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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road: Violent, Hyper-kinetic, Overrated

Source: Wikipedia 
"Mad Max Fury Road" is one long hyperkinetic, violent, chase scene. It has received over-the-top reviews; that's why I went to see it. The reviews insisted that "Fury Road" is so good it transcends its genre: teen boy action movie / video game. I was hoping for something like "300," a violent action movie that is better than it needs to be. In fact "Fury Road's" star, Tom Hardy, costarred with "300"'s star, Gerard Butler. But "Fury Road" really isn't any better than any other violent, teen boy, action movie / video game. It's not exceptionally smart or funny or cinematically awe-inspiring.

There's no challenging thought or interesting history. It's just the same old same old: manmade apocalypse, humans in a devastated landscape, evil men doing despicable things, with lots and lots of chasing, punching, kicking, ugliness and loudness. After I walked out of this movie, the world was an uglier place. As I passed cars, I saw the souped-up cars of "Fury Road." Everything seemed menacing and everyone seemed to need a punch in the face. I don't think it's a good thing that movies peddle nihilism as a drug to teen boys.

"Fury Road" takes place in the future. The landscape is desert. An evil and very ugly ruler, Joe, who wears a skull mask and a Darth-Vader-style breathing apparatus, hoards water. Joe uses the water to support his population of war boys, bare-chested, muscular men in white body paint. Joe also harvests breast milk from captive women, and impregnates other captive women, "breeders," with his offspring – future war boys.

Some of his subjects make a break for it. Joe sends out his war boys to catch the escapees. The escapees are trying to make it to the green land of many mothers.

The entire movie, from start to finish, is one long chase scene. It's so fast moving and stimulating that it actually gets boring. You don't know or care about any of the characters. None of the characters are particularly likable. It's so horrible – the quick scene of women's breast milk being harvested, for example – that it becomes laughable. It's very loud and your ears ring after you leave the theater.

Tom Hardy as Mad Max spends the first twenty minutes or so of the movie being bound and tortured. Pretty passive for the star of an action movie. Charlize Theron carries the action, and she is very good. Not bad for a 39 year old woman. Nicholas Hoult is poignant as a war boy who undergoes the closest thing the movie has to character development. My favorite scene in the movie lasted about thirty seconds; Tom Hardy says, "My name is Max." It's a tiny oasis in a desert of violent chase scenes.

Men are bad and destroy and exploit; women are good and nurture. I suspect that this aspect of the film will arouse controversy.

The future is full of white people. In the large cast, only Zoe Kravitz, who is half Jewish and half black, is a bit darker skinned. This aspect of the movie will also arouse protest. The future may be a dystopic no-exit hellhole, but black people should be allowed to suffer in it as much as whites.
The war boys are eager to die for their malicious leader, Joe. Joe promises them that when they die they will go to Valhalla. I wondered if this might not be an allusion to suicide bombers dying with promises of 72 virgins on their minds.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Monastery Retreat Memories Part One

Source
Ten years ago I made a silent, week-long retreat to Holy Cross, a Cistercian monastery on the Shenandoah River in Virginia.

It was one of the most amazing, and in some ways bizarre, experiences of my life.

As soon as I got back, I typed up my experiences. The final document was two hundred pages long. I mailed it to a handful of friends who were kind enough to read it. They asked me when I'd publish it. I never thought I would. 

Now I am rereading those pages. 

I began the monastery diary with a description of something odd and wonderful that happened in November, 2004.

***

One weekday morning in November, 2004, I was just stepping out of the shower when the little voice told me, "You have to go outside right now."

I don't like leaving the house without everything just right: my hair brushed, clothes selected. To make matters worse, I had just washed my hair, and it was still wet.

Force hand: put comb down. Hurry up feet, no time for socks: slip on flip-flops. Drag long coat over pajamas. Turn knob on door. Open door. Walk out. Close door. Lock.

My hair a wet tangle, I walked to the Falls.

The biggest and most perfect rainbow I've ever seen in my life stretched over the Falls. It began in West Paterson and fell on the hill on the opposite side of the Falls. An artist would never paint it; it was too perfect and gigantic to appear real.

It hadn't been raining; the rainbow was formed by the rising sun coming through the morning mist.

I used to wallow in beauty in Nepal, where it was served up on heaping platters. In Paterson I live in manmade ugliness. Patersonians have decided that it is right and proper to throw garbage on the street, to beat children on the street, to urinate, beg, and inject heroin on the street, and then to sleep in a drug-induced stupor on the street. When I see what a mess of the planet humanity can make it of it in this age of non-biodegradable apocalypses, I find reconciliation with the sad fact that I never had kids.

This rainbow stood between leprous Paterson and desirable Wayne. It blessed Paterson.

