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In church

I went to mass again today, in the Duomo. (see:

For some reason that has to do with the threads of continuity in my life reconnecting, I am moved by that experience. It’s as if I am ready to sense the profound logic and understanding that informs the fusion of architecture, painting, ritual, music, and stories in the service of building community. That fusion has nothing to do with the bureaucratic church as an institution for secular power– the one that incubates the monsters who abuse children, women, and men, the weak, the disenfranchised, the freaks, the oddballs and weirdos of all stripes, nationalities, and ethnicities whom it was designed, originally it would seem, to serve.  Rather, I connect with the eternal ideas and emotions that this deeply flawed human institution struggles to materialize. Tears pool in my eyes and slide down my cheeks and I can’t stop them. I feel safe (!) and free to let the big and little sorrows and pains I’ve accumulated through life to emerge from those hidey-holes where I’ve barricaded them over the years so as not to feel their acid burn. With each visit, some piece of the painful past is released and melts away. This is the slow healing that I have been needing to do since, seven years ago, we buried my father, and ten years ago, I lost the possibility of making a good marriage with the father of my daughter,  and the toxic fallout of my weaknesses: my breaches of faith, poor judgment, procrastination, fear, lack of focus, dishonesty, indecision.  I have so far to go, but at least I can glimpse the way.

[Barna da Siena (La Bottega dei Memmi ?), The Agony in the Garden


Later that month….

Here’s what’s been going on in my body and soul the last fourteen days.

I came down with giardia, which I only just diagnosed.  For  ten days I blamed my detox regime for the  sluggishness and lack of appetite and the weird waves of the sort of euphoria that  accompanies the body’s being taken over by a virus. I suspect, without any scientific basis whatsoever, that the “high” I feel a few days before flu symptoms appear is  connected to the fiesta fever of  noxious microorganisms partying in the hospitable environment of my cells.  This time, though, the “high” presented as a heightened sensitivity to color and form, a sharpening of vision and an odd lexical alacrity. Words I hadn’t used in years, and certainly not in the context of Tuscan life, bubbled to the surface of perfectly banal conversations.

But detoxing couldn’t explain all the other symptoms.

The aha moment came on a walk with Ilona, the woman I’ve befriended who lives up the street, and whom I call  Diana-and-the-hounds, in honor of the two white German shepherd bitches she keeps by her side at all times. We stopped on  the dyke overlooking the lake chorusing with frogs. I had one of those body memory moments, when the cells bombard the cognitive part of the brain with the bulletin: you’ve had this metal-in-the-mouth, sand-papered-stomach, no-appetite, nausea, loose bowels, malaise, and chronic fatigue before, buster. Neahkahnie. 1990. Spring. AAAAH- HA! Giardia!

Thanks to the Giardia Club website <; , accurate diagnosis confirmed and re-confirmed a few minutes later by the Doc, who sent me to the farmacia with a prescription for a protozoacide. Not much progress  yet. The one good thing about giarida is that you lose weight rapidly, since you don’t feel like eating and everything you do get down goes straight into the hungry mouths of the little suckers lining your entire alimentary canal. I can just hear them munching and slurping down there. I’ve dropped 2 kilos in ten days. How’s that for swift slimmin’?

I’m a regular in the vivaio (nursery) across from PAM, where I’ve bought endless flats of geranium, daisies, lobelia, vegetables, etc.  There were no raspberry plants.  Instead lassooed a datura, misnamed, of course (it’s actually a brugmansia, but that distinction is evidently of rather recent vintage). I’ve always loved their extravagant and fragrant blooms, not realizing how very toxic — in various ways– are the parts of this plant. We’ll see how it does.


Postoffice closed through Wed morning, thanks to May 1st “ponte” holiday. “Ponte” or “bridge” refers to amplified holidays during which all of Italy is on the road, and all business are closed, thereby eliminating any rational motive for the massive migration of peoples. Cars circle endlessly until arrested by a snag in the traffic, at which point all exit  vehicles, unpack multi-course meals, and carry on — eating, drinking, arguing, and sleeping — as if in the privacy of their own homes. Tourists innocently park cars in seemingly permissible stretches of weed alongside country lanes and return from sightseeing, several hours later, to find their windshields plastered with pink fines. I am opting to stay put, holding out for late afternoon lull in rain to go for my customary ramble in the woods, groves, meadows, and dales, perchance to spot a shy deer, find a porcupine quill, and, god forbid, rouse a boar.

