Archive for September, 2009

kitchen chair

September 27, 2009

Kitchen chair, kitchen chair
Imagine if you were covered in hair

No one would sit on you

What would you do, oh kitchen chair
In the eventuality that you were covered in hair

Would you go to the zoo
Write a novel or two
Perhaps even learn
To play the kazoo

Would you embrace your hair
Style it with flair
Wear it with pride
To the market and fair

Or would you whine on
About how deeply unfair
Is life in a world
Where a chair can grow hair
Such that no one will sit there.


8:23, the colon moments

September 21, 2009

At this time: I’m watching the sky ride the morning from pure liquid to gray. It is gridded into neat squares by the iron bars outside of our windows. Why do we need those bars? I asked G once. We live in a fancy neighborhood, on the top floor.

Gypsies. came the reply. My eyes rolled. An old wives tale from my young, massive husband? Had he not read both Hemingway and Borges? Several weeks after that, we leaned on the balcony wall, smoking our cigarrettes and watching a searchlight undressing the heights and balconies of the building next door. The police radio below was audible. My faith in superstition grew.

I see the sky through gravity: a monster without hands. I see it through wonder, which is sometimes a prayer of marveling and other times a shivering panic.
The first nights after my grandmother died, I would cross the parking lot alone and lay on my back in an abandoned lot across the street from the student-infested apartments where I lived with my ex. Trying to edge in on the still assembly of chalk rocks, plastic bags, sticky cardboard soda cups, and other lonely, cast-off things.
Face pointed skyward, I’d focus on what starlight could elbow through the force field of city light and differentiate that ash-black behemoth, which haunts us all from above. I imagined that she was up there, floating further and further away and into it. Circumambulating the moon. Cartwheeling past Pleiades. Approaching Supernovae.

If I died right away, grief reason whispered, I could catch up to her. And the longer I waited the more impossible the distance would become.
That was silly. I knew. But I would become fully convinced of it anyway, for dangerous seconds a time, gazing up at that thieving maw. And I’d think about it.

My Catholic culture taught that it was a sin to even think about it. Your life is gift; life is sacred besides, and besides, it doesn’t belong to you. (What’s more, you seek to control something that has already been helpfully arranged for you: your end. What ingratitude!)

But still, I thought about it. That I would rather be with her in the darkness, undisturbed even by air, than on my own, at the bottom of this sea of light and oxygen.

For instant upon instant at a time, it would seem such a  fine plan, a child’s righteous. However, my grief would fail each time in its mutiny, and the sky would knock me over. There is documentation for how quickly grief expires. In its most concentrated states it can’t maintain for more than a few, howling moments. It dries up, becomes a recollection of a feeling. Scatters like a soul into toothless nostalgia.

Since I began typing, the sky has become a solid gray capsule. The baby has emerged in messy blond curls from the bedroom, and I’ve becomed convinced that anyway there is no way out of it, any of it.

Re. The Seasonality of Seasons

September 18, 2009

The rain finally began to fall, after a whole morning of dovish, maiden skies. From the bus window, I watched as it shepherded the tourists around Piazza della Repubblica into doorways and beneath the crescent porticos, where they clustered in the bars or hotel restaurants or the grubby McDonald’s where I sometimes go donut hunting. I thought to myself that even beyond this, there are shelters: rooftops and alleys and park corners with extra foliage where innamorati the world over are exchanging spears at this very moment, herded by the greater constant of lust.

I myself had waited for the bus in Piazza Sempione, beneath the partial grace of foliage. Given that I was unmade up, sweat sticky, in my gym clothes, a little rain was unlikely to damage any of my visceral aspects. Watching the huddles of travelers, I could almost see the first pollination of winter’s familiar illnesses. That is what they say after all: It’s not the cold that gets you. It’s the weather driving people together that makes winter springtime for viruses. All of that wanton proximity. I could almost see the strep throats and bronchituses, and influenzas, porcine and otherwise, floating out, like spring seeds armed with parachutes and cotton fluff. The cold rain a conductor, ensuring the harmony of circumstances, that host and parasite might come together to tangle, that the snot might flow like mountain streams from their trysts.

