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Posts from the ‘the good the bad the ugly’ Category


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.


Going into the dark places of the soul


My daughter’s birthday doesn’t seem like the ideal time to sink into a funk. I’m in a funk. Birthday means marking time. She is young. I am old. I remember myself at her age, and all the heartache and hard work, the exhilaration and the pain, the endless decisions that lie ahead of her and wish her more wisdom than came my way, and more clarity and a better, kinder, healthier world.

The world is as messed up as ever, with more and more people thinking they have answers and solutions that will not only save the world, but make them rich in the process. Obama is out on the campaign trail along with half a dozen hopefuls,  squeezing millions out of power-and-influence hungry tycoons, captains of industry, masters of the universe  gambling their money on a race that will most certainly not put the best man in the office. The young people are out protesting on Wall Street, talking about winning and losing, as though life were a football game, and not an intricate, fragile, complex coral reef where each person’s actions reverberate in the whole. We’re crazy with the blame game and we’ve run out of fingers to point.

I remember what “Buck” says in the film Buck about learning from the darkness in one’s life. If I look at the darkness and deeply into it, I will find the answers to the key questions that I still need to answer so that I can live the best way I am capable of living.

I notice the fear and anxiety of my mother’s home that radiates from her aging, as her body startles and terrifies her with its unexpected frailties, spasms, cramps, vertigo, neuropathy, deafness, hoarseness, aches.

She is frightened for me when I go out and tries to protect me with warnings. “Don’t stay out too long.” “Wear a sweater.” “Put on a hat.” “Take an umbrella.” The ‘outside’ is full of dangers. She telephones me with panic in her voice to find out where I am. Her fear, I suspect, is a complex blend of remembered fears, bred into her by her mother, and her mother’s mother, and all the mothers before then, each of whom, thanks to the geographical location in which they lived, passed through the trauma of wars and inherited a fear gene. She has the terrors of her childhood. The mistrust of men comes from her own experience of having chosen and married a man who loved her with a gigantic dose of pain. She has the fear of an immigrant in an unfamiliar world, and of a refugee in a hostile land.

Age is eroding her courage, though she has enough left to navigate the real dangers of living in a body of 88 years.

All that fear suffocates me and makes me want to escape far, far away.

The Gulls’ Great Dying

A storm blew in the last week of September. It came from far out in the ocean or maybe even all the way from Japan, where, I understand, a typhoon had passed. The sea was racing: fast, powerful waves, impatient, the new ones snagging against the upslope of the ocean floor, shoving and piling up on the ones in front. The forward guard spilled on the beach, flattened into a thin film,  then drained  back into the oncoming wave. At the line of encounter between ingoing and backflow, water rises  into a brown wall capped with a nervous line of foam that races left to right before disappearing in the general collapse of the water.

Before I even get on the highway, I get a call from a woman with a familiar voice. I can’t connect it to a face, but I don’t ask her to identify herself, because maybe she’s one of those people I know who  assume I will always  recognize her voice. She asks me where I’m headed, and when I say, “the beach”, she tells me to watch the sneaker waves. Last week, she tells me, she was out on the high dunes, the ones covered with grass, at Manzanita, with her girlfriend, on a Sunday morning, when out of the blue, and at low tide even, a gigantic wave swept in and knocked them off their feet. They scrabbled to stay out of the backwash and gripped the sea grass to keep from being swept away.

There’s something odd about this woman and her story and the way it comes to me, out of the blue. I interrupt her and ask her who she is. And it turns out we both assumed we were talking to people we knew. Coincidentally we had identical points of reference in Manzanita, and that sustained the illusion of a shared reality long enough for her to tell her story. I’d never know sneaker waves could come so high. I’d always thought of them as somewhat more aggressive than the pack, foaming up around my ankles or, at most, my knees, before shrinking back into the ocean. Evidently, I am mistaken.

