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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Nightmares and Death


May first I received an email informing me that my oldest brother was dead. Thus ushered in one of the most stressful times of my life. In the subsequent months there have been multiple work crises and health crises. Too, various choices various people made guaranteed that Joe's death would be a gauntlet for me, one nightmarish scenario after another. It's really wrong to make decisions that change a family member's death from simple heartache to unnecessary torture. 

Going to the movies and visiting Skylands are my mini vacations. I haven't been to the movies or Skylands since May first.

And then there are the nightmares. One theme: figuring out which one of my family members are dead. In fact they are all dead, except one remote and never seen brother who does not speak to me.

But in the dreams, it's as if I am in a warehouse doing an inventory. I am going through the ranks, figuring out, who is dead? When did they die?

Last night I dreamt that my mother left me to take care of my father. I went downstairs and found my father's corpse inside a copy machine. His mouth was open as corpse's mouths often are. His hands were contorted into claws. I felt his skin; it was cold. 


But hope springs eternal. I thought, "Maybe he's still alive. Maybe he's just taking a nap. It would upset him if I asked him if he were dead. I don't want to be the one to condemn him to death." So I just shut the copy machine, and went on my way. 

In the other part of the dream, I was joining an underground group of commandos whose job it was secretly to fight against sexual abusers. No doubt this portion of the dream was inspired by the national disgrace of the Kavanaugh nomination.

Later, I went back to the copy machine and found my dad's corpse inside. I realized that i was responsible for his corpse, because I had left it there, and for at least three days, no less.

As I was waking up, I kept reminding myself. This can't be happening. Daddy died years ago. I kept repeating the year of my father's death. I was repeating that date in my mind as I woke up, as if it were a really important piece of information that I might otherwise forget. 


I won't forget. Rest, mind. Rest. At least try. 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Foods I Cooked with My Sister Antoinette ... Will Have to Wait.





The day she died. The day she was born. April 10, Siblings Day. September 23, Autumnal Equinox, and Bruce Springsteen's birthday. 

The rest of the time I am free to think about it or not think about it. On these two days, I don't have much of a choice. 

So I've been thinking how cool it would be to do a blog post cookbook. "Foods I cooked with my sister Antoinette." I'd already done a blog post, "Movies I watched with my sister Antoinette." 

But it's been a really heavy time. And I have no time. No time to prepare that cookbook. 

So I will just mention one. German chocolate cake. It was the go-to birthday cake. So dense and rich and sinful. I can't remember the last time I baked a German chocolate cake. Now that I am older, and live on my own, and eat healthy food, I no longer crave such decadent treats. If you eat healthy food everyday, if you're not a malnourished poor kid, you really aren't as susceptible to the lure of devilishly rich food. 

But back then? One forkful was an elevator to Heaven. 

Did I just mention Heaven? 

When I "feel" you now, Antoinette, the cliche would be to say that you feel as alive as you ever felt, to me. But you actually feel more alive. I hope that is not merely my imagination. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

John Bauer Tarot, One of the Most Beautiful Tarot Decks of All Time


When I look at the cards in the John Bauer Tarot deck, I hear music. Specifically, I hear the spare, haunting minimalist strains of Estonian composer Arvo Part.

John Albert Bauer (1882-1918), whose works grace the Bauer Tarot, was a Swedish illustrator. Bauer devoted his career to painting forests, trolls, gnomes, myths, and folklore.

Sweden, like its near Baltic neighbor, Estonia, lies in northern Europe. Here winters are long and hard. Northern peoples, too, are famous for their stoicism. Thus all those Garrison Keillor jokes about "Norwegian bachelor farmers." No one associates those from the far north with exuberance and insouciance. Winter is always on the horizon; one must work and plan or you and your family starve or the wolves eat you. Nature's palette is limited. No hot, bright peacocks, mangoes or orchids titillate the eye. You can hike for miles in the north and see only brown, gray, black, and white.

With this limited palette, northern artists like Part and Bauer evoke a surprisingly rich array of aesthetic responses in the audience. The color pink appears only once in the John Bauer deck – in the ten of swords, a card devoted to final exhaustion. In the John Bauer ten of swords, a stoic knight stands rigid and straight, gazing off into the horizon. His spear is dipped. A raven perches on his shoulder; a grim sign, given how ravens, in ballads, are always squawking about pecking out the eyes of defeated knights. The pink is there as evidence of a better tomorrow, as the final color of a rainbow stretching humbly across a sky as dull as lead.

