Friday, January 30, 2009

“I can’t control my destiny. I trust my soul; my only goal is just to be. There’s only now, there’s only here. Give in to love or live in fear. No other path; no other way. No day but today.Jonathan Larson, author of the musical Rent.


This week I bundled into defensive outerwear and made my way downtown to the Shambhala Center on West 22nd Street in Manhattan. Normally adverse to the mind-numbing steel trap of winter, I was induced from my cozy uptown nest. The scheduled speaker, John Baker, is one of the most popular teachers at the Center. And I figured my soul needed a top up.

The Shambhala Center is in an old loft building between the neighborhoods of Chelsea—once a bawdy locale for malfeasance in the 1920s and 30s—and the Flatiron district, which coddled excess of another kind: feminine accessories for the rich woman’s lust for silks and jewelry to later display in the many theaters and concert halls once populating the area. With all that historical baggage surrounding it, the center can rightfully be called a haven.

Before the speaker got underway there would be a half hour of group meditation. The room is an inviting airy space, hung with colorful banners and punctuated by many blue pillows, which were rapidly receiving bottoms. As I waited quietly I surveyed the scene, checking out the arrivals: a punky couple—he with a full-out Mohawk furred atop his shaven skull; a young woman—her raven hair bobbed—wearing what looked like a wedding dress and huge rhinestone globes in her ears; the elderly man in Burberry clutching a vial of prescription tablets; a rangy red-head with killer biceps she didn’t mind flexing; a wheel chair-bound young man with spikey hair, and on the back of one t-shirt a jaunty rhino in a basketball outfit. There were a considerable number of gray heads among the audience and there was the blonde with the tight, beatific smile. I noticed a few Asians and very few African Americans. Why is that? In fact, I count only two Black women. My absent friend, who is African American, would have made it a trio.

The Buddha was the most ordinary of human beings.

The gong is struck, the room becomes still, and I am ready to be not thinking for the next half hour. As if summoned, the Trickster Monkeys take the form of rising heat and clatter through the pipes; it’s like a John Cage orchestration of hissing, scrambling, and what sounds like tinkling glass. Immediately I think about the play I have just seen; the New York premiere of 
Leaves of Glass. My friend Christopher Lione designed the costumes; he’s also read my novel twice; he thinks it should be a play. Maybe it will turn into a big hit…stop!

Okay, back to the breath. Stay in the moment.

Open awareness keeps us in the present moment so I should ignore the fire truck wailing in the streets below. The clattering Monkeys continue their orchestrated diversion. I think of Chinese New Year, the celebratory cacophony of sound one hears paraded through the narrow streets in Chinatown. What year is this? The year of the ox, that’s right. Hmmm, I read that Obama was born in the year of the ox. What will that mean for the next four years? The ox is solid, dependable, but not necessarily imaginative. Born under that sign Obama should be up to the monumental tasks ahead. Whew! Oh, but what about that stubborn streak? And he could be narrow-minded!

Holy Samsara! Get me off this wheel and back to the breath. I’m boiling, head beating like a clock that can’t tick fast enough. This is hot boredom. I need to be still like a rock in a cool mountain stream; cool boredom. I need to stop thinking. I sneak a glance at my watch and satisfied there is only moments left I finally relax into the silence of absent thought before the gong is struck again, signaling the end of the group meditation.

We stand and stretch, rustle about for a moment and then settle onto our cushions. The title of the talk is: “Discovering Boredom: taking our seat on the earth.”

The speaker is a genial man who immediately puts the audience at ease; well those who have, like me, not exactly got the sitting still thing mastered. Being human, he said, we tend to worry the same bone over and over again. We may be lost in thought and a person passes who reminds us of another who might have hurt us in the past and that hurt resurrects itself and before you know it ambling reverie becomes agitated argument. Or you may be thinking about your mother and thoughts turn to apple pie and then that fight with weight loss. Or, in my case, thinking about mother immediately conjures the graveyard scene at the end of the horror film, "Carrie."

He spoke about the six Buddhist realms of existence. Good to know he thought the highest realm—the God realm—was actually boring. The human realm was preferable because it has the best combination of suffering and intellect. The animal realm? Animals prey on each other; no one wants to be there. Not even an overindulged cat named Sidney, curled into one of his many beds back home.

Bernie Madoff, ubiquitous subject of media headlines even made it into the evening’s talk. The speaker revealed he had a close friend who lost everything—all his money invested with Bernie. Not a Buddhist, I guess, or at least not a very aware one. Surely, he said, there were those among the group who, if not personally infected with ponzitis, knew someone who was and called for a show of hands. Middle-of-the-night Googling had, in fact, revealed an uncle of the EX, now retired to Palm Beach, had indeed been scammed for some tens of millions. Snappily, I raised my hand for the count.

