelight.
Even though I hated his writing and he hated mine, I found him strangely alluring. He was a mystery I wanted to solve, but never did. His stealthy introversion was an intimidating barrier. Since then, I’ve met this man over and over in many forms. The elitist yearning to live in a glorified past is the ultimate resistance to living in the more difficult present. It is anti-life; anti-hero’s journey – a coward’s way out of reality.
In Donna Tartt’s first novel, A Secret History, the plot centers on a small core of Ancient Greek students at a small Northeastern university. Though the protagonist is from a small middle-class town in California, he tries desperately to fit in among the wealthy. As he infiltrates into the tight-knit program, the idealized view of his classmates begins to crumble. Their web of secrets grows thicker by the day. A pagan bacchanal goes horribly wrong, and all that they hide grows larger than anything else they could possibly share.
Though The Secret History was written twenty years ago, the language of the main characters is antiquated and out of place in the modern day college campus milieu. Off in the distance we see the typical students getting drunk at parties, thinking about what they will wear, who they will hook up with, what drugs they can get their hands on. But in the Greek department, the students congregate in a mystical space, a classroom that is virtually hidden from the rest of the campus, where a teacher sees his students not as they are, but what he wants them to be.
Outside, reality remains unfulfilling and stale. Language takes them to a different time and space, to a code of ancient values and pagan objectives. Their shared knowledge both unifies them and rips them apart through selfish objectives (though they seek to lose the self).
“He laughed and quoted a little Greek epigram about honesty being a dangerous virtue… (Tartt, 27).”
There have been many times when I was guilty of living in the past or the future. It was especially intense all through my childhood and adolescence. While growing up, it felt as though I was living a life that was not my own. It was the life of my parents. Though I grew up Fundamentalist, in my head, I was an actress living in black and white on the Silver Screen. More particularly, I was Joan Crawford being witty; Cyd Charisse dancing; Liza Minelli cavorting; or Rosalind Russell outfoxing all of her costars. I dreamt of my future as an independent woman living in a city somewhere, wearing sequins and faux fur, sipping martinis with movers and shakers.
This fantasy represented my escape from childhood – and in reality, I made it come true. I escaped the dreary suburbs with all of that constricting conformity, and have lived in cities ever since. I danced professionally for thousands of people, made the rounds as a musician, and worked as a showgirl/server at a vaudeville circus show. After hours, I conversed late into the night about who knows what, and desperately clamored to find someone outside of the circus tent who could help me breathe. The flashing lights, the glitter that never goes away, the bits of feathers that get caught in your clothes, the costumes sprayed with febreze – five nights a week like a carousel that you can never get off of. The exhaustion, anxiety, and nausea finally wore me down, and I jumped off the ride for good.
Whenever I choose to build a new life, the past haunts me. People I have known in other cities come to me in my dreams, and it’s as though time never passed away. I am there with them again, those people that I love though I will never see again; never get to be a part of their daily rituals and conversations. Part of me is still there.
If I do visit and see them again, I am not able to fully be part of their present. We only live in the past together, in our memories. I’m no longer on the ride. The past and the future never fully exist – both are merely shadows that taunt us, artifacts left behind, thoughts that have become skewed with time.
It’s important to understand what makes you feel fully invested in your present life. Personally, I need to feel that I am part of a community that both inspires me through their creativity, and provides me with a sense of affirmation for my own work. I also need a lot of solitude during the day, and social activity at night. New faces and fresh conversations invigorate me. The sense of mutual support is invaluable. A feeling of success in what I what I do.
There is a Classics major in all of us. We all get stuck, at times, living outside of the present. We hide away there, where it feels safe, where we know what happens next, where inevitably life has to move on.
Please share your own experience of falling out of the present in the comments below. What is it that brought you back?
September 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
The strange thing is, I read Leaving The Atocha Station, a novel by Ben Lerner about a twenty-something poet on a yearlong fellowship in Madrid, exactly two years since I was in Madrid myself. Every August, my husband and I crave experiences that remind us of the feeling of being in Spain. It’s a subconscious thing that creeps up, till we’re searching out a certain al fresco spot; the familiar architecture of a building; or the effervescence of a Spanish wine.