Strange things…

It happened again when I picked up Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Knopf 2011), a book I’d seen on the shelf in my apartment since last fall, but resisted reading because the back cover blurbs were hyperbolic and the author is roughly my daughter’s age. Reading published authors – especially celebrated published authors –who are half my age, is something I really, really abhor doing. A tightness spreads from deep inside my gut and moves up to my lungs and then rams into my heart, and I’m having a panic attack . My brain puts on a slide show of the passing years in reverse, focusing on the wreckage of projects begun and abandoned by the side of my life’s road. My eyes turn inward and I see myself shrinking to the scale of an amoeba, which is about how  I rank my “significant accomplishments.” I despair of ever having the kind of flashes of brilliance that somebody like Karen Russell shows so early in life. Where do these young writers pick up their insights into the soul and into the secret chambers of life? Where, in fact, do writers mine their knowledge? The longer I live, the more I marvel at the miracle of human creativity: in music, painting, architecture, fashion, cooking, writing, engineering. Where do  these bursts of inspiration come from? How do these people tap into the strength of character and will to  snatch those  fugitive sparks of brilliance, and use them to turn the dead wood of words and paint and bricks into a flame of life?

Karen Russell: your book  bowled me over, perspectival tricks and narrative ruses and scaffolding  myths, and most of all: your characters! EXTRA: not since Nabokov (fall 1976 to summer 1977) have I met more unfamiliar words and more syntactical twists that eject me from the ruts of repetitive structures into entirely new combinatorial possibilities that let me see the pieces of the world making sense in new ways. Your metaphors are zany and proliferate like the Melaleuca quinquenervia the Army Corps of Engineers introduced into the Everglades  that you use as your setting.

I don’t get half of them as I race through the chapters, and I’ve dog-eared most of the pages for the next time I  read your book  more slowly, with a dictionary and Google on hand. You trust me ( your reader) to be up to the challenge of keeping up with you. You withhold information that any creative writing teacher will tell you needs to go up front. Still,   you get me to trust you, so that I “let” you tell me in your own way and in your own good time everything that I need to know (plus more). You tease me into speculating about what you might be driving at, and you give me the fabulous treat of letting me fill in the blanks. The brain, as the “man in my life” always says, loves to solve problems. You, Karen Russell, give my  brain what it loves.

For four  days Swamplandia! lived with me. I read it over breakfast,  lunch,  tea,  dinner, and  at bedtime I jumped under the sheets with it like a horny teenager. . I slept with it right next to me. I dreamed the book, the characters  growing into my dream life and when I opened the book again in the morning, I had to backtrack to the point where my dreams had taken off to touch base with the world Karen Russell was creating and keep it distinct from the one  in my subconscious.

Books with the power to do that to a reader are rare.  The writer who can use words to such great effect is a  magician. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve fallen under the spell of a book. This one put me under. I’m sorry there’s not more to it. Karen Russell: what happens next? I want more!!!!!

So I go to you-tube for a recording of your first book so I can listen to it while working on my next painting. But the woman  reading St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves has  that high-pitched, little-girl-silly voice that all American women are adopting (for God knows what reason!?!!) that  I can’t bear.

What I’m actually avoiding writing about is the bizarre conversation I had last night on the phone with “the man in my life”, whom I called on impulse as I hovered over the giant sheet of watercolor paper waiting for the ink to dry. I had the impression of a person actively resisting me, saying all the right things that on paper would signal that yes, I am deeply loved, respected, cherished even. But all that was said through clenched teeth, without a smile, without joy, through a lead shield of resentment. Maybe he’s afraid of me? Maybe he thinks of me as toxic? Maybe I should just stick with my resolution to keep away from him and stop intruding in his life?

The fellow tells me about all the women he’s dating, “quality women,” successful professionals in responsible positions making good money, living in big houses, wishing he’d not move so slow. He tells me he’s having a good time, that he’s happy. He says he’s happy for me as a “human being” because I am doing what I have longed to do and I am at peace, but the tone of his voice says something else entirely. He tells his clients that he trusts human beings to do the right thing, but he constantly tells me he doesn’t trust me. He wraps up the conversation by telling me what deep pain he feels when he talks to me. I struggle to make sense of all the contradictions and finally have to admit that it’s all about perpetuating the contradictions of his childhood, the discrepancy between the words and the deeds,  and the paralyzing power of double-binding. In reaching out to him, I am replaying the same dogged reaching out of the child-me to my father, who handed out disapproval and denial like preventative medicine.