And then one has to think about starting over; about the new path one will find oneself on. Will we be better able to read the signs? Will we get lost again? If it’s The Mister and me, we will get lost again, although hopefully not in the spiritual sense. The Mister doesn’t go to the dharma gatherings, as he is already enlightened. But he does get lost. We are that couple of hikers who stand at the crossroads on a mountain path in the deliriously gorgeous Lake District in England and stare sagely at the directions to the marked trail, speculate aloud that we know exactly where we are going and then head off in completely the opposite direction. Or we make our arduous way up the steep slope of Mt. Helvellyn, scrambling over loose rock in our eminently unsuitable Doc Martens, only to be put off by the storm clouds gathering ominously and swiftly above us and within feet of what is purportedly a spectacular view we make a hasty retreat down the steep mountainside mostly on our asses. Later we’ll purchase a framed watercolor of the majestic mountain and crow aloud about our climb only to be told by the astonished shopkeeper that we completely missed a manageable route nearby that would have taken us to the celebrated view. “My dears, no one goes up the way you did.”

We have had to adjust along the path, though. Losing a job that earned me quite a good salary (and a hole in my spirit) has caused us to make a checklist of what’s really important. This happened long enough ago to have, by now, adjusted quite well with our less fatty finances. I am a reasonably good cook. Art and music and writing are fully back in our lives. We entertain each other.

This last tsunami of layoffs may have been bad for the bankers and those alpha male guys in finance but a blog I recently came across reveals it’s much harder on the wives and girlfriends. These women have taken the bull by the horns—so to speak—and bear their collective anguished souls on the Internet. Hyperventilating over that cancelled black American Express card, they’ve formed a support group: Dating a Banker Anonymous. How dare he tell her to grow up and stop complaining about holidays and 4-star restaurants when he’s got to fire a few hundred people at the end of the week! And she’s the mistress! Reservations at Masa are off the table now. It will be mac ‘n cheese at Ye Olde Waverly Inn—with luck—and without the truffles. Those Jimmy Choos? Get used to mucking in with sturdier stuff from Abercrombie & Bitch.

It’s the anxiety of hope and fear that drives drives capitalism and politics and…religion. There, I said it—inspired by a brilliant documentary I watched last night with The Mister. “For the Bible Tells Me So” shattered the illusion that anti-gay bias, among other heinous acts, is championed in the Bible. Like the politics of fear that have driven this country for too long, some religious leaders have thumped the holy book and driven spikes of hatred and self-loathing into hearts that should never be anything less than all inclusive muscles of love and acceptance for every human being.

Take a seat on the earth, everyone. Discover cool boredom.

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Buddha

Monday, January 26, 2009

Photograph: Christina Zarcadoolas

      For Tilly

Pleasures don’t come often free
Hard won these restful moments
A dog like me has issues and
I’m slow to slumber easily

Rescue from a caged life
Cannot dispel the foment
A dog like me has issues and
I tend to bite the moment

I like to think I’m only safe
When one eye is still open
I’m a bulldog—Boston—see?
We thrive on more than hoping

But if I find a gentle spot
To lay my nervous head down
The other eye sees kindness when
You stoop to  comfort me

I’m not afraid and still I am
I’ll sleep because you let me
I’m not afraid and still I’ll be
The dog you chose and set me free

Saturday, January 24, 2009

“God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.” William Shakespeare


A few weeks ago an article on the Internet pictured an unimposing middle-aged bus driver from Southhampton in England—a self-professed Christian in a red wooly jumper —who had walked off his shift. Of the 800 busses across the country his flourished a 20-foot banner with a slogan paid for by the British Humanist Association: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Bollocks to God? Well then, bollocks to the job! The bus driver, Ron, was finally appeased and given a new bus, free of bothersome slogans. Pressure groups like Christian Voice were furious but the advertisement was finally judged not to have broken any ‘decency rules.’ Saved by the inclusion of ‘probably.’ Last summer there was apparently a series of Christian adverts on London busses posting a website which warned that those who reject God will burn in Hell.

Fiery Hell? Everlasting suffering for earthly transgressions? It would be like vacationing in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Who wouldn’t chuck a cranky God’s gloomy dogma for a less punishing outlook?

Thomas Jefferson’s doctrine of separation of church and state is a familiar refrain in my country and before the Dark Ages of Bush seemed to me to be—apart from testy insistence on including the deity’s name in our Pledge of Allegiance—relatively honored by our government. Or, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. The Mister reminds me now and again that we are indeed a religious bunch. The ‘God Bless America’ slant in the last crucial presidential debates was something you just kind of ignored. We needed to get the hopey, well-spoken, cucumber-cool guy in, sure, but it was more urgent to get the other guy out. It didn’t really mean much if ‘our side’ was just employing the old ‘God bless’ chestnut to get the wider vote.

Or did it?

When, as President-elect, Barack Obama chose Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural prayer—one that begged God to listen to his prayer, and by virtue of this preacher’s position at the Inauguration, purportedly speaking for all of us as he intoned: “When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us”—it saddened and perplexed me. A preacher who thinks homosexuals need to repent; denies Gays the right to marry—a man who fought for Proposition 8? Women, like me, who are pro-choice are labeled ‘holocaust deniers.’ Am I missing something?

