Thursday, August 29, 2013

Watermelon Cat

Have you ever eaten so much rich food that you felt practically ill, like at Thanksgiving or Bratsfest?  And then, did you wish that you could take something for it, orally?

Yes, it might be more logical to consider a method of subtraction, rather than consumption.

The Romans had the vomitorium.  But we are shocked by the idea of the vomitorium, having an ethical discomfort with excess and indulgence that renders it morally repugnant.

Some people attach moral significance to eating behaviors.  Overeating as a sign of weakness, for example.  They think that the preparation of food ought to be cerebral, creative, and ethically high-minded; it ought to be labor intensive, if grown in one's own garden; or expensive, if bought at Whole Foods.

I am morally disgusted with the obscene volume that is my lifetime of material consumption.

We are in the process of moving from one household to another.  I am literally bent under the volume and weight of my possessions.

I am a glutton for beautiful things and I have way more than I need.  I have been accumulating them all my life and I probably won't ever stop.

Moreover, I have to bring every room in the house up to a certain level of aesthetic pleasing-ness before I can rest.  So this post will be short and riddled with mistakes, because time is of the essence.  Life grinds to a halt until my environment rises to par.

I keep telling myself, it's a farm!  It's a farm!  What's with all this artsy-fartsy urbane crap?  Go outside and sweep the goddamn barn.

But no, I can't.  I have to keep at it.  I need one more week.

You will be astounded if you visit (and by the time you finish reading this post, you will probably decide against that), because it's quickly going to look like we've been living there for ten years.

That's because, apparently, I'm some kind of aesthete lunatic.

On the other hand, some people never unpack.  That's gotta be another form of lunacy.

Phil, always a handy example, will never unpack.  Nor did he ever unpack at W Grove Street.  The movers put every odd item (every single one) into boxes that will be emptied into Phil's new habitat which will inevitably become, to my way of thinking, a disaster area.

Don't mistake my decorating obsession with being a clean freak.  At best, I am tidy.

When the two big guys removed the box springs from my bed, I hesitate to tell you that they saw there.

Prepare to be disgusted.

If you are allergic to cats, this would be your worst nightmare.

My very timid, watermelon-shaped cat spends 90% of her time under my bed.  There was a three-inch layer of cat hair there, and desiccated poop, and a horrifying stain on the wall.

(This explains my sleep apnea.)

Amid the horror and the suddenly overwhelming stench was a four-color paperback (thanks, Elise!) on the Kamasutra.  I'd forgotten I'd put it there.

Where the heck are you supposed to put those things???

Then men stood frozen to the spot for a thousand days, repressing their gag reflex while staring at the image of the Kamasutra.

Mortified, I finally grabbed the book out of the muck while stammering apologies for the boudoir filth.

If adverse conditioning has any merit, none of the three of us will every enjoy that particular Kamasutra position again.

The raising of the bed incident raised my olfactory awareness to acute levels I haven't experienced since I was pregnant with Josh.

We have pillows that smell bad.

We have carpets and blankets and comforters that smell bad.

Our couches don't smell as bed as you would think, but probably worse than your couch.

This discovery has made the overwhelming process of relocation even more stressful.

In the end, I almost didn't want to bring the watermelon cat over to the new house.  I wanted to just leave her there, as a fixture, like andirons or a ceiling lamp.

I didn't really want her anymore.

But I took her, of course, because of the Irish influence.  She's ensconced under my bed in my new room.
It's just a matter of time...The horror.

I am battling forces that I can see (aesthetics) and that I can't see (odors).  (Hank's diarrhea yesterday did not help!)

Like the mad wish to eat something for relief from food, there is the insane need to buy something to solve the problem of having too much.

So last night, at eight o'clock, I went to the Goodwill near the Super Target, and later to the Super Target itself, to buy stuff to make me feel less hoarding and, by the way, less smelly.  Waste baskets, sheets, towels, pillow cases, blankets. toilet plungers, toothpaste, mouth wash.