Water commission workmen laid down their tools and stared, as did pedestrian commuters. People commented. I resolved to stay there as long as the rainbow lasted. Feh. It outlasted me. I was there an hour, I think, and I finally left, the rainbow still in the sky.

***

I took a Chinatown bus to Washington, DC. Then I hitchhiked from the city itself to the Virginia monastery.

***

Many Jaguars and other upscale cars passed me. I got a lot of stares. I was there for almost an hour when a taxicab pulled up. I peeked inside. As I suspected, he looked foreign. I politely explained that I was hitchhiking, an activity that does not involve the exchange of fees for services.

"Never mind, get in." I did, and I blessed him.

He was from Afghanistan. He showed me a snapshot of his wife and family that he keeps tucked into his sun visor. His wife looked sad, as Muslim women often do. You don't see a lot of bubbly Muslim women overcome by joie de vivre. His kids looked slim and healthy but solemn. I asked him what he thought of Afghanistan's political life. He said that when the Americans came in, they should have just killed all the warlords. He had a specific plan: invite them to a meeting, and then blow up the room.

I said, but that would just restart the cycle of violence.

He said, "What cycle of violence? Everyone will be dead."

He dropped me off near Dulles airport, on route 66.

I walked a very few steps along route 66, not hitchhiking but merely seeking an exit ramp, when Bruce Barton, of the Virginia Department of Transportation, pulled over and picked me up. I got into this heavily jam-packed vehicle. He had so much stuff! Computers, tools, much in fluorescent orange, including the vest he was wearing. He looked very blond and raw. He spoke with a Southern accent and a speech impediment. He asked where I was going. I told him. He gave me a map and drove me to the ramp.

While walking to the ramp, I saw a buteo soaring overhead. It had dark-outlined, light-colored windows in its wings. Later guessed it to be a light-phase red tail hawk. At the ramp, I unfurled my hand-lettered sign, made with a paper grocery bag, cut open, and a magic marker. I don't think I was there even for five minutes when an African American man in an eighteen-wheeler pulled up. I opened the door; getting into his cab required a lot of effort up two steep, metal grill steps. He was listening to loud Gospel music. He had a bed behind his seat. I threw my very heavy backpack onto his bed. He said that he saw my sign and realized he was going right by the monastery. Wahoo!

I would later discover that his name was James or Jamie, Jamie, I think. He was an average looking, late 30s black guy. He was transporting mulch. Fully loaded, he guessed he weighed eighty thousand pounds, the load and the rig together. He had the most elaborate dashboard I've ever seen on an eighteen-wheeler. It told him his weight, air pressure, etc. He said that many of the displays were more or less useless to him.

He never stopped talking. It was hard to hear him, as I am deaf in the ear on the driver's side, and because his truck was amazingly noisy. I wonder if he realized how loud he had that Gospel music going. He did turn it off when I got in. He may be losing his hearing from the truck.

He said he liked the job well enough, but that he wanted to give it just a few more years, sock away x # of dollars, and then try for something else. He said that trucking used to be free, you could just go and go, but that there were so many regulations these days that it had become onerous.

We drove through gently rolling hills tragically being sacrificed to completely horrid, character-less suburban sprawl. Jamie bemoaned it. He said he'd grown up on a 180 acre dairy farm. (His family worked it; they didn't own it.) He came from a family of nine, with seven sisters. His father had a family of ten; his mother a family of 21. His grandmother, 81, comes to family reunions and kicks off her shoes and plays volleyball. He pointed out a shopping mall that had once been a field where he played ball; he pointed out a swimming hole that would soon be more sprawl; he pointed out other landmarks from his childhood.

He had been married for a while, and he liked it, but he had been divorced for a year, and he had no idea why his marriage hadn't succeeded. He missed his wife.

"Maybe you'll get back together?" I asked.

He was noncommittal.

He said that at a certain point on his daily route, "The gates just open up. People smile and wave at each other and let each other pass. It's a whole 'nother world." That is where he gets beyond the suburban sprawl, and into real country.

Mounting a pass, my ears popped. We crossed over the Shenandoah River. We drove uphill and parked at a small store. Behind the counter, craggy white women, middle aged but battered and withered, with unattractively childish hairstyles, greeted Jamie. The light was very dim. Waxy looking, roughly rectangular fist-sized blobs wrapped in cellophane were stacked on a table near the door. Blobs of bacon fat? I lifted one and smelled it. Nothing definitive. I asked Jamie; he said that they were "old hunks of meat for flavoring soup." There were bags of pork rinds. I walked around and got as far as three sinks full of fingerlings in graduated sizes. "Bait?" I asked one of the craggy women. "Yup," she said.

Jamie kept trying to buy me something; I declined, out of politeness. I did want a coke, and would have bought it myself, but I didn't want to risk offending him. He asked the store personnel for directions to the monastery, they gave them.