I remember how, on our trip, Michael blew our budget with his obsession for Hendricks & Tonic: served in giant goblets with plenty of cucumber slices. Each cocktail cost 16 – 20 Euros, while a bottle of wine was never more than 4. We reveled in masses of art at the Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen museums. Every day, the same waiter at the same restaurant in our small neighborhood got my order for Iced Espresso wrong. I couldn’t seem to master proper Spanish pronunciation.
In Mallorca, we weren’t sure how to get to the beach, so we followed bikinis onto a bus and got off where they did, ending up in a luxurious spot, eating Tuna Tartare and drinking more Gin before joining all the topless bathers. I wanted to go topless as well, like I did at a nude beach in New York, but being a newlywed, I was still struggling to figure out my new identity.
Mainly a poet, Leaving The Atocha Station is Ben Lerner’s first novel. It’s hard to tell where he ends and where his protagonist begins.
The magic of Lerner’s character, Adam, is that he is a complete anti-hero. Adam thinks all the thoughts that I often feel, but would never actually admit to. He’s been offered a prestigious fellowship, but cowers from his superiors, has no intention of writing on the topic of the Spanish Civil War (like he claimed in his application), and spends most of his time smoking hash and hoping that one of the two women he spends time with will suddenly feel passionately for him, which of course, they never do.
“I had a policy of keeping Isabel away from Arturo and Teresa, not because I didn’t think they’d like each other, but because I wanted them to believe I had an expansive social life (Lerner, 53).”
Adam shrinks from responsibilities, putting all of his energies towards being wanted. His melt under pressure as a young twenty-something reminds me of an episode of Girls, where Lena Dunham’s character gets a deal for an e-book that she’s told must be written in one month. The stress drives her crazy, reigniting her past struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, resulting in a punctured eardrum due to her over-zealousness with a Q-tip.
Who can write a book in a month? I’m sure that even Kerouac’s claims were doctored up a bit. In my early twenties, everything that involved pressure under fire in the grown-up world brought on the worst kind of anxiety. I set myself up to fail. I learned quickly that the only jobs that worked for me were the ones that allowed time to write with a thoroughly interesting nighttime life. I lived for stories, not for security. I also lived for being wanted and affirmed.
At full-time day jobs, I fell apart. Sick all the time, anxious, creeping further and further within a figurative turtleneck. I freaked out 24/7 that I would say the wrong thing, and I often did.
Since I’ve been married, I often run the risk of losing my mojo, because having mojo is no longer life or death. I have Michael to cushion life’s blows. In sixteen years, when he retires, the weight may be all on my shoulders again. What will I be at that point? Will my books ever take off? Will I ever be able to make a living as a writer? I need all that mojo to make something of my dream. But instead, I am planning exit strategies, just in case. Real Estate is always in the back of my mind. Could I do that and everything else on top of it too? Could I write, sell houses, and grow a human? Or can I live on this writer cliff for the rest of my life – where total uncertainty always gives way to food and shelter working out in the end.
The poet in Ben Lerner’s novel thinks about becoming a lawyer when he returns home. Do all poets, writers, artists, musicians have these thoughts? Probably.
“But in certain moments, I was convinced I should go home, no matter the mansion, that this life wasn’t real, wasn’t my own, that nearly a year of being a tourist, which is what I indubitably was, was enough, and that I needed to return to the U.S., be present for my family, and begin an earnest search for a mate, career, etc (Lerner, 163).”
Never giving up on your creativity is a daily battle. The anti-hero of the book barely attempts it, and yet things magically fall into his lap, thanks to connections. It’s so good to feel like a winner. That feeling you have when you know what you can give has value, and people show their appreciation, and you show your appreciation right back, and the world feels like the weave of a basket, never ending, interconnected, supportive; even when you fuck up and never write that poem about the Spanish Civil War.
What is a life of poetry, but an endless journey through dense portals of thought that barely connect and keep us in the place of philosophical quandaries?
“Poetry actively repelled my attention, it was opaque and thingly and refused to absorb me; its articles and conjunctions and prepositions failed to dissolve into a feeling and a speed; you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up; and yet by refusing to absorb me the poem held out the possibility of a higher form of absorption of which I was unworthy, a profound experience unavailable from within the damaged life, and so the poem became a figure for its outside (Lerner, 20).”
The same is true for Adam’s experience of the Spanish language, the culture, his general distance from the alternate reality of living there, a place that can never really be his.