Why, he wants to know, do I choose to be so far away from him? The number of miles indexes the force of the fear he inspires in me. In his case, what I fear is the toxic drip of his distrust and disapproval. I hate that sting of his disapproval and distrust. And I also need to experience it, over and over again, like St. Francis of Assisi experiencing his love for the Christ through the pain of his stigmata. Roman Catholicism taught me to love  pain — my own pain — by promoting it as beauty in every  mural, painting, sculpture, and icon in every church, chapel, basilica, and cathedral I’ve ever visited in my life.

Maybe, and this one I have to think about, there’s something useful about this Catholic fixation with the pragmatics of pain. As a chronic Pollyanna who tries to see the sunny side of every dark hole, I sure hope so. I was thinking about this at Palm Sunday Mass while I was studying the frescoes in the San G Duomo that are all about suffering, pain, self-sacrifice, penance, expiation… starting with God having his own — and only — Son murdered. What’s with the filiocide? And how does this “logic” of pressuring people into being “good” by guilting them about Christ’s martyrdom actually work?

Paraskeva, aka “Suocera” (mother-in-law), has been doing a bang-up job scraping calcare from the bathroom walls and fixtures. Tomorrow will the third day of this work. I pick her up at 11, stop at the Cooperativa for supplies, and install her in the main house. Years and years of grime are coming off the walls of this old house. Spring air is moving through the rooms, the armoires, drawers, under the beds, behind the frames, slipping into the new cracks spidering across the plaster.


As I’m falling asleep, I’d best wrap this up before I wander off into some penumbral state …

A waste of time…and money

I run after my thoughts,, but they scatter and take off faster than I can catch up with them. There they go, bobbing and weaving in the distance while  I stumble along, waving my butterfly net and catching air , disgusted that instead of clearing a space in the time clutter of my day to lure them to this page, I’ve been running errands, and not even complete errands, but pieces of errands and deviant sidelines of errands shooting off from the main line into thickets of the superfluous.

I drew up a list of things I intended to do on my run up to Florence today, and by the time it was all over, half of them dropped off the cliff, and now I’ll need to do another drive, another day. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s not all that important or even necessary to supply throws for the bedrooms,  another frying pan for my kitchen, a strong light for the drawing table, and maybe a tabouret for the paints, and a composting bin, and candles and a vase to replace the one that got chipped when the wind heaved against the branches of cherry blossoms and knocked the tippy vase on its side on the granite pavers. None of that warrants another drive up Si-Fi and A-1 (Roma-Bologna). tolls and  gas, which now costs 69 Euro per tank of this supposedly  “fuel-efficient” VW economy car I leased for  four months.

What a contrast today is  to yesterday’s Palm Sunday with its sighting of the fox and the porcupine’s gift of a quill,  the bullfrogs’ gutteral moan rising into a roar. The pheasant, fat and resplendent in his Renaissance plumage, explodes from the underbrush and I shy like a skittish horse. A hawk dives across my path so close I can see the mouse that’s dangling from his beak.  I carefully step across a  triple line of ants intent on their urgent business, whatever it may be,the incoming ones sidestepping to avoid their outgoing comrades, brushing antennas in passing, entomological equivalents of hi-fives. Yesterday was all about being present, attending.

That focus gave me the energy to write, to make a large ink and watercolor drawing that turned out well. But today everything was off kilter. I slept longer than I had planned, attended to the mail and finally locked the gate behind me at noon, which meant that I arrived in Florence just minutes before the “fine” shops closed for lunch.

I parked the car in the garage beneath the Central Market, climbed the stairs through a miasma of stale piss, and ignored the middle age man relieving himself against the wall. (Pissing men were the theme du jour: there were enough to warrant keeping count, including a companionable pair carrying on a spirited conversation by the side of the road while pissing as cars whipped past them.) All that male pissing made me even more uncomfortable with my own bladder, which begged to be relieved as I pushed through the stalls of scarves, gloves, leather jackets, handbags, and Tuscan pottery. I saw my chance when I bumped into an elegant woman exiting a crowded cafe and intuitively knew that she had done the female equivalent of side-of-the-road micturating. Men do it in the road. Women use the toilets of cafes, hotels, and restaurants.

Because the place was crowded, I made the  assumption the waiters wouldn’t notice my heading to the back of the establishment. But I was wrong. The owner stormed after me, lecturing me on the etiquette of peeing without patronizing.  If I’d been younger, I would have been mortified, but  at my age, I am insulated from vanity. Whom do I need to impress? Japanese tourists in deep culture shock? Overweight Americans  lining the street map up with the sights outside the window?   The waiters?

Nobody. Myself. Miss Dry Panties 2012!