And Rome is the perfect habitat–Did you know the Coliseum is the second biggest tourist destination in the world, after the Eiffel Tower? And I have no explanation for the Eiffel Tower. Thinking about it now, I know the story of the Coliseum, and have not the faintest idea who or what is responsible for the Eiffel Tower, no idea why it’s there. Nor why people think a big, dark skeleton of a building is worth the embarrassment of having to pretend they understand French food, only to fail in the eyes of the French, even when they do.

Point being that seasons are such relative things. My seasons are spoonfed to me by a baby. She gave me the feral, sleepless season of those first months, which are better spent inside the womb, I’ve read (if humans hadn’t gone all upright, we’d bake our young long enough for them to come out walking, or at least crawling.)

Then there was the season of increasing mobility. Roll over, crawl, to the first steps.

From the parental vantage point, I can see not having kids. Not because I fail to love them, myself, but they make you old. Not merely by the weight of responsibility, but more for the glimpse they provide into how fast it all goes by. In just over a year she has learned so much. I always imagined babies stayed babyish for a year or two. But she has learned so much:

In 17 months:

She dances. Her pinto bean torso sways and executes rough pirouettes as we sing and clap the Italian songs nonna has supplied.

A handful of words, Italian words. Mostly identifying those of us she sees every day, or nearly so: mamma, daddy, nonna, nonno, zia, welwa (Helwa, the dog), bau (every other dog, or cat, the occasional pigeon.)

She has learned to greet and salute with a wave, sometimes delayed, so that she begins to wave after her target has begun to walk away, or before they even say hello.

She has learned to open and close, climb up and down, attempt to stick metal objects into electrical outlets. She has learned to bring me near heart attacks, daily.

She prefers fruit to candy.

She has learned affectation, if not that smacking me in the face with a remote control is not a form of it. She has learned affectation. To howl when she doesn’t get her way. Furious hugs and attempted kisses, sometimes pressing her mouth on my chin and then pulling away to make the kissing noise.

She has learned to talk on the phone, even if no one is listening, a skill that will serve her well in adulthood.

She has her own language: Cuddacudee? Tuggaloo. Dicodico. Some Italian loan words have been assimilated into her dialect, and I am afraid her language will soon lose its only native speaker and become extinct. How purely ourselves we are in these first years, yet shepherded, yet rebuilt.

And her favorite word: “No.” I hope she hangs onto that one. Girls in particular tend to give it up to easily.

She has learned to climb on the red plastic race car in the park, and to turn the wheel so that it raises an alarm, for me to come and push her. And if I fail to oblige, she has learned to climb off and push it by herself. Slowly, ineffectually, but determinedly

But all the marking of these advances are overshadowed by the fear of what she has left to learn. The advice books with their primrose women in grandma gowns rocking benevolently away mention every nightmare a new mother can imagine. Catalogue rare illnesses in their rashy, scaling, incontinent manifestations, without mentioning the healthy dose of fear manifest with or without a high fever or projectile vomiting. The fear of what there is left to learn.

I think often of these things.

In 17 months, Things she has yet to learn:

To ignore her critics (mostly because there haven’t been any).

To submerge jealousy for the sake of the friendship.

Not to say something when it’s impossible not to say something.

To pen up her imagination with fruitless ideologies, which will only lead her to boys who talk too much.

To learn and unlearn her heroes.

To walk away from whom or what she thought was her destiny because she’s lost or found love.

To lose a million times without losing. And all the dissonance it takes to win, and the balance it takes to keep dissonance from turning into delusion.

To sing softly at Mass, so that no one hears that she can’t—because you can only expect folks to be so holy.

I suppose there are all of these seasons to come. And it’s best to try to get lost in the structure of teaching rather than fall in the pit of ‘to what end?’ Maybe best of all is to open myself to the possibilities that there are yet such listing seasons left for me. Or at least an occasional twinkie.

It tolls for thee, kitty.