Out, out, damn spot!

It's a farm, lady!, it's a farm!

Yes, it is.  And it always has been, hasn't it!

And I, raving mad aesthete, am suited to it.

I may not be a farmer in the best Scandinavian sense, but I'll be a farmer in the best Anglo-Irish go-back-and-get-the-stinky-watermelon-cat sense, (or lack thereof).

God help us, we're totally going to perish on the ice.


Friday, August 23, 2013

In the Midst of Life

With great power comes great responsibility.

That was Spiderman's axiom.

Mine might be:  With great joy comes a terrible headache.

It's not a great axiom, but it is mine.  I might add to it the caveat: sometimes.  But really, that only makes it worse.

I first noticed this rule of personal physics (it doesn't apply to you, it applies to me) on the way to pick up my dear friend Amy Franks at the train station in Providence, Rhode Island.

Amy Franks is a very good friend and I enjoy her enormously.  Picking her up at the train station, I am flooded with anticipation for what a lovely weekend I will have in her company.

This flood of happiness does something to my brain.  You might hypothesize, as many have, that it opens up blood vessels or arteries or something; that blood rushes forth where previously it had meandered; and that the end result is a terrible headache.

Whatever the biology, the result is the same: a migraine headache.

A migraine effects not only one side of your head, or your jaw, or your forehead and face.  It can effect also your breathing and your heart rate.  It can make you throw up.

I had just parked at the train station and luckily found a plastic bag in the car when I threw up the first time.

And the second time.

The third time I picked Amy up, I made it all the way home (with Amy) (feeling the aura stages of the migraine coming on) and I threw up on my own lawn.

This happened also when Kate Kaminski, whom I adore, visited from California.  What euphoria it is to have Kate with me!  How we love to talk and sip wine and cook together and talk and sip wine!

Incapacitating pain.

Good friends are very understanding when you have to take to your bed the moment they arrive and sleep off a headache for a few hours.

I consider myself lucky to have a friend in Wisconsin who once induced a migraine with the pleasure of her company.

It's an odd juxtaposition, but it's a poetic reminder.

Morrissey  of The Smiths has an axiom:  In the midst of life we are in death, etc.

I found myself humming that tune yesterday, while recovering from the longest and worst migraine of my life.

I suspect that the joyful time I'd had in the Czech Republic, coupled with my joyful anticipation of closing on the farm this morning, triggered it.

It started in the evening around eight o'clock as severe pain on the right side of my jaw.  Didn't matter what position I rested my head, or whether I was up or prone.  It felt like I had several rotten teeth and a profound infection of the gums in that area--or, as though several good teeth were being pulled out all together very slowly without benefit of anesthesia.

I haven't had a migraine in years, but when I've had them, they've come in clusters over a period of six or more weeks.  They've lasted two or three hours.  I could fall asleep in my agony.  (Don't ask me how--maybe it's more a matter of losing consciousness/passing out; how can one drift off to sleep with a big hot metal anvil sticking out of one's head?  I don't know.)  When I awoke, the pain was gone.  The relief, euphoric.

Then I learned that if I took Excedrin for Migraines in the first "aura" stage of the ordeal, I could successfully head it off before the pain set in.  And that would be the end of it.

But this migraine that I had two nights ago was different.  It disguised itself at the outset as a painful jaw, a common symptom of heart failure.  (When a person with a family history of heart disease lumbers down the steps clutching her jaw and asking for aspirin, the camera wants to pan in on the husband's face to capture his expression of alarm.)

I won't bore you with the details of my pain's migration from jaw to eye, and from my eye back to my gelatinous gray matter--responsible for, among all things, this blog, in particular--etc., (as Morrissey would say).  But it perambulated around my head all night.

And it gave me strange dreams.

And it was there in my head when I awoke, humming a tune by The Smiths.  In the midst of life you are in death, etcetera.  

I trundled downstairs, because Phil and Josh were up, watching news, playing on the computer, drinking coffee, and I don't like to suffer alone.  Turn down the TV.  Turn off the lights.  Can't you see I am miserable?