Yesterday the sky was so blue it frightened me with the riddle of an eternity my brain is not engineered to grasp. When I walk over these hills, my mind goes blank. I am a sensorium. Ears listening. Eyes watching. Nose smelling. Skin sensing. Tongue tasting. My feet perform Olympic feats of balancing, propelling, supporting, rolling from heel to toe on the dusty paths. The soil is cracked down to bedrock, like the skin of Georgia O’Keeffe.

I make it to the shop: Bojole! Just where it’s always been. The lights inside have been turned off. An East Indian with a bad complexion grins up from his bucket of yellow paint which he’s applying to the wall above the entrance, and tells me to come back in three hours.

Bad timing.



Maybe because my body’s on the verge of turning into one, I’ve developed a fresh interest in ruins. After ten years of walking these hills, I find an abandoned road on the far side of the olive grove just up the hill from my house.   I follow the faint ruts through an oak copse, my boots crunching the acorns underfoot. Some broken branches lie across my path, but otherwise, the going is smooth.  There’s a touch of the sinister about the dark shadows beneath the heavy branches. Up ahead, where the thicket thins to a rash of broom, a deer is grazing. A pair of pheasants clatter up from the brush, startled by my curious poodle. And then, suddenly, around the bend, there it is: a sort of clearing, filled with a brilliant light, and the creamy yellow and warm sienna of old walls.

Up from my childhood floats the delicious feeling of entering a hidden, secret space, full of possibilities and promising free rein to the imagination. I can be anything here. I can feel the presence of the life that once flowed through these walls.

Brambles are growing up around the stones and I make my way carefully, carrying the small dog so he won’t snarl in the thorns or pick up burrs.Lizards scurry away into cracks. A  bumblebee roars past my face on is way to the wild primrose poking out of last winter’s layers of leaves.

I think of Dorka, who died two weeks ago and is now two weeks into eternity, and how much I miss those daily calls to her and taking my little insights and experiences to her, and having her listen so attentively to what I have to say, and share her own thoughts, and then cap the conversation with a ripple of jokes and a reassuring verbal hug.

i then follow my thoughts to my daughter’s father who, though kind and generous and respectful to my mother, never allowed himself to develop the sort of close relationship with her that I cultivated with his mother. He does not call her, does not make frequent visits across town to her — or even infrequent visits when actually, it would be so easy for him to do so, and it would mean so much to her to be honored by him and accorded the attention and courtesies the relationship of son-in-law (even son-outside-of-law) to mother-in-law deserves.That neglect of his rankles me still, as much for the slight to my mother as to myself and his daughter.

And never in all these years has he shown my sister’s children — his daughter’s cousins — the consistent generosity and attention that he lavishes on the children of his wife’s sister. Aside from a shared holiday here and there — the Oregon coast, the South of France — nothing. And that pains me as well. I interpret that inattentiveness as a comment on my — and my blood relations’ — value. We are not valuable, not worthy of regard (in both senses:  “being noticed” and “being taken seriously”) .

I thought of none of these things while poking around in the clearing in the oak wood. Then I was busy filling in the possibilities of rebuilding the roof, restoring the beautiful vaulted ceilings, patching the walls, putting glass in the windows, installing plumbing… electricity. The old garden still had some feral survivors: a woody rose, a sprawling prickly pear cactus, a grid of cypress, stone walls…

Spring wind

The spring wind started up in Manhattan last week and died down when the moon filled out and took up position between Mars and Venus. That, I understand, is something that rarely happens. That unusual planetary configuration, combined with the fullness of the moon, made us all nervous and a little crazy. A pipe burst in the wall between the two bathrooms in my mother’s flat on Monday morning. We had no idea. The hissing in the wall sounded exactly like the neighbor taking a shower, though it seemed to me to be a very long one. At least, I thought to myself, she’s not on her treadmill, running as she does every morning.

The front door was open, as it usually it on sunny mornings  to let in more light and air. All at once four large men burst through it. The dogs screeched in alarm. My mother, roused from her morning paper, clung to the kitchen door. When startled, she can neither see nor hear. In her mind, these four men were Gestapo  from sixty years ago, blown in by a universal ill wind.

Over the ruckus I made out, ” Leak … water… downstairs…”

Scott, the Colorado Virginian, was in the lead. Since he took over as the general manager, he has turned the two buildings into Alcatraz with his relentless micromanaging and micro-bullying of staff and residents. Signs banning various types of behaviors are constantly going up. Lucy, the housekeeper from Dominica, goes about her Sisyphean mopping intent on the number of  months, weeks, days and hours left before her retirement. Jose submits to quarterly surgery just to get away from Scott.