Freshly sworn in, President Obama acknowledged in his inaugural address that we are "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers." It was a curious gesture. What exactly is a non-believer and why did his words make it sound like non-believers were somehow outside the lofty white-gloved club of believers? I believe the earth revolves around the sun and gravity keeps us rooted to a planet that is definitely not flat. I believe in the basic goodness of humans. I believe that I should treat another person as well as I would like to be treated.

Separation of church and state, indeed. We are long past the separation and need a divorce.

God was a shifting presence growing up. Church going slackened off when I hit my teens. I went to a specialized public high school in Manhattan and art and boys superseded God. Sometimes a beloved teacher stood in; other times, as I got older, I fixated on a writer or an artist I worshipped, like Vincent Van Gogh. As a girl, I thought my dad was god for the longest time. An uneducated man, he was prone to mispronounced utterances like “Absolooply!” that cracked me up. He seemed to be suffering from something yet found the comic in life. He made a lot of people laugh, not including my mother. He didn’t take God too seriously either and when he did usher for the Christmas service at our church in Astoria he rallied the other fathers from the corner bar before the sermon wound down, in time to hand out the collection baskets. He never failed to cast a beery, conspiratorial wink in my direction as I paraded up the center aisle clutching my lighted candle, desperate not to giggle convulsively.

Because of his failed business in Manhattan, we had to move to Hartford Connecticut in my senior year of high school. My sister and I had, for one brief kindred moment, joined as allies in our shared pain at having to leave our old life and forged an aggrieved partnership as we passed through the gates in Grand Central Station to the platform where we boarded—grief-stricken—a train to Hartford. We swore we would never lose our 'Noo Yawk' accents. It was a short-lived contract.

In our first Christmas in an alien land, my dad and I made some small effort to fit in and leaving an embittered mother and the querulous sister behind, we attended the Christmas Eve service at a quintessentially New England church. Perched atop a flight of stairs overlooking Farmington Avenue, its clapboard walls pristine, stamped with neatly unprovocative stained-glass windows. We were hustled into the first row, the outsiders. Oiled by a few pre-service cocktails, dad sang the beloved carols in a booming voice, almost lustily—and to a one—the wrong song in every case. But they were they ones he remembered, the songs dear to his heart and “Joy To the World” piped above whatever the congregation was singing. The fundamentally conservative, tight-lipped, straight-shouldered crowd of New Englanders surrounding us mitigated what should have been abject embarrassment on my part. Their disdain was palpable and rather than hustling my father from their midst, I sat stoically alongside him—his silent cheerleader—until the bitter end. We made our way past ambient disapproval to the exit, only to be stopped by a hawk-faced woman with an imperious manner. “You have such a lovely singing voice,” she told my father, her own voice brittle with sarcasm. “Perhaps you should join our choir.”

I began to see what my cousins had whispered to me about my dad. His friends then were almost all gay men. Among them was a delightful couple that made me laugh. Ronald was a cravat-wearing dance teacher and Artie, a comically fussy Englishman with a Sahara-dry sense of humor, who cracked me up every single time he said, “Crikey.” Kip was an interior decorator with the small business that employed my father as an antiques restorer. I was just discovering Truman Capote’s writings and Kip’s softly rotund physical presence, his unabashed mince, his knowledgeable love of all things cultured, was like a breath of fresh, literary air. They flaunted their gayness—and their pain. Copious amounts of alcohol were imbibed.

Could my father have been gay, albeit deeply closeted? On sleepovers, dad would dance around in his underwear to any one of the many Broadway show tunes he had recordings of; me giggling hysterically, my cousin who I adored and who only carefully poked out of the family closet for me, red-faced and uncomfortable. My father knew the lyrics to every Broadway musical. He mimed Ethel Merman and wept every time he heard Judy Garland sing. Gay much?

So, when I see choices being made, like Obama’s for Warren and some of his cabinet picks I think of Alan Shore’s character on Boston Legal and his pithy remark: “As my great Aunt Gert said: “This smells funny and I’m not going to eat it.”

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"War does not determine who is right - only who is left."  Bertrand Russell


We are in an age of corporate-owned media in some countries and government-owned media in others. I go as both observer and sometimes participant to protests in the city, taking photographs to later post for friends abroad. Those friends do the same in their country and share their experience with me. The media is a constant source of surprise in their reporting; participants undercounted if there is any real coverage at all; altercations and arrests duly reported. Some governments forbid the press to cover the war in their country and interested and concerned individuals are left to get the news as best they can. So, I pack my camera and my notebook and I go—when I can—to where the protest is in the city and when I have gone to a protest in Washington DC it’s as a participant as well. I send my observations abroad and to friends across this country. Wall Street protests have of late given way to concerns in the Middle East.