Viewing the John Bauer Tarot, I felt I had gotten pleasantly lost in a northern forest at dusk. The dusk did not scare me because I left my human perceptions and values behind. I suddenly was woven into another reality, one just beyond the boundaries of civilization. Here boulders take on the form of teachers. The Hierophant, a card depicting tradition and learning, is usually personified as a Catholic pope. In the John Bauer tarot, the Hierophant is a boulder, patient and bemused, passing on his chthonic wisdom to a lost pair of human children who have climbed atop his knee.

The color palette of the deck is the palette one would see in a northern forest. There is a lot of gray, black, and beige. Bauer was a consummate artist, though, and he knew "gray" the way an Eskimo knows snow.

The five of wands depicts struggle and competition. In the John Bauer Tarot, the five of wands is a troll in the forest at night beset by ravening wolves. This image is a minor masterpiece. Though it is clearly an illustration of a folkloric creature, and though it depicts a wolf attack in a manner that would even be child-friendly – the wolves look more like household mutts than like any real menace – Bauer's image, in tiny, intimate touches, captures winter woods at night, as any hiker would recognize.

The spiky, ragged bottoms of the coniferous trees, the mounding snow, the traditional, knitted pattern on the back of the troll's mittens, all suck the viewer in to winter in the great, white north. What really wows me about this card is Bauer's command of color. Again, northern woods in winter are hypnotically, mind-numbingly monochromatic. Bauer's snow in this card is dirty white, but it glows. It glows the way that snow glows to the eyes of someone who has been hiking for hours and has not been careful about the clock and is risking spending the night alone in a white-blanketed forest.

One of the questions the five of wands asks, "Is this struggle a competition to the death? Or am I just annoyed because some minor household appliance is malfunctioning?" Bauer's image conveys that kind of ambiguity. The wolves look like the kind of stray dog that might become a friend if you pet it nicely, or that might bite you and give you rabies. One of the wolves has the troll's tail in its mouth. Is the troll about to succumb, or will he be able to swat them all off?

Bauer's teacher, the Swedish historical painter Gustaf Cederstrom, said of Bauer, "His art is what I would call great art, in his almost miniaturized works he gives an impression of something much more powerful than many monumental artists can accomplice on acres of canvas. It is not size that matters but content."

This is nowhere more true than in the images used on the Devil and Tower cards in the John Bauer tarot deck. The Devil and the Tower cards should be frightening to look at. I've never seen scarier looking cards than the Devil and Tower cards in the John Bauer Tarot. I'm not even going to describe them to you. I want you to experience them yourself.

Every card is as evocative of wonder as every other card. Some of these images are truly haunting and practically lure narrative out of the mind of the reader. The eight of cups depicts a naked man standing at what appears to be a Catholic mass. I can't look at that card and not imagine a fabulous yarn. The Knight of Cups is a man on a white horse in a green field staring up at geese flying across a cloud-clotted sky. It is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful images I have ever seen. The blue of the sky and the bright light is all the more rewarding after trekking through the dark forest of the rest of the deck.

Most of the cards depict the deep forest and its biological, folkloric, and occasional, visiting human denizens. There are a few cards that depict humans in seventeenth and eighteenth century court attire. The Lovers is a man and a woman in Renaissance garb. For me they didn't fit in the overall theme of the deck. Another quibble. Most of the cards can be interpreted within the Rider-Waite-Smith framework. Many of the cards can't be, as their imagery bears no relation to that framework. The LWB encourages the user to develop his or her own interpretation.

Unlike some who review tarot decks, I must confess that I don't believe in magic, but I do believe in beauty. I believe that tarot decks are fine tools for understanding the human experience. The combination of artwork and meaning makes many tarot decks worthy contributions to culture. Lunaea Weatherstone and Gary A. Lippincott's Victorian Fairy Tarot and the Leon Carre Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights are the two most beautiful tarot decks I've ever seen. I now have to add another to the very top, and that new entry is the exquisite and evocative John Bauer Tarot.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Random Thoughts about Cancer and Facebook


I've got to have a medical procedure done in a few days and I will be put under anesthesia. The staff say they won't release me till a real person comes to pick me up. In the past, after other procedures involving anesthesia, I have lied and said that someone was coming to pick me up, and walked home. But this facility actually wants to see a real person, and I have to find one of those fast.