I thank the woman for being the universe’s conduit for my guardian angel. At the pharmacy, I share the story with the cashier, trying to classify  the call’s timing and message as “conspiracy or coincidence.” The cashier  doesn’t think I’m loopy. She has her own story to tell that reinforces the original. One of her co-workers was at that same beach, at roughly the same time on the same day, walking in the dunes with a baby strapped to her back  when that same wave materialized out of the blue and slammed her into the dune. She injured her hip trying to keep her baby safe.  A customer on line added another piece, about  a man surfing in Short Sands Beach who was crushed to death against the rocks by this same wave. But ninety-three miles west and two hours later,  at Manzanita, a shopkeeper, the neighbor, the watchman, and the random solitary promeneur on the beach tell me they never saw this wave, never even heard of it. Nobody knows anything. The people in Manzanita never noticed this massive wave.

But the shore birds noticed, and so did the jellyfish.

Dead gulls lie scattered on the beach amid piles of sea grass and kelp. It’s the season of the great gull dying.

The survivors cluster in funerary groups, facing into the wind, shifting from leg to leg, indifferent to the bread I’m tossing into the air. They’re full from feasting on their dead.

I don’t see any crows. For now, the dying and the cleaning up of the dead are a family affair.

The insides of the dead gulls are pink, salmon, red against the brilliant white of the breastbone that has been picked clean.


I’m repelled by the gulls’ obscene appetite for their own kind, their lack of taboos against tearing into each other’s bodies. It’s hard to reconcile their beauty — their snowy streamlined bodies, the supreme grace of their flight, the precision of their aim in snatching  bread I throw into the air — with their flesh lust.

Their pragmatism frightens me. When one spots food, it instantly heads for the source, and within seconds, gulls materialize from all sides, wheeling, flapping, charging. Some shriek to alert the others to feed. As they approach, they empty their guts and  make room for fresh food. They charge and bully each other,  rip food out of each other’s beaks.

I think they died in such large numbers because the wind whipped up  plankton into treacherously oily spindrift that stripped their feathers bare. Waves pushed them high up on the shore, where some lie exposed, unrecognizable as birds; others top a swirl of seaweed, like a chef’s artful offering.


As the wind picks up with the incoming tide, it scatters sand on them and begins the process of burying them.

Dogs come along, most of them frenzied with the joy of space and the chase for balls, the chance to sniff-n-greet and splay their forepaws in invitation to a romp.


The big, serious hunter breeds detour to dig their noses into the corpses. Dogs are just as curious as I am about the insides of birds.  But I don’t share their drive  to roll in things  ripe with rot.


I shoo my own dog away from a jellyfish that washed up high on the rocks. It may not have a smell  because he blunders right into its quivering center, pivots, and scrambles back down onto the sand.

He’s interested in checking out the shrimp wriggling in the foam.

This is my last day at the beach for a month or two or three. I’m leaving for the East Coast, to mark my daughter’s  birthday, work at the  NYPL, and keep my mother company.



Where does the stuff  in my dreams come from anyway? Jung and Freud aside, the sources of my dream imagery perplex me. The plots feel so deeply rooted in my soul that I can’t help but think they’re real in the same way that what I experience in my waking life is real. My emotions are fully involved. My senses activated. Kinetic impulses fire away. All the dimensions of psychic life are  there: from complex thought processes, to memories within the dream, and sometimes even memories cross-indexed with events in other dreams: dreams within dreams. I find myself speaking or understanding languages that in my waking consciousness are alien to me. I travel to places that are coherent spatially, with a plausible infrastructure of transactions among people, working subways and roads, taxis, buses, sounds, all the props of my passages through waking life. I seem to enter into a world in medias res.

It’s a fragile world in the sense that a phone call, the dog  scratching its chin,  wind gusting,  the rising notes of my alarm …can rip it to shreds in an instant. But the aftertaste of emotions and the sediment of images that flash  in and out of my mind throughout the day linger like the oleaginous coating of cod liver oil in the esophagus. The emotional “fumes” of the dream pervade all the experiences of the waking day.