September 9, 2009

 The first flicker of autumn wind descended on the balcony Monday night.  It swept in, somehow thicker than seeing. Lifted my hair from my neck, brushed against my shoulder. My insides swelled with it in a centipedinal ululation, bristled and prickling. Fall is a homecoming for the permanently heartbroken. Prying open a vacuum, a splinter riven in the armor of this instant, for a spectral rampage, an amber-stuffed gray of days reanimated. Silt unsettled in blown glass infirmaries.

My friend M says really, it’s just that we two creatures thrive in the cold because we suffer from abnormally low blood pressure (never mind our blunt, Germanic features), which summer heat lowers further. The high temperatures thin our limited vigor into nothing. 

Leave it to an architect to undress an idea. But I googled it, and it turns out she is right. I told her so today. She was surprised. Leave it to a woman to be surprised about being right.

Fine, perhaps it is a matter merely sanguine. Either way, I look out now at this noon sky, neutered gray. Raindrops have flung themselves exasperated against the glass. I get that.

Two days ago, walking to the park with our dog, Helwa, I turned onto Via Favignana and immediately noticed a lumpen shadow beneath a dusty black Ford hatchback. A cat-sized lump. I am always on the lookout for cats, sensitive to the fluxing likelihood that my skinny, yellow dog is about to raise her hackles and go utterly batshit. I don’t know why she hates cats. Is it their air of pretention? Their superior cleanliness? The way they expect to be fed and coddled, but will flee at the first sign of your needs? I thought chicks were into that.

Anyway, she was already off her leash and because she was sauntering over to the lump, I felt obliged to check it out. As it turns out, cats remain decidedly cat-sized after they die. And this cat proved the rule where he was really, vividly Dead. Not ‘could-be-sleeping’ dead. But instead: black slash of a mouth agape on his side with paws jutting rigor stiff out from bloated hair sack dead oh my lord that may be the grossest thing I have seen all year Dead!

What’s more, the cat looked furious about it. Perhaps because he had been hit so near to the new Mercedes Kompressor and the shiny Peugeot. Hit by the only non-respectable car on the block. And near to the park, if only he’d been further on his walk…

I caught a whiff of rotten kitty a full car-length after the yet-protruding fact of him. His fierce grimace so hideous that even the treacly cloy of perfumed rot refused to stick around. Bataille wrote that we evolved to hate the trappings of decay because those who played with bodies were diseased out of the populace. I can’t imagine there ever having been humans who appreciated that smell. Poor cat. Abandoned by his own rot. He’s just like me, I thought, in junior high, when even the nerds wouldn’t sit at my picnic table. Just me, the future drag queen and the adopted kid with one leg shorter than the other (who also grew up to be flaming.) Making fun of the good-looking, normal kids. (Still too young to turn goth about it.)

He’s still in my head, this dead one. Eyes peeled open, mouth furious silent. Something so disturbing about the non-peaceful death, after all. Nobody ever writes horror stories about grandma going softly into that goodnight as her grown-up babies wail outside in the hall. No elegies sung over feline stumps on the ground. I do not know what happened to Kibbles, or whatever his name may have been (Cibo?), but he was not happy about his undignified end.

The cat bombed out my walk that day. All I could think was: Man, that was death’s exclamation point lurking under there, right down to the vomit cookie smell. How am I going to explain to my kid that sometimes it goes like that… How do I explain to me that often it goes like that? One minute you’re skimming the surface of days, a flowering fractal of complexity thriving, respiring…then hit a wall…in an instant: a husk of  rotting crap…a really bad punchline slams into the sacred story. That’s what its death seemed: profanity.

The voices of my whiney guy friends who say: blahblah life is pointless because we die, just for a moment, seemed to resonate. Then I reminded myself how banal the suffering of the anti-heroes they idolize and that whole enterprise went once again flaccid–because if that suffering is profound, then everything else around them must be too. Particularly high school poetry, Japanimation, teen girls in plaid skirts. Somehow profound. And then everything they oppose, also profound, lest it be less than so-inspiring.

The next day kitty body was gone. (I wasn’t going to look; so of course I did.) In the park an older woman with a dog stopped on the street and called out to my daughter and I. We chatted for a moment in Italian and then I said something to E in English. The woman asked me where I was from, in English. Code switching took a moment to process and I replied: Texas. (Texans are never from the United States.) As it turned out, she’d lived in Houston.