In Spain, everything feels different, while nothing feels different at all. It’s an odd feeling. Spain has modernity, while still retaining old world graces and sophistication. I felt like a gypsy next to the polished style of the locals. I knew I would never fully understand the language, no matter how long I lived there. Not the language exactly, but all of the meanings behind the language. All of the movements of their fans, which they handled with so much panache, it was like they’d been flipping them since infancy. I could easily live there for the rest of my life, but not in a million years could I ever master the culture. How can you, unless you grow up in it?
“I have never been here, I said to myself. You have never seen me (Lerner, 178).”
August 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
Around eighteen, I read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and absolutely hated it. I don’t remember what it was about, I just know that I found her voice irritating. But lately, friends have been raving about her. One said that To The Lighthouse is so much a part of who she is, that she rereads it every year. Another raved about Orlando, saying that with my interest in gender studies, it’s a must-read.
So I bought both books at warehouse sales, and dove into Orlando. I was surprised to find that I hate Woolf’s voice just as much now as I did back then. I haven’t arrived at some place of maturity and understanding where I can finally “get” her. Woolf has wit, and some stunning observations, but she talks in circles, and goes for pages without saying anything. I never find the intensity of her person within her writing.
A mock biography, Orlando begins as a typical spoiled nobleman, the darling of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century. Through the course of three hundred years, Orlando never dies, and while on an ambassadorship in Turkey, he mysteriously transforms into a woman.
“She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for these desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline (Woolf, 156-157).'”
Despite the tedious hours spent in front of the mirror, very little changes about Orlando’s life. She retains her independence and remains devoted to poetry. She finds the Victorian obsession with marriage and romantic love amusing, and eventually gets swept up with the times when she falls in love and marries a sailor, who is never around much anyway.
Most enjoyable are the fictional photographs of Orlando. I was struck to find, that as a woman, Orlando has similar features to my own (though with a more sloped forehead). Woolf’s taste in women was from the standpoint of the 1920’s, and I think my looks are more suited for the style back then.
The book had me wishing that Woolf could have lived for three hundred years (like Orlando), to witness the world in which we live today. Men change into women, and women into men everyday. It’s so common, that there are days when I pass at least five transgendered people in an afternoon walk.
There is the middle-aged man turned woman with a red bob, straw hat, and crisp pink dress shirt tucked into acid washed mom jeans above white sneakers; the one with scraggly black hair and bright pink lipstick selling papers on the corner of Broadway and Thomas; and the one who looks like a New York Doll in really precarious platform shoes and long flowing dresses with ruffles. Then there are all the people who have had so much surgery, and such mastery of the art, that we’ll never know unless they tell us.
I’ve written before about how some of the artists of my generation believe that gender no longer exists. Part of the idea comes from how much has been done in regards to gay rights and women’s rights. But if gender doesn’t really exist, then why do people feel so strongly identified with an opposite gender, to the point of spending thousands of dollars, in painful transition, to get there? And when it comes to equal rights for all, we’re not quite as far along as we say we are.
The truth comes out on a Friday night at the bar. I used to work at Teatro Zinzanni, a local circus dinner theater. Sunday nights were like Fridays, and every week, performers and servers would all go out for an end of the week celebration. But the gays and lesbians never wanted to join us for karaoke at a bar called Ozzie’s.
I found out why a few weeks ago. It was our friend Oscar’s birthday. Oscar is from Peru, and is an openly affectionate person. Everyone was a few shots in. My husband, Michael, kissed a male friend on the neck as a joke. The guy behind them had a look of shock and horror on his face. Oscar was hugging all of his friends.
Security approached us, and actually said, “No guy on guy action here. You have to leave.”
I really couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt completely disgusted with the people working at Ozzie’s, and I’m never going back, not that I ever really wanted to be there to begin with. Meanwhile, it was no problem for another friend of ours to practically molest women on the dance floor.
A couple of weeks later, Michael was out for another birthday. A large guy stepped on a woman’s foot, so she pushed him. He came back with, “Oh really? You want me to put my big black dick up your ass?”
Here a man took a nonsexual argument, and used his sexual power to intimidate a woman who just wanted respect for her personal space.
If you’re gay (or presumed gay), and out at a bar, you might get kicked out for showing affection. If you’re a woman, the fact that you’re just standing there makes you fair game for a random male stranger to molest you or threaten you sexually.
I should mention, that the one time I was in a gay bar in the last two years, a young gay man did his best to intimidate me to get the hell out, by getting extremely up close and personal. So it all comes full circle.