Sometimes my mother and I have what sounds like the same dream on the same night. It happened again on the eve of what would have been my father’s 90th birthday. The particulars of that dream are smudged by now. My father was  home again, in a disgruntled mood, when guests, friends of his, arrived, unbidden. I scrambled  for something to serve them, but there was nothing in the fridge, the cupboards were bare, and I couldn’t  run to the store because they followed me from room to room demanding my attention, and there was an expectation that I come up with a solution that I couldn’t provide, and my inability to meet my duties as host was deeply shameful to my father. This, obviously, was a dream anchored in my own biography, reiterating my life-long conviction that I was bound to disappoint my father (which, by the way, I got to be quite good at doing, especially on the professional front).  When I shared this dream with my mother on the morning of my father’s birthday, she recognized the  scenario and the emotions as the ones she herself had dreamed. Except that there were elements in hers that related to her own specific issues with my father. What we shared was the sense that  we had both let him down in a very particular way, which is that we had failed to protect his public persona. In both dreams he drew  attention to our inability to meet his expectation that we would never let him “lose face” with “outsiders.” Not “losing face” was very important to him. In fact, protecting his ‘face’ was a family obligation that led to all kinds of duplicity and psychic double-dealing: smiling when we felt like crying. Mollifying him when we felt the right thing to do would have been to stand up to him. Being silent when we wanted to speak. Agreeing when we disagreed. Shutting out the world of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues  rather than imperil the seamless image of a fully functional family. No one must know.

What secret were we protecting, I wonder? What was so shameful? Who didn’t “measure up”? And anyway, what was the standard that we failed to meet? There was an unspoken conviction that the world “outside” was sitting in judgment and that the failure to meet, if not exceed, the standard would have catastrophic consequences.

I’ve made it my job to map the standard by breaking it, like a heifer in a pasture finding the perimeter by blundering into the electrified fence. This is where I should list specific instances, but I’m not bound here by the  rules that govern evidentiary writing (academic papers, for instance)  and so will acknowledge the existence of a standard only to ignore it. This is, after all, MY blog.

The dream from which I awoke this morning had to do, again, with World War II. I say “again” because I dream about the War over and over again: riding in a train while bombs drop; hiding in a cellar; twisting in the grip of a man forcing his fingers between my ribs. This time we were a group of strangers, children and adults,  swept up by Nazis and in transit to a death camp. I knew where we were headed, though the others seemed to think we were on an excursion led by severe tour guides through a sunny, peaceful city that looked like Cambridge, Massachusetts. The sidewalks were made of brick that buckled where the tree roots pushed up against them. The sun was shining. Maples were turning red. There was a train, and a bus, and a stop at a shoe store, where each person was told to pick one pair of shoes for the journey. Women went for the stilettos, the platforms, the strappy sandals, but I looked for fur-lined, waterproof boots because I knew we would be force marched through snow and ice. I couldn’t warn the others because  guards kept us apart as we grazed among the racks of shoes. I loitered in the bathroom while the others piled into the bus, and when a guard came after me, I came out of the stall laughing and chatting inanely, looking for a way out by distracting the guard and making him think that I really didn’t know where we were headed. I woke up at the point where I had walked down the steps of the  store and was slipping into an alley, holding my boots, and it seemed that I might, in fact, get away.

Two more things today, Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. The images are of Carlsbad Caverns, where, last week,  I came close to dislocating my jaw from the unending awe of walking inside the ruins of a 400 mile coral reef formed at the edge of the ancient Delaware Sea two hundred and fifty million years ago. I have scuba dived along the Great Barrier Reef, the reefs of Tahiti and Bora Bora, Lombok and Saba, Aruba and Baja. As I marveled at their intricate vitality, it did not occur to me that there might be coral reefs deep in the interior of a continent, and that I might one day find myself inside such a reef, traveling through time to a time named, by the Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison,  for the Russian region Perm that is bounded by the western slopes of the Ural Mountains. This primordial reef is now buried beneath the  rocky slopes and canyons of the Guadalupe Mountains in southwestern New Mexico, inverting all my conceptions about the proper placement of geological structures.