Her parents had fled Yugoslavia when Tito came to power. She was ten or eleven. They’d lived in refugee camps in Italy, until the day the American arrived looking for skilled farmers and seamstresses. Her father volunteered. He’d never worked the land in his life, but they were desperate to get out of the camp and figured, if worse came to worst, her mother could sew. They were told they were to relocate to Chicago. Her mother asked around. It was winter and, she was told,  Chicago was incredibly cold. She bought coats upon gloves upon sweaters.

When they arrived in America they were told they didn’t have to stay Chicago. It was only the suggestion of their sponsor. They could go and settle wherever they liked. They knew some people in Houston.

We arrived in the airport bundled up in our mittens and sweaters. Gracie recounted. It was 100 degrees outside. In December. I laugh and say: Yeah, it happens. What a life you’ve led. She shrugged.

Slowly the cat diminished. The woman’s story universal reclaimed its pride of place. Life is long even when it’s short, I decided. It stays forever in the accounts of the universe. In the nature of matter. Grisly even when it’s beautiful, and beautiful even when it ends up to be a smelly lump. Our great failing is our voracious need to name it. We kill, die and ridicule to name it. We cluster and rebel. Forego being correct. All to name it. From what I can tell, its name is only reverence. (And maybe a bad smell)

Dear Swine Flu,

September 6, 2009

How does it feel to be the media darling? My husband says you were invented to boost vaccination sales, but I think he’s just jealous. You are more fabulous than Paris Hilton and Jon Benet Ramsey rolled into one. More ubiquitous than legions of viral videos, led through the Alps in winter (with elephants!), to lay siege to the last, fragile vestiges of our collective attention span.

No, swine flu, you YOU have us riveted. Will we get immunized or not? Will you mutate or not? (I hear you only kill the weak and compromised. Will that remain the case? Tell me, Swine Flu, I really must know.) Oh, I cannot wait to try to not get you this fall!




September 2, 2009

Palinurus: a Trojan sailor from Virgil’s Latin epic Aeneid. The story goes that he refused to leave his ship to be steered by the God Somnus, who rewarded the captain’s obstinacy with a sleep which tore him from his helm, delivered him to the waves, to the maw of coastline, and to the jaws of the Lucani tribe, who devoured him. His grave is reported to lie in a ruined Necropolis tucked somewhere in the cliffs above the village of Palinuro which, two thousand years later commemorates him not only in name, but in myriad gelato stands and storefronts where Bratz doll floaties and plastic porpoises flutter in the breeze. Palinuro lies five hours south of Rome by way of the Amalfi coast, plus a less illustrious stripmall of a side road where mozzarella di bufala is produced.

I tried to get G to stop at the Playboy Sexy Bar. As usual, he refused. Anyhow, I suppose when you make cheese that good, there’s no reason to get dressed up. (G bought five small bombs and consumed them all in one sitting.)

We arrived in the afternoon at Hotel Santa Caterina, right in the center of the town’s short pedestrian zone. Our room was a great, blue yawn. Azure tile floors, cerulean chairs, bedstands, blue powdered walls. In the sky-trimmed mirror my face gazed out at me in a postmortem periwinkle. It was a lovely space: cavernous and comfortable with a small balcony overlooking the harbor to the right. To the left  lay a mainstreet which swelled at night with throngs of vacationers. There was also a TV, which volume was set to inaudible-with-the-air-conditioner-running. I thought this very inconsiderate toward the aging population of Italy, and most of all toward me. Yes, I watch TV on vacation. I know: You don’t own a TV.

Stop shaming me.

We three inhabitants were provided with one, woven trash basket, located conveniently in the bathroom. It was approximately the size of a generous sombrero. This seems to be standard with many hotels, which is why it caught my attention. I have no explanation for this phenomenon. I’ve speculated that hoteliers the world over are a goat worshipping illuminati, who ritually eat their own garbage and are subtly pressuring us to do the same vis a vis bin deprivation. Or else maybe this sombrero is a byproduct of tensions between maid service syndicates and passive aggressive hotel managers. Either way, this undersized can demonstrates an insensitivity to the many studies showing that toddlers, along with men of all ages, leave a bridal train of detritus as they plow through their vacations AND that neither soiled diapers nor plastic bottles are things I want underfoot in the bathroom during hazy vacation nights. For obvious reasons. But enough about the hotel.

