All Along the Highway

As we leave the desert behind the radio crackles into coherence. A deep male voice exhorts us to dig into our pockets and contribute to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. A lone voice crackling in the wilderness, I think.

All along the highway on the plateau before the hill country wildflowers bloom: swathes of bluebonnets intermingled with red and yellow.

We stop for lunch in Ozona, a small big town in the Edwards Plateau region on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country. Hunters  come to Ozona in search of white-tailed deer, javelina, and game birds. Ozona is the county seat of Crockett County, named for Colonel Davy Crockett, a hero of the Alamo.  We drive through the town looking for a steak house Katie once ate at and remembers hungrily but it is nowhere to be found. The streets of the town are deserted on this Sunday, faded tatty shuttered shops are strung along the main street fanning out from the civic center—gracious and impressive buildings, solidly built of stone. The Café Next Door is the only non fast-food place we can find off the freeway. We expect it to be full of travelers like ourselves, but it is choc-a-block with families out for Sunday lunch, dressed up a little, probably coming here after church. The little girls have bows in their hair, some of the men wear clean bright shirts, mostly red, with their black jeans and skinny black ties and polished boots and Texan hats. People are eating big, but we delicate and discerning city girls order toasted cheese and salad. The sandwich has been heated, but the cheese resists melting, its plasticity and psychedelic orange hue pronounced by heat. We don’t say anything to one another, we are hungry and wolf the sandwich down. But later, as we drive through an expanse of nowhere Katie, says, out of the blue, “That cheese was scary.”

In Harper, where there are at least six churches including Wild Ride Ministries, we are greeted by a billboard: Hunters Welcome. The main business in town seems to be taxidermy. Outside of town we pass a ranch where an extraordinary sight hurtles me out of Texas and back to Africa. The grass is brownish, the landscape savannah-like, as though on a safari we cruise past African gemsbok, eland, gazelle, kudu, springbok. Later I discover that there is a price on each exotic animal’s head, and if you are prepared to pay the price you can come in and kill it. It will cost you, for instance, upward of $12,000.00 to bag a kudu, though you can get a Springbok for half of that. Mostly hunters come in groups, most often family groups. The Lone Star Ranch Exotic Hunts pays tribute on their website to the Best Group Hunt of
 2013, The Wood Group: “truly an amazing group of Hunters. Their enthusiasm and kindness were unmatched.  They had such a great time together that it was a pleasure to be a part of their hunting adventures.
 They did not waste one moment from the time they arrived at the Ranch to get in the woods and start hunting.  They had a mission to fill their freezers with meat, and within no time they were putting the smack down on Elk and Buffalo.”

Not every shoot costs money. In addition to the usual packages the Ranch offers Hunts for Hope, complimentary dream hunts 
for children battling terminal illnesses. There is a photo of children posing in front of a zebra they have killed.

In the town of Frederiksburg, with its lovely stone buildings that seem to have been eerily transported from an earlier European era, we are again craving tea and so return to the Old German Bakery and Restaurant. On the way out to Big Bend and Marfa we had delicious bratwurst and sauerkraut and a pork cutlet that was even better cold the next morning in the motel at Marathon watching the sun come up. Over the blackboard menu in the Bakery there was a montage of photos, some showing a part of the town invisible to a passer-through: faded walls, deserted streets, graffiti; other photos and cuttings showed cavalcades, monuments, and John Kennedy’s face cut from a German newspaper. The bakery is closed this Sunday, so we wander round a back street and Katie shows me the Sunday houses and tells of how she stayed there with her mother and father when they were both still alive. These are small weekend houses that the ranchers and farmers built in the late 1800s so that they could spend a night or two when they came in to town for church and perhaps to party. They are small houses, craft houses meticulously constructed out of local materials, now mostly rented out to tourists. Katie’s voice softens as she tells me about these houses.

We find a cup of tea at a Biergarten where two young girls in their sparkling twenties are taking their grandparents out for dinner or lunch in this Sunday mid-afternoon, and have to shout a lot, and at the table next to us, a party of retirees, just off the coach, are checking out the town on their i-phones, comparing maps and statistics.

North of Frederiksburg we pull in to a Wildflower Nursery, and walk through fields of blue, fields of red, whole fields like oceans, like we are swimming through a diaphanous red sea, light as air. Yoke Sum, in Marfa, had shown us the seed packets she and Derek had purchased here. She is going to take them back to England to plant in her garden, where, if the bluebonnets grow, they will become exotic rather than native. Here, although native, they did not sprout spontaneously along the highway. It was Lady Bird Johnson who was largely responsible for getting rid of the junkyards and billboards that graced the highway system, replacing them with native plantings, through her support for the Beautification Act of 1965. Before this road trip if you had tossed to me the words Johnson and 1965, and asked me to say whatever came into my mind I would have said Vietnam, napalm, and the Civil Rights Act (of the previous year). That word, beautification, it slightly churns the stomach and curls the lip. Botox and pansies, landscaping and real estate, Sunday best, veneering.

Yet Lady Bird’s legacy is substantial, her campaign for national beautification was linked to environmental concerns, to improving urban decay and pollution as well as to preservation of natural wonders. As we swim through the crimson air of the poppy meadows in the flower fields I remember hiking through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, one of the most spectacular stands of old redwoods in Northern California. And as we hit the highway again, pondering the shiftiness of terms like foreign and domestic, native and exotic, I feel grateful for the way her legacy lives on, in for instance the infelicitously named Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 which requires that at least 0.25 of 1 percent of funds expended for landscaping projects in the highway system be used to plant native flowers, plants and trees.

As we hit the highway again, on the home run to Austen, the deep male voice greets us again on the radio, still pitching persuasively for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Although it induces a degree of squeamishness, this exhortation to charitable giving, I nevertheless feel grateful; not only does this Society fund a great deal of research it also is generous with information and support. Still, I think, probably a lone voice crackling in the wilderness. Then the voice segues smoothly from leukemia to climate change, actually to the fiction of climate change, to a rant about how our President, his voice sneers on this word, President, how our President, Obama, is hobbling and dictating to the EPA, preaching an alarmist philosophy that bears absolutely no relation to reality. He claims that the planet is heating up, says the voice, and where does he get this information? I ask you where does he get this information? I can tell you where he gets this so-called information, he reaches into the air and pulls statistics from nowhere, out of the air, that’s where, out of the air. We realize we are listening to Rush Limbaugh, the most-listened-to talk show host in the country. I guess, with all those listeners, he might raise some money for research that will come my way. Oi vey.

 

 

 

 

The Answer is not Coming

She waits in the freezing snow at the bottom of a huge mountain, an icy mountain lying between one country and another. It’s the end of the day, light is failing. Perhaps he has ditched her, or had an accident, or fallen into a crevasse. Doubt. Waiting. “The answer is not coming.” So writes Rachel Kushner at the end of The Flame Throwers. Though these are not quite the last words of the novel.

Two things are going on, as I see it. There’s a familiar quotidian experience: hanging about waiting for someone who doesn’t show. You’re in that place or moment when anxiety and boredom collide, anticipation runs headlong into despair. And there’s a larger metaphysical or perhaps structural thing going on: how to be in that experience, how to move through this waiting, or to let the waiting materialize as a non-conclusive ending.

The answer to the question of whether he is coming or not is simple, it becomes clear as night falls: He is not coming. But there is another question not answered, though what exactly this question is you can’t say and actually it doesn’t matter what the question itself is. It is not a man who will not come, it is an answer. For Kushner, I believe, it’s enmeshed in how to bring the novel to an end. In an interview she writes, “I was determined not to have the narrator ride off into the horizon in a blaze of triumph at the end. The plotline where the main character overcomes a weakness and acts with new empowerment is a form of narrative compression I usually find cheap and don’t much relate to.”

This is a novel that is dense and intriguing in its cutting between times and places, places in the US and Italy, in the 1970s and around the First World War. The threads of connection that link people to political and art movements are rendered through scenarios in which characters experience speed and slowness, talking, listening, waiting. Guns and motor bikes, riding fast and waiting about slowly not doing much. Techniques and technologies. Kushner, within the fabric of the daily, writes about a variety of technologies, mobilizing characters and ideas that attempt, variously, to forge a way out of the routine of the everyday. Her novel, too, shapes up—disintegrates, realigns—through a virtuoso enactment of technique. She herself is a flame thrower, filling the sky with colors and patterns, materializing through technique a range of possibilities, some lethal. Reading, immersed in the rhythms and the cutting between locales, alerted through technique rather than through authorial direction, to the present, you don’t expect a conclusion, particularly one that embodies a triumph over adversity. It isn’t simply that we are left with a question at the end, some plot thread that is left loose, given to us as a throw away scrap from the table of literary delights. No, it’s that the whole practice or technique of the novel works against triumphalism with all its moral underpinnings.

Because I’m pretty well right now I’m greedy to grab every moment to write or read scraps from lots of different books and so I’ve read this novel slowly, in some senses against the grain. Lindsey says, “For me it was cold and fast—a reading experience that I imagine is akin to riding one of those motorcycles she rides around Manhattan.” In the last third I speed up, glad to immerse myself in the novel during a Cancer Survivors Week, thus saving myself from getting hot under the collar about all the triumphalist rhetoric in the air. Saving myself, perhaps, from insinuations of guilt solicited by sentiment-drenched exhortations to give money to defeat cancer. I want to live longer, I want them (that great big them in the sky) to find a better form of treatment than the ghastly chemos people with tumors have to endure (and indeed there are people with blood cancers who endure these too). And being implicated, a receiver or beneficiary of the bounty, I know I should give more than I do so that people not as lucky as me in terms of time and place can get a better deal. But it makes me mad that so much of cancer, medicine in general, actually everything in general in this country, is so dependent on charity, on private institutions, on individual gifts. Matters of public concern rendered as a balancing act between the fortunate and the unfortunate, where individuals can be empowered by charitable acts, acts of giving.

The objective correlative of this is the celebration of survivors, the hullaballoo about the battle won by strong individuals. Empowerment through adversity. We are the strong ones, the ones who fought back and won, we are special, not like all those losers who succumbed and dropped dead without a proper struggle.

Of course it isn’t just around cancer that the ubiquitous grizzliness of positive thinking occurs. Jeffrey comes home from the gym the other day and tells me about an interview he saw on CNN while treading the mill. One of the young survivors of the ghastly Santa Barbara campus murders came forward voluntarily to offer witness. He said something like, “It wasn’t an entirely negative experience… some of us survived.”

Still, we need fiction sometimes. The fiction of survival is a charged fiction and through the charging, the living through, acquires a material reality. The reality that we are fighting, that we will overcome. When Isabel wrote to me, long ago it now seems, when I had surgery for lung cancer a year after the leukemia diagnosis, “vencerás,” (you will overcome) it was inspiring, it gave me courage, I started to believe that I would survive. She gave me a gift.

So what to do, what is the answer? Me fuming silently on my soapbox with a hand hovering reluctantly over a shallow pocket chockablock with scrunched up tissues and lists of things to do and a little cash isn’t going to change the circuit of charitable and uncharitable capital.

 

 

 

 

 

Spheres of Glass

I wandered, lonely, escaping from the Seattle Sheraton, from the giddiness of social encounters and a plethora of conference talk, escaping Chihuly. Chihuly ornaments and glass sculptures are nested in every niche of the Sheraton, commanding attention from every shiny polished vantage point. Almost every hotel in Seattle (and many other hotels around the world) exhibit Dale Chihuly glass works, but his great popularity is centered on the garden installations. I saw “Gardens of Glass: Chihuly at Kew” in 2005, but was neither charmed nor seduced. As a tourist and gardener and sometimes critic, like others of my ilk I would always rather be seduced than not. On the other hand I’d rather be intrigued than charmed (but of course you cannot always choose the things that move you, you cannot orchestrate those moments when the air turns cold and you shiver, or when a hot feverish breeze gets under your skin, or when perplexity renders you speechless; for all that a certain kind of taste is trained into your body, you cannot always predict how you will react). So now, visiting Seattle for the first time, Chihuly Garden and Glass is on my bucket list. I’m intrigued to see how these glass works work in their native setting, hoping my mind can be changed.

After all, the conceit of these garden installations is potentially intriguing: the insinuation of fantastical glass sculptures in amongst real plants. They are mostly, though not entirely, gigantic, these sculptures, bearing names like garden grass, reeds, blue herons, sun, French Blue Ikebana with orange and scarlet frog feet, green trumpets, red orange reeds. They imitate and mimic. As you wander through the garden you encounter vegetative landscapes, living matter, interspersed with signs of the synthetic, squishy materials juxtaposed with brittle surfaces, warm and fleshy with glassy coolness. Of course no garden is entirely natural, but if all gardens are to some degree designed then grand public gardens like Kew are meticulously curated (and so too, one imagines, the “original” Chihuly Garden). As a viewer ambling through a series of interconnected gardens or galleries, one’s curiosity could be tickled, one’s sense of assurance about which goes with what. Mimesis in this mise-en-scène possesses the potential to provoke the irreality of the garden itself.

But the garden and museum fell short of conceit.

So here I am, escaping the extravaganza, walking back to the downtown conference along 5th Avenue. Walking segues into trudging. It seems as though I have been hiking for days through rough terrain. A sliver of anxiety worms its way up, up from heavy footsteps into my stomach and buzzes there, a caged mosquito, looking for blood. An old familiar feeling, a feeling that hasn’t visited for months. Perhaps, I tell myself, it is not somatic at all, just disgruntlement, the massive gaudy Chihuly glass works—luridly pretty, drained of affect—weighing heavily upon my fragile psyche. Suddenly a wave of home sickness ripples through me, a yearning—to be home, curled up in bed with Elvis and Roxy, or in the garden picking fava beans, or in with the chickens, cooing, stroking their silkiness.

Lonely as a cloud.

When all at once I see a crowd, a host, of spectral chickens. Dead, plucked and headless chickens, impaled, fluttering and dancing in a shop window. Two washing lines slice the window vertically. Meat hooks hang from the cord lines, piercing the elongated yet rather fat necks, all skinniness concentrated in the legs which dangle in the air, feet splayed open like hands stretching, feeling for solid ground. In between the legs and the necks plump appurtenances, rounded if rather lumpy breasts. Is it a shop, a restaurant, an office? There is no lettering, no description, no invitation.

My dragging footsteps freeze.

Behind the chooks hangs a large Chinese paper lantern, once scarlet now faded to puce, and in the right foreground, on a dusty cluttered desk, a jar of bright lively daffodils. Golden. In contrast the chickens are pasty and pale, a grimy faded yellow. The sickly yellow of birds-eye-custard, dished up in my childhood at the end of every vile boarding school meal, smothered over every horrible pudding, the horribleness only exacerbated by this fraudulent cover-up. Or is it whiteness turned old and musty and tinged with the ochre of decay? I step closer, nose against the glass. There is something odd about these chickens, they are too smooth, too drained of blood, too dusty, their necks—inauthentically fat—are hollow. There is something about them that makes me want to reach out through the glass to feel their textural duplicity.