The sea is gone, but the sea bed is still there, a vast plain stretching from the abrupt slopes of the mountains built up — through eons of geological upheaval and torture, excavation, erosion, percolation, crystallization, squeezing, expanding, twisting — on the remains of echinoderms, brachiopods, foraminiferans and ammonoids, trilobites and corals, horned and tabulate both, and untold varieties of marine creatures that perished with the evaporation of the Delaware Sea and in the “Great Dying” that brought the Paleozoic Era to its catastrophic end.

The dying goes on all around the entrance to the cavern. A fire swept through the cactus-and-brush-covered slopes in June. The charred remains of agaves, yuccas, prickly pear, ocotillo, and hedgehog, look like the aftermath of atrocity. But there’s a tremendous vitality of growth and flight: insects, swallows diving and dropping into the cave at dusk, and shortly after the last of them tuck in for the night, the bats begin their  helical exodus from the same opening, fanning the air with thousands of wings before splitting off to find their own suppers.

The cave , like the dreams that come to us in our sleep, is a parallel universe, a portal into the past, teasingly familiar, though alien, enigmatic, dangerous and prophetic.

It is, I decide, the “Exegi monumentum” of Earth.

Exegi monumentum aere perennius,
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam. Usque ego postera
crescam laude recens. Dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.
dicar, qua violens obstrepit Aufidus
et qua pauper aquae daunus agrestium
regnavit populorum ex humili potens,
princeps Aoelium carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos. Sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica
lauro cinge volens, Melpomene, comam.

I have created a monument more lasting than bronze,
And higher than the royal site of the pyramids,
Which neither harsh rains nor the wild North wind
Can erode, nor the countless succession of years
And the flight of the seasons.
I will not entirely die! and a large part of me will avoid the grave.
Constantly renewed, I will grow in the eyes of posterity,
So long as the Pontifex and the solemn Vestal visit the Capitoline.
Where the river Aufidus roars, and where Daunus in the dry summers, ruled his rural folk,
I, risen to greatness from humble beginnings, will be renowned
As the first to adapt the Aoelian verses to Italian meters.
Take the well-deserved pride, Melpomene,
And freely grant me the wreath of Apollo for my crown.


Take a hike


It’s been a while since I took a long hike in the woods. A friend suggested walking from Cove Beach to Short Sands Beach on the Oregon Coast. On the map, it looks like  5, at most 6 miles  but with switchbacks, steep grades, mud holes,   blowdown, and photo stops, it took from 2 pm until 6:30 pm.

It was heavenly yesterday: I had the right shoes for once. A good snack. Water. A faithful dog. No rain. Little wind.

Today was an anticlimax.


Senile walking


Now that I’m diagnosed with “severe arthritis of the lumbar spine” I’m learning why the aged move the way they do. For three months my body , like Caesar’s Gaul, has been divided into three parts: the left ankle; the right wrist; and the right lumbar spine. Each one of these parts has proclaimed its revolt against the regime of the peaceful co-existence and cooperation of bodily parts. The ankle claims to be frail and wants to be spared any bearing of weight. The wrist clamors for a holiday from lifting and typing. The back resists long walks, climbing stairs, and picking up the things that the feckless right hand insists on dropping. Getting out of bed in the morning involves a tripartite negotiation with time out for assessing where precisely the weight should be placed as my body sidles to a sitting position. Descending the stairs now sends my left arm out, wing like, while the right claws at the handrail. Picking up a toddler is an iffy proposition. I have to crouch down, distribute my weight like a sumo wrestler, grasp the child, then push with the inside of my thighs to propel my torso upright. Yoga comes in handy as a reference point for the various muscle groups involved in movement. What was unconscious is now conscious. I walk with a graceless jerkiness.