The village was what you would expect from any locale sprung up to service a summer vacation–except that these are almost exclusively Italian beachgoers so factor in dinner hitting its peak around 11pm and nothing being open between noon and five. According to my five minutes of research, Palinuro was not grown up from some older village, and for this reason it lacks the winding alleys fluttering with laundry lines, and the great village squares typical to every other Italian village, ever. Instead, it is one of these intentional, ‘modern’ spaces. The ripeness of its purpose overshadowing an ‘organic’ (embarassed-to-use-this-word quotations) character. I judge this not as a good nor a bad thing. Merely an interesting distinction. The roads were straight. It was difficult to get lost.

We’d gone for a couple of days of R&R, mostly for G, a traditional Roman flower who wilts in the absence of an August vacation. For those of you unfamiliar with Italian custom, the country more or less closes in August and relocates to the beautiful and bounteous coastlines, or else, if feeling adventurous, to the beer halls of Munich. I myself don’t care much for the beach. The deep amber tan, which comes so irritatingly naturally to so many Italians, has never been a goal of mine (merely an envy). Swimming gives me catastrophic ear infections. And why doesn’t anyone else notice how salt water chews open and rarifies even the slightest paper cut? Oh, AND, I don’t like to undress. At that inevitable moment during my bohemian friends’ parties, you know, the one when everyone disrobes to get in the hot tub/fire pit/fudge pool, I am always the one to fake yawn, and beg off to a well lit corner (where I could quietly enjoy a glass of wine and whatever pretentious reading material was on hand.) I’m pretty sure this is a genetic flaw.

My friend M and I were talking recently and discovered that we are both mountain, people. You know the question: ‘are you a mountain, desert, or beach person?’ Before I’d even finished asking. M replied “Mountain, winter, rain.” I agreed, though opting out of the rain. Rain love is a luxury for people who haven’t spent their lives reliant on public transportation. Or at least it becomes less “magical” when you have to walk five blocks in a downpour and then stand with an ineffectual umbrella for an indeterminate amount of time waiting to be rescued by a vehicle which smells of frito lays and despair. I thought about this question though. Mountains, desert, beach? What our preference says about us. Why I find the resolute stillness of mountains compelling. Feeling that their (relative) permanence whittles me down into a dust mote. A knowable dust mote riding a knowable dust mote toward what may be nothing in particular. Their undemanding grandeur swallows up this enormity of personal history and spits it out: a dented penny. Not to mention that I can totally see holing up in a cabin to write a lunatic manifesto on the tyranny of Cosmopolitan magazine, Cosmopolitan the drink, and people who describe themselves as cosmopolitan (as if that were an achievement and not a side effect of money!)

Seas, oceans, on the other hand, just lay there…panting apocryphal about all our petty inevitabilities. No man’s planets flourish bacterial in their bellies. People who believe that they can know what does and doesn’t exist have always amazed me. We need look no farther than these underwater otherlands to be confronted with the music of orchestras we cannot hear. Plus, they have jellyfish. I was stung by a jellyfish. Once, last summer on Elba. Pee doesn’t help. No. It doesn’t. I looked it up. (After trying it.)

I know what you’re thinking: You’re vacationing on a beach in southern Italy. Stop whinging. You’re right. And besides, I’m not. Because it is a beautiful place, after all. The landscape around Palinuro is especially inviting: busted caterpillar mountains inch across the horizon and slump to down to drink the Tyrrhenian sea . Every evening the sun, flailing hysterical in rose red flames, is vacuumed away into a nearly undifferentiated horizon. And free breakfast buffets. My kingdom for a free breakfast buffet! Moreover, there is perhaps no culture less suited to my sardonic, cold craving disposition than that of the Italians…and yet, I love it. Truly.