These are imitation carcasses, synthetic chickens, plasticcy. Relief and hilarity. The sense of laughter, however, isn’t just provoked by the discovery of the hoax, rather it’s to do with the uncanny persistence of irreality, an undecidabilty that persists in the scene before and after discovery, for now I’m part of this scene that I stumbled upon. The sense of unease, shadowed by the intimation of disease returning, the horror provoked by this exhibition of dead and naked chickens, the unasked-for juxtaposition of my silky girls and these synthetic mute corpses, is somewhat alleviated by the certainty that they are merely imitations. I’m off the hook, “my chickens” whose heads I would never chop off, who I would never pluck and hang and eat, are OK, they remain in the realm of the real while these phantoms are merely incarnations of a spectral brutality. But then the scene I witness—as though in a museum, as though this is an exhibit, as if it were a still frame from a movie—insists on including me in its mise en scène, on incorporating the dissociation from which I suffer. Cognitive dissonance shot through with strains of the uncanny. When I see ducks hanging in Chinese butchers, gleaming and velvetty in their soy basting, I can’t wait to taste and to experience in the mouth the crunch of their crispy skin. Even chickens, I never hesitate to eat chicken, I enjoy the cooking of chickens and chicken parts. “Chickens” in general. Not particular chickens. Not my chickens.

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door.

Freud, writing here about the uncanny presents us with a scene conceptualized as a frame within a frame. He is jolted, subjected to a shock. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer and the image. Enter the chickens as a third term, a mediating twist.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance, of the personal and the social, of no man being an island:

 The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance.

How bizarre to come upon this apparition on an ordinary street, while ambling along, to encounter thus the uncanny echoing or correlation of living and dead, natural and artificial, self and other, chickens and daffodils. Somehow this view into another world (office, butcher’s shop, Chinese restaurant?) wakes me up, looks back, interpolates. The austerity of the frame, string strung across the window asymmetrically, the sickly color-co-ordination, the insinuation of springtime and gardens, of a host of golden daffodils, into this macabre composition is provocative in a way the Chihuly is not.

It would be wrong to say that on glimpsing those daffodils my heart with pleasure danced. But a lightness did indeed enter into my leaden feet, as I imagined a dance macabre between those denuded plastic chickens and my feathery cooing girls.

You have to walk through the Chihuly museum in order to reach the garden. Which means your experience of the garden is overdetermined by the sense of aesthetic homogeneity indoors. Actually the transition between the two realms is striking. It is called the glass house, and although modeled on the great glass houses of the nineteenth century such as the Crystal Palace, it is a very simple structure, bare and austere. In contrast to the nakedness and transparency in which you find yourself a huge sprawling floral abundance hangs from the ceiling: glass flowers, larger than life, fashioned in red gold and orange, drip lusciously, suspensed in space, suspended forever. As you stand under them it is almost impossible not to imagine the whole gigantic structure crashing, splintering, dispersing into a thousand pieces. It’s a gloriously extravagant composition, this mixing of glass textures, this invocation of an aesthetic of timelessness through an illusion to practices of preservation, to ways of keeping things alive in artificial environments. Like glass houses, like museums, like tombs.

In the glass house a space opens up in which to meditate upon scale and materiality.

But after the glass house is the garden and before the glass house there are galleries, endless iterations of frilly floraciousness. The psychedelic underwater worlds are interchangeable with the flowery abstractions. The garden is just another gallery, a medium of display, a staging for the performance of anxiety: to elevate glass blowing from a craft to a grandiose art. Such production requires factory conditions and many workers. Nothing new in this, but the process of effacement in the name of a single genius artist serves to efface process in general. I so wanted the installation to yield a tension, a gesturing to something outside itself, to the multiple imbrications of nature and art, to the materiality created out of breath and fire. What I found was an abundance of precious cheerfulness but little sense of the uncanny, or of the fragility of glass, how close it is to splintering. Nor much sense of how the social is inscribed in the material world. Wonder is a word often used to describe the Chihuly effect, but for me wonder served to efface the complexities of process.

Wonder is also the predominant response elicited by another famous and popular display, the Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, in the Harvard Museum of Natural History (often acknowledged by Chihuly as an influence). This collection is composed of 3,000 models of ‘Glass Flowers’ constructed by father and son Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, over five decades from 1886 through 1936.In fact all kinds of plants, not just flowers, make up the collection which was commissioned in order to teach students of botany. The models are disturbingly life size (too large to be miniatures, too small to be sculptures) and remarkably accurate in anatomical detail and color.

The wonder that these “flowers” elicit is complicated by a range of emotions and epistemological speculations, as evidenced in the richness of critical writing that circulates around them. Much of this writing hovers between description and defiance of description. How unlikely that these scientific models should be made of glass rather than other substances so much more amenable to modeling (they are constructed primarily though not exclusively of glass) like wax or papier mache. Their materiality, in practical and imaginative terms, is of the utmost importance. While extremely thingy they are also chimerical. Wonder is generated in the play between seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing: you know they are made of glass and yet ….. “They look real enough but as if the real is from another realm,” says Jamaica Kincaid. It is she who captures the uncanniness of the artificial perfection, and nails the relation of these objects wrought in glass to the garden.

The glass flowers and their many stages of being are in a state of perfection stilled. It is always a gardener’s wish to have perfection and then to have it forever. It is also within the gardener’s temperament to first desire forever and then to do everything possible to dismantle and smash forever. If the flowers encased in cabinets stored in the museum make up a garden, they are not the exception to this latter sentiment. Though it seems as if they will last forever, every cabinet bears a legend warning of their fragility. The people taking care of them give assurance that they will last forever. But as every gardener knows, forever is as long as a day.

Glass matters here, but other materials matter elsewhere. Plastic and yarn, for instance, can be exploited for their mimetic potential. What matters is scale and texture and the way that the materiality of the sculptural object is able to gesture outside its own perfection (its mimetic perfection, or formal coherence) to chisel a crack in the cognitive dissonance that glues everything together.

Think of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s glass poem, Wave/Rock. The poem is constructed not on the page but on a thick sheet of glass onto which the words Wave and Rock, many times over, are sandblasted. The letters of the word wave “break” on the rock constructed not on the page but in glass. The form of the words mimics their meaning, enacts their materiality. Waves break, and simultaneously the process of waves breaking is frozen, the cycle of nature is eternal, and at the same time fragile, vulnerable to destruction particularly in and by human hands: the one who sculpts, composes, the one who reads and sees and knows and does not know. Wave/Rock dislodges an habitual cognitive dissonance. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer, looking at and through the glass, and the image.

Enter the chickens, proposing a third term, a mediating twist. For me the chickens in this instance represent an ecological dimension that Finlay Patterson most likely did not intend, but that the work now speaks.

Glass in the end is not the most important thing (though glass contains a particular potential). It is the materiality of the process incorporated into the sculptural object, the “work” in the “work” which gestures towards something playful and also potentially destructive. The wave, this one wave which is also many waves, all waves, breaks over and over again but is itself vulnerable, and perhaps after all not so eternal.

Take “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs.” This is a project initiated by the Institute for Figuring, run by Christine and Margaret Wertheim. The Wertheim sisters, inspired by a type of mathematical modeling called hyperbolic geometry, put out a web call to invite women to join them in crocheting a coral reef, following some simple mathematical rules for generating a certain kind of spatial configuration and dimensionality (interestingly embodied by reefs and reef creatures). Women from all over the world responded to the invitation, contributing individual items and elements. The Institute for Figuring initiated workshops, crocheting workshops which incorporated an ecological component, a learning about reefs, about the threats posed to their existence particularly from the onslaught of plastic detritus.The artists, as well as using more familiar materials such as wool and yarn, incorporated into the sculptures recycled materials, such as plastics. Leslie Dick, from whose fabulous essay I learnt of this project, writes of a “mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)” which is “mirrored by the relation of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs to their real-world counterparts, particularly the Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific. Leslie Dick contends that the project, drawing on so many practitioners, produces a new kind of artist (and thus art work), one immersed in reverie, in a project that enables a rich variety and combination of imaginative explorations. She invokes this kind of artist:

While she may have confidence in her expertise, her work avoids grandiosity, remaining at a manageable scale (until it joins the larger combination). This artist particularly enjoys the invitation to sink below the ocean, to enter its dreamlike darkness, an alternate reality of color and shape. She enjoys making phallic shapes, using her hook and yarn to build leaning towers, star shaped fortresses, a landscape drawn in lumps of color. She enjoys making vaginal shapes, fuzzy, curly edged openings, soft to the touch, fronded and weird.

I have only seen images on screen but these marvelously thingy things look so incredibly life-like, so reefish, it’s uncanny. And dissonant too, the way “alien” materials are almost seamlessly crocheted into the sculptures. There is a cognitive dissonance at large in our world now: we revel in the beauty of underwater worlds, of forests and canyons, of places like the Great Barrier Reef, and we are filled with wonder at art that mimics that beauty and preserves for eternity a Platonic perfection. Peeking into the world of “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs” jars that perfection, chisels into the glue of cognitive dissonance, invites reverie and wonder and playful engagement but also a cognitive recalibration, a reimagining and respinning of a conceit that intertwines the natural and synthetic worlds.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance – as we were making our way back from the spectacular San Juan Islands where we spent a night on Orcas island, a catastrophic event occurred in beautiful Washington State, one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history. As we hiked around Cascade Lake and climbed to the top of the tower on the top of Mount Constitution, marveling in this world seemingly so pristine, a community in Stillaguamish Valley in the foothills of the North Cascades were suddenly without warning buried under mud. A natural disaster? Unforeseen, said the emergency manager of the area. Timothy Egan wrote a week after the event that in fact there had been warnings, most notably a report in 1999 that outlined “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hillside that just suffered a large catastrophic failure (although it seems the inhabitants of the endangered community were never told of these official reports). Egan reports visiting the area 25 years ago and being shown a mudslide occurring on a hillside above the river, a hillside in which old growth forest had been clear felled, leaving nothing to hold the hillside in torrential rain. Just like the hillside above the small, disappeared community, of Oso.

Egan says, “The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance… A legacy of settlement is the delusion that large-scale manipulation of the natural world can be done without consequence.”

Scale and texture. A continent, an ocean, a garden, a shop window, forests, mud, glass, yarn, plastic, plants, the real and the imitative, the beautiful and the catastrophic.

I return to San Diego where rather than rain there is a drought, and the river if it can be seen at all, is skinny. I make a routine visit to the hospital on the UCSD campus and am astounded by the number of new buildings, massive grandiose medical buildings mostly, being developed on the very edge of canyons. Mesas have been sliced into and rearranged. Glass and concrete structures teeter on air. We have no old growth forests here, just coastal scrub and chaparral. But they too hold the earth down. What, I wonder is the cognitive dissonance we suffer from here? I imagine a performance art project enacted by chickens let loose on the medical campus, or even an installation of dead, plucked and headless chickens, hanging from the canyon walls, dangling over freeways, reaching for the daffodils.

 Notes

“I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment…” …. Sigmund Freud, in a footnote to his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny” in Art and Literature. Trans. James Strachey. Comp  & ed Angela Richards. 1919. The Pelican Freud Library 14. London: Penguin,                    1985. Freud situates his essay as an investigation into aesthetics: “understood to   mean not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling”     (339).

 The “taming” of this continent Timothy Egan, “A Mudslide, Foretold,” The New        York Times, 29th March, 2014.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/opinion/sunday/egan-at-home-when-the-earthmoves.html?action=click&module=Search&region=searchResults%230&version=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fquery.nytimes.com%2Fsearch%2Fsitesearch%2F%3Faction%3Dclick%26region%3DMasthead%26pgtype%3DHomepage%26module%3DSearchSubmit%26contentCollection%3DHomepage%26t%3Dqry485%23%2Ftimothy+egan+mudslide&_r=0

accessed march 29th.

 

“They look real enough…” Jamaica Kincaid, “Splendor in the Glass,” The Architectural    Digest, June 2002.

http://www.architecturaldigest.com/ad/archive/artnotebook_article_062002

Accessed 15th March, 2014.

“mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)…” Leslie Dick, The       Institute for Figuring and Companions: Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs. Track 16             Santa Monica,” X-tra, Summer 2009, volume 11 number 4.

http://x-traonline.org/article/the-institute-for-figuring-and-companions-       hyperbolic-crochet-coral-reefs/

accessed 12th February, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cantankerous Rooster

Marathon, Texas. It is early morning and light is creeping into the motel room. Last night we walked back to the motel under a huge black sky, so black the stars shone like the burnished feathers of a silver rooster, burras brayed, flights of angels winging us to our rest. I remember living in San Augustine near Oaxaca, being kept awake and woken and harassed all day and night by the sound of braying burros, turkeys, a rooster, dogs, people. Gracias a los burros my rooster does not have to crow. He stands on the dressing table in front of a mirror so there are two of him. Sculptural. Silent. He is double and a doubler; he has, for instance, doubled the amount of words allowed in this bit of writing. I open the door and step out into the dusty parking lot. The sky is now a soft donkey grey, fringed to the east with vermilion, redness seeps out of the earth, filtering into the sky.

I can stretch my arm in any direction and reach the edge of solidity and then my fingers will close around the sky.

I take the rooster outside and photograph him. He is immobile. His coxscomb is scarlet, his body painted in swathes of yellow, green and blue. His tail is feathery, the featheriness of sliced tin, a shiny indigo blue. He is perfectly proportioned. His toes are splayed giving him a firm purchase on the ground, or the dressing table, or wherever he alights. Always out of place, he will be my register of place as we travel through desert regions towards Marfa.

The rooster joined us before the desert. In Johnson City, home of LBJ we find somewhere to pee: A tiny coffee shop in a large yard filled with iron ware. Flying pigs and alligators and cows. All painted. On the counter a faded photo of a Starbucks van, the side door slid open so that “tarbuck” is eliminated. What you see then is the starbucks icon and the word “sucks.”

While he fixed me an excellent espresso John and I swapped a few minimally anecdotal details—he’d lived in San Francisco, he could tell I wasn’t from Texas. Probably not from San Francisco either. The old guy he’s swapping yarns with, toothless, dusty, feels like he’s roamed the local block for years, and probably drunk every bottle in town, but who knows? Who knows peoples’ stories unless you drive with them for days and days through the desert and can talk of this and that and failed relationships and swap another hilarious story of another disastrous episode in the life of love. I asked John who made the rooster and the other creatures, where they came from. He looked at me quizzically as if to say which leg can I pull, which story will she buy, or as if he were asking himself is this a trick question, what’s she after this foreigner, who on this wide earth wants to know about the provenance of painted tin chotchkes, who gives a flying fuck where the rooster comes from. Then he laughs and says Juan, Carlos, Roberto, Ricardo, Miguel…..an army of anonymous Mexicans. I realize then it was indeed a sneaky question, the sort of question that a snooty gardener asks, either to elevate her purchase, raise it out of the realm of tourist art and into the realm of artisanal individuality, or simply to trip up a pretentious vendor.

I could go back to Old Town in San Diego and buy this rooster, closer to the source of its production. Or just nip across the border and buy it by the side of the road. Probably I could even nip back to Zimbabwe and buy the same rooster. And yet not exactly the same.