Suffice to say, I rarely ever go out drinking anymore (though it used to be my favorite pastime). So when I go out now, I’m amazed by how completely stupid everyone gets. All of the impulses that people hide by day come to the raging surface at night. Nights become a place of conflict and aggression. The rich against the poor, the door guys verses the patrons, men verses women, gay verses straight, black verses white, young verses old.
“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high (Woolf, 149).”
If in an instant, you became the person standing across from you, what would that reveal to you? What would change? Could we all get along?
I’m not an idealist, but I feel tired of all the conflict I experience on a daily basis. I live on a busy street, and working in building management we are fully aware of all the crime that goes down. In the last week, we’ve dealt with three different incidents. On the morning of July 5th, an untreated neighbor behind us was shot by the police for brandishing a Glock from his window. I’m never going to understand everyone, but my emotions are exhausted from feeling what everyone around me feels. Sometimes, I just want to escape.
“… while fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded (Woolf, 104).”
Obscurity is nice for about a week, but then it’s good to get back to reality. I would just like a little bit of distance from the reality I live in. I feel that I am going through an enormous shift, and I have no idea where it will lead me. With it comes exhaustion and hopefully transformation. I am becoming something beyond what I am today; like Orlando, who sees beyond both genders, and knows that she is just a poet either way; a poet who loves solitude.
I’m not going to fill my coat pockets with rocks and drown myself, like Virginia Woolf did at the onset of World War II. She was going mad, and the only goodness left for her, was the love of her husband.
I believe that out of the worst, comes the best. If you watch nature closely, you see this happening over and over again. A natural disaster can unify people like nothing else can. A grit of sand can irritate an oyster into making a pearl. And when you send a radical new thought out into the world, it’s often met with hatred. But slowly over time, hatred abates, and new ideas become old ideas that are finally accepted. Life is a process.
January 13, 2013 § 5 Comments
Many years ago, I had a ten-month relationship with a Palestinian man who was getting his PhD in political science. We were more like companions than lovers, but the sexual tension between us drove us crazy. There was only one time, early on, that we acted on that tension, and it was a disaster. Amidst our attempt at satisfaction, he fell asleep, and I left him there, alone with his own snores. He woke up after I left, confused and lonely, wondering where I went. I was furious, and it was a tremendous blow to my ego. I was very young, but I’d been through so much at that point, I was also very old. Much older than I am now.
That winter it snowed so much, that I was stuck at his apartment in the University district for three days. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, so he lended me his black and white checked Keffiyeh. It was thick cotton. Piled around my neck, it protected me from the elements. I thought of how the Keffiyeh is most commonly used for protection against the hot desert sun.
It wasn’t really a fad yet, to wear a Keffiyeh around a college campus as a fashion statement. So a lot of people gave me funny looks. It felt as though the scarf could speak much louder than I ever could. There were people whose eyes lit up with happiness, and others who frowned.
Magid was much older than I was, and looked like a cross between Omar Shariff, and Louis Jourdan. Outside, his cigarettes added smoke to the steam escaping from his full lips. We walked through the city, beneath trees with intricate twig webs of white. We drank espresso at the Solstice coffee shop. He read the world politics section of the newspaper with his legs crossed. I wrote poems.
Mostly, we just fought all the time. But that weekend, with all of that snow, we created a cozy world for ourselves. Unobstructed by stress, power struggles, and Magid’s pain over always feeling like an outsider.
Though he had many friends, he was locked inside of solitude. And within him, always the constant conflict between East and West. To be in the West was both to avoid his homeland, and also to fight for it with the safety of distance. To be in the East was to be beaten down and humiliated. Even community, tradition, and family, could not protect him from this. He was a foreigner no matter where he went.
The same feels true of Ka, Orhan Pamuk’s main character in his richly poetic novel, Snow. Through Snow we are given a view into the struggles of the small town of Kars in Turkey, and the conflict between Islam and the State. Since a ban on headscarves for girls in school, there have been several suicides among the headscarf girls, but it is uncertain as to whether their reasons were religious or having more to do with their miserable lives.
Ka is a poet who comes to Kars on the pretense of covering the suicide girls and the political elections for a Frankfurt newspaper (where he lives as a political exile). But his real reason is to seek out a beautiful woman he remembers from college.