I found myself enjoying a long conversation with an aged neighbor about joints, inflammation, medications, and pain. Surely, I think to myself, this is a sign that I am myself moving into a new phase of life. I study the way he   draws himself up, one vertebra at a time, as he talks to me and with one hand rubs the back of his waist.  In the last year he’s lost about six inches of height. He’s now 86 years old and his spirit is at war with his body. I am beginning to understand how at a certain point of one’s life one no longer identifies with one’s body, as one does in the robust and beautiful bloom of youth. The body becomes an embarrassment, a liability, a joke in poor taste, a betrayal.

All this brings me back to the  problem on which I was mulling yesterday: the relationship between the signifier and the signified, the sign and the essence, the word and the sense. The aged body, it seems to me, stands in an inverse relationship to the spirit it houses. The more defective, decrepit, deformed the physical sign of person, the more refined, polished, nuanced, and beautiful the self within. Aging breeds humility or bitterness, but not the two in tandem.


I’m young enough, I think, to overcome the tripartition of my body. With the proper rest and medication and therapy, I’ll regain my fluidity and strength, until the next attack.

My friend F. suggests that my decrepitude is the spirit’s manifestation of conflict. My chakras are blocked because I am fighting against the direction in which my energy needs to flow. Like that headstrong gelding I rode into the juniper stand last week, I refuse to surrender my loyalty to lost causes. I hold myself hostage to the fear of losing great sex, of missing out on travel to great places, of passing up adventure.

In fearing loss, do I lose?


I have no clear idea how André wandered into my life. I think  my housekeeper Nicole recommended him after I sacked Maria, the Mexican woman who’d been my housekeeper before then and who’d also done gardening for me. She was the one who filled my garden with the kinds of plants one finds in the Baja  desert, and of course, they always rotted within six weeks. I got rid of her because she was stealing my things and doing so in weird ways: she took one of my favorite dresses from Bendel’s in NYC , but left the belt. She took two out of three parts of a delectable Calvin Klein silk outfit I wore to Mexico every year. She swiped the top sheet and one pillowcase of my daughter’s priciest bedlinens.  Things disappeared in subtle and spotty ways that made you wonder whether you’d somehow misplaced them. I think she hid them somewhere for a while so I lost the habit of seeing them, and then, after enough time had passed, she’d make off with them.

As though it wasn’t bad enough that she was stealing from me, she was also stealing from the people to whom I’d recommended her in good faith. Margarita, my dear friend, was one of them and she also started noticing the leakage of objects. Margarita decided to trap Maria one day by coming home early, just as Maria was getting ready to leave. At the front door Maria had assembled, in addition to her batterie de nettoyage,  two giant shopping bags that appeared to be stuffed with cleaning rags. Margarita pulled out the rags and there, underneath them, she found her best cooking pots, knives, and napkins. She threatened to report Maria to the immigration authorities, but eventually cut a deal with her that involved Maria returning all the stolen stuff. I wish I’d had that  idea myself, but by then I had already fired her.  To this day I still resent her thievery. I thought I was being good to her and her kids by paying her generously and giving her stuff, and though she seemed to appreciate what I gave her, she couldn’t seem to control her compulsively sticky fingers. She used to complain about her husband who was in jail for something or other,  and that made me feel all the sorrier for her, having to support her family and her daughter’s out-of-wedlock children. I don’t know what she did with half the things she took from me because my clothes, for one, were way too small for her or for her daughter.

Nicole, the replacement, was recommended by an Aztec stonemason who built my garden walls. Nicole was the name she went by, but her real name was something Czech that she doubted Americans could handle. She’d show up with  tremendous energy and swept through the house in three hours flat, banging and crashing the vacuum cleaner and mops against the corners and the baseboards, laughing at her clumsiness.  She maneuvered a vacuum cleaner that, she claimed, was powerful enough to such up small dogs and children. For all her noise and the dents she left behind, I have to give her credit: she could make my house shine like nobody’s business.

