Monday, June 29, 2015

A Curator's Memoir, Al Nabha

Amnesia would make a pretty girl's name, wouldn't it? A girl with pretty ringlets and an embarrassing tic—she keeps shaking her head to unrattle her brains. Years have gone by in just this way; a lifetime of searching and shrugging, hot on the trail of nothing. Our girl's outward appearance ages (the graying curls, heavy breasts, and stiff gait) while inside she remains intact: exactly as dumb and wondering as ever. Because she doesn't really know what the fuck she's looking for—a secret truth? a secret self?—she overlooks every single clue.

          Unless maybe everything under that spotlit, addled, gaze of hers is of equal importance. 

          I'd forgotten that, she pouts. Anything at all can be a clue, a means to expressing who I am or how I feel. This is the way: the secret life of objects.

          Above the laptop's self-contained, luminous screen, it's the same, sprawling view as ever.
Blue star, yellow orchid, the radiator's vertical lines beneath the wide window frame, the French door with its grid of black panes, all the repetitive patterns, unrelated, except for the white horizontal lines of the shelves underlining their contents again and again.
The shelf of books; a little canvas with red shoes; that gaudy bottle of perfume. The square bottle of frosted glass is encased in ornate metal, depicting a silver fountain with lashes of mother-of-pearl
          Al Nabha, meaning The Fountain of Colors, is an Oriental perfume manufactured in the United Arab Emirates. Imbued with taif rose, sandalwood, adarwood, amber, saffron, musk, patchouli, and myrrh, Al Nabha has an exceptionally long sillage. The sillage (a beautiful French word pronounced see-yazh) is how a scent trails behind the wearer, the same way a boat leaves a trail in water.

          My ex-husband picked that bottle up off the shelf the other day and told me it was special. His voice was hushed with menace. He asked if I knew where it came from. (Whenever our daughter visits him she admires its scent, so a few days ago he gave her the bottle and it landed here in my dining room.) Of course I know where it's from.

          "It comes from Mecca," he said. "They only make this perfume in Mecca."

          He thinks it's holy perfume, that my house is a befoulment. He makes it clear he parted with this prize reluctantly, and only because he's such a loving father. He insinuates that the perfume doesn't belong in the house of a heathen.

          My story is different from his. A few days after we married in Cairo, 19 years ago, his sister came from Kuwait bearing wedding gifts for me: a sexy nightgown, a modest galabaya, a filigreed golden ring studded with seed pearls, an amber hunk of wax for removing body hair, and the bottle of perfume. She also made us a big pot of what she called heavy soup, a greasy meat broth revered as a powerful aphrodisiac.

          About the perfume, she said, "This perfume they only wear in the Gulf region. You'll never find it anywhere else in the world." She said it in Arabic, which I don't understand, so my ex had to translate for me, just like he translated heavy soup.

          For 11 years, I kept the bottle with other perfumes by a mirror on my bedroom table and every once in a while my ex-husband would pause to douse himself as he walked by. I have a distinct memory of him dragging the drenched stopper over the vein in his neck and across both his wrists, and then rubbing it into his skin with open palms. 

           Sometimes, like my ex, I would pause to unscrew the cap, bowing my head to sniff the stopper. But it never smelled the way I expected. Instead, a rotting sweetness that burns the throat and nostrils. I don't remember exactly what the scent conjured, but the effect was a subtle shock with every breath. When I left the house we had shared, which was many years ago, he took the perfume.

          "Keep it safe," he told me the other day, replacing the bottle on the shelf,  as if I'd disappointed him already.

1. Al Nabha, the whiff of disappointment.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

1. Reward and Punishment

Before my old shrink kicks me out of his office (and by old, I mean I've seen him on and off for 30 years and he's in his 80s) he tells me a secret: the reason why he still works.
"Who are you?" said the Caterpillar..."Explain yourself!"
          "Of course I think I'm good at what I do, but mostly I continue for the routine: it gives me a reason to get up in the morning, to get dressed and go out into the world. When I come home at 2 o'clock, quite often I'll find my wife in the bathroom. I'll ask her, through the closed door, 'How was your day, dear?'And it's not at all uncommon for her to tell me, 'I'm just getting dressed.'" He pauses to let this sink in, clearly pleased she's dependent on his routine.

          The constant tremor that affects his mouth is overcome by a grin and for a moment I think he might laugh.

          Whether because we're both running out of time or because he's in an early stage of dementia, he no longer seems to have the patience to run through his usual bag of tricks: the medical degree that's supposed to be worth exactly $210 for every 50 minutes of probing questions—questions designed to lead, after an accumulation of years, to his conclusions—his conclusions dressed up as my epiphany—the epiphany that doing is superior to being.

          It's a relief, after all these years, to break out of character, but also a shock. All those years, he could have simply said what he was thinking, as if we were two, real people having an almost normal conversation; I would have drawn my own conclusions anyway.