While in Kars, Ka writes several poems. He is snowed in, and the roads have been closed. Political tensions come to a peak. And though involved beyond what he would care to be, the events pale in comparison to the love he has found, and the overwhelming feeling that he will lose her. What is more, his Atheism is challenged by the perfect symmetry of snowflakes, and so he begins to see through all points of view. He becomes susceptible to the mystical, the charismatic, the theatrical dramas that cross the line from stage to reality.
My companion, Magid, did not seem to have a sense of faith. I admired that about him. His family was Christian, and he always said that Americans had no idea how many Christians lived in Palestine. He taught me that the news we receive here is very dishonest and biased. He took it upon himself to educate me on world issues.
There was a part of him that wanted to be liberated from his culture. But the part that was still entrenched in tradition, railed against my strong willed nature. He was both attracted and humiliated by my need for independence. Insanely jealous, with no reason to be, since is wasn’t beyond him to take another woman home, if I wouldn’t go with him.
He said he would take me to Israel, but he never did. Instead, he went alone when his father was dying. And on his way back, he was strip searched and made to stand naked in front of group of guards. They rifled through his credit cards. They confiscated his luggage, and then gave it back to him after they had stolen the gifts he was bringing back. They assigned him a guard, to escort him at all times in the airport, until he boarded the plane. He was made to feel like a dangerous criminal.
When his plane had a layover in Jersey, he called his family and found out that his father had just died. There was a sense of relief at having missed it. If he had been there, it would have been weeks of sitting in the house and mourning while all the neighbors came by to offer food and condolences. He considered whether or not he should grow out his beard as a sign of mourning. Then he decided that no, he was in America now. He didn’t have to do that.
He flew home, and when he told me all about what had happened, he cried. It was summer now, and we were eating burgers at a bar in Fremont. The sun was hot on our heads, streaming through a large window behind us.
The last time I saw him, we fought so badly that I drove him back to his street and dropped him off on the sidewalk before we could even make it to dinner. I drove away without even saying goodbye. The next day, I moved to New York.
Our story was a small pocket of my life. And in that pocket is the silence of snow, a Keffiyeh, Magid’s cigarettes and a newspaper stuck under his arm. We are not fighting the fight between East and West. We are peacefully gazing at each other from across the table with love in our eyes, while the students around us are wondering what a young girl like me is doing with a stubborn old man.
I see that Magid is living a successful life as an intellectual and writer. He is hard at work, stripping the layers off of the Westernized condescending and racist approach to Arab culture. His research has led him to express his thoughts through a historically Arabic point of view. It appears that he has returned to the East.
I will always remember that in Arabic there are over twenty words for “love” but in English, we only have one. I will remember the way that the men all danced together, and swung their hips in a subtle way. I will remember the koobideh with basmati rice and saffron. The poets and musicians; the pain and love that they expressed. The ancient culture that we could never feign to understand in the West.
April 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
In E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime we are taken into the vulnerabilities and motivations behind such historical figures as Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman. We are witness to the making of revolutionaries and criminals. War is on the horizon – the great equalizer between massive wealth and massive poverty.
Each character ricochets off the next, creating a stream of events flowing from one to another. The book begins with Evelyn Nesbitt. Her beauty causes a murder among the rich and powerful. Her picture sends newspapers flying off the stands. She becomes the standard model for every sex goddess that follows after her. “Goldman sent off a letter to Evelyn: I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is By being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out on her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich (Doctorow, 71).”
One of my favorite scenes involves J.P. Morgan, who in his quest for Egyptian mysticism spends the night in a Pyramid seeking a sign of his greatness. He only finds that the place is infested with bed bugs. His feeling of elite superiority to be in such a place is even more diminished when he is led out in the morning to find a team of ill-mannered baseball players goofing off on the ruins.
Coalhouse Walker, a liberated black man, seeks justice against the crimes committed against him. He turns into a revolutionary willing to sacrifice his life, staking out J.P. Morgan’s library of artifacts and rigging it with dynamite. As Booker T. Washington tries to reason with him, Coalhouse replies, “It is true I am a musician and a man of years. But I would hope this might suggest to you the solemn calculation of my mind. And that therefore, possibly, we might both be servants of our color who insist on the truth of our manhood and the respect it demands (Doctorow, 238).”