It was determined that I needed to walk back to the bridge over the Shenandoah and up a wooded road. Jamie said he couldn't get his truck up that road; I believed him. He looked around for an "old man who is usually here" to give me a ride. I insisted that I could walk; in any case, the old man could not be found. "May God bless you for your kindness to me," I said to him.

"God blesses me every day, " Jamie said with a smile.

I wrestled my pack out of the back of the truck and began the trek downhill, the final stage of my journey.

The East Coast was in the grip of a heat wave. Back in Jersey, I had cut the sleeves off of an old white man's shirt. I had been wearing that shirt so much for so long that the sweat stains in the armpits were stiff even as the shirt soaked in hot water.

I have to discipline myself to get anything still usable into a garbage can. Surely the item I contemplate discarding has some use left. Surely someone poorer than I is suffering somewhere for want of this item. Surely when the shit comes down – when the aliens invade, the Ruskies, or I guess now the Chinese, to claim the country they bought from Bush to finance his Iraq war, when the post-petro Depression hits, when the Zombie Apocalypse commences, – I'll be in dire need of this sweat-stained white shirt.

But I finally went to the Salvation Army, which I hate going to – it has the atmosphere of a prison, and it smells worse, and its prices aren't very good, to boot – and bought two new white men's shirts, expressly as part of an effort to convince myself to finally throw out this shirt I've been trying to throw out for years.

But I didn't throw it out. Just the sleeves. Kept the sweat stains. It is now a flimsy semi-sort-of garment I soak in cold water and wear around the apartment, dripping, so I can take the heat.

Virginia, too, was hot. The backpack was heavy. Have I mentioned its heaviness? I walked downhill to the Shenandoah River. People who, like me, have never swung from its willow branches or dandled a lightly shod foot over its banks could, thanks to the river's eponymous folk song, grow up yearning for those happy days wearing a straw hat and chewing on a blade of grass. Really, "Shenandoah" is as powerful as any more sophisticated piece of music. It arouses a really powerful nostalgia for that misty, pink-dawned, sun-ray shot landscape everyone dreams of as if it were home, or else why would Thomas Kinkade paintings sell so well? That yearning feels like a newborn baby's yearning for its mother, a newborn that knows damn well it is going to spend the rest of its life being, more or less, an arrow shot from mother with only one trajectory – away. The singer never spends so much as a moment actually on the Shenandoah. It's all about longing to hear something you've definitively, and of your own free will, left. The river is given human substance; the singer bids it off, "Away, you rolling river." And, "rolling"? A word used to describe the hips of a woman wantonly trying to use her charms to keep someone she knows she's already lost. And yet the singer yearns for this river he orders "away." Anyway, the lyrics:

Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river
Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, I'm bound away, cross the wide Missouri.
Oh, Shenandoah, I love your daughter,
Away, you rolling river
Oh, Shenandoah, I love your daughter
Away, I'm bound away, cross the wide Missouri.
Oh, Shenandoah, I'm bound to leave you,
Away, you rolling river
Oh, Shenandoah, I'm bound to leave you
Away, I'm bound away, cross the wide Missouri.
Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you,
Away, you rolling river
Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you
Away, I'm bound away, cross the wide Missouri.

Just reading those brief sixteen lines, I choke back tears. I want to apologize to the Shenandoah. And I want to keep moving, to get away. Cause that is life: leaving, and losing, paradise.


I heard that song as a child. I fell in love with the river, sight unseen. And here I was, walking along it. But I had the mind of the traveler. I remembered that just the day before I had made the fatal error of not asking three people if I were going the right way. I had walked hours in the wrong direction, exhausting myself and torturing my shoulders (which still ache). So, when I heard a car behind me, I turned around and waved at it, my wave friendly and not importunate, but my body far enough into the road that going around me would be hard to do. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Death of Siblings: Remembering Alone


Mike Goska

For me it's always been all about stories.

I'm not that into things. I think my divorce from things is related to my cognitive challenges. Butterfingers, that's me. I drop things. I don't know how to operate things. I am flummoxed by the challenge of storing things. I own a Stanley tools 25 foot Fat Max tape measure. I have no idea where it is.

I remember being a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic, a dangerous place. It was close to the equator and the following always arrived around six p.m.: sunset, night-long polyrhythmic drumming, bats, eight-, six-, and four-footed predators, and two-legged thieves.

One night I took my lantern apart to fill it with kerosene and – I couldn't put it back together. It had about four movable parts: the lower can that held the kerosene, the upper can that held the wick, a glass globe, and a frame. I could not put these items, that I had just taken apart, back together. I was terrified. The light didn't protect me from the darkness and its dangers, but I felt that it did, and the darkness was coming on quickly. I struggled for half an hour before figuring out that I had one of the parts upside down. That simple.

So, yeah, no, things. Do I own anything that was once owned by my mother? Yes, one thing. A low-cost pendant. That's it, I think.

The stories, though. The stories.