The General Manager has a pale, large  face pocked with scars. He rolls up his shirt sleeves to show off huge, knotty  biceps scrawled with tattoos. His voice and  bearing are a relic from the Army. Once every two weeks or so, after a feeding, he displays his six-foot python in the lobby to intimidate the parents of small children.  Quirino, the second in command, is a rotund, bald Italian from Campana, a forty-year veteran with the buildings. He can fix anything, except Scott’s temper. The other two fellows were outside contractors:  Absolute Plumbing and something starting with an “m”.

Before I could pull on my pants, they were already taking down the shower curtain, emptying the vanity, unscrewing the medicine cabinet, the dogs biting at their heels, my mother telling Scott that he is the most unpleasant man she has ever had to deal with.

Everything about the morning was wrong, especially the fact that my mother had left the door open and the dogs free to wander in the hall — this after she had just received a warning from Scott and from the Housing Office. The extreme emotion of the moment relaxed the dogs’ bowels. Instead of depositing their poop on the piddle pads, they left it right in the path of the workers, and peed in the hall. I rushed around mopping and whisking away the “Tootsie rolls” before Scott might slip on them and tighten the screws on my mom . As it is, she lost a whole week’s sleep after getting the official warnings.

My sabbatical is turning out to be the year of bathroom remodeling. First was Neahkahnie. Then — San Gimignano. Next – Portland, followed by Cabo San Lucas, and then – NYC. What else?

I thought that as long as they were tearing a hole into the  bathroom wall, we might as well try replacing the old fixtures, the tile, the vanity, the medicine cabinet, the paint job. Mirabile dictu — this is exactly what they did, which is why I delayed my departure by a week.

All this time, a steady west wind was blowing across the mid-Atlantic states, carrying the first wave of pollen that lodged in the tiny receptors of my nasal cells and told my sinuses to produce massive amounts of histamines.

By Friday , everything except the medicine cabinets and the grip bars was in place, at least in NYC. In Portland, the icon painter is still  applying white paint to the  risers, the five thousand six hundred and thirty-two feet of trim (including the baseboards and half rounds), thirty-two walls, and  ten ceilings (depending on how you count them). The window in the Neahkahnie bathroom still needs to be replaced.

The prevailing winds spend us across the Atlantic and released us roughly into the landing field in Munich. They fought us the whole way across the Alps and battered and pummeled the plane as we descended into the narrow airport of Florence. The wind at San Gimignano pruned  branches from the pines, firs, cypresses, olives and plums, sang through the trees, banged the shutters, and tore through my jet-lagged sleep before scattering the morning clouds and dispersing the veil of smoke from the fire in which the brothers Pollini burned the cuttings from their vernaccia vines.

It’s night again. The wind is still for now.


Between 1949 and 1979, kids in New York City and New Jersey  threw high-bouncers against concrete walls, sidewalks, bats, and they called them ‘spaldeens.’ My ex-mother-in-law (of the might-have-been-bend-sinister variety) is a spaldeen: every time she lands at  the very edge of life and is about to roll down into the infinite abyss of the beyond, she bounces back, a little lower and a little closer to the edge, but still on what we like to call “terra firma.” I stopped referring to her as the “Chocolate Nana D…a” , which she was called the last 80 plus of her 100 plus years on account of her passion for chocolate (most recently Dove Chocolate was her brand of choice, before that Ghirardelli holding the honor). Now I call her “Rubber Nana D…a” because she’s always bouncing back. Talk to her son, the geriatrician (MD even!) and he’ll give you one version of her life after near death: cracking jokes, poking her nose in everybody’s business, giving” advices” that are now even heavier with the gravitas of experience and the credibility of one who’s seen into the light at the end of the tunnel. Talk to her caretakers  — a band of sturdy Polish women ranging in age between 35 and 65 and in silhouette from tomato to pear — and you’ll find out she’s added to the work load with a new habit.  Maria, the bad-tempered good-hearted matron who holds down the fort five days a week and does not have a kind word to say about anyone or anything (accompanied by the disclaimer:  “I don’t do noting bad. I not kill her. I am Catolik.” ) is of the opinion that Nana D…a is just being contrary for the sake of being contrary. The juice is sour? “NO! Is NOT sour! Dat’s SHE SAY is sour, but NOT sour.” It hurts her to get up? “NO! She not WANT get outta bed. I TELL her,’You not sick. You old. Old notSick. You get out of BED to eat. No eat in bed.”  “She alla time stik finger in nose. Den she rub rub rub eye. All da time: rub eye.”