There was a bigger rooster, grander. But as soon as my eyes alit upon this one I knew he was the one for me. He is life size, perfectly proportioned, he has stepped out from a child’s picture book, from meticulously illustrated Mexican playing cards. R for rooster. G for el gallo. Watch out, says the old guy, he’s a cantankerous rooster, that one.

Molly, who has turned up at the coffee shop with Allen and Lynsey says, we will photograph the rooster everywhere we stop on our journey towards Marfa. He will be our sign, our register of place. The problem is Molly drives off with her lovely camera and I only have a phone. Luckily, the rooster responds well to i-phone attention. Preens, holds still while I teeter and shake.

In Harper where we get gas he stands beneath a wall on which is painted a much larger than life US flag and under it a large star of David and the slogan: Stand By Israel. Over the doorway on the same wall it says Building for Sale. Somehow my focus is screwy and the rooster is cut out of the picture.

He does appear, albeit tinily at the bottom of the frame, under two bucking broncos, at Lowe’s a local market in Fort Stockton. We had a cup of tea at a restaurant here and the young Mexican American who served us wouldn’t take any payment, it’s just water he said. I bought a bar of fancy dark chocolate with sea salt, an anomolous foreign import, and Katie bought a local newspaper. We ate the chocolate at the Rock House by the Rio Grande, it was musty.

In Marathon we have breakfast at Nancy’s Coffee shop. Under the large sign is scrawled, faintly, barely legible, “Foiled Again.” He stands in the large expanse of the dirt parking lot in front of our rooms. The horizon is so low it just peeks over his head.

We drive down into Big Bend National Park. At last and eventually we arrive at Terrlingua ghost town. There is a row of seats along the verandah of the saloon which is also a gift shop and also the hotel, next door to the Starlight Theatre and Bar which only opens at 5.00 so we will not get there, but it looks enticing, stars are painted on the ceiling. On the verandah everyone has a bottle in hand, slow gossip fuels the atmosphere. New people in town, everyone is alert but pretends to notice nothing. Though they all noticed Nora. Someone has already picked up the keys to the Rock House, and when I ask who she says a boy and a girl with tattoos. Nora later tells us that on her way out a woman grabs her arm to comment on her tattoos and confides loudly that she has her ex boyfriend’s name tattoed on her butt.

At the Rock House the Rooster sits on a table, the Rio Grande behind him. And then I bring him in for the night to sit safely at the foot of my bed. There are rooster thieves abroad, and vigilance is required.

IMG_1978

Now we are here, in Marfa, the rooster and I. You would not exactly call him Juddesque, my rooster. Picturesque, yes definitely. Ex-situ incarnate.

I shall take him home this rooster, a Texan I guess, home to California where he will be charged to remember all the fantastical details of this journey which I shall forget slowly, memory by memory.

IMG_2041

Australia Flashes 1

Travel

“I hate travelling and explorers.”

These words, the opening words of Levi-Strauss’ Triste Tropiques have been lying in wait; now they leap out and ambush me, mockingly as I think about journeys, travel, detours and interruptions.

Missed Connection

I am on a tram from the city, heading out to Northcote. Behind me two academics are discussing grants, who gets them and who doesn’t, how to pitch a project. One of them is disgruntled, kvetching about a colleague who suddenly has started embracing their Jewishness, excavating family history and writing about the holocaust. He says “I’m a good Jew as Jews go not religious mind you but gotta track record, been doing this stuff for years, and they knocked me back. Again.” “Suck it up Sunshine” says the other bloke. During this exchange a man shuffles into the seat next to me, talking as he comes, talking as he goes. Torture, he says, on the other hand what about torture, in and out of the hospital, that’s me in and out, schizophrenic they say, they say it’s a diagnosis, well maybe who’s to say but that’s no excuse to torture a person, they’ll use any excuse the government, any excuse, on the other hand who’s to say I’m not Australian, whose business is it, don’t have to tell the world where you come from, they’ll get it out of you in the end, what about the camps, detention camps they call them, well what’s legal if it comes to that, what’s a holocaust, tell me about diagnosis me mum they diagnosed her as leukemia they got into her bones they said things in her bones, on the other hand how can you save a person when it’s in the bones, and there’s no flesh there’s no fat skin and bones, they say I’m a bob short you can say a slice short of a sandwich but that’s no reason to torture a person the government they want to get into yer head, want to put everyone in camps so they can say things in peoples’ heads but on the other hand where are you going to find food skin and bones it’s a good day today sun shining well I hope you have a nice evening and look out for yerself, yeh it’s a nice evening.

I have turned my head to look at him during some of the speech, he is addressing a point in space, seemingly unaware of my presence. I turn back. We sit next to each other each looking straight ahead. Nice evening, I assume, is simply part of a stream of consciousness, which will last the entire tram ride. But as it turns out “look out for yerself” is in fact the termination of a speech at once public and private. Yerself is me. I turn to look at him, to reciprocate, but a fraction too late, just as he himself turns away, gets up and lopes off the tram.

Blown Through the Air

Falling asleep in the air, surfacing in San Diego, creepily hot in mid winter. The garden is confused: fruit trees blooming, lettuces wilting, chickens discombobulated, facing with befuddlement the question: To lay or not to lay today? today is it winter or is today not winter not today?

Leaving Australia as temperatures climbed over a hundred degrees. On the East coast of the U.S. in grubby smouldering cities where only sometimes snow flitters fitfully across the landscape there are four inches today.

Wild fires are breaking out in Australia and in California. How wild I wonder? Raging yes, but unrelated to the domestic?

It’s a bit like sex in the grass, breakfast in bed, says J, it sounds like a splendid idea. Nevertheless he brings me a tray with coddled eggs (Holly’s eggs: Creamy saffron yolks) demure in pastoral china, and a slice of toast festooned with two thick slices of Fat Dave’s bacon. Succulent, salty. Lula Mae stopped laying this week, the day that Holly started. They coordinate the rationing of human pleasure.

I have been a trifle chookless while travelling. Though In Hawaii at Hanauma Bay where I went snorkeling there were wild chickens on the beach. Not very wild, wild once perhaps for a while after escaping domesticity, now semi-naturalized on the beach, not exactly cuddling up but certainly making do quite well with peckings and pickings from human picnics. In Austinmer, on our way down to the beach for an early morning swim, Sarah took me by some chickens to whom she ritually throws her apple core, broken into pieces. In Melbourne each morning I would let Helen’s chickens, making an almighty ruckus as soon as light filtered into the world, out of their coop. After I left and temperatures soared she put ice cubes in their water and posted photos of them sheltering under the shade of the lime trees. And an image of the dog standing, just standing motionless, in the heat in the fish pond. Dazzle the water nymph, wrote Rosa.

So much to do. Pruning in particular—fruit trees, roses, grape vines—and searching for missing library books, buried under dust and piles of other books and mountains of accumulated fines. There is one I cannot find, Notes of a Native Son. I had begun to think of this book as mine I’ve had it so long, renewing it each year. Perhaps someone nicked it, or I left it somewhere like at the hospital or perhaps it has gotten mixed up with gardening books, I’ll check again today. Or perhaps not. When a book goes missing this is usually what I do: buy a replacement cheap and take it into the library, mock-mournful shame-faced, and the nice librarian Jimmy always says, you know we don’t do this you have to pay the fine on-line, and then he takes the book I offer and looks it over, quizzical, as though it’s a novelty for him and a vaguely wondrous event, to hold a book in his hands. And then he says, OK, this time, but it’s the last time. But this time I feel in my bones that eventually James Baldwin will turn up at home and I shall keep him, or it, that library book that has spent so many hours in my hands, made grubby with breakfast stains. After travelling with a kindle, its lightness—while in motion—has now become unbearable, hence this compulsion to pay the fine, as though then the book will materialize. Partly through superstition (paying the fine will magic the book into the world again; but also via an irrational though tenacious inkling that my heroic fine will keep the doors of the library open) I bow to institutional punishment; but I also bow down in homage to the world of books, of solid three dimensional sticky objects that sometimes carry you away on a fluid flowing stream, a river into which you can dangle a foot and despite what the philosopher says you can return and do it again and again it is the same river, you can find yourself again, albeit differently. Like Inside Llewyn Davis which we saw last night. That gasp of recognition as he encounters the man in the suit in the alley again, or is it for the first time, or the second time, and gets his balls kicked in. You think for a moment it may turn out differently, better.

In homage too to Baldwin. How he manages words and how they correlate or not with feelings and how feelings infiltrate and stoke the fire of politics. The fire. “Stranger in the Village” is, at any time and in any place even though of course time and place are specific and matter, an extraordinary essay, in its evocation rather than description, of what today is endlessly in so many contexts called “otherness.” A fire that burns through thickets of sentiment. Exile: what does it feel like, where does it feel, how to think it?

In Australia there is much provocation to think of exile and asylum. Thousands of asylum seekers confined in Detention camps, on and off-shore. One government after another, Labour included, passing the buck. A sticky sensation of guilt and shame adhering to my Australian passport.

But this sensation was not everything. The Australian sojourn was simply marvelous: a passport to pleasure. It came at the right time: Bondi Beach in summer, Fitzroy street, friendships renewed, gardens native and otherwise to walk in, long conversations, spicy Asian food, the bats the black bats swooping through an indigo sky, all this worked better than any drugs.

I got better and better. But was blindsided by others getting iller and iller. I guess this happens when you are away and return and see how everyone is older and not quite as young as we all once were. I felt a niggling sense of shame that I—who make such an habitual hue and cry about not-being-well—should be so well when others all around me were teetering like skittles, battling with demons of pain and separation, incomprehensible medical diagnoses and imminent death. I remind myself: there is no hierarchy of suffering. If I write in order to combat the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that chronic illness can foster, I write for other reasons too, some merely neurotic, some to do with the pleasure afforded by any addiction, and for some reasons (though reason seems far too grand a concept) to do with a sense that putting into words this thing called illness (yes I call it thus even though there are therapeutic regimes that advise rethinking it as “wellness opportunity”) produces a materiality, albeit chimeric and diaphanous, something that can spark recognition, something that can be passed from hand to hand, blown through the air or kicked from one place to another.

Well, that’s the hope.

I had an immunoglobulin infusion the day after returning, blood tests still looking good, feeling fine, but of course it’s a just a matter of time before the symptoms return. Kipps asked me if I’d finished the book. I think he does not know what a holiday is. Lucky for me he works so hard. As expected the ball is in my court, but the choice is more clear cut than often: Continue without drugs for as long as six months if this good runs lasts that long, or start back on a low dose of revlimid with or without the ritoxumab. Certainly I would opt not to do the combination. Too many infusions and all the stuff that goes with that. But Sheila, wonderful Nurse Sheila, said that it would be possible to do the revlimid off-protocol so I wouldn’t be tied down by endless testing and could arrange labs with her and be able to travel. It’ll cost something but not a lot. The simple truth is this: I don’t want to think about it now. Am going to put it off for a month but then will probably opt for what Kipps sees as a pro-active move and the possibility of staving off the next big treatment for longer.

In future posts I will sketch some vignettes of this Australian escape. For if obsession is potentially curative so too is travel. Obsession narrows the gaze and travel expands it. Though they are not as antinomous as it might at first appear. Travel, good if you can get it, is a way of interrupting and shaking the quotidian. Recharging and reshaping.

I take heart from Pamela Brown, ironically wry and curiously lyrical. In her latest book of poems, Home by Dark, which she gave me over cups of tea in a café at Edgecliff station, she writes

 Like Michael said,

Now we’ll spend

The rest of our lives

Watching our friends die

But, and elsewhere, she also writes

 This is my quotidian

But it’s not everything

Frenzied Calm

The obsession grows slowly, building in momentum. In the beginning it tickles, a feather playing whimsically over the surface of your skin, a pleasurable sensation. Delicately a world opens up, a world of the imagination, a “what if” universe.

It begins as a stray thought, a meandering fantasy. You are into your sixth month of chemo treatment, and have made a radical, anxiety fraught decision – to retire. On the one hand this is an acknowledgement that time is running out and on the other hand it’s a hedging of bets: that this way you can stretch time, make more of it, more time of your own choosing, less time whittled away in academic responsibilities and more time spent writing, gardening, cooking, with friends. Fuelled by a fantasy of slow time and slow food you nevertheless imagine rapidity: what if you had a stove that heats up more quickly, that cooks more speedily, that responds to your touch the way his car anticipates James Bond’s every tactile desire. What if there were gas burners that could alternate between flames shooting into the sky and the merest whisper of heat. Imagine not having to get down on your knees to use the broiler. Imagine having all four rings that work, tossing that pair of pliers you use in place of a missing knob.

And then you think well why not, why not give myself a retirement present? An idle thought.

You start dreaming, in a desultory way, about kitchen ranges. Just occasionally, while waiting for the clothes to dry, the water to boil, the chickens to lay an egg. The thought starts idling, seldom switches off, purrs away this side of consciousness. You encounter some beautiful ranges on line. Italian. Far too expensive. Gorgeous primary colors and great design – chunky yet streamlined. Suddenly kitchen ranges seem to pop up in conversation everywhere. Everyone has an opinion. Even people you’d always imagined as rat runners, always eating out, grabbing fast-food-with-the works and eating on the run, they too have range stories. Every house you visit lures you into the kitchen, every kitchen range you encounter elicits a story, a saga of mishaps, opinionated suggestions, alarming anecdotes. In Nasser’s kitchen you come face to face with the desired Italian range, magnetic, gleaming redly. You feel that this undoubtedly is it, the decision is made. Then you open the oven and it’s the size of a shoebox. So that puts a kibosh on that, and the search is on. You start visiting show rooms, department stores, specialty appliance shops, talking to the sales people and experts, reading reviews and users’ comments on cooking sites. And all the information you receive is totally contradictory. Nevertheless there is some pleasure in the exercise. It takes up time, time that could be devoted to other things. It takes up space in your head and on your desk where bits of paper are strewn, scraps on which are scrawled notes about ranges, scraps mixed up with insurance elective forms, with thick booklets on how to fill out retirement forms, and receipts for drugs that have to be checked against the FAS list, and lists of foods that are poisonous to chickens. You chuck that list, the chickens eat everything. You start a folder called Ranges.

It seems you might have to stretch the budget a bit to get the kind of range you want.

The horizon of desire expands. Eating your breakfast you imagine your beautiful new stove, you imagine it orange. You look at the timber floor, scratched, worn down to paper thinness. You look at the dingy walls, you look at the grungy greyish cabinets, painted an aeon ago. You look at the bulky energy-guzzling lights. They look back at you.

So you start researching sustainable flooring. Seized by nostalgia you are seduced into the world of linoleum, bewitched by the range of colors and patterns, play dough colors, gorgeously marbled, slightly unreal. You order samples and they come in great big boxes and take up lots of space. You start cruising around paint shops picking up swatches, speculating, merely speculating, what color walls, you wonder, would set off a Pop Rocket floor. Idly. Just for fun.