How and why my great-great grandmother was murdered, and the fallout from that murder that lasted for the next one hundred years. How and why my paternal grandfather died, and the impact on my father. His riding in the same jeep with Douglas MacArthur. What his men said to him at the reunion. Why he was in the army twice, under two different names.

The stories.

My sister just died. She is my third sibling to die. I've been talking about the impact of siblings, and their deaths.

Here's one impact. My sister's death is in many ways my own death. I kept waiting for someone to see this and say it: "You are sad because your sister is dying, and of course you are also sad because in a sense her death is your death." No one did so I'll say it. One reason siblings' deaths make us so sad is that their deaths are our deaths as well.

My sister and I didn't have a good relationship. Even so I loved her passionately. My insightful friend Robin Schaffer asked me why. I listed Antoinette's qualities: her intelligence, her honesty, her talkativeness, with me, anyway. She never shut up with me, and I like to talk and I like people who talk.

Later, though, I realized that that list could never add up to my love for her, and that two things really would have done a better job of explaining: Antoinette and I laughed at the same things, and Antoinette and I remembered the same things.

Antoinette's home was put up for sale shortly after she died.

We grew up poor. Our mother hammered this into us. I always assumed I would die in a cardboard box on the street. I still assume that. I probably will.

Antoinette was the first one of us to buy and inhabit her own stable home.

Antoinette's aesthetic was the classic concept of feminine and pretty: pastel colors, soothing motifs. Pink, sky blue, gold, lavender, ocean scenes, starfish, hummingbirds, floral patterns.

Her home was in a great neighborhood on a lovely lot with trees. When she told me that a bear attacked her bird feeder, I was so jealous. She had reached heaven. No cardboard box on the street for her. Her yard was full of plants she bought, planted, and nurtured, including a blue spruce next to a pink dogwood. See? Pretty. There was the girls' swing set, and a wren house inhabited by a real house wren, whirligigs and wind chimes.

Antoinette created that space and kept it alive every day with the turnings of her body, just as an animal forms a den. Shortly after she died, it began to be dismantled, so that the house could be sold. That house will never sound the same, smell the same, or feel the same. The house that Antoinette created died when she died. I feel sad.

I think of my mother's home. I was an abused kid; my home life was hard. But I loved the house. I loved its smells of onions, ham, and bread. I loved the creaking floors and the knot in the staircase that let light through as you walked over it. I loved the peek of the older wallpaper under unpainted corners. I loved the sound of Tramp's occasional pants or scratches at night on the porch, or one of my brothers coming home, clearing his throat, and peeing in the toilet. No sound has ever touched me more than the sound of the heat kicking on that first night in autumn.

I loved what happened when people came over. I especially loved Aunt Phyllis. She was beautiful, and she had something special. She and my mother made each other laugh. It was such a grace. My mother was a different, better person around Aunt Phyllis.

Aunt Tetka and Uncle Strecko came, too. Sometimes Rose and Rudy and Sophie Stupko. They would sing Slovak folk songs. They would speak Slovak, my father would speak Polish, and World War II and the Depression would be re-told.

I was at a family function recently. Everyone was a WASP, including those who had Bohunk ancestors they have forgotten and don't want to know about. Everyone spoke English only. Not a single person there would have known how to respond if I said "A ja taka carna" or even "Chodz." No one had survived anything – no WW II, no czars or Hapsburgs or Nazis. No, they had all survived their trip to the mall. 

I am remembering alone.

Amanda Cooney, a talented photographer, took some photos of Newark's Branch Brook Park when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. I shared the photos on my facebook page. Sue Knight, a well-read woman, quoted A. E. Housman's poem "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now."

Sue's reference reminded me that my brother, Mike Goska, had written a very funny parody of A. E. Housman's poem, "When I Was One and Twenty." It was published in the Lakeland Regional High School literary magazine, or maybe its yearbook. Mike rewrote the poem as "While doing six to sixty," about a prisoner in jail being offered wisdom by his cellmates.

I wanted to snatch that memory back.

I wrote to Matthew Certo, the current principle at LRHS. I asked if there was any chance he could find a copy of Michael's parody. He tried. Principle Certo just emailed me. No luck.

The memory is gone. I am remembering alone.

Antoinette would remember that poem. When she was in the hospital, and in bad shape – that day she did not recognize me – I was talking to her. I would talk about anything. I said, "Antoinette, remember Barry Bogerman?" I was mentioning a guy Mike used to hang out with when he was in high school. And she said, "Yeah, Mike's friend."

This is something – she was barely opening her eyes, she was hardly speaking, and when she did speak she didn't say anything coherent. And she remembered Mike's friend Barry Bogerman.

Mike had two kids: Donald Skidmore and Grace Lydia Skidmore Fowler. Their father died before they could know him.