Last Sunday I found myself in Times Square, talking to some of the young men and women who were protesting Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The few hundred people gathered for the demonstration quickly blossomed into many thousands; a lot of them appeared to be families. They were clearly upset about the bombings, the crippling blockade on their people. Among the throngs in the demonstration there were chants of protest, handmade placards illustrated with images of the devastation, young men throwing power fists. But there was also music and dancing. There were self-professed Jewish people in the march, and their placards read: “Jews Cherish Life & Abhor War.” One wag with a great smile displayed his homemade sign: “Another Jew Against Israeli Chutzpah.” In attendance were also Native Americans, Mexicans (“Mexico hearts Gaza”), and Asians—all contributing to the march with brightly colored instruments; beribboned drums; a conch shell blown to purify the environment from evil effects. There were members of the Hassidim at the microphone, elegantly clothed in long black overcoats and velvety black fedoras, speaking to the swelling crowd, horrified (in their own words) at Israel’s actions.

I fully wanted to converse with anyone in the small faction of dissidents gathered across the avenue from the main protest. From what I observed they were as a group not more than twenty or so individuals, children among them. Their posters were to a one bitter. A boy I guessed to be maybe ten or so replied to my question—about why he was there and how did he feel—with such hateful epithets that I could hardly believe my ears. He said—and pointed across the avenue—they should all die. An older man I guessed to be his father held a placard urging Israel not to stop the bombing until the job was done. I recollected the many peaceful demonstrations in Washington DC and in Manhattan that The Mister and I joined after 9/11 to protest our government’s direction and the sweeping loss of civil liberties. Sidelining the route were always small clusters of anti-protesters screaming hateful things. Did they represent America—an America reacting to the tragic events of 9/11? They did, but then so did those of us who were horrified at the course our government was taking.

So, while we citizens wait for the mainstream media to get its spine transplant, we take photographs of events like this and send them to friends. If an article or a book, like
The Yellow Wind for instance, makes an impression we recommend it.

It’s not about provocation; it’s about information. As a friend tells me, “We have always hungered for communication other than the hard news.”

One sometimes stumbles across an indignant reaction to simply passing along information; the argument being you can’t possibly understand, you are not (choose one): a mother, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, man, Black, Muslim, Jew. If you are not a proponent of the death penalty and in fact are strongly 
against capital punishment then there is someone out there who tells you “You have never had a loved one murdered.” You have also never been poor (or as poor as somebody else), never suffered rape, spousal abuse. You have never been the victim of a crime; never lost your house in a fire or your pet in a flood. You have never lived in a Communist country.

There are a lot of things I have never experienced. There are a lot of things I have never done. There are a lot of things I am not. But, by virtue of my birth, I am an American. The U.S. has brought consternation and even condemnation from friends abroad, particularly during the past eight years. The information they share, though it condemns the politicians that govern my country, does not condemn me personally. Plenty of Americans have been self-critical. Not of the people, necessarily—though it has been nothing short of a challenge for some to understand how this entire nation could seemingly, overwhelmingly keep the outgoing president installed for not only one, but also two terms.

People who are not necessarily of like-minded politics or religion but are not afraid to share information and leave the recipient to make up their own minds are valuable friends indeed. And there are those whose stories, no matter the difference in language, culture, and personal politics, enrich one’s own.

One such person in my life is a woman in Barcelona: a writer, translator, and literary critic. Her name is Isabel Nuñez and it is because of her that I make any feeble attempt at writing a blog. My intention towards that blogging is to recapture parts of myself, my childhood, my family and find those stories worth repeating, and no matter how difficult the experience of the past, to allow their shapes to be softened by distance and memory. To write about my life with The Mister (which needs no softening) and to make my way through less cheerful memories of a difficult childhood, armed with some humor. Bel (as she is affectionately known) writes stories of family and childhood, marriage undone, politics and love. She has inspired me.

We met through a mutual dear friend, a writer in Paris named Rauda. Miscommunication in the beginning caused me to miss meeting Bel on her only trip to New York in December 2002. Our connection sparked after she returned to Barcelona. It was a virtual meeting and we have carried on a friendship for nearly six years in cyberspace.

Neither of us knows the sound of her voice but we venture to say we can imagine what our respective laugh is like. We send each other photographs of our feet, idiosyncratic clues to our travels. Of course, we also send portraits of ourselves—our loves, our friends, her son and our cats. We write about our concerns both personal and political, our sadnesses and the bright sparks that sometimes shed a white light we wish for each other.

Perhaps we never attempt long distance phone conversations because I speak no Spanish. When she would tell me about a short story she was writing, I bemoaned the fact that I could not read it. Until one day I discovered a software program for translating. We howled at the clumsy results. Isabel would then take the time to better translate a passage or two for me. I returned her efforts with suggestions as to what might be a more appropriate phrase in English. I became hooked on the beauty of her writing.

We began in earnest to translate an entire story. If memory serves, it was the title story to her collection of short stories called:
Crucigrama. In English it means Crossword and referred to her father’s penchant for doing the crossword puzzles when he was dying. We worked slowly and in the time we had. Bel would send the story in a document in Spanish. I would put it through the translation software and send it back.