And so it begins. You rename your Ranges file: “Kitchen.” The idling revs up. You imagine a creamy color for the walls, not-quite-white, off-white perhaps, though your purchase on color is clearly precarious. The descriptive confusion, however, is just beginning, you are about to enter a forest, a delirious entanglement of names and colors that seemingly bear no relation to one another, and yet are always presented categorically in columns and rows, or in families, as though they accord to genre specificity, to taxonomic logic. Puppy Paws, French Manicure, Cappuccino Froth, Papaya, Frappe, Squish-Squash, Little Angel, Pineapple Fizz, Havana Cream.The difference between Moonlight and Morning Sunshine is infinitesimal if it exists at all. You wake in the gloom of indeterminacy, gathering strength to face the forms, the endless insurance forms in which you have to find exactly the right words to describe your disability, make elections, decide once and for all how much income you’ll get each month versus pay-outs to your partner when you die. The more you get now, the less he gets when you pop off. You put the forms away, unfilled-in. Nevertheless you feel pleased with yourself, your capacity to make at least a few decisions, today you will narrow the range of possible kitchen paint colors. You cruise around the city collecting paint samples. You get home and try them out and they all look different in situ, all wrong. Start again. Like a lepidopterist organizing their butterfly collection you are completely immersed in the project, captivated by detail, utterly content.

Details, ah yes, the myriad swarming details. Such as knobs for the cabinets. On the industrial edges of the city you find Knob Heaven and float amidst the offerings, a Holly Go Lightly buoyed up by treasure in this Tiffanys of Hardware. Ebay opens up even further opportunities and choices. You spend hours and hours there, discover a glass color called Coke bottle green, aka Depression Green. It is warm ice: clear, pale, translucent. You purchase samples to compare, one or two here another few there, you will send them back if they aren’t right. Now the house is full of boxes of knobs. Most aren’t right. It seems translucent green is a difficult color to render, and not all depression green glass is created equal.

And another detail—those bulky dim energy-guzzling lights, they have to go, cannot survive in your new streamlined gourmet paradise. LED ceiling lights, this you can get a handle on, but under-the-cabinet lights, this is mysterious. What is the difference between strips, tapes and diffusers? You find an environmental lighting place and a charming engineer who is happy to explain it all to a dumbass Martha Stewart wannabee.

Could it be that the knobs are a way of screwing down anxiety? It’s true that the more you screw the more a calm seeps into the kitchen, but it is a calm infiltrated by willowy strands of frenzy.

This frenzied calm is not unfamiliar. It comes with fixation, especially a new one, a new one displacing or not inconceivably augmenting, old obsessions. It brings pleasure: You wallow luxuriously in endless rolling waves of choice.

Painters come, inspect, frown and then smile and say: this is easy, will take no time. They estimate a week, ten days at the most. We choose a guy called Jack, he’s worked with a lot of old houses, he flatters our small Californian bungalow, he says that when he’s finished it will look like an original craftsman. He is reassuring. He tells us he teams with an electrician, a whizz at working with old houses, at figuring things out. He’s Jack too. The painter says, I’m Little Jack, he’s Big Jack. Big Jack, when he comes on board, tells me that he taught Little Jack everything he knows.

To compensate for the mid-high-end range it will be a modest “remodel” – no tearing down of walls or installing new cabinets. You will keep the deep green formica counter and the old wooden cabinets even though the Jacks have called them “carcasses.” Just a simple paint job, new flooring, new stove. Oh and what about the rusty clugging fridge? You narrow your choices, make decisions about things, use this opportunity to expunge the clutter. There is a long list of things, big things like a commercial stove (heavy but petite, adapted to a small domestic space), a new bisque fridge, a shiny hood, and small things like hooks and knobs and icy glass splash back tiles. All these things will make your kitchen cleaner, sleeker, more stream-lined, easier to work in.

Speaking of things, this is a period of transition. As a retiring Buddhist, or a Buddhist retiring, I am in the process of letting go, infinitesimally, of material things. This relinquishing isn’t like renouncing pleasurable things for Lent. It isn’t really about things as things, it’s more about a state of mind. It’s Ok to love plants and cultivate them, but not to lust after the cerise blossoms of the peach called Baron. It’s ok to raise chickens in your backyard, but not to love them immoderately. It’s a question of proportion. This I know.

I think of this kitchen adventure as a last fling with things, a slow waltz with the sensuous cushioning of daily life.

I had no idea how slow that slow waltz would be.

It begins with a rearrangement of the whole house. Everything has to be taken out of the kitchen. It’s a small kitchen. Not much stuff, you’d think. Yet box after box after box fills up. We starting by labeling scrupulously, in the end the garlic press and paintings and the iron and cans of cat food are flung into the same box. At two o’clock in the morning we run out of boxes, so stuff is just carried through to the spare room where the bed is upended to make space. Cook books are all over the living room. You have to step over large containers of vinegar, toilet rolls, tins of tuna.

The house has to be entirely rearranged. The entry to the attic is through my miniscule closet overcrowded with clothes, with fantasies of a more fashionable life than I get to lead in my mundane chicken-bound existence. The Jacks have to enter the attic in order to ascertain where the beams are in the kitchen, to construct a duct from the newly installed hood out through the ceiling. They return through the attic and into the bedroom in clouds of spurious grey matter. So I have to drag all my clothes out. It begins systematically but in the end, or very soon, I start throwing things randomly into black plastic trash bags. For the next six weeks I will wear the same three articles of clothing again and again, day after day.

We are all discombobulated, but the cats most of all. Elvis and Roxy are freaked and suspicious. Nothing is in its right place. They cannot enter the house through their normal way – a cat door that leads from the back garden into the kitchen. We have to rig up a ramp to the back bedroom and leave the window wide open. The chickens take this as an open invitation: Mi casa es tu casa. Chickens and cats pick their way over a forest floor of things—boxes of kitchen items and bags of clothes, a blender, toaster, food processor, quesadilla maker, cake tins, wooden spoons, my mother’s fish knives. The detritus of human hubris. Elvis who has ignored J for twelve years turns his back on me each night and curls up in the crook of J’s leg. He holds me responsible. He is right, and my heart is crumbling.

As work begins on the kitchen clouds of dust, shards of dried (old and toxic) paint, globules of grouting, slivers of rotten wood fly into the air and spread through the open doors and windows into the rest of the house. You fight your way through a fog of filth, space travelers entering an alien planet. Big Jack and Little Jack, and J too, are all indifferent to what I consider filth. And all three are indifferent to the difference between open and closed doors. You cough and splutter and seethe and go around closing doors and windows. Two minutes later they are open again. You close them. You watch the dust settle daily over the few bowls and plates that have been secreted in the living room for eating off laps, over clothes, CDs, plants, the cats’ food, tea towels, books, bread. My skin is scaly. Irritation and stress fester and bubble. I cannot comprehend this indifference to filth. The three men no doubt consider me fanatical and as Buddhists and Painters and Electricians and Husbands know, fanaticism is pointless. What does it matter? Well to me matter out of place is dirt. The more displaced the more alarming. I imagine the filth as endemic, the project of cleanliness never ending. I have become the suburban Woman of the Dunes, endlessly removing sand that seeps back through the cracks, rising up, engulfing the universe.

If only I were a chicken. The greatest joy for a chicken is to take a dust bath, to hunker down into the earth under the pepper tree to scrabble and scratch and hurl the body around and fluff the feathers and make sure grit infiltrates every feathery layer, and then to shake and shimmy and fill the air with clouds of dust.

For meals we have to perch on the edge of chairs clutching our plastic bowls of cereal, or hard boiled eggs, or sandwiches bought down the road. At lunch we turn on the TV and we are in a courtroom drama. Today, June 10th 2013, the trial of George Zimmerman begins. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, while visiting his father in a gated community in which Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer. Trayvon Martin was carrying skittles and a can of iced tea. He was not carrying a gun.

We aren’t the only people in this country, and in the world, to be drawn to the TV today, to cell phones, to laptops, to radios. This trial has been much anticipated, preceded by protest and by media debate about racial profiling, vigilantism and, given the proliferation of guns in this country, laws governing the use of deadly force. The protests were prompted by the failure of the Sanford police to arrest Zimmerman. Before a special prosecutor assigned to the case ordered Zimmerman’s arrest, thousands of protesters gathered in Sanford, Miami, New York and elsewhere, many wearing hoodies like the one Martin had on the night he died. President Barack Obama said that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

Forty four days passed before Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, to which he is pleading not guilty. In order to secure a conviction prosecutors must show that Zimmerman acted with ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent.

One day follows another, dates crop up and fall into line, stories follow a sequence, history is narrated. Sometimes, however, the flow of time is barbed. Time spins furiously in slow motion, in Spartacus time spinning wheels are intercepted by spurs, spokes, foreign bodies. Collisions occur: Time is derailed.

Perhaps I have grown more particular, sensitive to dirt, to alien microscopic creatures, since having CLL. With a damaged immune system you get to be more cautious. Neurotic even. You imagine things: you imagine the state of Jack’s lungs and skin as he scorns to wear a mask, you ask yourself what if those lurgies glom onto my wonky immune system? What if Elvis’ asthma is exacerbated and he has a fit and dies? The line between pathology and realism is a fragile line. One thing leads to another. What if the colors are all wrong and Big Jack and Little Jack become fixtures in the kitchen, here to stay forever, forever never ending, never completing. The “what if” universe in which you wallowed, purring, fed by and feeding a luxuriously obsessive fantasy has changed its contours and tones. ‘What if’ is now a perpetual unrelenting anticipation of disaster.

Conceivably, it has nothing to do with CLL, is simply a matter of categorical dissonance. Mary Douglas speaks to me in magisterial tones: Categories, she says, are in and of themselves spurious. There is no absolute distinction between clean and dirty, no invincible boundary, what is dirty in certain societies or circumstances may be clean in another. The point is not any absolute difference but rather the processes and attempts and elaborate rituals erected to instantiate those distinctions, to make sense of the world, to ensure order. Mary Douglas speaks to me and I listen, and it makes no difference. Or put it this way: the fault line between filth and cleanliness, purity and danger, opens an invincible crack of opportunity for that night stalker: obsession.

Again, we find ourselves in front of the television. Every lunch time we turn our backs on the chaos in our house and enter the public courtroom. The trial begins with jury selection, a process that, as it turns out, will take nine days. Prosecutors and defence lawyers cannot overtly use race as a reason to challenge a juror. But jury selection is a space where the insularity and focused particularity of the court is haunted by ghosts and demons that infest the larger location and culture. Animated, those ghosts invade the courtroom: invisible, but not nameless. Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys, Martin lee Anderson …Remember Rodney King—an African American man brutally beaten by white cops in Los Angeles in 1991, an incident vividly captured on videotape. Nevertheless a jury without black representation (after the venue was moved from Los Angeles to the virtually all-white Simi Valley) acquitted the officers of state criminal charges.

On Day 5 of Jury Selection a middle-aged black man who works in a school describes his family and friends’ reaction to Martin’s death as “typical,” given a history of violence against African-American men in the U.S.

Day 9.  A six woman jury is selected, five are white and the other black/Hispanic.

 At the end of the day we turn to the news and analysis and interviews. It is becoming a habit, a fixation, an obsession.

Every so often, randomly it seems, Word announces that it’s in Compatibility Mode. What, I wonder, is Incompatibility Mode? Computer dumb, relationship savvy (or battle scarred) I can say with some confidence what Incompatibility Mode is in a relationship. It occurs in the kitchen. J and I, after some years of frustration in a shared kitchen, worked out a modus operandi, or compatibility mode. The key is not-sharing. He is easy going, unmindful, non-judgemental, a great cook, full of invention and surprise. I’m the sort who cleans up as they go, and can’t help offering generous dollops of free advice—albeit well considered, based on many years of perfecting a range of kitchen techniques, of doing things just so, this way precisely, and no other. He’s the sort of person who produces utter chaos in the kitchen, using every available pan and pot and utensil, several different kinds of oil and flour and sugar much of which lands up on the floor along with vegetable peelings and a few fugitive oily anchovies. All squished and trodden under foot. Out of all this apparent chaos and disorder J invariably produces a marvelous meal, a wondrous alchemical concoction. But then, afterwards, replete and sated I would be left to face the chaos and would have to spend many hours washing, cleaning, sorting. There would be moaning, whingeing, recriminations. For him, after my turn at cooking, clean up would be a breeze. Moaning, whingeing and recriminations would follow—from me. The solution we found was to reconfigure the division of labor: whoever cooks, cleans – the kitchen is theirs for the night. Peace ensued.

“Fucking punks. These assholes always get away.” Prosecutor John Guy quotes Zimmerman from a tape of a call he made to a non-emergency police number after he spotted Martin walking around the gated community where he lived. We are riveted to the television for the first day of testimony. June 24.The opposing attorneys set the scene today. “We think that this is a simple case,” says Benjamin Crump, the family’s solicitor, outside court. “There are two important facts in this case. Number one, George Zimmerman was a grown man with a gun, and number two, Trayvon Martin was a minor who had no blood on his hands. Literally he had no blood on his hands.” Defense attorney West: “George Zimmerman is not guilty of murder. He shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense after being viciously attacked.” The claim is that, after the two got into a scuffle Martin was slamming Zimmerman’s head into the concrete pavement when he fired his semi-automatic pistol and shot him in the chest.

“Stand your ground” is not mentioned today – and indeed the 2005 law will not be mentioned or actively invoked in court during the entire trial. But it is this law that provides the scaffolding, that makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing in Florida, and it is what will put the onus of proof in this case on the prosecution. The State will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense. Zimmerman’s team will merely have to argue that Zimmerman felt threatened.

Prior to 2005 most states required you to retreat from a confrontation unless you were inside your own home. But in 2005 Florida, urged on by the extremely powerful gun lobby headed by the National Rifle Association, became the first state to pass a “stand your ground” law. Now 25 states have these “shoot first” laws.

Imagine Jack arrives at my house one day while I am in the garden planting bulbs, dibber tucked into one side of my belt, hand gun on the other side. I refuse him entry, say I’ve had enough, cannot bear this home invasion a moment longer. He becomes abusive, starts cursing and lunges at me. I feel threatened and so, in self-defence, pull my gun and shoot. He falls to the ground, dead. Painter dead as a dodo. Under protection of “shoot first” laws I am authorized to use deadly force even if the person who makes me feel threatened, let’s call him Jack, is—like Martin—unarmed. An upright and righteous citizen-sheriff I am safe from prosecution.

Or maybe not. It would be easier I imagine if the hoody that Jack habitually wears were pulled low over a black face. My sense of threat would be more believable to a jury. Or then again, maybe not. Remember the Florida case of Marissa Alexander, who last year cited the Stand Your Ground law to justify firing what she said was a warning shot to protect herself from her abusive husband. No one was killed or injured.But that defense was rejected and she was convicted by the same state attorney’s office prosecuting the killing of Trayvon Martin. She is currently serving a 20-year sentence.

No doubt there are many legal complications, loopholes and explanations to be taken into account. Nevertheless, U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, of Jacksonville, an advocate for Alexander, seemed to have touched a nerve when she said at the time of sentencing, “The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today. One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the `Stand Your Ground Law’ will not apply to them. … The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently.”

Brown is a woman not afraid to exercise rhetorical flair, and not afraid to say the R word. During the Haiti crisis in 2004 she referred to the Buah administration policies on Haiti as “racist”, and called his representatives a “bunch of white men.” When Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriego said that, as a Mexican American, he deeply resented “being called a racist and branded a white man,” Brown lobbed back: “you all look alike to me.”