In Palinuro, for instance, I’m romanced by the lack of body consciousness on the beach. Wizened old ladies with thighs like barrels plod along the beach in their string bikinis, alongside big breasted grandpas in speedos. All ages and sizes, from fit to half-melted, strip and cavort with equal aplomb. So inspired was I that, on the second day, I took my swim trunks off, to reveal my swim shorts. Such was my liberation.

We spent our afternoons with a couple friend of ours at the private beach of their camp site. Mid-morning I was cajoled into a half hour beach aerobics session. It was led by a pretty young man with an enormous tattoo of the Blessed Virgin on his thigh and an unusual piercing on the back of his neck. I spent my leg lifts wondering how the many girlfriends he could no doubt attract would feel dispantsing him, only to be confronted with mother Mary. I imagined them irate: “I wouldn’t have come back to your camper to ‘see your sea shell collection’ if I’d known she was going to be here!”

The days were like tides drawing us down to the beach and returning us to shady places, wrung of our sap by the sun and sea. We enjoyed dinners together corralling babies toward sleep. The first night, we broke under the twin commands of exhaustion and hauling small persons around. We settled for a restaurant on the main strip. It was everything one would expect: slow, crowded, expensive–then more crowded. The assorted fish platter was too small for G, who is the size of two and eats for three. A look of genuine bereavement, a flinch almost, swept his face when the half-empty plate was set before him. I offered him half my steak. But that was little comfort as he always gets half my steak. It was no great calamity, though. Dinner with toddlers is barely recognizable as the ritual you non-parents know and love. Instead, it’s a game of tag. We’ll call it mangiatag: ‘You sit and eat while I take the baby for a walk, and then you return the favor.’ I’m sure game theory has something to say about this.

As it turns out, tired babies don’t like noisy crowded places late at night. Much like tired, old parents don’t like hearing babies scream whilst eating. As usual, the babies always win and spend dinner nights with grandma. Except, on vacation, horror of horrors, there is no grandma. But the second night we fared better, E went to sleep early, and we found our way to the nearby village of Marina di Camerota. Our friends were running late, so G and I sat in the Piazza San Domenica enjoying drinks, the upward view of the slanted cobblestone square, and the world’s hairiest man sitting shirtless in front of the church across from us with his angelic daughter. All of this while St Dominic’s bells clanged noisily for no discernible reason.

Once our friends arrived, we all headed to the Albergo Ristorante Brera, down an alley just off the main square. Having downed two generous portions of wine, I was feeling that wooziness wherein both hemispheres expand to create a brain space similar to an urban yuppie’s apartment: too much blank space, everything sheening, inexpressive and inarticulate, and some horrible, sterile print on the wall. Probably of a cityscape. At this stage of intoxication, functioning is neither effortless, nor a serious problem. Well, a German mother did approach our table to let her son Markus flirt with E, and when I began chatting with her, auf Deutsch, about half of my German came out in Italian. I decided at that point I needed something to soak up the vino rosso, but the waiter insisted on ordering for us, and what arrived was thin strips of smoked salmon, overlapping with swordfish, and squid, all sleeping peacefully in a pile—the bizarre ecosystem of the dinner plate. Seasalty and delicious, but lacking, alas, in absorptive properties. There was also a crusty little sardine, fried whole, who looked quite surprised to be there. I gave him to G and he promptly disappeared.

Moving on to the pasta, I chose the pumpkin ravioli, and then the gorgonzola gnocchi and, denied both, had the Portobello pasta picked on my behalf. Edda was awake by now, thanks in no small part to the friendly stranger setting off fireworks outside in the parking lot. She munched on breadsticks and tried to free herself of the hated stroller. Meanwhile, everyone else was swelling on mussels and shrimp and other slimy things that I believe might survive in my stomach and so refuse to eat. Again, for dessert, the waiter ordered, and out came chestnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts and apricots containing chestnut, peanut, hazelnut and apricot-flavored gelatos. This was a little splendor. We finished dinner around midnight and were asleep on our feet by the time we reached our big, blue bed at one. More to follow, hopefully.