Loneliness is, like everything else, a machine. Loneliness can be reduced to a mathematical equation. There was a time in my life when someone said to me, "You are the most popular person here," "Here" being a rather large enterprise. What changed?

I was younger, healthier, richer, prettier, and more like everyone around me.

I am now older, poorer, sicker, uglier, and unlike everyone around me.

I am dyslexic and I have other cognitive issues as well. I was convinced, for fully the first half of my life, that I was the stupidest and most worthless person in any room I was in. How did this affect my social status? My self-abnegation was terrific for my social status. If I said anything that anyone in the room didn't like, and if that person said to me, "What a stupid comment," I immediately apologized said, "You know better than I," and shut myself up.

Much changed after I took a standardized test called the GRE and scored within the top two percent. And I began attending 12 Step Meetings, and 12 Step encourages one to stop apologizing for existing.

Suddenly, if I said something that someone else in the room didn't like, I didn't apologize, I didn't put myself down and elevate the other, and I didn't shut up.

"You know, I actually think that a fetus is a human life form with a beating heart."

"You know, I'm actually not ashamed to be Catholic or American or white, although I don't think of myself as white so much as Slovak and Polish."

"Yes, your Polish joke is offensive and it is also not funny."

It was a Biblical Exodus. A wildebeest stampede. People left my life in droves.

A few remained.

Then I got sick, and poor, and I was as alone as a lost Arctic explorer, and I have been ever since.

So, no, I don't know who is going to drive me home from the scary medical procedure.

***

There's a unique ache that I have experienced only on Facebook. It happened three times this morning, thus, this post.

"Tippy" and I shared an intense, lengthy experience decades ago. We slept, ate, traveled, and had long talks together. We walked through winter's Siberian chill while discussing the kind of issues Dostoyevsky might discuss with his cellmate. We prayed together and we fell in love together. I really thought our souls touched.

After a shared year, we went our separate ways, but I thought we'd be in touch forever. She got married and had kids. I went to grad school and got sick.

Tippy disappeared. I felt sad, but I was resigned. Again, I had had the friend Exodus after my life circumstances changed, and Tippy was not the only one to rush the exit after the music stopped.

And then IT arrived. A Christmas letter. It horrified me. See, like I said, I'm different. Christmas letters, which perhaps charm and delight others, horrify me.

My feelings: Tippy, you dropped out of my life. Stopped talking to me. Sacrificed our friendship. My life has involved a great deal of turmoil, upheaval, and brushes with death, along with some rejoicing. I've published books; I got a PhD. Not a single person congratulated me after I received my PhD. Everyone was pretty much out of my life at that point, and the ones who were left, hanging around at the edges waiting for me to stop being weird, regarded a PhD or a book publication as just more weirdness, not worthy of the word "Congratulations."

And, Tippy, because you dropped out of my life, you were not around for any of that. You weren't there to wish me luck the night before my three experimental surgeries. You weren't there to raise a champagne flute with me when I finally achieved my goal.

And here you send me this Christmas letter full of personal details about you.

The personal details troubled me a lot. I'm lousy at insincerity and indifference. If a complete stranger tells me he has a headache I feel I owe him something. When I saw Tippy's Christmas letter chock full of personal details about her life and the life of her husband and kids, I felt I owed her something. And she'd not offered me anything in the way of friendship in years.

In the thirty (!) years since we met, I've seen Tippy a handful of times. Whenever I see her, she acts as if it's the old days, and we two are the only ones in the universe, and she is on tenterhooks waiting for an ultra-intimate encounter with me. I fall for it, I embrace her literally and spiritually, and we enjoy maybe an hour of sisterhood, and then she disappears again.

Tippy's worst out-of-the-blue, pseudo-sincere incursion occurred about a year after I was first diagnosed with cancer. Out of thin air, I received an email from her urging me to drink cider vinegar, because, if I did so, I would surely never relapse.

Again, I'm hyper responsible, and when someone sends me an email, I believe I have to reply. And I felt I had to reply to this one. Politely.

Oh, I am so naïve.