Throughout is the rage that we are experiencing in our own time in the same phase of a century – rage against the one percent. I grew up around wealth. I went to high school blocks away from Bill Gates’ mansion in Bellevue, Washington. My sixteen-year-old classmates drove BMW’s and Mercedes’. My mother wanted to make up for doing without as a teenager, so she bought me one thousand dollars worth of clothes every fall and spring. I learned quickly, that having everything you want doesn’t make you happy. And after college, I had no idea how to deal with real life or live on very little. It took years to train my brain how to stop being magnetized to extravagance. Eventually I gained the survival skills I needed.
My number one lesson was that I was too impulsive to own a credit card. As a teenager I’d never looked at a price tag, but now I became an obsessive bargain hunter. I sought out the cheapest market in my neighborhood and bought all the food I needed for a week for under $40. I learned to like my natural hair color and taught myself how to cut my own hair. Instead of buying beauty products, I only use almond oil. Natural remedies have replaced doctors and prescriptions. When buying clothes I tend to do day’s worth of research, and think out my choices and price options for the best quality at the lowest price. It pays to buy things that last.
I have yet to own a car, though I did spend six months puttering around on a sporadic 1974 Honda CT90 motorcycle. I realized my own two legs were more dependable and I like the exercise.
I’ve been living on random jobs for eleven years telling myself that I can keep doing this while I wait for that book deal to happen. And every year has seemed like the last year I will do it, to the point that it amazes me that this distant carrot could keep me going in the same way until the day I die. I’m okay with that.
Jobs always come up when I need them, like magic. But there is a constant scramble for backbreaking work. One of those jobs is as a part-time contractor. I am the person wearing dirty overalls, up in my head all day sanding, patching and painting in the routine movements of a machine. When I work in public places, I note that people regard me as being beneath them. When I wear my normal clothes, the same people regard me as their equal.
I sometimes work for a friend, serving food and mixing cocktails at parties. We work for the one percent. I hate the feeling of subservience the very rich can make you feel. You’re not allowed to really exist. And I’m good at being a shadow on the periphery, taking care of their every need.
At one party, the couple was our age, in their mid-thirties. He worked in commercial real estate and she did nothing but buy designer clothes for all I could see. She didn’t know how to work the stove, and he couldn’t be bothered with knowing where anything was in the kitchen. They owned a mansion with forty-foot floor to ceiling windows with a full skyline view of the city. The kitchen counter was also forty-feet long. The house itself was built like a fortress with a ten-foot wide wooden door opening into the courtyard, and a glass door twenty-feet tall to the house.
Usually the very rich live in houses that are not to my taste. But in this place I found myself becoming more and more green with envy as the night wore on. I was disgusted with myself for feeling this way.
They were lonely people living at the top with the usual token gay bestie who worshiped their lifestyle. The husband did the usual boasting of only flying private, and told boring tales of doing without comforts in foreign countries. He was anal and obsessive compulsive. You could see he wouldn’t have gotten this far, this fast, if he hadn’t been. Everyone was slightly bored and more amused by the view of the city than the company.
I appraised their lame choices in art and thought of the paintings I would hang instead. I imagined where I’d put the grand piano and how I’d rock star the place out. Desperately, I wanted to go back to my own life so I could begin to forget. Then back at home I kept looking over towards their neighborhood from our balcony, pin-pointing exactly where that magnificent house stood amongst the crevices of the hill.
Is it bad, or is it okay to find motivation from being around the rich? On a good day I feel like the upstanding socialist – equality for all. And I am lucky to have the life I lead – rich with experience, vibrant, full of love and time enough to write. But as a human being, we are all competitive by nature.
It all reminds me too, that there is a part of me that is still that spoiled adolescent. She resides deep in my subconscious, causing me to make impulsive choices every now and then. Like J.P. Morgan, sometimes our illusions of grandeur need to be taken down a notch by bed bugs in the Pyramid.
February 8, 2012 § 2 Comments
In Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, set in 19th Century France, Frederic is obsessed with Madame Arnoux, the wife of his friend. It takes him years to gain her confidence and she eventually grows to love him too, but refuses to give herself to him out of propriety. He takes on her husband’s Courtesan for distraction and attains the closest he ever comes to marriage with Rosanette. But he can’t worship a woman who isn’t respectable, and her habits eventually annoy him. His mother tries to arrange for him to marry a neighbor girl from the country for money and property, but he is too distracted by Madame Arnoux.