I had awoken without the head ache at 1:45 that same morning.  Jet lag.  I had eaten coconut yogurt with granola cereal.  I had watched an interesting documentary about Steve Jobs (I don't really worship him, honestly), called, "One Last Thing."

It must have been 3:30 or four when the pain resumed, as if, like a lover, it had slept for a while and then, waking, embraced me again.

But like malware, or a parasite that makes one eat poison, hours later, the viscera became involved in this danse macabre, and the coconut (Greek-style) yogurt and granola that I had consumed pain-free became, shall we say, a liability.

At noon, under foundation in daylight, I could still make out a blue tinge in the Flintstone region of my face (under the nose and around my mouth and chin).  That's not good.

But it went away.  This morning, you could hardly tell that I was blue.

This fantastically attenuated form of migraine, according to my mother, (who gave it to me, genetically speaking), signals my hormonal decline.  It signals my aging.  The onset of the end of my fertility.  It is the swan song, the coup de grace, the grand finale... It is the fireworks at ten o'clock.  It is The Scream.  It is the resistance.  It is the beginning of the end of blood and of pain.  And the end of youth.  And the beginning of old age.

Today, this morning, amid tears of joy, we closed on the farm.  It is officially ours.  I am beside myself with wonder and amazement.  I am gobsmacked and all agog.  I am utterly thrilled and totally delighted, Christmas-morning, jump-up-and-down, best-present-ever, dream-come-true, expect-a-cluster-of-migraine headaches-like-you've-never-known-before HAPPY.

In the midst of joy we are in pain, etcetera.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rip Van Winkle

It was not sheer luck that Adam turned out to be extraordinarily nice, bright, thoughtful, and funny.  All of the exchange student candidates wrote personal essays.  Some started by saying that this whole business was their father's idea and, by implication, their only option was to offer passive resistance in the form of this personal essay written in a language that the overbearing parent couldn't speak or read.  They took one-hour-long hot showers every day, they explained.  (Water is expensive everywhere else in the world, so this is the equivalent of falling limp on the ground and refusing to get up.)

The fact that Adam turned out to be so handsome was sheer luck.  We weren't allowed to see a decent photo of him until we had selected him on the basis of his essay and his being Czech.  The original poor-quality black-and-white photo of him served only to show that he did in fact have a face of some kind.   When Adam later learned that he had won his seat at our table in a blind trial, he could hardly conceal his amazement.  (He is that good looking.)

That photo policy must have changed lately, however.  After we had already committed to Adam, we received more letters that featured good photos of winsome  students with charming descriptions that read less like confessions and more like ad copy.  Would we consider a second exchange student?

They made it hard to say no. But I knew that my tendency to adopt every poodle, horse, and international student placed in my path had to be reined in.  (Phil said no.)

For reasons I've explained elsewhere, we chose a Czech student in part because I have fond personal memories of the Czech Republic.  Because even a big C.R. fan like myself needs a little extra push to bypass London and Paris and get on one more plane after crossing half a continent and the Atlantic ocean, breathing fake air and packed into economy like sardines.

I was last in the C.R. twenty years ago, in the toddler stage of my adulthood, at twenty-seven.  My career was unformed.  My competency in anything in particular was unformed.  The train tracks of my then-marriage still had miles to go before ending, perfunctorily, in the middle of nowhere.  I had no home, no children, no dog, and certainly no exchange student.

It's not like we don't have mirrors in Wisconsin; nor was the lighting significantly different in the C.R.

Perhaps it was a subconscious memory of myself from 20 years ago that misinformed my expectations, but every time I saw myself in the C.R., I got a shock, as though I had literally aged twenty years overnight.

Maybe I'm dehydrated, I thought.  So I would drink more water.

No difference: Still shockingly old.

I haven't assessed my reflection yet since returning to Wisconsin.  I saw myself at 3:30 A.M. this morning, but short hair formed into lop-sided B-52 beehive distracted from awareness of fine lines.