Twice a year,   before flying to Czechoslovakia (as it was still called then) to visit her ancient  father who was cozily waiting for death in the company of a younger woman, Nicole drove an old Crown Vic  down to Mexico. She’d take 101 South  to San Diego, cross the border into Mexico, and buy a trunk-full of prescription meds: antibiotics, Viagra, blood pressure pills, anti depressants, insulin, pain killers. Back in Portland she would locate a source of remaindered or overstocked  brassieres and girdles in large sizes and buy up a gross of each.Then she’d buy a cheap used car, stuff it full of all the merchandise, and have it shipped  to Czechoslovakia. She timed its delivery to coincide with her arrival so she could pick it up outside of Prague, drive it to the countryside, and there start selling: underwear to her  women friends, pharmaceuticals to sick family and friends and neighbors, and  the car to an old boyfriend or relative with a greasy thumb. Then she’d use some of her profit to buy Czech curios to sell at the Saturday Market back in Portland, Oregon. One year she brought a dozen boxes of  beautifully painted goose eggs.

They didn’t sell, so she gave them to me when she eventually left the States to settle her father’s estate. I still have them in my basement and bring them out every Easter. As for Nicole,  I saw her again maybe ten years later, when she returned briefly, just as energetic and joyous and wildly gregarious as ever. She wasn’t cleaning houses any more. She was doing something with the art market and we lost touch. Maybe André knows where I can find her.

André grew up in Belgium and knocked around the world. For a while he lived in Mexico with the mother of his son the mechanic. He likes to talk to me in French, with a lot of side winks and sly grins and the debonaire air of an old roué. One morning he showed up with his red-and-white truck  and  two dubiously  “legal alien” assistants. We settled on the extent of the work and he became our gardener. He is still our gardener,  after fifteen years , and still as sinewy as a mummified  pharaoh.

He is all tanned skin and bones because he  eats only raw food. He doesn’t drink or  smoke anything except the occasional reefer. By the age of 60 he’s managed to lose  all his teeth, including the incisors he paid a “charlatan” to implant for  $35,000. He says his teeth fell out because he grew up  in Belgium at a time when dental hygiene was not a concern and his diet was very bad: there wasn’t much food after the war and he had a passion for sweets. Plus: he never flossed. Dylan, my  poodle,  adores him, probably because they’re both missing a lot of teeth.

André is still a handsome man, even without the front teeth and with his receding hairline. He materializes at my door in a wife-beater and trousers held up by a leather belt, his hands in gigantic leather gloves, his skinny ankles in battered, muddy boots. His skin is the color of old linen soaked in  tea. He scribbles  his bills on the back of some random piece of paper he’s picked up at one of his jobs. He writes the numbers in pencil : an arbitrary number of hours times $30/ hour and the total usually amounts to something just short of $1000. For fifteen years I’ve been asking him to give me an ESTIMATE before he starts a job, and he never does. He just shows up and does it and then a month or two later, he stops by with the bill and asks me to write out several checks,and tells me to  leave the “Payable to” line  blank, and tells me what dates to put on them. His accounting methods are highly eccentric, and I know better than ask  for an explanation.

As a gardener, André is barely competent: he does a creditable job pruning and mulching and hauling debris and ripping up invasive vines and unwanted species and laying flagstones and gravel and fertilizer. He can supply humane traps for raccoons and tear down the rotting fence.  He does an amazing job blowing leaves off the sidewalk and the street. One of his guys shows up with  a huge gas-powered blower on his back. He turns it on and the noise used to drive my Jack Russell terrier into a frenzy. Frustrated because I wouldn’t let him out, Eddie the dog would charge  the couch and worry the upholstery.  He gnawed at the Venetian blinds and yanked at the curtains trying to get at the yardman who was patiently directing his nozzle at the cushions, the rugs, the flower pots on the porch as Eddie howled with impotent rage on the opposite side of the window. After a couple of episodes of this frenzy I learned to keep Eddie locked up in the upstairs bathroom whenever André showed up.