Peace ensued. But now, in the domain of the kitchen, our orbits collide, a ferocious incompatibility reigns.

Exchanges might go something like this:

These light switches looked elegantly off-white, in their packaging in Home Depot, I say to J, but up on the wall, here in the kitchen, they look grey and murky. We’ll have to go back and change them.

“Oh, they aren’t so bad. I can live with them.”

Live with them! For the rest of your life you can get up every day and face this ugliness and live with it?

Or like this:

Do you have any receipts?

“Receipts for what?”

Well, for instance the wax furniture paste we had to buy to fix the scratches on the counter top the painters made? Or the extra primer, or the screws for the knobs, or the drill we had to buy to cut the glass tiles……

“Hmmm, I wonder where they are. Don’t worry they are somewhere, they’ll turn up.”

Or

“Everything went well today, it’s looking great!” Thus J entices you into the kitchen. You look, nothing seems to have changed. You look closely, peering into every corner, into the back of every cupboard. Aha! There’s only one coat of paint on this shelf. “Oh, I didn’t notice. Do you think it matters? When there are things on the shelf no one will notice.” No one?! Who is this phantom No One? This No One reconciled to half assed mediocrity.

“Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you’re attacked, you’re supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.” These are the words of former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer, championing the “stand your ground” law.

You feel you are losing your kitchen and it may never come back to you. I think about Zimmerman on the look-out for outsiders, for people who (as he said in a police interview) “victimize the neighborhood”: Criminals, punks invading his space, intent on destroying the gated calmness of his community. I don’t want to leave the house, because there’s always something left undone, overlooked, incompleted, botched. But I have to leave the house, have to keep returning to the paint shop because we can cut costs this way, Big Jack and Little Jack get paid by the hour and run by the seat of their pants, fixated on the job, unmindful of how the future unfurls. We are always running out of primer, out of this, out of that: rollers, paint trays, rolls of plastic, sand paper, buckets, primer, more primer, just another quart of trim. You also have to keep returning to the environmental lights shop to consult and get advice. Big Jack, who is also Old Jack, knows nothing—it turns out—about LEDs. When I try tentatively to explain the difference in voltage he looks at me contemptuously and says “I’ve been installing lights for sixty years.” He proceeds to fuck up grandly. So over the weekend we call in another electrician, a green guy J knows through yoga circles, who unearths the problem, fixes it and charges quite a lot. You are nervous about raising this with Big Jack so you raise it with Little Jack who says he’ll sort it. And then he adds, “Big Jack’s not as young as he once was. But he taught me everything I know.”

Day 7, July 1st. Detective Chris Serino takes the stand, and audio and video recordings of police interviews with Zimmerman in the days following the shooting which had been made public during the discovery phase of the case were replayed in court today. In these interviews Serino appears skeptical and pushes Zimmerman, suggests that he was running after Martin before the confrontation, suggests that he shouldn’t have followed Martin after a police operator had told him he did not need to, asks Zimmerman if it hadn’t occurred to him to ask Martin what he was doing there. Racial profiling aside, the cops seem not entirely happy with these law enforcement mavericks who take it upon themselves to do a job the police can do quite well themselves. Yet today, very calm and considered in the box, Serino explains that the questioning was tactical, a “challenge interview” where detectives try to break someone’s story to make sure they’re telling the truth. He was persuaded that Zimmerman was indeed telling the truth. “In this particular case, he could have been considered a victim, also,” he concluded.

There is however, one interesting moment in the interviews that contests the (not without foundation) stereotype of the profiling proclivities of the Florida police.

Serino: What is that you’re whispering? Fucking what?

Zimmerman: Punks.

Serino: Fucking punks. He wasn’t a fucking punk. (clears throat)

Serino had initially recommended a charge of Manslaughter, which most legal experts agree would have had a much greater chance of conviction than second degree murder. Why did he change his mind? What pressures and negotiations and deals occurred? This we might never know, but for sure we can assume that the judiciary and the police and the neighborhood watches and various political pressures intermesh in complex and contorted ways.

On this day too an audio analysis expert for the FBI testifies that the origin of the screams on an audio tape of the altercation cannot be determined. Contradictory evidence will be submitted: Both Martin’s mother and Zimmerman’s will attest that the voice is that of “my son.”

How electricity is generated and how it moves in circuits from the sun and through a dwelling is hard to imagine but not as complicated as circuits of indebtedness, circuits of giving and receiving, owing and repaying, commissioning and paying by the hour for services received, for immediate labor embodied in skills accumulated over years of experience. Priming—this is tough and meticulous work, tedious and slow. You are appreciative of the Jacks’ attentiveness to this part of the process, you bear witness to the pain in a sprained wrist, the back that’s a bit crooked, the legs that buckle occasionally. You know that even though Little Jack in a moment of exasperation told you your cabinets were a piece of crap and should be trashed this hasn’t prevented his patient persistence, pride in a job well done, in cabinets that begin to gleam as the final coats of filtered sunlight slither on. You forget sometimes to ask them what they think, to show appreciation, you don’t want to behave like a Madam, but you want the guys to know that you know what you want. Yet the more the job progresses and drags on the less you feel you know what you want, and the more perfection bays at your heels, aggravating everyone’s anxiety.

Day Fifteen. It has felt as though this trial will never end. Day after day we pull the plastic shroud off the television, dust cloths off the sofa, prepare our feast of hard boiled eggs and switch on the cable news. Now, after almost three weeks of testimony, after the interrogation of 58 witnesses, it is over. July 13. Not guilty. Race has hardly been mentioned in court. The Prosecution said, today, after the verdict, “This case has never been about race or the right to bear arms. We believe this case all along was about boundaries, and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”

The processes and attempts and elaborate rituals erected to instantiate and often to blur boundaries, to make sense of the world, to ensure order. Clean and dirty, black and white, a threatening act and an act of self-defence. Lines of continuity, jagged lines of differentiation. Consider the line of continuity between the old lawless South and the South today where racial violence might enjoy legal sanction. Boundaries. Categories. Where are the fault lines?

There has been one witness who’s rocked the boat, who’s raised the issue of race. Rachel Jeantel—spiky and insolent, contemptuous of protocol, uneasy in court, ungroomed for public appearance—was Trayvon Martin’s friend. He called her just before he died. Over nearly two days, days 3 and 4, Jeantel’s testimony was broadcast live, nonstop, on cable news. It was riveting, not just because of revelations and certainly not because of her persuasive powers, but because of the dissonance she introduced into the proceedings, her disturbance of the tacit agreement to not discuss race or gun laws. In her reluctant laconic sullenness she danced into the court, out through the television set, into the world and into my dusty house like a skirmishing corkscrew. Jeantel said she overheard Martin demand, “What are you following me for?” and then yell, “Get off! Get off!” before his cellphone went dead. She testified that he described being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker” as he walked through the neighborhood.

“Do people that you live around and with call white people, ‘creepy-ass crackers’?” the Defence asked.

“Not creepy. But cracker, yeah,” Jeantel said.

“You’re saying that in the culture that you live in, in your community, people there call white people crackers?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

When the defence suggested that Martin attacked Zimmerman she blurted out “That’s retarded, sir.” It was the conjunction of those two words—“Sir” and “Retarded”—that sparked a macabre levity, for the first time in weeks J and I roared with laughter. It was as though the unconscious of half the US erupted for a moment, shattering the precarious compact of civility, exposing how frenzied is the calm.

You imagine a deep dark hole in this country into which all the puddles, all the rivers of heartache and injustice perpetrated by the judicial system trickle and disappear. They don’t always mesh: justice and the efficiency of the system.

The chickens are neglected. They are fed and watered, let out in the morning and locked up at night. There is no time that isn’t kitchen time, or Trayvon time, no time to pick up Holly and stroke her neck, watch her eye lids flutter and close as she sinks into sleep.

So when Katie and Susan visit they pick up the chickens and murmur sweet nothings. I am thrilled that they are here, not only because they are who they are, but also because it gives me license to shut the door on the kitchen for three days, walk away from it, not think about it. But Katie and Susan discern a cranky demeanor and try shucking, teasing, easing out the oysterish story. To deflect their attention from my fixations I tell them a story about my maternal grandmother who lived in the inner suburbs of Salisbury in colonial Rhodesia. Every night she drank a lot of whisky. But her drinking was not random. It was ordered, repetitive and ritualized. She would never touch a drop during the day, would only begin at six o’clock in the evening, just as the television news came on, though the news was preceded by preparations, undertaken by the cook but overseen by her: ensuring the soda siphon was full, the tray laid with her special glass, a tumbler of ice and a decanter of whisky. Two minutes before six she would rush from the verandah into the living room, settle into her armchair, switch the TV on and as the news began take her first sip of whiskey and soda. After the news she would continue sipping, dreamily edging into blotto land. I remember how she would regularly complain to my father about the weekend shabeens held by all the servants who lived in the neighborhood, they would make illegal stills of skokiaan during the week and have loud parties on Saturday night. “You simply can’t imagine, Jack,” she would say, “how strong skokiaan is, how it induces violence, it shouldn’t be allowed.” And he would roll his eyes, and say “And what about whisky?”

Katie and Susan look at me, incredulous, and they say, in unison: “Jack? Your father’s name was Jack?”

You imagine a small but deep and dark hole opening up in the middle of the kitchen, a deep dark hole which sucks, dollar by dollar, all your retirement savings.

The obsession grows slowly. At first a feather stroking your skin, teasing. Then you start making decisions, a mix of torture and delight. Then the renovations begin, and the obsession takes a turn. For the worse. No longer in control of a fantasy world, the world starts intruding, making demands, taking up time, insisting. The feather insidiously sprouts razor teeth, becomes a baby shark nibbling, nosing you into a corner, drawing blood.

 

 

Notes

Mary Douglas speaks to me …. Mary Douglas, an anthropologist and cultural theorist, wrote the highly influential Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (first published 1966).

there are many legal complications, loopholes and explanations .… mandatory-minimum sentencingnot the least of it in this case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

strawberry/fetish

Last night (wed 24th april, 2013) was a party to celebrate Milane who died four nights ago. She loved a good story, a wicked joke, a gathering of friends. And so we gathered, a small party hosted by Nina MacConnel and Tom Chino. All of us shell-shocked, seized in passing moments by grimness, but mostly there was conviviality and the sharing of food and drink, particularly gin and tonics, Milane’s favorite.

There was a gift for each of us. Before she died Milane sorted through her photos and there was a little bundle for each of us with our name on it. Moments forgotten: Memories returned. There I was in a celebrating group at a Christmas party at Bookworks, the bookshop Milane once owned, there in the Getty Villa garden, a trip made when the renovated Villa opened. At book signings. When we left the party that night Tom and Nina gave each of us a large white paper Japanese lantern to take home and light for Milane.

 **************

 In our garden, hung on the fence where apples are espaliered, close to the chicken run, the lantern has refused to stay put. It dances wildly, a white ghost cavorting in the dark swell of the night.

**************

Milane had a gift for gift giving, and an eye for things. She took great pleasure in choosing just the right thing. Around my garden there are various Milane manifestations, but the one I love the most is a cement dove, a garden ornament migrated from another era, cast aside I imagine at some swap meet where her anachronistic beauty caught Milane’s eye. I love to hold the dove, her solidity fits perfectly into the shape of a hand, her lines are simple, her proportions just right. I knew Milane was dying when she gave me a clay icon of Ganesha that she had brought many years ago from India. She told me that his dharma is to place and remove obstacles, and also that he is honored at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies and invoked as the Patron of Letters during writing sessions. As part- Elephant he likes to eat flowers, fresh ones every day, she told me. At first, and for a while after Milane died, I did make an offering everyday of fresh flowers, but the punctiliousness of the habit has waned, the offerings sporadic and whimsical. Like my efforts at writing, at meditation.

The dove sat for several years on a rock in the white garden (so grandly named, more for aspiration than actuality, all kinds of colors creep in, some muted, others garish like the scarlet and orange nasturtiums). Then came the chickens. In their frenzied searching for bugs, in their rampaging destruction, they knocked the dove to the ground and she broke in two. Distraught, I was ready to send the chickens to the pot. But Milane cocked an eyebrow and laughed. We jambed the two pieces together and wedged her high up in a corner of the bower where the grapes and wisteria grow. In summer you cannot see her, but she is there, and in winter when the foliage dies back, when the garden mutates, you can see her there, up high, looking down at the chickens.

Nina’s chickens were asleep that night, the night of the party. I imagined them dreaming of Milane, carousing together in their sleep, a communal feathery dreaming. I hold Nina responsible in part for the coming of chickens to Herman Avenue. Steve, sensing a whiff of chicken desire in the air, had been waging a gentle campaign that began by the mysterious monthly appearance in my letter box of Backyard Poultry. Gorgeous full page spreads of birds: the silver spangled Hamburg, white feathers adorned by black crescent and V-shaped spangles; the Bearded Buff Laced Polish, creamy white and golden buff laced together, sporting an extravagant feathery top knot; The Mottled Houdan Bantam – lustrous greenish-black feathers, with one of every two or three tipped in white. My dreams were infiltrated by Porcelain Bearded d’Uccle Bantam cockerels from Belgium, Black Breasted Red Aseels from India, and Old English Creoles. And then, almost every time I saw him, Steve would suggest that I visit Nina and take a look at her chickens. So eventually I succumbed and Nina invited us to lunch. Us was me and Helen Barnes. She and Jeffrey were continent swapping: while Jeffrey was visiting Australia she had travelled from Melbourne to keep me company in San Diego. I had a bone marrow biopsy scheduled for that morning and had forgotten what an ordeal it can be (forgetting is part of the game, selective memory a survival device). It took a long time and then there were all sorts of bureaucratic hospital diversions and waiting and waiting and waiting. So by the time we got to Nina’s—stopping by the farm to see Tom and gather some vegetables from the farm stand—it was long past the lunch hour. But the sight of the chickens was restorative, to see them roaming, pecking, zigzagging around, following one trail only to be distracted, tempted by a posse of insects over there, a potential worm in the woodwork over here. To examine their coop, how the perches were composed and food distributed, how their shelter organized—all of this was inspiring.

And then there were the eggs. The eggs did it. Helen and I watched spellbound as Nina conjured from the eggs an omelet, so effortlessly, breaking the eggs with one hand, flicking a wrist and twirling a fork and then on our plates: yellowness, the taste of yellow in our mouths.

The transmutation of matter. How an egg becomes something else. You look at an egg, there it sits on the kitchen counter, self-contained, perfect in its ovality. Perhaps it is a deep speckled brown, maybe pale blue or green. When you crack the shell, break the oval perfection, you release into the world a magical potential.

At the party on the 24th of April I could not eat much. Nausea was settling in. Stomach cramps. I could not resist Nina’s couscous and Tom’s vegetables, the mellow spices that tickled the tongue but did not obscure the taste of Chino carrots and peas and fava beans. But when it came to the desert I could not manage a single spoonful. I was sitting next to John Alexander who was entertaining our end of the table with hilarious stories of gardening mishaps. At one point he looked quizzically at me and said “what about strawberries. How do you like them?” Oh I like them I said. “How about I bring you a plate just of strawberries, no cake or cream?” It almost broke my heart to say no. It wasn’t that I didn’t want those strawberries that come from the garden of the gods. It wasn’t even that I couldn’t imagine the taste. It wasn’t that they made me feel sick. It’s just that there was a nausea right through me, not just in the stomach. John’s hilarious stories had made me forget for a while, or rather the story telling and ripples of laughter had absorbed the ukky sensation.