We finished that story and plunged into one more after another; stories of her mother in hospital; visiting a Buddhist Center; traffic jams with her ex. Poetic details, like the wild cat that beats the grasses to throw off its prey. Passages flew back and forth between us as she slowly restructured the clumsy software translation and I would help her to “finish” the story when she was stuck on a meaning in English for a particular word or phrase. We laughingly referred to me as her “Finisher” and in that manner managed to complete a half dozen or so of her spare and powerful stories into English.

She has just published a book titled:
If a tree falls. Conversations about the Balkans war. What follows is a description of that book:
Isabel Núñez travelled to Sarajevo, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade and Pristina, the main cities of the former Yugoslavia to talk with Balkan authors who had written fiction, poetry or literary essays on war, trying to understand what happened there and which were the reasons of the only military conflict in Europe in the second half of 20th century. She was convinced that media wasn’t giving us the clues of what happened.

For the first time, a book listens as writers explain a war where they were protagonists (many of the main actors of the war defined themselves as writers, poets, historians or intellectuals: Slobodan Milo_evi_, Mira Markovi_, Radovan Karad_i_, Franjo Tudjman, Miroslav Toholj, Ivan Aralica and many others). The book is a travelogue, but there is a literary critic’s approach in it, and the conversations: these different writers seem to talk to each other in these pages and in their lively discussion we begin to understand how it is possible to organise a war in our world. Writers of three different generations compose the landscape of the end of Tito’s era, the particular kind of soft communism and multicultural fraternity that was destroyed with a fiery nationalism.

We see how, to remain in power after the fall of the Wall, some intellectuals and politicians became extreme nationalists and manipulated the difficult legacy of World War II in Yugoslavia, with its tough family stories and the wounds of each ethnic group (“my grandfather was killed by the Chetniks,” “my mother was killed by the Ustashas”…). We can imagine how this war was prepared and how there is a collective complicity for every war, how many people collaborated in a war sometimes only to steal a neighbour’s tv set. We wonder with them about the slow reaction of our Western world and its responsibility in this conflict: the genocide, the siege of Sarajevo, the Srebrenica massacre, the ethnic cleansing, the killings and rapings. And we see some of the facts that contradict the official media vision of Balkan wars and the stereotypes. We almost can walk through these unknown cities, with its combination of Turkish mosques, Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals, Austro-Hungarian buildings and Soviet-style developments, with luxurious woods, Vienna-like pastries and historical pain still flaming in destroyed places. And in the meantime we catch some of the best perfumes of the contemporary Slavic literature, with its dark humour and witty irony, the cultural mixture, the Östeuropean vision of our 20th century. Because fiction and poetry can be a good source of knowledge to understand things that you cannot find in history books or in the media.

Isabel Núñez (Figueres, Spain, 1957) is a writer, translator and literary critic. A regular contributor to La Vanguardia literary supplement (Culturas), she is the author of Crucigrama (H2o, Barcelona, 2006), La plaza del azufaifo (Melusina, Barcelona, 2008) and, with Rauda Jamis, Du fond des mères(DDB, Paris, 1998), Maternidad: Cartas entre dos mujeres (Urano, Barcelona, 1999). She has translated into Spanish authors such as T.C. Boyle, Richard Ford, Patricia Hisghsmith, Rick Moody, Jeff Noon, Cynthya Ozick, Dorothy Parker, Jacob Riis, Colin Thubron and others. She has a literary blog

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” Paul McCartney

DANGEROUS SQUIRRELS: Or why I became a vegetarian.

A recent article in the Guardian announcing the arrival in the UK of a new taste in Walker’s Crisps prompted me to contact friends across The Pond and get their take on this curious development in crisp world. What did they think of a squirrel-flavored crisp? Could they be enticed?

Lady Di from Winchester had not heard the news. “What? No! Occasionally a Walker’s crisp if it is presented to me. As for the squirrel—never to my knowledge.”

My sweetly bemused friend Amy from Devon tapped back in e-mail: “What are these strangely named snacks?”

“Good grief,” replied Kate from Leicester. “Do I live in a blighted Isle subject to mass lead poisoning and memory loss? First I’ve heard of it.” She added that she had seen a television celebrity chef cook a squirrel, “…which I thought disgusting and unnecessary.” Her good friend Hillary chimed in that they were both very fond of small mammals, especially furry ones with cute tails.

Mr. Porthole, from Kemptown, sent a rather sharpish e-mail response: “Sod the crisps. I’ll be eating raw squirrels between two bits of bread! Only the grey American bastard imposters obviously, as I love the little red chaps almost as much as life itself. I saw some red squirrel kittens (me: squittens?) last summer and I promise you there’s nothing cuter in the whole world.” He followed that up with a call after a nearly emptied bottle of the red (him, not me…too early in the day over here for such nonsense). There is a great deal of squirrel news over there right now, he told me. The red squirrels are overrun by the grays. Celeb chefs like Gordon Ramsey charge: “Just eat the buggers.” Of course, the randy hash slinger probably had similar sentiments for his squirrely mistress. Then Mr. Porthole adds that the original cheese and onion crisps were made from sheep’s armpits!