I was Mike's little sister. I remember things about Mike that no one else who is still alive remembers. I have tried to contact his kids over the years because I have wanted to share these memories. I've never met Lydia; I was in the same room with Donald when he was one year old, I think. Neither of them has responded to my offers to share with them memories of their father. I don't understand. I feel sad. These memories of Mike will die with me. 
Photo by Amanda Cooney
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow. (A.E.Houseman)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"I Love You." "I Know."


Thursday, May 2, 2013, I was meeting with students in the office.

I heard my own phone ring.

My phone almost never rings.

I am phone-phobic. It's a real thing. I have no fear of public speaking, which is said to be the most common phobia. No fear of spiders, which I don't kill, or snakes. But no one calls me and I don't call anyone.

I looked at the caller ID. It was my sister. My sister never calls me. And she is phone-phobic, too.

I picked up the phone. "Hello? Hello?"

No answer.

Oh, my sister. Jerking me around.

Except maybe she wasn't jerking me around. I emailed her. "Did you call me?" No reply.

I put the phone away and went back to meeting with students. But I had a bad feeling. Was my sister just jerking me around? Was I worrying for nothing as I had so many times before?

That evening, after work, I was standing at the kitchen countertop separating school things from food things; ending the work day and beginning dinnertime. I heard the phone ring again. Two phone calls in one day? A very bad sign.

It was my sister's daughter.

The police had received nine 911 calls. My sister had been driving erratically. She was in the hospital.

I clutched the countertop, tried to sound cool for my niece, and turned to stone. No matter what the tests showed, no matter what hope or despair the doctors would distribute, no matter what route the rollercoaster took or when the carny ticket-taker would kick us off the ride, I just knew right then and there. God was fixing to take my sister away from me forever.

I rarely leave my apartment after late afternoon. Paterson has a high murder rate. I gave up hope for dinner and walked the couple of miles to Corrado's for gin. I was almost grateful for the Muslim guys pestering me on Main Street because it's hard to walk after you've turned to stone.

I was confronted with a choice: in or out?

***

I was an abused kid. There was a familial apartheid. There was a differential standard. You can do to Diane something you'd never do to someone else.

You can dress her in hand-me-downs that are a size too large, but the other children must get something that at least looks nice and fits and matches the kid's gender. You can insult her in front of strangers, but you must never say anything critical of other family members. You can tell her we'll leave at noon to go hiking, and show up at three and say it's too late to do anything. If she gets sick, we really don't need to take her to the doctor.

The abuse was obvious. No one intervened.

***

My sister and I were different in ways that are really important in childhood. I've always been fat. She was tall – taller than I – and thin. Being thin is everything to young girls; being fat jettisons you into untouchable status, especially in those days, when fewer Americans were fat.

She had a genius IQ.

I was slow to learn to read, to write, to tie my shoes, to ride a bike, to operate a key in a lock, to click my fingers, to tell right from left. I had a speech impediment and could not pronounce "library." I have a vivid memory of the first time I was able to say "breakfast." It was one of those "comes the dawn / I am invincible" moments.

I remember my older siblings trying to teach me to tell time. We were sitting at a table in our house in the evening. All the lights were out except for the light on a Fisher-Price toy clock. Michael and Antoinette were spinning the arms of the clock around. They were walking through the whole process slowly and carefully. They were being very patient and thorough. I realized that.

I had not one clue what the hell they were talking about.

Linear time? Feh. Time was obviously a cycle. We had fall last year; we'd have it again this year. Before? After? The Past? What did these words mean, really? "Before" and "after" were just determined by where you decided to bring the point of your finger down in one vast continuum. "The Past" would repeat as long as human character remained the same.

Wasn't time what you experienced personally? How to take the sum of your heart and distribute it in arbitrary words? Time was what made you stop playing on a summer evening when everything was exhilaration and you could run forever and big brother's voice slammed against your ears, "Get inside!" Time was what would not move when the entire school was massed in ranks to pray the rosary after recess under the May sun. Oops, another kid just fainted. Drag him to the side of the parking lot. How do you communicate these realities with little numbers and colons?

Antoinette could do all these things: read, write, tell time. I could barely ride a bike and she could ski.

I asked her, "How do you have so many friends?"

"Just talk to people."

I listened to how she talked to people. I heard what sounded like insults – bad – but were really just sarcastic teen teasing – good. I poked myself into a group of her friends and tried to do what she did – insult people – and people looked at me as if I were Frankenstein's monster.

She went to football games. I tried attending one. I was born with the aesthetics of a medieval monk. Watching young men bash their heads into each other, and pompom-wielding girls thrash their hair, breasts and legs about in meaningless and frivolous displays. Scandalous.

Antoinette tanned so deeply and had such thick hair people thought she was Native American. She invited me to one of her rented beach houses. I found the noise – just that, the noise – unbearable. Loud rock. Loud voices. Beer. I left.