I do not think I would have felt this way if they were other sorts of strawberries. But Tom’s strawberries are something else. For several years the grad seminar I taught on Gardens and Public space, a peripatetic seminar, would visit Chino’s farm and Tom would fire up the tractor, load everyone on the trailer and off we would go on into the fields. But before that we would sit at the trestle table where the workers have their lunch and discuss the reading and someone would present a paper. And Tom would send out two large bowls heaped with strawberries. Sounds of ecstasy, inappropriate sounds of swooning. I thought then that you would have to be on your deathbed to ever refuse a Chino strawberry. In the field Tom would stop occasionally and encourage people to pick from the plants in the field, strawberries for instance. And he would talk about the culture of strawberries, the particularities of the plant, selection for this region, how they grow, how they need to be nurtured. I have pages and pages of notes from Tom’s field discourses. He talks too about water, where it comes from, the price of water in San Diego, this virtually desert region, how he uses expensive domestic water on the strawberries because the municipal farm water contains too many salts. You might think of this as coddling but Tom, I imagine, thinks of it as farming.

Farming is work, practical, you get up each day at 4 am and by the end of the day you have to balance the books. You have to weigh up what comes in against what goes out and figure out how to make a living. The process is practical yes, but there is something mysterious, alchemical about the way in which water—clear liquid that flows, that has no color—is transformed into scarlet heart-shaped succulence. Water, labor, knowledge:

The condensation of a process into a succulent jewel.

Clear liquid that looks like water drips into my veins during infusions and some kind of transmutation happens, equally mysterious to me. Even when you check the science it doesn’t all add up. Even the oncologists say, we don’t really know exactly how it works. Drip by drip by slow drip it disappears into my body. A week later my lab results change, many of the danger flags disappear.

Saying no to those strawberries last night at Milane’s party felt to me for a moment like the approach of death. I wanted to howl for Milane. I thought to myself: she would never have refused a strawberry. Her ALS, once diagnosed progressed fast, but she continued to party with friends, a few at a time. Not long before she died, when speaking was difficult, she wrote on her writing app (a version of an old W.C.Fields saying), “Who put tonic in my gin and tonic?”

A few weeks later. I am beginning to emerge from that nauseous miasma, there is a shout at the back gate, and there is Alex Kershaw, a graduate student from Australia. A little sheepish looking, the way Australians sometimes are when performing an act of generosity. A self-deprecating shrug that says, Oh it was just something that fell off the back of a truck. He is bearing a cardboard box, in which gleam vegetable gems: round yellow and green striped squash, purple cauliflower, candy red radishes, and strawberries, deep scarlet strawberries. Around the vegetables he has tucked a Humboldt Fog cheese, a slab of dark spicy chocolate, a pack of organic Yerba mate.

IMG_1465

Immediately I picked out a strawberry and bit into it. As that strawberry dissolved in my mouth, the juice dribbling down my chin, I knew it was a Chino strawberry.

The chickens, too, love strawberries. Though love is too tender a word to describe what happens when a chicken encounters a strawberry, and they are not particular, any strawberries from anywhere will send them over the moon. It’s the color red that attracts. Never go near them in open-toed sandals if your toe nails are painted crimson, or they will dive bomb, pecking mercilessly. They play dirty football with spoiled cherry tomatoes or mushy squished strawberries. We always keep the hulls for them, they go beserk when tossed the green bits with juicy red entrails slurping out.

Today, I will feed Ganesha some flowers. My daily ritual is to rise early, feed the cats, let the chickens out of their house as the sky lightens. They hear me approaching and set up a mighty hullabaloo, hurling themselves against the door and scratching at the wire window. As I open the door they come flying down from their roosts and cavort down the ramp, fluffing and huffing and preening. Then I make a pot of tea and bring it back to bed, set it over the tea candle warmer, and sip as I write on my magical writing machine, the Mac Air. This is a ritual. It sets me in motion for the day. Later I will meditate. Really I should start the day by meditating, but I’m greedy for writing opportunities, for using that early morning energy before it dissipates. As I describe this early morning ritual it takes on a life, seems orderly and calm. But the truth is there are many mornings when I can’t rouse myself, the chickens remain in prison, many mornings when I can’t get writing, read a detective novel instead, or feel sorry for myself, or find distractions like email or the newspaper which reveals all sorts of hyperlinks, passages into other worlds. And then of course there are too many other things to do and so meditation slips away. I’ll do it tomorrow…

Between habit and ritual a thin line: between therapeutic and spiritual practices, between the gracious and orderly lighting of candles and the compulsive repetition of obsessive desire, between routine and observance. Many ritualistic practices—from the quotidian and idiosyncratic to those more formally prescribed—serve to preserve the way things are, to protect us against change, transformation, difference, grief. And yet, and yet … there is always the possibility of something mysterious happening. Rituals might be ways of channeling and bolstering obsessive impulses, but also they are often mechanisms for structuring pathways and passages, for enabling transformation. Lighting lanterns to guide the dead in their journey, to ease the transition from one state to another, not merely for those who are passed but for those of us who remain. Making a pot of tea in order to write. Sometimes though the pot of tea is not enough. And so today I will feed Ganesha some flowers.

Gifts circulate, chemo too. And in the circulation: transformation. Of course gifts seldom come without ramification, and chemo comes with myriad fluttering strings attached. This we know. If I offer flowers to Ganesha it is in the hope that he will, in eating them, keep Milane alive even though she is no longer here. The flowers are at once food and fetish and gift, not unlike the strawberry. Superstition, ritual, faith. In offering Ganesha flowers, day after day (punctuated by desultory periods of neglect) I believe that the gods in general will be appeased. Of course I also hope that Ganesha in particular will preside over a writing session and kick my ass into gear.

The Poetry of Pigs

In the infusion center at Hillcrest nurse Marcy entertains us with stories about her weekend in LA, and the meals she had. She went to the restaurant Animal and ate a pig’s ear.

Time passes.

Then, maybe twenty minutes later, a voice from one of the other infusion chairs speaks:

not everywhere

can you eat

a pig’s ear.

Some Musings on Metaphor

A good month, June. Feeling considerably better, with miles more energy. It has been amazing to look at the print out of my labs the last few weeks. Bloodwork shows much improvement, many items that were flagged too high or too low have settled into the normal category. Looking at the results each week (they come up on the computer a few hours after the labs these days) is like watching a soccer ball, soaring in slow motion, peeking and then descending. Hold your breath: where will it land, inside or outside the line?

My white blood cell count fell into the normal range fairly soon after starting treatment. But actually there are many kinds of white blood cells, and there are at least two kinds that are crucial indicators for CLL, or since each case is idiosyncratic let’s say for me at the moment. My neutrophils are slightly low – most likely induced by the revlimid. If they go much lower it means likely neutropenia (when you are dangerously at risk of infection, when you have to eat only cooked vegetables and fruit, wear a mask etc …. everyone probably knows someone who has had cancer and endured a period of neutropenia, induced by the chemo) but so far very borderline. Then there are lymphocytes. In the last month the absolute lymphocyte count has normalized. Marlene Millen, my primary care physician, said no wonder you are feeling better, when your lymphocyte count is up its like you have a constant virus, you are fighting it, day in and day out. My first reaction was Whoa, what would you know what it feels like. Stick to science, doctor, don’t presume to tell me how it feels. A flashback to hot flashes and the gynecologist (young, compassionate, efficient, female) who said, just think of it as a normal part of life, everyone gets hot, I get hot sometimes, and I just take a deep breath and drink some water and it passes. Well bully for you lady, may you wake one day in your best silk blouse suddenly sweating swinishly as you address a room full of bright-eyed and bushy tailed gynecology students. A moment ago they were hanging on your every word, now their eyes are fixed on the sweaty stained blouse clinging to your breasts. But Millen is not that gynecologist. She is tough and vigilant and frank. She is also a go-between, mediating between the various specialists I encounter, ping ponging from one to another. She was the one who really kicked me into treatment the first time. Listen, she said, Kipps will always say “it’s maybe time to start thinking about treatment, here are the options, of course it’s your choice.” “But I’m not Californian,” says Millen, “and not afraid to cut to the chase. You have put it off for long enough, and now you are saying well I think I’ll wait a while. You really need to start treatment NOW.” She must be about half my age, but she calls me “Sweetie.” “Well done Sweetie,” she will say when she thinks I have conquered the denial impulse and recognized some danger signal and given her a call. I find it very endearing to be called Sweetie. Bitter sweet like the Jane Campion movie.

Friends are curious and always asking: what is it like? Much of the time we look quite normal, when you go the CLL support group you might think you were in a room of perfectly healthy people, the swollen lymph nodes and spleens are not visible, nor the haywire white blood cells, cavorting platelets, nor the havoc being played in bone marrow. Nor the sense of utter exhaustion and fluishness. People often say to me “how are you? You look great!” On bad days this can be a trifle irritating, because typically they ask a question and answer it themselves, pronouncing you well and fine. This was a refrain after my dance with death just before our Boxing Day party, though on this occasion not in the least irritating. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas and this last year it was also the day after I came out of hospital. The cause was an infection that went haywire over night, landing me in the ER. Four nights in hospital and then I was fine, immensely relieved, and we went ahead with our Boxing day tamale party. Teddy Cruz gets the most delicious Guatamalan tamales from a source he refuses to reveal. They are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Unwrapping is at once a delaying mechanism, a stringing out of anticipation, and a process of revelation. As you unwrap the smells start swirling, not just one smell but many. The masa (or corn dough) inside the banana leaf wrapping is in turn wrapped around the filling—pork or chicken—and a sauce that is beginning to ooze out so you have to lick your fingers to get a taste of what is to come. You pause, fingers in your mouth, imagining. And then you break into the tamale. Inside there is pork and a piece of fruit, and even though there is a melting moment flavors are distinct—sharp, sweet, meaty. You scoop a bite of tamale into in your mouth, and enter heaven.

I have never met this woman who works in her kitchen at home and conjures these magical tamales into being. Teddy is the go-between. But I do know something about her. A week before Christmas her husband, who had been living and working in San Diego for years, was walking along the street not far from our house when a Homeland Security van pulled up and stopped him, requesting his papers. He had none. He was pulled into the van and deported from the country.

Although I sometimes find the “you look great” refrain irritating, receiving it as vacuous routine politeness, actually I know that when people say this they are more often than not performing an act of sympathetic magic: they are wishing that all is well, they want you to be well, they want to believe that everything is fine. And you participate in the performance. You are relieved to be alive and want to look as normal as possible. On Boxing Day I was particularly glad to be alive and celebrating. But the scary thing is the knowledge that it could be something like this that will take me out. Most CLL deaths (because CLL is a disease of the immune system) are from simple infections that flare up quickly and can’t be controlled. This is what Millen has always been trying to impress upon me: be alert to the signals, act immediately, don’t be so cavalier. She was pregnant and on leave when this happened, but when she came back she said, “Well done Sweetie, you got yourself to ER in time.”

Millen offered the metaphor of living with a virus. There is an aptness to it, it’s graspable, something one can offer to others. Kipps offered another. After my first treatment I said to him It’s like a miracle. I had no idea how awful I had been feeling. For years. This is the real normal and it’s a great sensation! Kipps said many patients say exactly the same thing. And he offered a metaphor: it’s like hiking up a hill with a back pack on your back. You start with a few pebbles in your back sack and after a while you add a few more, and then after another few miles the gremlin at your back tosses in just one more stone, but this one is a little larger, heavier. And so it goes, and as you climb you accommodate to the weight and the difficulty, and you come to imagine this as normal.

Rather than being affronted by Kipps’ simile, or his presumption in describing my sensations, I experienced a surprising sense of gratitude. His image was not exactly intricate or poetic, and certainly far from scientific. Perhaps though this is precisely the key to understanding how it works. How a simple metaphor describing an illness can spark delight. Why, I wonder. Clearly, on one level it’s because of recognition. It offers a mirror image, a confirmation of identity. Thus, it might be argued, it doesn’t do much to shift anything, simply confirms the way things are, the way you feel. And although I hate the kind of feel-good triumphalism that validates every feeling as evidence of self-worth nevertheless I think there is something crucial that happens when the language of medicine or science is blurred by the poetic impulse of metaphor. Many illnesses, particularly chronic ones, as well as many psychological states, are isolating, for the patient it’s hard to situate what they “feel” as anything other than ultra-personal. There are times when you think maybe it’s all in my head, or maybe I am inducing this illness because of the way I feel. So to have an image flashed up, from elsewhere, from someone else, that is evocative and feels accurate – this is like getting a hit of immunoglobulin. You want to shout out Yes! That’s it! Something surges through your system, is energizing, and it isn’t a drug. This kind of metaphor differs from the destructive metaphors that Susan Sontag so brilliantly described in Metaphor as Illness. Metaphor literally means a bridge between two things, two words, two images. The more unlikely the linkage the more powerful the metaphor, and the more it can be spun out the greater its capacity to inspire intrigue and wonder. But in addition to confirming the way you feel, metaphor has the potential to perform an intricate dance of difference. There is always that space of difference, of something incommensurate that stretches between the two unlikely images. A patient is and is not a hiker. In that tension, in the surprise, in the fact that the image flashes up from elsewhere – it is in this process that metaphor has the capacity to open your eyes, to introduce not just sameness and recognition, but newness. The drugs serve to lighten the load, but words too.

Newness and surprise are great medicines.

Much of the time I swim through Kipps’ language, feeling an idiot because I haven’t done my homework and there is still so much I do not understand, and sometimes despair that I ever will. And there’s not much time. And how will I ever make the right decisions about which therapy if I’m so clueless? He has a lot of patients to see on this one day of the week when he isn’t doing research or flying around the world talking about CLL. Often I call up Sheila Hoff, our CLL nurse and case manager, and she patiently spends hours going over it all, translating, helping with decisions by giving examples, and always she says, think about what kind of a person you are, how you want to live your life, which treatment will suit you best. Or I turn to a patient advocate site on the internet, like that of Chaya Venkat. Sadly she has announced this week that she is retiring. Her husband died of CLL. Though not a medical doctor she is a science writer and she started the site (http://updates.clltopics.org) to link her husband’s journey with others’, to mediate between the scientific community (and scientific language) and patients. For twelve years (eight while her husband was alive, four after, by herself) she has done a quite amazing job as a patient advocate, and as a magician of words. Understanding the language, yes, but something more. Finding the words. Saying the words. Her retirement blog is very poignant.