          The reason I decided to come back after all these years is that I'm panicked by my own inertia, which has worsened since the death of my mother a couple of years ago. She spent the last years of her life in bed withdrawing from the world, day by day: no driving, no reading, no writing, no paying bills, no watching TV, no more eyeglasses, no more bathing or brushing her teeth or getting dressed, or talking or laughing or crying, just sleep, sleep and oblivion, interrupted by vomiting and nosebleeds and doctor's appointments, by her utter confusion, and a yearning simply to sleep in her own bed. I half-suspect some sort of physiological or rare alchemical process whereby I gradually become assimilated into my mother's house, like memories or dreams—into the furniture, structural beams, floorboards, and cupboards. Inanimate, but retaining a dull, mute sentience.

          "I want you to light a fire under my ass," I told my shrink, thinking vaguely of that Jewish prayer, Let me not die while I am still alive. "Command me to act or give me a magic pill, tell me I'm not hopeless."

          But fifty minutes later, instead of opening his calendar to make our next appointment, he's breaking up with me.

          "I'm afraid I can't help you," he says. "The only one who can act on your behalf is you—I can't do it for you. There's no magic pill or magic words. It all comes down to free will and how you decide to use it. You'll act when you decide to act. You choose." 

          He does, however, go on to suggest I consider joining a church group if I become too afraid of poverty or eviction. "I know you're not religious, but that's not the point. Church folks tend to like helping people in need—and they always meet on Tuesdays, for some reason. Or possibly you could find an elderly man who needs some assistance. You could cook for him, say, and do his shopping and that sort of thing in return for room and board. I don't mean to imply there will be passionate sex or anything like that, but you'll have an arrangement. I see you're crying, and I don't want you to feel that I think your hopeless. You're the most passive person I've ever encountered, but that's not the same as hopeless. You simply have to choose."

          He tells me how much he has enjoyed seeing me again and wishes me the best. Stooping beside me at the threshold, I can see he's grown quite hunchbacked. He'd always had the demeanor of a president or an astronaut, but now his hands shake and his head practically sprouts from his breastbone. Though he hasn't been exactly rude, he reminds me more of the hookah-smoking caterpillar now than Gerry Ford or John Glenn.

          He's right, of course, that happy people are doers and not brooders. Rumination is a kind of pointless, compulsive routine, like running in place and expecting to get somewhere. His routine is less sedentary than mine, but just as mechanical and absurd, because it lacks a greater purpose. For a cognitive behaviorist like himself, everything is about reward and punishment. So what's his reward? Does he feel his life has purpose because he sets an alarm five days a week and keeps following the same script he's always followed? That sounds more like punishment to me. But he's not the one with a problem.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Opus Schmagnum

Before I write my masterpiece, there are just a few things I need to get out of the way first. 
1. Make Dementia Playlist. When I'm demented in a subpar nursing home, unloved and nonverbal, I'll need some tunes. Dementia soundtrack should include, but not be limited to: 
The Stones, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Pergolesi, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, Lou Reed, George Wassouf, Amr Diab, Umm Kulthoum (not too much), Sarah Vaughan, maybe The Beatles (but not too much), "Nar," "Eskanderaya," "Ya Habibi," "Jesus Christ Superstar," Chopin, Vivaldi, Beethoven, "Whip It," Dylan (not too much), Abdel Halim Hafez singing "Gabbar," that one song by Loggins and Messina I can never remember—"Keep Me In Mind"?—some James Taylor & Carly Simon, Mary Martin singing "My Funny Valentine," that song from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," The Jackson Five, Michael Jackson, Joan Armatrading singing "Show Some Emotion," Wuthering Heights movie soundtrack, Kate Bush, The Pretenders, Frank Sinatra, all of Led Zeppelin, some Genesis, the whole "Sacred Love" album by Sting (repeat "Book of My Life" and "Sacred Love" x5) 
...and further instructions for care: if I'm delusional in a happy way, please don't remind me where I am. 
2. Afterlife or reincarnation? Decide which concept requires more attention. Decide if the concept of reincarnation arose as a result of some smart ass asking, "Where was I before I was born?" because he got sick of the shitty answers he got for "Where will I go after I die?" 
3. Figure out how to change the default to 16 pt. so you don't have to squint so much. 
4. Have a garage sale. But first,
5. Empty the garage and the basement. Also, buy price tags, put an ad in the paper, make signs, borrow folding tables, consult calendar and astrological forecast.
6. Figure out who am I if I have amnesia? If I regain my memory, am I a dual entity or do I have to reject one of my selves? 
7. In the movie "Total Recall," is the new Hauser responsible for the immorality of the old Hauser? And if not, does that mean none of us is responsible for acts we come to regret? Were both personae (the fascist and the rebel) artificially implanted and the real Hauser is just a blue-collar worker with wanderlust? Decide once and for all.
8. Read "Total Recall." Stop smirking when you say Philip K. Dick.
9. Determine if effort of any kind is futile. Given the inevitability of death and misunderstanding.