The reason I still like having André as my gardener — even though, in all honesty, he’s a lousy excuse for a gardener — is that he’s a prophet, a savant, and a teller of tales. Twelve years ago, I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house as he told me about the Essenes, the mystical Jewish sect dating from the 2nd century BC that, according to some sources, authored or archived the Dead Sea Scrolls — about whom I subsequently  read in Josephus’ The Jewish Wars. André made a study of the Scrolls, specifically the apocalyptic texts that reconstruct the hidden history revealed to the Old Testament prophets concerning the end of time, and that are supposedly  reserved in mystery form for the generation that would experience the end.

That day he interpreted for me the War Scroll, fleshing out its characters and signs in contemporary forms. He predicted the great catastrophe of September 11, 2001, the war with Iraq and Afghanistan, the growing financial crisis, the bloating corporations and the crushing grip of international banks that would break the back of the middle class, the inflated corruption of politicians, etc. He crossed this prophecy with the Mayan End-Time Prophecies for 12-21-2012, and reassured me that after a decade of upheaval, life would shift into a new, productive and positive register. I listened because I love a good story, and he’s a good storyteller. Now, of course, I have to admit that he was right on target, and that the correspondence — or coincidence — of his stories with events has a pleasing tidiness that I like to find in art. I like it when words and deeds line up neatly.

I like André’s stories because they reassure me that I can rely on history  to validate apocalyptic projections. Life is constantly  filled with  disasters and villains and human and natural catastrophes that match up with the “signs of the end.” But in my experience of love between a man and a woman, words and deeds so often don’t line up at all, and that discrepancy gives me trouble and pain.

I get a letter today from the “Relationship Man” in which he claims that my unwillingness to throw myself headlong into a committed relationship with him, in a new city in which I have no job, at a time when  he is building his business and is in no position to support either or both of us, to live in a charming, tiny house without a proper kitchen or room for my books — that my unwillingness to risk all in the name of love  “creates anguish” in his life, gives rise to “heavy thoughts,” and leads him to “torture” himself  “wishing life were different.” These fraught words are framed by a lyrical account of the natural beauty of the island in which he is working, a catalogue of the productive and pleasurable encounters with his clients, and photographs of the drop-dead views from his window. So, I ask myself, how am I to understand the affects he names against the context he describes? What kind of work are those affective words doing  or meant to do given the context? Do I credit his  words “anguish,” “heavy thoughts,” and “torture” with accurately describing his emotions?

I fight the impulse to write back and pose these questions directly. Instead, I fold the words into my own Dead Sea Scrolls where they can season in the context of my felt-fact experiences of the last six years. Will I get at the truth this way? I can always hope.

Back in the saddle

It’s been six years since I was last in the saddle. Before that I had been riding horses for twelve years, five times a week. I decided to start riding one day while sitting in the chilly, grimy viewing room of the indoor arena, where my six-year-old daughter was walk-trot-cantering to the commands of her trainer, Mary Nash, who had qualified for the Olympics, but a last minute training injury kept her out of the competition.

Looking through the dirty window I thought to myself, “Something’s wrong with this picture.” A week later   I corrected the picture by putting myself into it. I wrote a check to Mary and she gave me a list of supplies I would need:   barn boots, half chaps, jodhpurs, gloves,  helmet, crop.  That started twelve years of working diligently on two-point warm ups, heels down, heels down, heels down,  soft hands, firm leg, eyes on the jump.

As Count Leo Tolstoy wrote in Power of Darkness, ” If a claw is caught, the bird is lost.” My equestrian “claw” was caught, and my “money” bird was lost. For twelve years I  hemorrhaged money from every artery of my financial body: on lessons, farriers, dentists, chiropractors, workshops, competitions, clothes, tack, vets, and horses, for both my daughter and myself. And I loved EVERY MINUTE OF IT! Even if it did contribute to the ruin of my relationship. On the plus side, it was the best insurance against drugs, sex, and bad company that I could buy for my daughter. Horses bought her “girlhood.” Then a cluster of shifts  ran through my life and  I couldn’t afford the sport any more, and my daughter went off to college, and the horses had to be sold and I had surgery and the barn moved again, and then suddenly, my riding was a thing of the past.