When I was looking for good crime novels (when not?), the kind you can lose yourself in, Patricia Montoya, my friend and neighbor (who has herself recently been through hell, survived a rough stem cell transplant, now back for the summer in her bitter-sweet home, Medellin), suggested I read Tijuana Straits. It’s a surf noir novel set primarily in the Tijuana River Valley, the area that stretches from Imperial Beach in the northeast corner of the Valley (and the US) along the border with Mexico. Twenty minutes from where I live. It begins in the Estuary, with the main protagonist whose charge is protecting certain migratory birds (most notably the western snowy plover and the light-footed clapper rail) discovering in the early morning dawn a woman in distress, who seems to have crossed by an illegal route where the border fence cuts the valley in half. Kem Nunn evokes the area vividly: the crashing surf, the Lighthouse in Las Playas on the Mexican side of the fence, Yogurt Canyon, Smuggler’s Gulch, the routes through the Valley on this side – Monument Road at the edge of Border Field State Park, Hollister Drive, Dairy Mart Road – and the maze of dirt roads and horse trails. I started reading the novel after a particularly hairy infusion, and experienced a peculiar delight in recognizing these places, even seeing these names in print, saying them out loud. There is the comfort of familiarity of course, but also there is always a slight, maybe infintesimal, mismatch between the image offered and your memories. There is a pleasure in puzzling out how the images cohere, form a landscape, in imagining even when you can’t be there. Nunn wrote this novel shortly before Homeland Security hacked into the landscape in 2003 so brutally, demolishing a mesa, filling in a canyon and building a new, second wall flanked by a perfectly asphalted wide road, a road where no one drives except the occasional border patrol vehicle. So sometimes he describes a landscape I hardly knew, and I try to conjure it, ripping out the new steel fence, and the asphalt road, and restoring the canyon in my mind.

You picture and imagine a landscape, a configuration of space shadowed always by various histories, some quite personal others social, unfolding oblivious to your personal existence. It is like this too with simple metaphors, thrown up in the haze of misrecognition, when you do not know how to make sense of this place where you find yourself.

For me the Boxing Day party was a celebration of being alive, of having escaped again, of friendship. The house was packed, the air was festive, people drifted in and out of the garden, unlikely people became entranced by the chickens and entered into chicken conversations. The tamales, however, as well as being delicious were a reminder that cancer is a card you can carry, it’s like having papers, if you are lucky enough to have medical care people are basically on your side, they want everything to be fine, they want you to be well. Of course you live with the fear of sudden, or slow, death. But as people who have cancer and Buddhists and even total strangers with whom you strike up a conversation in the long queque at the pharmacy remark: we are all going to die, death is a part of life, and anyway who knows you might walk under a bus tomorrow. True no doubt. But it is also the case that many people in this country live without any papers at all, let alone a cancer card, and they live in real and daily fear of a chasm opening up when and if the Homeland Security van pulls up one day as they stroll to work, to the shop, to neighborhood park.

Chicken Joke

A man believes that he is a grain of seed. He is taken to a mental institution, where the doctors do their best finally to convince him that he is not a grain, but a man. No sooner has he left the hospital than he comes back, very scared, claiming that there is a chicken outside the door, and he is afraid that it will eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed, but a man.” “Of course I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken?”

This joke is told by Alenka Zupancic in The Odd One In: On Comedy. She says that what is at stake here is the post Enlightenment assertion: I know very well, but nevertheless…. (I know very well that there is no God, nevertheless I pray that God will save me from this awful situation, pluck me out of this shit hole). She traces a thread of connection between Hegel and Lacan, between the Phenomenology of Spirit and the concept of the Other. Her twisting of the skeins is provocative, she takes a paradox and plays it as though it were a queen of hearts or seven of spades, the paradoxes proliferate, the tricks are blindingly spectacular. Is it sleight of hand or logic refined to the nth degree?

Yet there is something left over for me, something that she doesn’t directly address though perhaps it lurks and swims around in the lower depths of the joke. What is left over is fear, a kind of fear embedded in category confusion and realized most obviously in phobias, but also in simple fears like the fear of dying. It’s not just me and the chicken, me and the other, but there is a third term: this thing, this grain of seed or let’s call it a corn kernel. Self and Other, these terms are mobilized in a circuit of exchange involving Other Things, and at some stage this circuit involves (or threatens) consumption, and disappearance or annihilation.

I came to chickens and to Buddhism at roughly the same time. Not entirely true, I grew up with chickens, and as an adult have had chickens in my life whenever possible, so in part I was enacting a repetition of the familiar (rather than the sense of discovery implied in the notion of “coming to.” But my relation to chickens has been very different this time). Buddhism was not familiar. After coming to political consciousness as a teenager I settled into an habitual semi-conscious cynicism about religion, or let’s just say faith, or spirit with either a small or large S. But in Shambhala I have found myself sometimes in a not-unfamiliar place. Not the place of religion, but of therapy, specifically psycho-therapy. Another form of repetition, therefore.

Chickens became an obsession when I was pretty unwell and heading into my first treatment. It was hard to work and to write and to do research, actually it was simply hard to find the energy to focus for long on anything. But oddly enough I was able not only to focus on chickens but to allow the chicken world to consume me. It became a totally encompassing obsession. (You can read about this in the piece “Chickens saved my Life”). Obsession, I’m convinced, is potentially curative. It is a form of denial certainly, a delusional projection, an enactment of repetition in the face of death. But it works. Sometimes it works. It takes your mind off things, prevents you from succumbing to another competing repetition, to the mantra of despair, or worse – of resignation.

If we want to use the language of psychoanalysis we might say that chickens are the way the subject’s unconscious (and her relation to herself) are externalized.

Cancer brought me to meditation. I signed up to Shambhala (a version of Buddhism) in order to learn some techniques for meditation. There is no doubt that meditation is a way of calming the body, reducing stress, promoting the anti-toxins, giving energy. Science tells us this though anyone who has meditated can tell you the same thing (still, the scientific writings are fascinating, keep a look out for the coming blog on the “bliss” app). But when I started going to Shambhala I found that the “techniques” of meditation were not so separable from the “ethos” of this version of Buddhism. One way of looking at this is to say that you bring into meditation a whole lot of baggage, and meditation itself shakes loose the careful packing (or repression), interferes with habitual patterns, throws into the unconscious—in slow motion—a Molotov cocktail. “Baggage” has become a remarkably familiar term in everyday language, it’s the kind of language that makes me squeamish. And indeed there are aspects of the Shambhala training that have induced squeemishness (many new age therapeutic models such as mindfulness training           draw on and are heavily influenced by varieties of Buddhism, and then in turn varieties of Buddhism adapted to a western environment, borrow the familiar new-age language). Sometimes I have yearned for a more severe practice, for what I imagine the spartanness of Zen to be. But then I remind myself that after all I am not Tibetan, like others in the room I am a predictable westerner looking to Buddhism to change something. So I tell myself this: suck it up.

I came to meditation hoping to find a way of being more at peace in the world (and therefore healthier, better able to fight the cancer). Of course once you start shaking that can of hope around the worms all come squirming out. And you find that you are faced with the phantoms of repetition. And you would like to change, quite simply (and even though it makes me squirm to say it) you would like to be a better person. Being more at peace might also have pay offs – for those around you, those who suffer the importunate blasts of bad temper, inveterate quibbling, acerbic barbs exploded randomly, not to mention hardly-muted envy.

Squirm and quease. Buddhism has in common with psycho-therapy a serious engagement with the unconscious (even though the word “unconscious” may not occur). Often the distinction is made between acknowledgement (just letting it come to the surface, letting it be) and analysis (analyzing dreams, jokes, stories, memories and so on). This distinction is hard to maintain but let us put aside this objection for the moment. Some of the Shambhala trainings are built on a dyadic structure. In a workshop you are given a question, or situation, and then the group divides into pairs. The first person has five minutes to speak (or not). The other person listens, they are not to respond in any way, they should not smile or offer encouragement, express agreement or approval or disagreement. And then you swap positions. And then there is five minutes for dialogue. The hard thing, the really hard thing, is not speaking, but listening in such a way as to resist solicitation.

Over and over again we repeat the same moves. We enter analysis (let’s say analysis, but perhaps we enter into other therapeutic spaces too—the sangha, the garden, the yoga studio, the church). You do this because you want to change, you want to break old habits, alter the way you relate to others or to the Other. Or you want to face life (and death) more fearlessly. Or both these things. But in analysis, as Zupancic points out, it isn’t enough for the analysand to become conscious of her unconscious. Often the belief is that the analyst will enable the analysand (through bringing to consciousness the patterns of repetition) to recognize their repetitious fatality. The analysand is prone to believing that when the therapy is over they will reemerge into the world and be liberated, “cured,” able to act differently. But actually nothing will change until the analysand fully recognizes the Other as something other than a projection of self. And this has to take place in the world.

In short, it is not simply that in analysis the subject has to shift her position (or even adapt herself); the major part of the analytic work consists precisely in shifting the external practices, in moving all those “chickens” in which the subject’s unconscious (and her relation to herself) are externalized.”(16)

I wonder sometimes if I am not Becoming Chicken, clucking and cooing and chirruping, grubbing around in the hedgerows looking for worms. Flapping around like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Holly, Lula Mae, Sabrina (and Funny Face when she was alive) have coaxed from me a much more intimate relationship than I have ever before experienced with chickens. Is this identification? Have I wormed my way successfully into the being of the chicken? Or perhaps more profoundly found a way of acknowledging the otherness of Chicken-Being, realizing how the chicken thinks and feels, out there in the world, independent of my consciousness. I wish this were so, for it would mean a moving around of chickens, a changing of the way of being in the world. Often, as I sit in the garden at the end of the day and the chickens pick and peck and scratch I feel remarkably contented, at one with the world, grateful to have passed through the repetitive obsessive phase. And then Sabrina will suddenly extend her neck, cock her head and stare. Eyes glinting blackly she will dive at my leg and peck. It hurts. She thinks I am a corn kernel.

I know very well of course that I am not a kernel of corn. Nevertheless…

Life After Life

Life after Life is Kate Atkinson’s new novel – it’s long and gratifying. I have read a lot the last three weeks, mostly though not exclusively novels, the reading matter overseen and sat upon by Elvis. Reading is one of the things you can do while keeping your head very still so the world doesn’t spin, and if it’s engrossing you can be transported. You might think that the “second” life in the title is a replacement of the word and concept of “death.” Not really. On the most simple level the novel plays with the idea of the novel. The novel as a progression of seemingly inevitable events, of teleology, of the crocheting of character and description into the momentum of plot. But life too, as we live it day by day, entails plotting, dramatization and anticipation. Atkinson asks “what if”? What if, for instance, the baby had lived instead of dying, what if –that old chestnut—Hitler had been assassinated, what if the dog had a different name, what if the girl had kicked back? A writer can mess with events and this is what she does, giving us multiple versions or possibilities, or more accurately – unfoldings. But philosophically, she also spins a meditation – upon the eternal return. The idea that what exists after life is not death but more life, or more prosaically we could say people go on living, and the dead re-emerge in various incarnations according to different beliefs and modes of representation, and through the intricacies of memory. As always she is preoccupied with the concepts of déjà vu and amor fati, of history and the future, of memory and delusion. A minor but key character whose presence is woven through the book is a Buddhistic (come Nietzschean) psychoanalyst. In one of her incarnations, as a ten year old girl, Ursula is sent to see him.

 He had trained in Vienna (“Where else?) but trod, he said, his own path. He was no one’s disciple, he said, although he had studied “at the feet of all the teachers. One must nose forward,” he said. “Nudge one’s way through the chaos of our thoughts. Unite the divided self.” Ursula had no idea what he was talking about.

Atkinson also plays with the idea of the novel as a bourgeois form. Life After Life begins with a long idyllic evocation of upper middle class English life. She has said that it was Forster always at her back, but to me the angel at her back is Virginia Woolf, particularly Mrs Dalloway. As the story begins again and again on that snowy night in 1910 so the Merchant and Ivory scenario disintegrates and nostalgia is untethered, teased out, floats like seaweed in a bloody sea. Not just the Virginia Woolf of the novels but also the essayist and the woman who kept a diary full of quotidian details. While it is surely a false dichotomy to pose quotidian detail against the sweep of history, the trick is surely to understand and craft scale, through writing to mobilize that precarious, never stable, relation between scale and perspective. What the most intriguing novels and biographies do is illuminate not just details within the large sweep of history, but the sweep of history in the details. The new biography of Marx by Jonathan Sperber does this. I dipped in and out of it while out-of-it. Jeffrey read it voraciously from cover to cover (when it could be pried away from Elvis) and would relay the revelations, day by day, in between making endless supplies of chicken soup, a ministering Scheherazade.

IMG_1453

I always find myself (again, time after time, life after life) a better Buddhist when things are going well. “Better” of course is the wrong word, no I mean more inclined to be philosophically calm and accepting of fate, unperturbed by death. The last few days, before this awful smothering black blanket of nausea lifted I felt very despairing, as though I would never get better, even for a while. “This is it!” kind of a feeling. There is a simple line in Life After Life: “How sorry she felt for herself, as if she were someone else.” Somehow, as almost everyone must know, illness induces this as you see time falling through all the cracks in your life, never to be retrieved. Today, though, I feel grandiously like a besieged city that has been liberated. I woke up this morning feeling transformed, the nausea almost gone, euphoric. I hadn’t quite finished the Kate Atkinson and so got up, fed the cats (without experiencing that usual vomit-inducing odor as the tin of grain-free chicken-and-herring delight is prized open), let the chickens out in the dawn light, made a pot of tea and went back to bed and finished the novel – it felt so luxurious, reading not to allay sickness, but for pure pleasure. And of course I should know from the novel that after a besieged city is liberated (London and Berlin during the Second World War bombing) there isn’t immediate relief, what follows may be starvation, suicide, old age, mundanity. And yet …… and yet I loved the novel, it filled me with a peculiar happiness like Mrs Dalloway with her flowers. Atkinson has said you cannot write about happiness, that’s not what life is. It’s true the novel is not about finding happiness, I wept in parts and had to gloss over others that were too grim, and yet happiness is no less complex an emotion than say, despair, or misery, it’s just as implicated in the devious trajectories of desire. I’m glad I finished the novel on a high so I don’t always have it snuggled into bed, in a semi-illicit association with sickness.

Today I feel quite different, not sorry for my self at all, actually rather overwhelmed by the wonderful world I awoke into, but more convinced than ever that the self, though experienced materially, bodily, is a fiction. And what is it that constitutes feeling OK?

Being drug free is undoubtedly a big part of it. It surely must have been the combination of antibiotics with the chemo that made for such awfulness. Because of the initial searing gut pain and fever I diagnosed myself with a flare up of diverticulitis and my primary care Doctor agreed, urged antibiotics and since the fever and pain were subsiding, succumbed to my resistance to yet another Cat scan with contrast (time after time, too much radiation). I thought the antibiotics were working, but not really, the pain came and went. And the worst thing was the unrelenting nausea, dizziness, sensation of fainting even when lying still in bed. Kipps, my oncologist is inclined to think that this was clearly because of the piling up of chemicals (“we don’t know how the body will protest”) but also that the pain might not in fact have been provoked by an infection (and if this were the case, tho who’s to know, no need for antibiotics), but caused by tumor lysis. This refers to metabolic complications that can occur during cancer treatment, particularly in leukemia and lymphoma. Though the treatment is meant to reduce, say, the size and frequency of lymph nodes in fact it can do the opposite for a while. The lymph nodes in my gut area are increased in size and frequency and he guesses that this has put pressure on the colon. This makes sense but nevertheless I have a gut feeling (so apt a truism) that the chemicals are also ravaging my gut and so am drinking aloe vera juice an hour before eating, and also L-glutamin powder – both of which restore the mucous membrane of the colon stripped away by antibiotics as we know, but also by the other drugs. Acupuncture provided miraculous relief, but only for a short time (though it was amazing to see how color returned to my face during those sessions). However, my skin is so thin now. Thicker emotionally perhaps but in the end there is just that thin penumbra between you and the world.