Last week she had a serious intestinal impaction which her son, the doctor – God bless him — removed digitally. Can you imagine doing that to your own mother?  Flew into town equipped with rubber gloves . Spent the night on the living room couch, sleepless,  steeling himself to do the procedure.The choice was: take mother to hospital and have it done there, which she categorically refused to do. Leave the impaction and watch her die a slow and painful death. Or go spelunking himself.  Good doctor and even better son that he is, promptly at seven a.m., still in his white cotton super expensive pajamas, he put on the thick rubber gloves, laid several layers of towels on the bed, and got to work.

“MOM,” he said. “We’re gonna have to do this together. I’ve done this a hundred times in the ER, so just relax and trust me.” I swear, if I didn’t have respect for the man before, I am on my knees before him right now, every one of my two dozen hats off my head, in a gesture of prayerful and humble adoration.

I won’t even count the number of taboos that man had to overcome to stick his finger up his mom’s rectum, feel for the rock-hard impaction, and chip it out, one bit at a time, for two hours, with her all the time moaning “I wanna die… I wanna die..” But he uncorked the bottle, and now everything’s coming out and she’s set for another spell on this earth, that for her has shrunk to the size of her condominium, two bedrooms, two baths, living-dining room, eat-in-kitchen, and foyer, all of it  filled with gorgeous Scandinavian furniture and Oriental rugs, books, paintings, photographs, menorahs, dozens of vases from years of floral deliveries.

The indignities of old age: high comedy. Slapstick of the grossest sort. Carnivalesque inversion of normal life. What are you going to do? Cry? I

remember my own father, at his worst demented moments, mistaking the tiny sink in his nursing home room for the toilet bowl, and depositing his shit there. I didn’t have to clean it up, mercifully. Didn’t bother him one bit. A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. In the geriatric psychiatric ward, where they put him when the  first hauled him after he threatened my mother and sister with a chair for not — in his mind — feeding the dog, he was so heavily drugged that he sagged in a mammoth wheelchair, propped up by a half-dozen pillows, his head flopped to the side, his hair crazy, sticking out in all directions, an old derelict’s beard sprouting on his usually elegant cheeks.

“Professor, Professor,” the Haitian attendant prodded him,” let’s go to the toilet.”

She hauled him out of the wheeled throne and set him on his feet, where he wobbled for a moment, fumbling with the skirts of his faded gown, tied loosely in the back and hoisted up over the giant diaper covering his butt, and then, leaning heavily on her arm, shuffled with her  to the doorless toilet in the sunroom, where the entire ward, equally stoned and delusional, idly watched him expel the day’s waste products. The big, shiny Haitian woman gently  wiped off his ass and snapped on a fresh diaper.

The horror of witnessing the degradation of a parent by incontinence and public defecation.  Spaldeen. Scenes like that turn you into a spaldeen. You hit the ground. Hard. And then you bounce back. What choice do you have?

You can always laugh.

Like right now, my daughter’s NYC apartment is infested with bedbugs and my sister has somebody’s escaped Black Brazilian tarantula crawling up her bedroom walls and across the ceiling.

I am forever

I am forever injuring my feet. Stubbing my toes. Whacking my ankles. Piercing my instep. Jamming my heel. Twisting my pinkies. Dropping knives, point down, on the tops of the feet. There are ugly red scabs on the sides of my feet. The joints of my toes have puffy, horn-like callouses. The insides of my feet have big, pointed bones — bunions, they call them —  that stick out and that, according to advertising on NYC subway cars , can be easily removed by a  podiatrist. What they don’t tell you is that while the removal itself might be easy, the recovery is anything but, and the people who submit to this amputation, spend as much as six months in painful immobility before they can even get to their feet and hobble around gingerly, and then, for many years after the procedure, experience searing pains at every change of weather.

I study the bunions on my feet and I really, really hate them. But not enough to have them surgically removed. Maybe if I train my big toes to go straight out from the bunions, they won’t look so bad. The other problem is shoes. Most shoes are not designed for bunions. They are designed for people with very rectangular feet, long , flat toes without any bones in them that might interfere with the fashionable shape of the shoe: pointy one year, round the next, then square, etc. My toes, on the other hand, bear the marks of each fashion sea change.

They’re not as bad as the ones of the woman I met on the beach here in Cabo three years ago. Her feet looked like little garden spades with rust spots. She practically lived in stiletto heels and as a result totally deformed her feet. While she was talking to me, she kept burying her hideously ugly feet in the sand, but we ended up talking about them, because how can you avoid talking about something so obvious?