She called me "poop head." Boring, weird, anti-fun. Birdwatching was not her thing but when she had a car and I did not she took me to cool places like Great Swamp. An English twitcher was struggling to identify an American bird. I quickly and accurately identified it for him. He asked, "How the devil did you know that?" with audible admiration in his voice. Antoinette imitated his accent and his amazement later when telling others how much I knew about birds. She also told people about the Paterson Evening News write-up of my sighting of a rare Lawrence's warbler on the banks of the Wanaque River.

***

Because I had so many, and because I've lost so many, and because I did not have positive relationships with my parents, I think about siblings a lot.

My brother Phil was killed on my birthday. I can remember well-meaning adults saying to my shell-shocked, tear-stained face, "This must be so hard on your parents. Losing a child is the worst pain someone can feel."

I wanted to knee those people in the groin.

Authoritative voices from the Bible to Freud tell us that it matters when your parents love you, and it matters when your parents support you, and it matters when your parent beats you and tells you that if she weren't Catholic she would have aborted you.

Just so it matters when your sibling punches you in the temple till blood comes out your eye, or beats you over the head with a cast iron and ceramic trivet until it breaks across your skull. Just so it matters if your brother who is a decade older than you carries you over broken glass when your mother tells you your feet are too big for shoes she can afford, and when he tenderly, maternally, coaxes you to eat the drek the government issues to the poor, and when he grows up and decides he wants nothing more to do with you, the child he was forced to parent, when he was only a child himself, and he doesn't invite you to his wedding, and, as he lies dying, the last thing he says to you is "You disgust me, Diane," and you have no idea why, and you remember that sentence in the sound of his voice for the rest of your life. It matters when you trust and love your big sister, and it matters when she betrays you.

Here's a sibling fact. I found out later, when I fell in love with men, that my template for love was formed in my relationship with my sister. Sorry, Freud. Not my father. That feeling of wishing that time spent together would go on forever. That feeling of excitement counterintuitively combined with familiarity. That feeling of eagerness, even when with present friends and having a good time, to be with an absent someone, of "I can't wait to be with her so I can tell her about this."

It wasn't reciprocal. I don't think that my sister loved or even liked me. In "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back," there is a scene where Princess Leia tells Han Solo that she loves him. He replies, "I know." It was like that with Antoinette. I loved her, and she knew.

She loved learning and sharing science knowledge with me. We passed stagnant water and she mentioned pseudomonas. "It's completely harmless in that puddle," she'd say, "But in a hospital-acquired infection, it can kill." She used to lecture me at length about our genotype. I never had any idea what she was talking about, but I saw how much it excited her, so I'd nod enthusiastically. She told me that mothers loved their babies because of a chemical called oxytocin.

When she was in nursing school, she explained to me, "This is really cool. I found out in a psychology class why you love me so much. It's because you are the youngest, and you lack parental love. So you look up to me. I, on the other hand, am much less interested in you, because I'm older, and I am daddy's favorite."

Some bad things happened. Bad things happened in my childhood. Bad things happened in recent years.

These bad things wounded me and gave me years of nightmares. After one bad thing I realized I couldn't see her any more.  

We went years without contact.

The past four years have been eventful for me. Three of the events: I broke my arm and subsequently lost my job (they hired me back once the arm healed); I was diagnosed with cancer and told that I had a very low chance of survival (after surgery my prognosis improved significantly); and I was diagnosed with a chronic illness.

I have dealt with each of these as an adjunct professor who makes less than minimum wage and has no health insurance. Under Obamacare, my attempts to get medical attention have gotten worse, not better. Most of this time I have had no car. I live alone; three men have been murdered in front of my building in the past four years. I have a huge fear of anything medical. I've needed Olympic amounts of hand-holding.

In January, 2012, I was walking to work, and I slipped on ice. The first person I phoned was my sister. I left a message on her answering machine telling her that I had broken my arm and I needed a ride to the hospital. She never returned the call.

For the next two months, a co-worker, my boss, and a couple of friends brought me food and medicine. One man, who would probably be embarrassed to be named here, was astounding. He drove me to every doctor's appointment. Robin, previously mentioned on this blog, probably saved my life when, five months after I broke my arm, I got the cancer diagnosis and, without insurance, I could not get a hospital to treat me.

And so, when I received word that my sister had been driving erratically and I had to decide if I was in or out, a few people who know me well said, "Don't go there. You will yearn for a different ending to the story. Given your faulty understanding of the concept of linear time, you will probably also yearn for a different beginning to the story, and you can never get either."

I knew they were right and I knew they were wrong.

See? See what I mean about some words being arbitrary and not coming anywhere close to encapsulating reality? Something can be wrong and right at the same time.

I was in.

I have almost never owned a car. I say "almost" because I did own a car for about two years in my twenties. I've lived most of my life without a car. I just can't afford it, and I know nothing about them.