Now I’m into the fourth round. Kipps decided not to up the dose because of the complications, though he is reluctant, and feels that it is only with an increased dose that some of the symptoms will abate and improvement register (white and red blood counts are miraculously in the normal zone, but others wonky). Still, it is underway and am feeling almost fine. Phew! With trepidation I have another immunoglobulin infusion this week, since an adverse reaction during the last one…

There are other things besides acupuncture that provided relief and forgetfulness. I thought I could drive myself to acupuncture one time but when I got out of bed realized that this wasn’t going to work. I called Tershia and she came and fetched me in her 1969 Porsche (a 912, 500,000 + miles, named “Lawrence” after T.E., as its first paint color was “Sand.”). Tershia turned it green. Just looking at it is a joy. It registers beauty—in its design, but also in that color, that delicious green that seems otherwise to have disappeared from the world, a green of mahjong pieces, of bathroom tiles and my grandmother’s kitchen. Nothing grandmotherly about that ride to the acupuncturist, however. Tershia drives her racing car as though it were a racing car. You might think that this would exacerbate nausea, but it was rather like entering into a dream. I loved being inside that greenness, whizzing through the city.

And then there was the poppy. Steve Ilott gave me, months ago, some white poppies he had started. We planted them out and waited and waited as they grew in a spindly fashion. Then one day as I lay languishing, feeling sorry for myself, Peggy—who was working in the garden, fighting the weeds which have gone beserk since people on the street started planting “low maintenance native” grasses—took a picture of the blooming poppy on her i-phone and sent it to me in the house. It was a totally unexpected apparition: a glorious white pom pom. I had been assuming that an old fashioned and elegant poppy would eventually bloom. Instead: the sheer exuberance and excess of that “Swansdown” startled me into delight. On the morning when I awoke feeling OK I opened the front door in the early morning and there were four white pompoms, gleaming in amongst the irises and salvia, roses and fennel, brash colors muted momentarily in the dawn, ceding glory to Swansdown.

IMG_1464

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boomerang

Why did the Australian go berserk?

Because he got a new boomerang and then he tried to get rid of the old one.

Yesterday, an infusion day, Akos [Ronas] gave me a ride to the hospital. He was euphoric having just sent off his book manuscript. But, he said, his relief was shadowed by a joke. Akos is married to Judit Herskó, whose father was János Herskó, a Hungarian film director who would often enter his own films to tell a joke. He might for instance materialize at a trolley station, and for no very good reason, would tell this boomerang joke. I guess it was at the height of boomerang jokes, I vaguely remember them circulating when I was a kid, round about the time of hula hoops.

Every writer knows this: The sense that your book is never really finished, it will keep coming back, there will be more revisions, and more and more. And now that all the versions are electronic, the old versions, full of typos and one or two crucial mistakes, threaten to reappear in the proofs. It’s only when you get the published book—that solid thing—in your hands, that it feels finished. Maybe. But of course all that is changing. That solid thing, the book, is disappearing, words materialize and evaporate as you write, as you read. This is not to say that nano publishing and the drive towards the short bite rather than the long book guarantees the sense of an ending. No, instead there is something far more precarious: ephemeral finality, ghosted by a labyrinthine digital archive. Words are like money. They melt into air and reappear in new configurations. Akos’ book is about plastic money, a history of the credit card in post communist countries. Some of these credit cards, linked to the state rather than banks, are used much more habitually and extensively than in the U.S, for instance. Money in the form of bank notes and coins and written checks scarcely exists. Credit cards have become a form of ID, they store information, can be used to receive, electronically, all sorts of things, like your pension payments. And even as I write, credit cards themselves are disappearing: into cell phones, into thumb prints, into eye scans. Not only in the post-Communist world. You know that dubious item you bought (no didn’t even buy, just perused in a browsing sortee late one night), well it will reappear for everyone to see on some social networking site as something you “like.” Even worse, that aberrant impulse will return to plague you in the form of endless haranguing from cheesy underwear companies. You might forget but the marketing machine will not. Your secret is never safe with Victoria.

The boomerang joke can manifest in many guises. You could give it a Zizekian spin, which might go something like this. The Australian wants to get away from Australia and start afresh. So he goes to California, say, and sets up an alternative market where he sells tea tree oil and water-wise Australian native plants and a unique new service, surfing therapy (therapy while you surf ) ……. No problem with the Californian surfing dudes – they take to therapy like ducks to vodka. But then comes a guy who looks and talks like Brian Brown. Laconic, gruff, handsome in a chiseled hard-knocks kind of way. Turns out he himself is a surfing analyst, and the question he asks, which sends the whole new age entrepreunerial enterprise for a loop, is this: “Why did the Australian go berserk?”

For me, in the infusion center later in the day, it bounced back in the spectral form of CLL. In the last week I’ve been feeling considerably regenerated, exhilarated, hopeful again. The lab results confirmed that the feeling isn’t merely illusory. So Dr Choi thinks we can now double the oral chemo dose; and reduce the infusion chemo to once a month. He warns that things will probably get worse again, before and if they get better. He says they do not know whether the increased dose correlates with increased effectivity (this is a trial, it’s one of the things they are trying to determine), it does seem to be the case, but it might be that because patients are improved before the dose is increased their systems are in a better position to deal with the ravages of the drug. In the Infusion Center, while keeping up a façade of cheerfulness, I experienced again the cul de sac sensation. The futility of it all. Although there may be periods of respite, CLL itself will always bounce back. Once it’s started progression it will move in a relentlessly linear fashion, gathering momentum, working towards a conclusion. But against this teleological drive, as a person who “has” CLL (and other kinds of chronically incurable diseases, I imagine) you experience periods of optimism, euphoria even. Just when you have forgotten about CLL, are getting on with life in an enjoyable day-to-day fashion, it whizzes through the air and hits you on the back of the head, sending you catapulting back into the ER, back onto antibiotics, back into a funk. The malevolence of repetition.

There is an extraordinary air of cheeriness in the Infusion Center. At its worst you might think of it as something akin to battery chicken farming. When you close your eyes and try to sleep the noise keeps you awake, the noise of beeping machines, televisions, people talking on cell phones, nurses reading out orders – all these noises merge together and sound like the strangled clucks of a thousand tormented chickens. All of us chickens chained by tubes that run between machines, that run from little packets of clear liquid hanging from hooks, into a multitudinous network of veins, ready and waiting for chemo plumping. But at its best everyone is cheerful in the Infusion Center, polite even, even as the day wears on. There is much joshing and spinning out of repartee, bits and pieces of verbal exchange are tossed hither and thither, everyone enters into the fiction that this is just an ordinary day, a day like any other. And of course for the nurses and staff it is, which makes it all the more extraordinary that under duress and repetition they are so alert and behave with such good natured equanimity, remembering names, histories, stories. And through this enactment of an illusion everyone rises to the occasion, enters into the spirit of the performative event, into this compact of civility.

I do appreciate the considerable theatrical skills, as well as the hospital experience, that it takes to generate and sustain a mood. Still, sometimes you want something to puncture the air of equanimity, you want something that hits the nail on the head, you want a joke that is grim, black, irreverent. The boomerang, as used by Australian Aborigines, was and is a tool and a hunting weapon, some are designed to return (in their flight frightening birds, say) but mostly they are intended to hit and bring down a prey, a moving target. Curiously, when it comes to jokes (and illness) hitting your prey can simultaneously be a way of releasing all those lurgy birds lurking in the wetlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicken Feet

Chicken feet. Becoming chicken feet. My hands: scaly, reptilian, talonniated. The rash and pustules are drying out and sloughing off, flakes of brittle skin. There is a compulsion to pick and peel, this skin that is me, uncannily so—half dead and half alive. This body—alien, prehistoric. Palms upturned my hands do not resemble hands. What I see are chicken feet like those brought from Curtis at the Hillcrest Sunday market, a bonus, thrown in with the chicken, along with a few heads and livers, to add to Jeffrey’s chicken stock.

I imagine how the cats felt the first time they encountered the chickens. When we first opened the door of their run so that they could range the yard they stuck together and stayed close to home, moving in a mass, a singular feathery body, delicately pecking at this and that, determining what was tasty, where the bugs were. Then, as the days passed, they grew bolder. Then they saw the cats. Curiosity killed the cat they say, but this time the curiosity was in the chickens. Intrigued by these new creatures they charged – en masse, all four of them, thundering down the yard, wings flapping, huge scaly talonned feet. Dinosaurs in flight. Imagine those talons ripping into flesh. I imagine how Charlie Aarons must have felt that time she came with us to buy the chickens. It must be over thirty years ago. She came to stay at the farm in Toora and we went with our lovely neighbor Peter Danuser to fetch the dozen white leghorn pullets ordered from a chicken farm in Yarram. Back at Toora Peter and I clipped one wing on each bird before releasing them from the cage into the old run we had renovated, preserving the sign amongst the recycled wood: Toora Holiday flats. Helen Casey who helped us fence the yard (around the edge of which we planted kiwi fruit vines and passion fruit) loved the chickens. There is an old photo of her proudly holding a chicken as though it were a large but living fish she’d landed. Instead of a man with a fish or a boy with a car: a girl with a chicken. But for Charlie it was different. She had a phobia about birds. Although I cannot worm my way into her skin and feel what she feels when in the presence of chickens, I have a vague inkling since I too have a phobia: about blood. This is crazy for a person with a blood disease. But I understand I think the sense of total panic, going weak at the knees and wrists, the world going woozy, the falling out of consciousness. She was so brave Charlie, then. I remember she drove the tractor that day. Recently she wrote to me, posting on the blog: Collecting eggs from a chicken coop is a serious challenge for me let alone the idea of actually picking up a chook!

Layer after layer—though not smoothly, it’s not as though there were a layer as in a ream of paper where you can shuffle and each piece of paper settles back into its own layer, no its more like when, in the Los Laureles Canyon in Tijuana, mud—after a churning storm—dries and cracks and flakes when you walk, disintegrating. Nothing underneath, no topsoil. Let’s stick with the saying anyway—layer after layer my skin peels away. What will be left? My hands will disappear into nothingness. I will be handless. And what will all the peeling away of the body reveal: a complex psyche? Not bloody likely. More likely just a skeletal claw, something resembling a chicken’s foot. But without all the gristle and gelatinous support that makes for such delicious chicken soup.

 

Possum Chicken

I am just finishing round one of the 7 month regime. It has been a bit of a trial as they say in the old country, particularly the last week or so. Started with 3 weeks of the daily pill chemo – not too bad, fatigue sometimes overwhelming, other things manageable including a rash which came and went. But then last weekend it turned into serious torment. The hospital gang determined it was a reaction (a more sedate term than side effect) to either the chemo or one of the drugs given to fight the side effects of the chemo (probably the latter). I had stopped the chemo pills anyway (21 days on, 7 off) and so the other was also stopped but of course the torment continued. The only thing which gave some relief is a narcotic. OK at night, not too good when you have to work. Monday I worked till mid afternoon, came home, took the drowsy pill, konked out. Surfaced just before Judit, bearing chicken soup, came to fetch me for our Feldenkreis class. The class as always was great, lay on the floor and every so often dozed off, that seemed fine. An hour later at home, heating up the chicken soup I hear an almighty caffuffle in the yard, screeching and flapping, the air vibrating, dinosaurs returned to the earth. Two of the live chickens (as opposed to the chicken in the soup) were careening around the yard. I grabbed a flash light and broomstick and staggered out – the door to their run was wide open and so were all the doors to their little house. There in their house taking up most of the floor was a possum, an unusually pretty possum, colored tan and grey. And just above the possum was Sabrina on her perch shivering and shaking, silenced. With the aid of a broomstick I edged the possum out. He slipped down the ramp to the ground gliding with greater elegance than the hens ever do; they slither and hop and stomp down the ramp to freedom every morning. I had to chase the possum into the vegetable garden away from the other two chickens and away from Sabrina who was now performing in the yard like a yoyo emitting strangled clucks. Then I sat on the ground and lowered my weapons and listened to my own heart emitting strangled clucks. Chickens can’t see in the dark which means it is sometimes very easy to pick them up and sometimes impossible if they are in panic. Holly and Sabrina stopped running and I cooed to them making the chicken lullaby sounds that they know from night time when we do the final lock and check. Holly is the sook and so she was I think calmed by being picked up and cuddled and stroked and returned to her house. Sabrina next, no problem. Then Lula Mae, the little wild one, who disdains human contact, she did not wish to be touched or returned. Everytime I approached, crouched and cooing, she would be propelled from her own crouching position into a feathered ball of fury flying through the air away from the chicken run. Half an hour of cooing, begging, reprimanding and swearing ensued, half an hour of stalking and stumbling. Adrenalin had expelled all narcotic effects and the drama suppressed the itching. At last I held Lulamae in my two hands, a solid little body rather than feathered lightening. At last they were all back home, all doors sealed, a possum fate averted.

At last I got to eat my chicken soup.

The next day off we go, Jeffrey and I, to the hospital for the first infusion of chemo No.2. I have had this drug before (about 18 months ago) and tolerated it fairly well. Today it goes slowly but uneventfully – 5 hours or so after arriving the little packet on the IV stand is nearly empty. And then I start shivering. The PAs are there straight away, and lots of nurses and what they call “the kit”. Don’t worry they say, you’ve got the chills, it’s a common reaction, we are going to give you a drug and then you might sweat and it’ll be OK. Well then suddenly I started feeling really awful and panic stricken as though there were a possum in the room. I remember saying, I feel really bad. “what sort of bad?” someone asks. But I just feel the tar pits opening up and the possum lurking and can’t speak. The next thing I remember is the doctor shouting at me “Open your eyes! Open your eyes! Look at me!” and all I wanted to do was sink back into oblivion. Then time seemed to go very slowly and after a while they said, “you can close your eyes now and relax.” When I asked what happened they said you gave us a fright, you just lost consciousness and then you stopped breathing.

So for the next infusion, two days later, they fiddled with the cocktail, added some stuff (steroids), changed the secondaries (the drugs that guard against the side effects). I was really scared like I have never been before. I think that Jeffrey was even more scared. He said it was really terrifying when I lost consciousness and stopped breathing and the room was full of doctors and machines. It was much more terrifying for him than for me—I didn’t know what was happening and couldn’t see anything. I am glad he was there.

It went very slowly but without drama. And same yesterday. Yesterday was Sunday, nice and quiet in the infusion center. They had to change me from Saturday to make sure there was an oncologist on duty. My nurse said – oh glad to meet you, you are the Blue Code Lady. Blue Code she tells me is when a patient stops breathing.