If I ever get enough sleep, I think I'll discover that I look normal again--a scant one day older, not 20 years.

I've said little about the trip itself, and I want to say a lot.  I'll try again tomorrow, probably at 4:30 A.M.

One highlight was a dinner with Adam and his family at their cottage.   During that day, I had come to the realization that Adam was still a member of our family in a way that I found comforting and eternal; and that there was a bond between our two families that transcended language and geography.  This recognition, coupled with exhaustion, had made me tender as a Czech dumpling and teary as a Vltava dam.  Acts of kindness, fairy-tale beauty, singing fountains, and stories of cultural revolutions all made me cry.

We ate on the patio surrounded by gardens, blossoming trees, geraniums.  Delicious merlot/cabernet from Moravia, called MonteBoo.  Adam at our end of the table, translating happy banter from the other end. Salad and sausage, steaks and fried eggplant, olives and bread.  Perfect weather, a June evening in mid-August.  And a kitten.

A kitten!

Only because I am writing this blog would anyone (including me) understand the significance of the kitten.

It was an evening when life was so sweet, you can't even believe it.  You get all the love, all the food, all the wine, all the everything and a perfect joy--plus a kitten, curled up on a pillow on the chair beside you.

You pat it blissfully on its sweet kitten head and fight back tears for the third or fourth time that day.

Dobri den!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Shameless Ramble: Part 2, In the Series Inspired by, If Not About, the Midwest

In thinking about the differences between the British (not to say English, because I'm referring to the entire United Kingdom), the Irish, and the Scandinavian, I find a review of the Antarctic expeditions a helpful frame of reference.

But first, let me address one question that a careful reader may be asking: Why am I not including Jews in this over-reaching attempt to generalize about a few varieties of white people and their American-diluted cultural differences?  

It's because I don't understand them.  And by them, I mean: the British, the Irish, and Scandinavians.  

I don't find the Jewish influence particularly baffling.  

Take my Aunt May, for example.  She was the only woman I ever knew who had her bangs cut like Liza Minnelli's in Cabaret.

I'd cut my bangs like that if there was enough product in the world to keep them in place.

May lived on West 25th Street on Manhattan, with a view of New Jersey and the Hudson.  Poet, romantic, sage, she could tell a joke in English or Yiddish or both.  She introduced me to gefilte fish, gnocchi, Soho, and Greenwich Village.  It all made perfect sense to me.  

Growing up in a town with a lot of Jewish friends, I frequently wished that I was more than just half ethnically Jewish. But someone (not my Jewish friends) would always remind me that I wasn't technically Jewish because my mother wasn't Jewish; and that my father wasn't technically Jewish because his mother's mother wasn't Jewish.  

I am proud of my Jewish ethnic background.   I was raised by atheists, so I wasn't brought up in the Jewish faith. 

So be it.  I am at peace with that.  

I am from Boston, but not Bostonian.  I am from Jews, but not very Jewish.  I am neither East nor West.  I ride with a western bridle and an English saddle.  You say potato.  I say potato. 

"Where Amundsen took one hundred Greenland dogs to the Antarctic with him, Scott took nineteen Manchurian ponies, 37 sledge dogs...and three tracked vehicles."

" can be fed on dog," [Amundsen explained.] "One can reduce one's pack little by little, slaughtering the feebler ones and feeding the chosen with them."

Scott's opinion on that:

"One cannot calmly contemplate the murder of animals which possess such intelligence and individuality, which have frequently such endearing qualities..."

The narrator notes, "the motor sledges lasted for less than a week.  The ten ponies plodded south with their loads and were shot when their useful life was over and cached as dog food..."

[From Scott's Last Voyage, Through the Antarctic Camera of Herbert Ponting, Edited by Ann Savours, Copyright 1975.]