I was in Siena, in the Piazza del Campo on the night of the lunar eclipse, when I got a call from the trainer telling me that Spence, my daughter’s Hanoverian,  had coliced and had to be put down.  He had never let her down.   She loved him with a passion known only to adolescent girls for their horses.

Today I got back in the saddle. It was a Western saddle with gigantic wooden stirrups and inch-diameter reins made of heavy sisal. After I let the muscle memory revive, I was ready to take the gelding into the High Desert, following a pinto up and down the faint trails meandering through  stands of  ponderosa pine. When we were about a mile from the barn, my mount started acting up: tossing his head with great irritation, he stopped listening to my leg and my hands, ignored my voice and began to back up with the determination of a torpedo , shooting straight back. The first time he did it, I stopped him with my voice and by sinking low down in the saddle. The second time, he totally ignored me. I turned his head around to put him into a tight circle and get him under control, but barely into the turn, he reared and shied and twisted himself into a fold, and I looked at the ground and decided to ditch, sliding slowly along the right side until a lay myself down on the soft dust of the desert. He stopped, surprised and relieved that there was no hysteria.

My friend calmly pulled up on her horse. I really appreciated her compliment on my graceful fall, and her confidence in my ability to handle the animal. My old trainer would have screamed at me and tied me up in knots of self-doubt and anxiety. My friend, on the other hand,  told me to take a deep breath, get on, sit back and low in the saddle, keep a short rein, and follow her. It worked for a few paces, until he went at it again, so I decided to dismount and walk him back.

I have no idea what he was picking up on in my that made him so restive. Perhaps it was my lack of trust in my skill and judgment. Perhaps fear of falling. Perhaps his teeth. Or his back. Or the full moon. I have a hunch that it was my ambivalence that drove him crazy — that congenital piscean ambivalence that I carry around in every one of life’s little trials.

It was a good way to spend the morning of September 11, 2011, to celebrate my own survival, and the survival of the nation, the recovery of a semblance of balance, a sense of purpose, and direction.

Maybe tomorrow, instead of drawing trees, I will sketch horses.


I finally got around to reading Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s kabbalistic  “Gilgul” (New Yorker, Aug 15-22, 2011), which held my curiosity (and hence, attention) as much by the core characters (a scholar and a witch) as the seamlessness of the transitions from one interpolated tale to the next. The philosophical concept of reincarnation (metempsychosis, transmigration of souls) is perfectly matched with the structure of nesting narratives, each of which is enigmatically, but essentially motivated by its frame. You know one story is connected to the next in a fundamental way — but the author stops short of revealing the links, leaving it to the reader to tease out the clues and to take the leap into a hypothesis. I value this sort of story for forcing me to take risks. I admire and respect  writers who pay their readers the supreme compliment of trust.

There’s a line in Yerushalmi’s story that resonates deeply with me. When, after a four year hiatus, the “witch” Gerda opens her door to the scholar Ravich, she greets him with the words, “You are depleted. You need lots of sun, lots of love.”

It’s not just I who am depleted and need lots of sun, and lots of love. I am just a sub-microscopic symptom of depletion on a global scale, manifested in dysfunctional minds, bodies, relationships, economies, organizations, governments.  The sun continues to unconditionally shine, but we withhold our love from each other.  One  can’t grow, develop, manifest one’s gifts, unfold one’s talents, recover from  mistakes, and learn from failure without the energy of another’s compassion, empathy, patience, solace, trust, and faith: in a word, without love. Just as the sun fuels photosynthesis and all life processes, so love drives and sustains the movements of the soul.

I stumbled on images of horrifically deformed children, the victims of mutagenic chemicals, agents, and weapons used in Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the USSR, Kosovo. The parents of these miserable creatures try to heal them , tending them with fierce and selfless love, but it’s too late to reverse the damage — tumors, monstrous malformations, and fatal infirmities — resulting from the catastrophic depletion of love in the world.