When I got word about Antoinette, I bought a car. Huge for me.

I bought the car because I wanted to be available to do whatever I could, if asked. I knew I might not be asked. I knew I might be seen in the way I have been seen by my family: as stupid, as weird, as useless, as someone to gossip about, as a punching bag to take frustrations out on when relationships with important people prove irritating.

At first, I scanned my email with the intensity of a marooned castaway scanning the horizon for ships; I was not in the loop; I didn't know what was happening.

I complained. "No one is telling me what's going on. I offered to help. No one is asking me to do anything."

As time went on, I was informed of more developments, invited to more events, and asked more often to help. I put my own stuff on hold. I've got a pile of unanswered mail on my desk about six inches high. 

***

It was, believe it or not, Siblings Day, April 10. I was stroking the soles of my sister's feet. I was doing this because I had done it previously and she said she liked it. I was speaking to her telepathically, because I knew she probably couldn't hear us anymore. People had been telling her to let go. I wanted to say to them, "Have you even met Antoinette? 'Let go'? Her?"

I said, "Antoinette, there are people you can boss around in heaven." And she stopped breathing within moments of my saying that to her.

Her house was full of people. I signaled to them that she had passed and they re-entered her room.

Four different people said variations of the following: "See? Antoinette waited until she was alone to die," "She waited till everyone who was important to her had left the room before she died," and "She waited until the people she loved were out of the room before she died."

And, of course, I was right there at the foot of her bed. Had been the whole time.

***

Often, after I left her bedside, as snot ran down my nose as I, white knuckled, steered the unfamiliar vehicle through unfamiliar driving maneuvers in the unfamiliar rush hour traffic on route 80, as I wished that they had invented windshield wipers for eyeballs, I chided myself. "You are crying over someone who would not cry if it were you."

Why did I do it? Why, when I was given a choice between "are you out or are you in" did I choose in?

I loved her. That's it. I loved her.

My love for her, and Jesus' insistence that love, not the final score, is primary, were more important than anything else.

And that's how life works sometimes.




Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Cook's Tarot by Judith Mackay Stirt

Source: Aeclectic
The Cook's Tarot by Judith Mackay Stirt is a big-hearted, saucy tarot deck in the colors of tropical fruit. With its sultry colors, aromatic dishes and houses full of pets, The Cook's Tarot had me at hello. I had not gotten through all 78 cards when I decided that it would be one of my favorites.

The Cook's Tarot cards are large – 3.75 inches by 5.5 inches. The backs of the cards are light and dark olive green, with a crosshatch pattern created by intersecting spoons and forks. The cards are not fully reversible. Apples appear on many of the pentacles suit, drinking vessels on the cups, knives and skewers on the swords suit, and matches on many of the wands. The images are hand-painted gouache. While Stirt was creating the deck, synchronous events occurred in her own life. A friend died on Valentine's Day; this inspired the three of swords.

The azure shades of tropical seas are among the dominant colors, along with rich greens of an equatorial forest, but the cards span the palette. The Fool's skirt is a swirl of cherry reds and dawn pinks. The Devil hangs suspended in a blob of purple hell. The child in the five of pentacles sports a yellow rain slicker. In the eight of pentacles, a baker labors as the first rays of dawn (or shafts of sunset) add a glow to his otherwise dull kitchen. There are some browns and grays for cabinets, furniture, cats, and a teddy bear in the six of cups. Bottom borders are a subdued gold that complements each color in the cards.

Light and shadow are subtle. The five of cups depicts a depressed woman sitting on the floor of a darkened, midnight kitchen. The dimmed colors, and the shadow cast by a gallon of milk on the countertop, convey the time of day and lack of illumination.

Stirt's style is blunt and bold. There are no fine, fussy details. Her style could be called childlike or primitive. The woman in the Lovers looks a bit like a woman in a Gauguin painting. The naked woman in the seven of cups looks like a Keith Haring outline. There are lots of swirling lines. Sometimes the swirls are steam rising from food, or sugar the Fool spills; sometimes they are vines from which The Magician selects a leaf; sometimes they are the letters of a neon sign behind which the High Priestess awaits. The swirls are like tendrils pulling the viewer into the world of the deck.

Stirt is a nurse. "I had no use for anything other than hard facts and reality. No fairies, dragons, or cute kittens for me, please." She appreciates cooks. "If you cook with awareness, you are nurturing the spirit." Thus these cards are close to everyday life. Repeated motifs in The Cook's Tarot include, of course, food, cutlery, dishes and cups, flowers, cats, dogs, tables, chairs, tablecloths, rugs, windows, beds, dishes, faucets, bodies of water and visible signs of weather: leaves tracing wind, raindrops, shadows and sun. Almost all the cards include large, prominent, human figures, in whole or in part. In some cards, such as the aces, not much more than a hand is visible. A few cards contain no human figures. These include Death, which depicts a wishbone, a feather, a meat cleaver, a stewpot, and thirteen chickens awaiting their fate, and the Moon, depicting dogs, a cat, and the shadow of a crab.