I’m sure that the older I get, the worse looking my feet will be. I’ve noticed that very old people have disgusting nails that are as hard as shingles. And super dry, cracked heels. And gigantic bunions. And corns and callouses that sprout from every joint of their toes. The toes themselves curl under. There are lots of yellowish spots and stains on the toe nails, along with unsightly deposits of dirt and whatever sebaceous excretions seem to accumulate under and alongside nails that long-suffering, meek Vietnamese women, willing to work for sub-minimum wage pay in el-cheap-o-mani/pedi salons, dig out with sharp tools which they claim to sterilize between clients, but rarely do.

My ex-would-have-been [if not for a string of shameless hussies] mother-in-law, who is now over 100 years old, has extraordinarily lovely feet. They are narrow and pale alabaster with delicate blue veins. There is nothing whatsoever disgusting about them. Her ankles and shins, on the other hand, are blue and purple with blood leaking from fragile vessels just beneath the surface of her thin and fragile skin.

Aging, I’m sure, will provide me with endless material to indulge my sordid fascination with the uncanny, the horrible, and the sublime.



Welcome to Baja California, land of the Id,

where  languorous waves pummel the beach with pugilist fists,

where sacred vultures scour the skies and skeptical scissor-tailed frigate-birds circle,  refusing to roost;

where milky puffs signal the lust of  bachelor whales, and bat-winged modula shoot from  shallows and drop, with  skin-smarting  slaps, into the waves;

where slick seals glide, thrusting whiskered snouts into the liquid air, and pelicans play tug-of-war with hides stripped from the flanks of noble marlin;

where dark-skinned, big-hipped women with tumescent thighs mince the pavement in heart-piercing heels, and sweet-talking romeos of real estate seduce with offers of free beer, free money, free love;

where the yucca’s turgid stalk thrusts pods swollen with honeyed petals into the beaks of orioles the color of sunlight, and hummingbirds dive into the heart of fiesta hibiscus,  sucking the luscious nectar of life;

Where white-bellied  men in baggy shorts guffaw from despair and women, bloated with shopping, ogle young bucks  clutching Coronas like bottles of  mothers’ milk,

and  spidery rebars rise from concrete pilings
while  Steinbeck’s Mexicans still glumly lurk in the pounding murk of the taverna.

Seven years

The most important thing for me is to not be overwhelmed. When faced with too many things to do, I am paralyzed. Which one is more important? If I do one, the others don’t get done. How to line them up? Which goes first? Which second?

Right now, this very instant, as I am sitting in my bed at the coast, looking out over the Pacific, which is still and glassy after a week of tremendous turmoil and dotted along the horizon with the yellow lights of fishermen that are as bright as the candle flickering on the chest of drawers in the corner – right that very instant the light overhead flashed on. As I whipped around to see what had turned it on – Dylan getting up to stretch and scratch? My leaning too aggressively into the headboard? – the light went out again. I’ve wriggled my fingers into the narrow space between the headboard and the wall and tried to depress the rheostat and flip the switch. It won’t budge. The light went on. The light went off. I can only conclude, completely irrationally, that this is my father’s way of weighing in on my indecision about what to do first, and what second.

He always quoted Ruskin to me: “Know what you have to do, and do it!” So what I have to do is: taxes (again!); translation; drawing; grant proposals; self-evaluation (work); course proposals. I will work my walks with Dylan into that string, and use my mind’s various levels to brainstorm solutions to problems as they present themselves.

Now Dylan is growling a soft threat, and there’s a creaking downstairs, though the doors are locked. Perhaps it’s the house stretching and settling down to sleep after the sunny day. The fire is still burning in the fireplace. I’m listening for the little sounds and on the alert.

Today, seven years ago, my father died at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, NY, without waiting for me to come and say good-bye to him and wish him well on his long journey and thank him for having brought me into the world, for having taught and guided me and given me constant examples of integrity, courage, responsibility, creativity, diligence, and love. Not to mention: punctuality. I have, God willing (D.v.) many more years of work ahead of me before I can live up to the example he left me.

Even if he caused me great plain and fear throughout our years together, my love for him was constant, and filled with compassion and pity: for the obstacles life continually threw his way that he had to steel himself over and over again to overcome. He was a brave man, with much pain and anguish in his soul. May he rest in peace and look over me.

Did he really send me the “man in my life” seven years ago to guide me on my path since he, my father, left me? If one were to believe in signs, then the signs say: yes. In November of the year he died, I was setting off to visit, for the first time, the “MIML”. It was early morning, on a Friday. Snow was in the air, and the sky pressed down hard against the Portland hills. I stepped outside to put my bag in the car, collect the red poodle, Pika Secunda, who was crouching into a luxurious pee on the sloping sidewalk, when a small grey bird with a pertly upturned tail, hopped toward me and suddenly sprang into the air and flew into my house.