It's not easy, back East, to find a book that focuses on Amundsen.  It's much easier to find a dozen books that focus on Scott or Shackleton.  But I did find one, and while his pragmatism regarding the dogs may seem heartless on the face of it, the book conveyed the enormous burden of responsibility that Amundsen felt for the lives of his crew.  

Their safety, always paramount in his mind, motivated a year of absolutely unfailingly meticulous planning.   

Whatever one feels about dogs, ponies, and mad men, history strongly suggests that the same extraordinary level of attention to detail did not go into Scott's or Shackleton's famous expeditions.

There may be something chilling in Amundsen's plan.  But there's something perverse in the British that attracts them to disaster.   

While traveling from Malaysia to Thailand on a train, I sat with a young English woman, 21, who had spent four weeks somewhere in Indonesia.  She had suffered horrible dysentery and lived in a shack the entire time.  For a bathroom, she'd had had to crouch over a creek on two planks.  This was where she had spent most of her time.  

She was sorry, she told me, to be going back to England.  There was no one that she missed in England, no one she looked forward to seeing again.  She would be glad to see her horse again. 

There was this other Brit that we met in Nepal, an ex-pat living in Indonesia who had contracted Malaria several times on his travels; most horrendously, in the Amazon.  He seemed to collect Malarial antibodies the way old ladies collect spoons.  

To be fair, I met other British people, too.  Some were very good company, some were completely potty, but I am culling out a few choice individuals to illustrate a particular character trait. 

I didn't say this was science.

My mother has at times displayed a peculiar affinity for adversity.  There were one or two bicycling expeditions in my youth when we covered one hundred miles over a long weekend--following many weeks of training, which included chicken potpies and television.  We rode terrible bicycles, equipped with leaky tents and aluminum packets of dehydrated meals--the pictures on the packages looked so much more appealing than their contents.  

I'll say no more about those adventures, except that they involved a lot of sweat, tears, blood, and clowns.

I never quite took to it, the way I might have, if I had had more of that particular gene. 

I am tempted to point out that there was no Scandinavian blood shed in the Donner Party expedition.  I can't say for sure that Mr. Donner was of British extraction.  I do know that Reed, an early member of the party who had made it safely across, was an Irish immigrant who found himself desperately trying to scrape a rescue crew together to go back in search of his imperiled group.  It does vaguely resemble Shackleton's frustrated early efforts to commandeer a proper ice-pack breaking vessel to retrieve his fellow travelers back on Elephant Island.  

Don't ever misunderstand me on this point: I love Shackleton.  Love him, love him, love him.  It would almost be worth signing up for that expedition to be near him.  Almost.

Now here's a bit of Irish folly that requires very little interpretation.  A group of Irish and British guys tried to repeat Shackleton's 800 nautical-mile voyage to South Georgia Island in a lifeboat rigged for sail.  This is ranked among incredibly difficult and perilous sailing feats second only to Bligh's 47-day sail to the Dutch East Indies in a lifeboat, after being booted off the Bounty.  

Long story short, that's exactly what happened.  These people who were attempting to repeat Shackleton's sail to South Georgia Island lost the will to continue.  

Quel surprise!  

The reason?  Because they had a choice.  

Shackleton's only choice was to give up and die.

You can't will yourself to do these things.  Well, maybe you can.  I can't.  That's not the point, though.

The point is, I don't think the Scandinavians would sign up for that.  The Scandinavians, as far as I know (which is nowhere, to be honest), are focused on one thing:  keeping the farm.  

I don't know much about Scandinavians.  But I think that's partly because I am from the East Coast, where we are totally caught up in our British and Irish heroes, and their glorious pursuit of drama, rather than our less romantic, less pointlessly suffering, more grounded Viking brethren.  

There may remain some hurt feelings on the East Coast with regard to historic Viking plunder, etc. Maybe I could say more about that if I'd read HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION (from the Vikings).