Stirt wants to tell stories with her cards. The page of swords suggests an entire novel. A dramatically-lit woman in a trench coat, wielding a knife, stands between a boiling pot and an open computer laptop. A window is behind her; it blows oak leaves and cold-looking raindrops into the room. Your mind races to fill in the backstory.

There's a great deal of humor in these images, but the humor never undercuts the card's meaning. The Tower is an elaborate meal rendered garbage by a marauding pet and a precariously stacked set of dishes on a tectonically sliding table cloth. The Lovers eat a breakfast in bed prepared and served by an angel. The Chariot is a blue-jeaned shopper pushing a full grocery cart. Perhaps my favorite re-imaging of a classic image is the High Priestess. She is a restauranteur, standing behind the transparent curtain of her establishment, preparing the show, and hiding culinary secrets only she knows. Stirt has a gift for including the minimal details necessary to tell her story. The eight of cups depicts the shins, ankles, and soles of the feet of a human figure in retreat from eight cups; the retreating feet step over a spiral rug.

The World card, a casually dressed woman holding aloft a champagne flute, a map and an oyster full of pearls behind her, didn't wow me as I'd hoped, but there are fewer duds in this deck than in most. Most of the cards are visually eloquent delights. The minor arcana have been lavished with as much artistic TLC as the majors. The five of pentacles is an example. A small child perches on a rainy sidewalk outside a fully-stocked candy store window. You can't see the child's face but the child's posture communicates all the outside-looking-in yearning of the five of pentacles card.

The people in the Cook's Tarot are multiethnic in a way that feels utterly natural and unforced. That the skins of the people in the cards are of various hues is of no more or less importance than that pets are multicolored. Other than the angel in the Lovers card, I've noticed only one overtly religious reference in the deck. The seven of cups depicts a Jewish wedding ritual.

The companion book is 5.5 inches by 8.5 inches and 160 pages. Each card receives about one page of text and a black-and-white illustration. Stirt offers a verbal description of the visual image on the card, and an explanation of each of the card's elements. She then offers a few paragraphs on the card meaning, and she closes with a quote.

I was impatient with Stirt's unsourced references to this or that belief attributed to this or that group. Example, "early cultures believed that a single drop of rain fell from the heavens and became the heart of an oyster." Really? Where? When? Who says so? Stirt herself says that "In this age of religious questioning, Tarot has become the spiritual version of church." For that reason accuracy matters. A small complaint; I love this deck.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Nepal: Please Help

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote village in Nepal.

One afternoon, as I trekked to my teaching post in the Himalayas, a monsoon storm turned day into night and a landslide wiped out my trail. I got terribly lost; coming to a strange village, exhausted, I sat on the porch of a peasant home. Inside, the family was eating roasted cow-corn kernels for dinner. Roasted cow-corn kernels were to be their entire dinner; there was nothing else on their menu.

A man inside saw that a human form was sitting on his porch. He couldn’t have seen that I was American, or anything else, for that matter. It was dark night by then, in a village without electricity. In any case, I was wearing a sari. He whispered to his wife, “Someone is sitting on our porch. We have to cook rice.” Rice is the highest status food in that economy. And, by “rice,” they meant, for them, an elaborate meal consisting of rice, lentils, and vegetables.

Their hospitality astounded me. I did eat with them that evening, and sleep in their house.

I loved my time in Nepal. I met many good people there.

There has been a terrible earthquake in Nepal.

The agencies listed below are doing relief work.

I would like to offer a free, signed copy of my book "Save Send Delete" to the first four people who donate fifty dollars or more to one of these agencies.

Thank you.

American Jewish World Service:
ajws.org
The Salvation Army:
salvationarmyusa.org
International Medical Corps:
internationalmedicalcorps.org
Handicap International:
handicap-international.us
Unicef:
unicef.org
PayPal:
paypal.com
Mercy Corps:
mercycorps.org
Catholic Relief Services:
crs.org
Habitat for Humanity International:
habitat.org
Global Giving:
globalgiving.org
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee:
jdc.org
Oxfam:
oxfamamerica.org
World Vision:
worldvision.org
Red Cross:
redcross.org
United Nations World Food Program:
wfp.org
Samaritan’s Purse:
samaritanspurse.org
CARE:
care.org
Save the Children:
savethechildren.org
Lutheran World Relief:
lwr.org
The Jewish Federations of North America:
jewishfederations.org
SOS: Children’s Villages International
sos-childrensvillages.org
Doctors Without Borders:
donate.doctorswithoutborders.org
MAP International:
mapinternational.org
International Relief Teams:
irteams.org