Stunned, I stood indecisive (see opening paragraph, above): what to do? Get the dog? Lock the car? Get the bird? And decided to seize the dog, lock the car, and go in the house. The bird was fluttering around the living room, chirping merrily. It settled on the arm of the couch, tilted its head, and watched me. I stepped lightly to the terrace door and threw it open and walked back to the couch, waving my hands to shoo the bird out. But he had absolutely no interest in leaving. I realized I could spend the entire morning trying to chase the bird out, and anxious to get on the road before the snows began, made up my mind to shelter the bird.

I filled a bowl with cereals (flax-seed and oats and bird seed), and another bowl with water, said a prayer that all would be ok, and left.

Two days later I was back. The bird was waiting for me, sitting on the frame of my father’s portrait on the mantle. He had made that his home. The seeds were nearly all gone. He looked at me with my father’s expression as if to say,” Well done! “ and then hopped over to the door and waited for me to open it, and flew off.

That visitation of the bird I took for a sign that my father approved of the relationship that was then still in the making, from which I would learn so much and come to understand so much about my blind spots and denials.


I need my father’s guidance again and I ask for it tonight, eight minutes before the day is done.

The images I’ve interspersed in this remembrance of my father are from the aftermath of the turbulence at sea, when my eye was caught by all the blue that had washed up with the spindrift and the massive waves. The blue flotsam and jetsam matched perfectly the deep, clear blue of the sky.

My father has moved on from this life. My daughter’s mother, at 100, is still alive, still exerting a tremendous psychological power over her son, and through him, over all our lives. She delivers oracular pronouncements in the briefer and briefer intervals of wakefulness. Today, she spoke about “conflicts of interest” and her words reverberated through the conversation I had with her son, though while I was listening to him telling me how his wife would be outraged – and rightly so, he said – about all that he does for me to make my life easier, I had no inkling that he was working out the intense anxiety into which his mother’s comments on “conflicts of interest” had thrown him.

My nerves jangled from his fear of the potential consequences of his good deeds. He is still terrified of his mother’s judgment, even though she is a tiny, weak, frail old creature, fiercely looking out for his well-being and trying to shield him from matrimonial woes. She always asks about the MIML – even though her memory is failing her in other areas of the present. I know why she asks: as long as I’m not married off to another man, in her eyes, I continue to represent a threat to the stability of her son’s marriage. Once, several weeks ago, when he and I and she were on Skype together, and I pointed out what she was doing, she instantly agreed: “She’s right,” she told her son. “Yes.”  Woman to woman, we understand each other and love and respect each other, even as we circle each other warily, competing for influence over her son’s heart.

When I was just an infant, an old man – so my mother tells the story – peered into the baby carriage where I was lying, and spotting the blue vein crossing the bridge of my tiny nose, said, “Tut tut, she’ll be trouble, this one.” I do create a fair amount of trouble around me, I’m afraid. I make some women nervous, and I don’t seem to be able to give to any man I’ve loved and love, the most fundamental gift one human being can give to another: peace of mind, security and soul commitment.

Is this peculiar to me? Do other women succeed in giving this to the men they love? I look at a number of my women friends and acquaintances who have long, stable marriages and wonder what it is that they know that I don’t know. How do they manage to find their way while I make such a hash of it? Sometimes I think I’ve loved well and then I wonder why is it that I am alone now, stubbornly trying to reclaim my life. Or… maybe I’m just running away from life’s challenges into solitude?

Sometimes I think that being an immigrant, I have a tin ear for American men. I can’t judge accurately  the character of the men to whom I’m drawn.  My daughter, on the other hand, seems to have a better, sounder sense. Unless I am mistaken – and I hope fervently that I am not — she chose her love carefully, deliberately, and wisely. Time will tell.

I remember how awed I was when I first met her father and he began to court me. I could scarcely believe my good fortune: he was such a perfect match for my background, intelligence, education, aspirations, and looks. It seemed a perfect miracle that somehow in the alien Great Pacific Northwest the two of us, cast adrift here in the same year 1977, would have come together. A year of utter misery preceded that meeting at the end of May 1980 that would fundamentally reshape the course of my life.

The house has settled down for the night. The waves break with a syncopated crash followed by a muted hum. The fragrant candle sputters. The black sky is dotted with stars, and the fishing boats’ lights still mark the line of the horizon.