Were they? 

I felt compelled to defend my furry American friends and countered: “You wouldn't say that to the bastard imposters if you were in Central Park where the fat little buggers are quick on their feet and their teeth are human ankle height!” Typical American overkill, I confess.

Another Brighton friend, Tina—in expectably pragmatic tones: “What a lot of fuss. Given that they are veggie crisps, I might go and buy a packet, however I am not personally a crisp fan.”

Siggy from Leicester scoffed: “It’s not squirrel. It’s actually a synthetic flavour.”

Relieved, I opened the last of the e-mails from Pete Lovepenney, another Leicestershire lad and a man of few words: “No. Don’t eat crisps.” Which is odd because those crisps originate in Leicester. Their website conjures, among other things, images of cow-eating Texans!

The Mister knew Adam Seymour, son of the head of the crisp empire. He’d come into the music shop—Sound Pad on London Road—where The Mister worked eons ago in Leicester—and freely spend the dosh he had more of than anyone else. The Mister’s friend Stanley had a band then and they were struggling for money and Stanley sold his white Gibson Les Paul to Adam. The guitar joined Adam for a time in Chrissie Hynde’s band The Pretenders.

But, I digress. I am a vegetarian now. Being the half-empty person that I am (despite the promising direction of a previous post) I conjure gloomy scenarios of homelessness. I have stated that if life sees The Mister down-and-out in Central Park, and me keeping house…er, I mean cave…beside him I could roast a squirrel. But no, I couldn’t. And as many times as I have sworn to join Wildman Steve Brill on his walks and learn first hand how to survive in the urban jungle I still think I’d pick the wrong mushroom—"Hmm…let's see…not the curly ones or is it not the ones clinging to a tree trunk"— and die. Or die hallucinating the attack of a 140-pound lobster. 

Which reminds me of trip to Princeton, New Jersey one year. It was early on in the marriage and The Mister and I went off to Princeton to see an exhibition of drawings of the American artist Phillip Guston. Foolishly forgoing breakfast—a habit I have still not broken—I was starving by the time we got off the bus. My friend Mary met us and suggested a quick stop into the local health food store where, despite her sage advice, I decided on raw organic peanuts. Organic. Healthy. Right? The Mister and Mary smartly abstained from sharing. Not so the insistent squirrel that followed us across the verdant grounds of an Ivory Tower as I repeatedly gave in to his greedy gaze, pleading above his adorably curled paws.

Halfway into the exhibition the raw nuts kicked in. My stomach roiled like an old and angry boiler. My lips were blue! Mary hustled me into the restroom and revived me somewhat with cold water to the face and righteous admonition, but she promised there was a remedy back at the same health food store. The Mister and she helped me back across the campus. The sight of a group of concerned students staring dismally at a (familiar) gray squirrel convulsing on the lawn is something I shall never forget.

I began a life-long love affair with charcoal capsules.

It was the artist Sue Coe—her exhibition at Galerie St. Etienne in ’96—who inspired me to quit eating meat. The title of the show was “Dead Meat.” She and her sister (a journalist and animal rights activist) visited abattoirs across the country. They acted like interested tourists—or they would have been denied entry. Sue Coe made surreptitious sketches for her paintings and her sister took notes. The stories were heart rending. I remember reading every word, looking at every illustration in the catalog for some years after seeing the original large works at the gallery. I bought two of her etchings. Two co-workers flanked me along 57th Street, lobbing their sarcasm (rightly deserved) back and forth as we raced from the gallery back to Hatchet Publishing where we designed superfluous magazines like “20 Billion Ways to Lose Weight and “1001 Useless Decorating Ideas.” I had made many such proclamations in the past to quit ‘my evil ways’ and usually followed that up with a night of raucous carousing. I would never stick to it, they said.

I did quit and except for the rare falter early on into a Christmas ham at a party to remind myself why I wasn’t eating it, The Mister and I have been meat-free ever since, eventually adding the over-fished and poisoned fish to the list of no-nos.

Until I read the article he was talking about, I thought The Mister was saying there was a 140-pound lobster somewhere in Manhattan, which had been set free. That I didn’t blink an eye says something about our communication skills. “Okay, he read it so I’m sure there is such a thing….” There actually was an article about a 140-year-old lobster who was rescued by those pesky (sarcasm here) animal rights activists, freed from the Manhattan restaurant where he had become a “mascot” and returned to the ocean.

I should think there are a few thousand much younger souls in war-torn places like Gaza who could stand a little bit of freedom.

“Billions face food shortages, study warns. And yet we continue to grow obscene amounts of grain to feed beef; beef that starving children in poor countries will never see. Water, another valuable and threatened resource is used far more in animal production here in the U.S. than in growing our entire fruit and vegetable crop. Never mind the carbon footprint those poor, tortured creatures stamp on the earth, while adding more greenhouse gases than a planet full of autos.