I don't think Tippy was insincere. I think Tippy was inconstant. She and I met in another country, and many people feel, "If it's not my home zip code, it's not real." I accepted Tippy's abandonment of our friendship. What I found hard to deal with was her occasional incursions into my life, and her pretense that we will still friends.

I think I get it now. I think Tippy turned me into a taxidermized memento of our friendship. Every few years or so, Tippy would slake her nostalgia for her youth and take down and stroke her stuffed animal – me – and whisper sweet nothings as if it were still the old days and then put me back on the shelf.

I'm within one hundred pages of finishing James Kaplan's almost two-thousand-page biography of Frank Sinatra. Sinatra did this to the bazillions of women he had sex with. He convinced them that they were the only woman in the world to him. That magic worked for the length of a one-night stand, an eighteen-month marriage, or the decades he kept his first wife and the mother of his children, Nancy Barbato, believing that he'd return some day. And then he was on to the next pair of spread legs.

I fall for the Tippies of this world like women fell for Sinatra.

Till this morning. I went to Facebook and saw that Tippy, who lives thousands of miles away from me, had visited my area. There are all of her photos of her reunions with her widely scattered family of intimate friends. And no photos of Tippy and me. Because, though she lives thousands of miles away, and she came within a half a tank of gas of me, she didn't stop by.

Next time I get a Christmas letter from Tippy, I will realize I don't owe her anything in return.

This is a new ouch that I've only ever felt on Facebook. You think you are close to someone, and you see, in your Facebook feed, that that person just had an engagement party, or even got married, and did not invite you. Or threw some other party, or came from thousands of miles away to visit your state, and didn't visit you.

There's a Facebook custom of making public private celebrations one has not invited friends to. You don't invite your friends, and then you parade in front of your friends still images, or even video, of the table of groaning treats, the hilarious dancing, the warm embraces. The real life analog: throw a party, don't invite a friend, and then walk up to that friend, buttonhole him, and force him to watch a slideshow of your fabulous time.

This custom seems especially sadistic around the holidays, a time that is very challenging for many of us who are alone, or who have less-than-perfect family lives, or even merely less-than-perfect cooking and decorating skills. How does it feel, if your tree is droopy, your kids are cranky, and your mother just died to visit Facebook and see that someone you thought of as a close friend has thrown a Better-Homes-and-Gardens-worthy Christmas bash, and not invited you?

What would Emily Post say about this don't-invite-do-display custom?

I don't mind not being liked, as opposed to "liked," by these folks, but I wish they would back off with the "likes" on Facebook, if they don't actually like me. It's too confusing for me.

I've been Facebook friends for a long, uncomplicated time with people who don't seem to like me at all, people who insult my faith, people who unfailingly ignore anything personal I post. I've come to recognize as interpersonal poison the people who pretend to be loving, pretend to be sincere, click "like," type "I love you … I adore you … " and then demonstrate that all those keystrokes were mere ethereal masquerades.

***

I come from a family with a lot of cancer and I've had to do this dance with death all my life. Since being diagnosed with cancer myself several years ago, I've had a few scares. I found a lump in a bad place. They biopsied it. They told me, and these were their exact words, "It's a lump."

I'm going through one of these scares now. It began with pain and bodily dysfunction, then the doctor felt the wrong thing during a manual exam, then the machine photographed a disconcerting image. "If it were not for your family history … " Now they must go in. I'm tense.

Yesterday I received an unexpected invitation. At first, I wanted to say "No." I had mountains of work to do, work that I could not do while attending to my brother's death. But I accepted.

I spent most of the day with a friend. We hiked in lovely and poignant terrain. We got within touching distance of a great horned owl. We saw earthstars and, I think, an underwing moth, a blandly colored creature with a spectacularly hued hidden underwing. We talked a lot about politics, art, culture, religion. We said things that would make politically correct thought police arrest and punish us. "You are not allowed to say that!" We ate pizza, pooped in the woods, and, when we got home, we had to do tick checks. I had such a great time. It was the first time in weeks I didn't focus on the latest cancer scare. It was the first time in weeks I felt, if I have to die today, I am okay with that.

What produced such bliss? Just the presence of another human being, whom I like, and who likes me.

***

"It reminds me of that old joke.

A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, 'Hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken!'

The doc says, 'Why don't you turn him in?'

The guy says, 'I would but I need the eggs.'

I guess that's how I feel about relationships. They're totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs."

Woody Allen, Annie Hall.