I don't know how the Vikings conquered for so long and still did not get the best write-up in the history books. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

An Essay Almost About the Midwest


My blog is hosted by Google Plus, which is supposed to be easier to use than the alternative.  It's easy for me to write and publish posts, but it's difficult for you to access them. I haven't figured out how to remedy that.  I tried to make my blog public, even though I don't love that idea.  But I couldn't even do that.

To add insult to injury, my Google Plus page is a horror show.  Untidy and chaotic, the geniuses at Google tag stuff on to my page that I never chose, and have pigeon-holed me as "introspective," which I find really offensive.

So, while I can't figure out how to make my blog public or accessible; and while I can't figure out how to control the content of my Google Plus page; I can write on a subject that is outside of my own skin, ergo, not introspective.

"The Midwest" 

Now, unfortunately, it only makes sense to place my perspective on the Midwest in context, which means, by necessity, I'll be talking about myself again for just a moment.   

As some of you know, I grew up on the East Coast in the Boston area.  However, I am not a true Bostonian, like Ben Affleck, because my parents were not from Boston originally.  

I have my own weird accent  via my mother via her father, who couldn't say pass the potatoes without ironic inflection.  

When my mother reads out loud with that familial phonetic spin, it's like salt on food.  It means more when she reads it.  

All of my uncles on that side sound like Tom Brokaw.  

I grew up among a diluted British, Irish, and Jewish demographic.  

The vestigial shadow of the old country is, I believe, in our genes and in our psyches and cannot be easily shaken off by two or three generations of dislocation and neglect.

My father's paternal family came to New York at the turn of the previous century from Odessa, where my great-grandfather had been a rabbinical scholar.  

In New York City, he polished furniture for a department store and lived in abject poverty.  But he enabled his three children to attend school and graduate from college.

My father's maternal family came to New York from Berlin.  His grandmother, Gertie, was Catholic, and had a Polish maiden name.  Charles Mayer, her husband, was Jewish and very successful as a pie king in New York City.  (He sold a lot of pies.)  The big oil painting I have of the chickens came from him.  

The habit of framing all thoughts, all dreams, and every form of communication from a Freudian psychoanalytical perspective, (and with that, we could say a lot more about the chicken painting), came from my grandfather, specifically, and from Vienna, New York, Boston, and the Twentieth Century, generally.

My mother's people were from Chicago.  Her father was one of 17 siblings to survive to adulthood.  (Two others were born but died.)  

No one alive today can name them all.  

Supposedly, they were related to Livingston, one of the forefathers who signed the Declaration of Independence.  

Supposedly, there was a Native American swimmer in the genetic pool.  

Supposedly, they came originally from Wales, though my great-grandmother's name, Bleu, was obviously French. 

We have no photographs before the 1900's.  

Mom's maternal great-grandfather was a surgeon during the Civil War.  (How awful!)  

Mom's grandfather's last job before the Great Depression was kicking Indians and hobos off of railroad cars. (Nice!)   

They were Irish and Scottish.

Despite the generations of distance between the UK and the US, the classic hallmarks of British character: stoicism, reserve, wit, an imperious sense of superiority--were never pruned from the family tree.  

My grandfather's faux British accent, that linguistic spin, persists among my young cousins.  We are all, to this day, insufferable in that way.  (Cousins, you know I love you.) 

This will have to be a series of posts.  Because the subject is the Midwest, and I haven't really touched on that yet.  

Let me just say one thing to whet your appetite for the next post, which will, I promise, be about the Midwest, and I'm sure my friends here in the Midwest are so excited about that.  (Be sure to include ironic inflection.)

There are, effectively, no Irish-Americans in the Midwest.  

That aren't that many folks of British extraction.

There are a few Jewish names, but I suspect they are actually German.  

What you have here are Scandinavians.  Norwegians.  Swedes. 

Finns!!!  (Yes, they are real!)

And lots of Germans.  Nothing at all wrong with that.

The whole ethos--to use a less pretentious word: enchilada--is wicked different.  

It's not the instant-mashed-potatoes middle-America nebbish of a place that SOME people not from here thought it was.   

It's really different.

More anon.  ( o :