Forgive me for being flip, but that doesn’t leave a lot for the poorer countries (and a “there but for the grace of God” attitude won’t mean much here soon). Might I suggest repackaging our financial woes into a cereal and call it “Kredit Krunch.” It won’t have nutritional value but will most certainly be meatless.

"As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields. What I think about vivisection is that if people admit that they have the right to take or endanger the life of living beings for the benefit of many, there will be no limit to their cruelty." Leo Tolstoy

Why should we be vegetarians? Why, indeed. If cows had opposable thumbs—well, and fingers and conscious choice and be able to walk upright—then I think we would be well advised to stand back from the killing floor. Imagine the cow that has had enough: “Go ahead, Mister, MAKE MY DAY.” Suddenly a winter meal of roasted root vegetables with a healthy sprinkling of fresh rosemary has a little more bite to it.

They say a human being tastes like the last thing it ate before it died. Hmmm, depends on the season I guess but me and The Mister might taste like any number of delicious meals I cook up like “Lonely Shepherd’s Pie” (no lamb) or if summer takes us then a crisply pungent cold lentil, tempeh and pineapple salad.

I confess to loving Walker’s crisps when I am abroad with The Mister. Only the salt & vinegar kind for me. Suitable for vegetarians or not, the idea of Prawn Cocktail, Roast Turkey with Paxo Sage, or Lamb with Mint Flavor and Oven Roasted Chicken with Lemon & Thyme does not tempt me. Though seeing as they are “meatless” I could be persuaded to happily pop a few “Smokey Bankers” crisps should that flavor ever occur to them?

Marmite Yeast Extract? Not with a gun to my head.

“To become vegetarian is to step into the stream which leads to nirvana.” Buddha

Monday, January 12, 2009

for Isabel

When I feel at sea
And winter has undone me
I go to the sea
And let the waves admonish me

Aging is just one
of many memorandums
I cannot still long
And let the past encompass me

The waves lick my boots
The kingbirds flitter boldly
You cannot be old
The little creatures counsel me

Give in to the calm
What’s outside is foregone
The damage is done
Let winter light recover me

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice." T.S. Eliot


Montauk off-season is always an eagerly anticipated destination for The Mister and me. By the time we get to the turn off into the village on the Old Montauk Highway and glimpse the proof of ocean off to our right, the everyday news that is seemingly inescapable back in Manhattan has already been consolidated into a sign in a shop window we have passed driving through East Hampton advertising a BAGEL BAILOUT!

Having been sidelined financially to the city for the past two New Years, this year—more than ever—we needed to escape to Land’s End; to draw in as much ocean air at Montauk Point that our stifled lungs could hold. Running away at year’s end (both physically and emotionally) is something I do and have done since experiencing the first blinding insight into the obvious holiday dilemmas. I just did not have to be where the specter of painful family memories, or a disastrous first marriage and the materialistic crush

And just in case I had forgotten, The Mister and I got a taste of that crush this year when we ventured into midtown on the eve of our departure for a talk on the 1964-65 World’s Fair given at the Mid-Manhattan Library. I have fond memories of tooling around those fairgrounds as a teenager, devouring Belgian Waffles, oblivious then to the racial context that made this fair controversial. Despite the fact that we avoided midtown thus far, it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. Failing to heed our instincts, we hopped the bus but were soon faced with the reality that it would move no faster than a torturous crawl down Fifth Avenue. At each stop crowds of out-of-towners boarded, fiddling maddeningly with their Metro Cards as if they were meant to solve a Rubik’s Cube and not simply dip the damned thing. As I silently corrected each clueless tourist, The Mister eyed my agitated miming and knew where that would take us, so he hustled me off the bus some 20 blocks before our designated stop, knowing that on foot we would still beat the bus to our destination.

Having successfully avoided the midtown holiday madness for so many years, I was stunned at the surge that quickly engulfed us along the avenue and not a happy caroler in the lot. Nerves were frayed and tension pulsed through the crowds like a shower on the third rail.

Fifth Avenue at Christmas was once the jealously guarded realm of a childless aunt who never failed her young nieces and pursued her holiday agenda with the characteristic zeal of a surrogate parent. We shuffled along with other children past department store windows and looked up in wonder at those fairytale displays; were hurried off to the Christmas Show at Radio City and afterwards cozied up to a grilled cheese sandwich and hot chocolate behind the ruffle-curtained windows of a Calico Kitchen. The sandwiches always came with potato chips and those little beveled discs we called bread-and-butter pickles; a poor kid's madeleine.

What I could see of the displays now seemed ludicrously opulent and in no way connected to the faces pressed around me. I thought—incredulous—that I had not been inside of any of the Fifth Avenue department stores—Bergdorf’s, Saks, Lord & Taylor’s—in nearly a quarter of a century! The Mister and I snaked single file through the inhospitable openings in the crush, like soldiers on a secret reconnaissance deep in enemy territory, signaling often that we were still together.