“For some men, the stronger their desire, the more difficult it is for them to act. They are hampered by mistrust of themselves, daunted by the fear of causing offence; besides, deep feelings of affection are like respectable women; they are afraid of being found out and go through life with downcast eyes (Flaubert, 174).”
The enormity of their love grows through Madame Arnoux’s refusal to consummate it. Only through consummation can love take its natural course and eventually balance out or dissipate. But instead, their desire builds over the span of many years until the woman that she was is gone, her white hair shocking him beneath her bonnet. His ideal of her cannot hold up in reality.
“Frederic suspected that Madame Arnoux had come to offer herself to him; and once again he was filled with desire, a frenzied, rabid lust such as he had never known before. Yet he also had another indefinable feeling, a repugnance akin to a dread of committing incest. Another fear restrained him – the fear of being disgusted later… partly out of prudence and partly to avoid degrading his ideal, he turned on his heel and started rolling a cigarette (Flaubert, 415).”
By this point, Frederic’s confused desires have bungled his chance for a marriage into high society. He squanders his money away on women and gives loans to friends that are never repaid. All of his opportunities go flat, his life consumed by the illusions of love, money and power.
In old age he recalls his fondest memory as a naïve young man, running from a brothel in embarrassment when the girls laughed at his bewildered stares. Our lives are filled with failed aspirations, but our finest memories are spontaneous and wild; we fall into them carefree, and then realize we have no grasp, carried away beyond ourselves.
Years ago, I was talented at upholding and building the illusion of love. The best way to do this is to have a long distance relationship. I became obsessed with a guy that moved to LA two days after I met him. He was an older artist with a chiseled face and a body like a whippet. He lied to me that he was only going to LA on business. But everyone else knew that he moved. He was afraid of losing me, and his lies only got worse.
We had intense chemistry. I felt connected to him not only physically and spiritually, but psychically. I had mystical, symbolic dreams about him, and he would call right after I’d had them. When he visited things never matched the dream of what I thought it could be. But even so, we cried to be in each other’s arms and clung to each other with an intense fear of loss. Years went by like this. I told him that I slept with other people, and kept hoping that someone would make me forget him. But all the parties and wild nights couldn’t dislodge him from my brain.
Eventually I had the opportunity to fly out to Venice Beach for a week. I thought that maybe if it went well, I would move there. But he called me two days before my flight to tell me he had a girlfriend. Apparently it was okay to see me across the country, but not in his neighborhood. When I got there we had breakfast and I did my best to charm him away from the other woman. Later on, I blew up at him over the phone and had to pull my rented Mustang over to the curb, crying for half an hour. Towards the end of the week we had another much more stunted breakfast where he showed me his ideas for a cartoon show.
I stayed in a depressing hostel. The bright sun bothered me and I kept the curtains closed. There was no mirror or even a picture on the walls, just a bed in a box-like room. It felt like a prison. I heard people talking distantly down the halls. But I felt stuck on the mattress with springs poking into my back. I cried for a full day. Then roamed in solitude. A creepy guy tried to seduce me with a massage on the beach. I watched dolphins on the hazy horizon.
A trio of film people ate brunch at the same place and time everyday. Three days in a row I watched them draw attention in whatever way they could. I saw the Dali’ exhibit at LACMA and found it was easier to walk away from LA Man than to walk away from The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. I was drawn into the storm of color in a surreal existence. My life felt surreal, and I felt guilty of being like Narcissus, in love with a man who I’d made into my own reflection. I didn’t really know him at all.
I met a handsome guy at a bar who rambled about his job as a set designer on some show I’d never heard of. He complained about how flaky everyone is in LA. A friend of his turned up and he ignored me for a half an hour, showing off. When I gathered my things to leave he acted shocked that I wasn’t going home with him. I couldn’t wait to leave that city with all the people it had ruined through too many illusions of grandeur. Proximity to fame blew up their egos making them blind to the people all around them. And when dreams become a reality they are never really what we think they will be. Fame and wealth can be extremely isolating.
“In every parting there comes a moment when the beloved is already no longer with us (Flaubert, 415).”
When LA Man turned on his heel and walked away, I knew I was better off without him. But the sadness overwhelmed me. Three years later he called to say that he’s not really with his girlfriend anymore and they’re seeing other people. Then he added, “Whatever happened with that guy you were living with?”
“We got married last September.”
Stunned silence. He had thought that my life could fall to the wayside to make way for him, that all of his lies would be forgotten. He had his own illusions.