Later that night we were accosted on our block by a bearded young man, obviously down on his luck, who buttonholed us with a tale of lost bags in the back of a taxi, wallet gone, no way to get back to his brother’s place in Great Neck where he was staying while his brother was away. His accent was British. He said that back home he was a sous chef in a Kosher Indian Restaurant in the London neighborhood of Golders Green. New York’s finest had dismissed his plight. He had been to all the synagogues in our upper eastside neighborhood looking for help. It was clear that he had been sleeping rough; his feet shod in worn Crocs, unsightly at the best of times and utterly unsuitable on a bitter cold evening. He said he needed fifteen dollars to get a train ticket and he had no other recourse but to turn to Americans for help. I could see he might have a different take on the half-empty, half-full thing. We handed him a twenty and wished him well.

Unlike me and other friends who have lived through a troubled family life, The Mister’s initiation came much later—in fact, quite recently—swiftly, out of the blue and with heartbreaking force. We look around at the holiday now and see we are neither of us in touch with our families. They are mostly dead and our siblings have very little to offer that isn’t jealous recrimination for a fabricated past. They are last year’s voices and this is the New Year. I think that without families we are half-empty. The Mister says we are our own family now and that means half-full.

Two nights and three days in Montauk would straighten us right out.

In the past we’d pack up the car with a magnum of champagne, bottles of red wine, artery clogging cheeses, the disgusting but obligatory Bailey’s Irish Creme and sexy underwear. Our New Year’s Eve celebrations would entail an expensive alcohol-infused late night dinner among local revelers at The Shagwong before racing down to the ocean at midnight to gulp champagne and toast the New Year and then rock out with a band at the bar of the Memory Motel before continuing our rowdy party of two into the wee hours in our room at the Royal Atlantic.

We pack our own food now to save money, bring warm pajamas and roomy sweats, and barely get through a bottle of champagne on New Year’s Eve.

The dining room at The Shagwong was deserted this year from the many cancellations due to forecasted icy weather. Jackie K., Mick Jagger and one of those healthy American blonde models (not Christie B., the other one) stared down from their photos into empty space. A few stragglers hustled into the bar where we had stopped just before making our midnight ocean front appearance. The bar staff was clearly disgruntled; their biggest off season take had been slashed to 4 or 5 regulars and the out of town couple (us) who would not be coerced into more than one round of celebratory martinis. A glum bartender knocking back shots apologized for the drinks prices. I overheard her sad complaint: that she doesn’t belong in the real world. “I tried. I went to school for…mumble, mumble…can’t seem to get away from here.”

The endless loop of U-2 songs was finally replaced with Sinatra, Neil Diamond and that sure thing, for me anyway, Meat Loaf. We sang along, we even danced but we were out of there before our new best friends could even find out our names and we high tailed it to the sea front. It was a cold night—raw cold—and the sky was clear and bright. We made out the little dipper but had no idea where its bigger counterpart was in the constellation. I marveled, as usual, at the sea’s integrity and how it knows just where to stop. We, once again, found ourselves at midnight at the ocean bidding adieu to the old and welcoming the new. The Mister kisses me. It’s hard to be half empty after that.

Back in our corner room at the top of the stairs, the Wizard of Oz wind catches itself on the corner post outside our door with a high, demanding whistle and is the musical accompaniment all night; while we clink our Kir Royales, watch endless episodes of The Honeymooners, make love, and even while we sleep.

On New Years Day we start out for the familiar trails near the Point. It’s a place for us to isolate our old voices, inspect the words that come often, and sometimes thoughtlessly, and hear more clearly what has to be sorted out and why. After nearly twenty years of marriage we are still re-evaluating and because of an argument earlier in the day we abandon the hike. At The Mister’s suggestion, we sorted through the quarrel over steaming bowls of mussels pebbled with garlic back at the Shagwong. Restored. Friends again.

Back on the road to the Point, we discover a new walking trail and pull over. This one brought us along the top of the dunes where we spot a herd of deer. After that miracle we are treated to an Edward Hopper sunset from a vantage we have not experienced before. And then, at twilight, we returned to the Point and saw the Lighthouse, lit like an electrified gingerbread house. Intrepid tourists, mostly giggling Asian couples, were out in force; running from the car park to the café in little more than sweaters while I lurched about in puffy Michelin Man garb.

The drive back to the city in the morning had all the elements of a retreat well taken. Nothing had changed much outside of us. Where, when either of us had spied a red flag—on a beach or in a park or anywhere—we knew it to be a sign to, at the very least, pay attention—others who had invested their life savings had ignored red flags and held glasses they presumed were not only half full but overflowing. A prominent French Financier, a German billionaire had looked deeply into a glass and saw it empty and ended their lives. In shopping malls between the Gap Outlet and Buddha Express, young people are being recruited by the Army in military video arcades. In Gaza and Iraq the bloodshed continues and the games are real. Americans await another voice.

“Half-empty.” These are last year’s words.