Monday, April 27, 2015

One's Own Breath Fogs

The landscape of love
can only be seen
through a slim windowpane
one's own breath fogs.
                         ~John Updike, "Erotic Epigrams" 

This is such a terribly clumsy, roundabout way of saying, I'm sorry, I fucked up.

          Or, You fucked up.

          And ultimately, We fuck each other up.

          But maybe it's a sentiment that should, after all, be expressed in this stilted fashion, the better to convey our unease in the presence of something so uncompromising. 

          When I read those four lines, I picture myself viewing Paradise through a filthy porthole. I have to stand on tiptoe just to catch a glimpse, but I never really see past the dirty glass.

          The lines of the poem come back to me when I think of those speaking tubes they have at playgrounds. Two children invisible to each other are connected by a long tube that meanders around the architecture of the playground. One child puts his mouth to the tube and whispers something. Somewhere else, the invisible friend presses his ear against the other end of the tube and hears the whisper. That, too, is the landscape of love. 

          Sometimes our words assume a physical form, the trace of a ghost that leaves our lips on a cold night. This temporariness is part of the landscape.

Again and again, however we know the landscape of love
and the little churchyard there, with its sorrowing names,
and the frighteningly silent abyss into which the others
fall: again and again the two of us walk together
under the ancient trees, lie down again and again
among the flowers, face to face with the sky.
                           ~Rilke, "Again and Again"

          I barely leave Rilke's graveyard of love anymore; I don't want to. But I try hard now not to pause at any of the 'sorrowing names.' I don't want to be alone, and I don't want to miss them anymore, my dearly departed, so I walk there with Curt, again and again. Except we never walk together in a real place—there's no map of love. 

          But I think, more and more, Curt knows where we are. I never allow myself to see him, won't even to speak with him on the phone. When I hear his voice in my ear, you see, he travels across an impossible terrain, leaping over all our pain and used up time to reach me. Like the absent child who whispers into the tube, the ghost escapes from his mouth and disappears inside me.

          Last summer, Curt wrote to me from halfway around the world to say, "I miss loving you." But he had meant it for someone else and right away apologized for having sent it. Curt will move to the Philippines in three months. Now he writes, "I miss waking up in the morning and seeing you." Who is he speaking to? Whoever he's trying to reach, I hear him as distinctly as if he'd whispered the words directly into my ear.

          I miss loving Curt, always. I wake up every morning and lie down among the flowers, the sky upon me. Staring up next to that cold ghost of his, I am always face to face with love. 


Saturday, April 18, 2015


An excerpt of this essay appeared in The New York Times in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

My grandmother’s name was Pailadzou, but the inspector at Ellis Island translated her name as Mercury—the winged messenger of the ancient Roman gods. Sometimes I like to imagine the inspector. (He looks like Kafka, but with glasses.) Who was this gatekeeper between worlds? Such an important figure in my grandmother’s future, and for future generations, shouldn’t be anonymous. Was he was a poetic existentialist trapped in a stifling, bureaucratic job? Did he fall instantly in love with my beautiful grandmother, sympathize with her plight, and decide then and there to give her an auspicious name? Or was he just bored and cynical?

          Pailadzou Tutunjian was born in Ada Bazaar, Turkey, in 1894. She grew up on a farm and had to quit school to work. Eventually a wealthy Turkish family in Constantinople employed her before she secured passage on a ship called The King Alexander in 1921.

          My mother, Roxanne (Araxie), was born here and grew up in the Bronx, surrounded by extended family who trickled into the neighborhood. Armenian was her first language. Her father, Haroutoun Sanossian, lost most of his family in the massacre. She told me she hated hearing him talk about it. He would get so angry.

          My mother and grandmother raised me, but I’m only half-Armenian. I understand Armenian but I can barely speak the language. Still, I clarify my own butter to make pilaf, the way my grandmother taught me, and I’ve been told I have an Ada Bazaartzi accent.

          My grandmother’s sister, Aghavny, buried a daughter on the death march. I learned that only recently from a cousin of mine over email. I don’t know for sure if my grandmother was on the march because she never talked about it. Armenian families were driven from their homes with whatever they could carry and forced into the Syrian desert. Many died along the way, or were killed. 
My grandmother, Pailadzou, second from right, with her siblings.
Her sister Aghavny, seated center, holds her daughter's hand.
          My grandmother’s silence troubles me. You mustn’t confuse it with the silence of the Turks—a denial that serves as a continuing violence to every Armenian and anyone who values human rights. Denial means we allow it to happen again and again today, to the Palestinians in Israel, to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, to everyone everywhere who is targeted because of race or ethnicity.

          My grandmother had kind, sparkling eyes. Even well into her 80s, she prepared dolma, tended our garden, and I can’t remember a day when she wasn’t cheerful, energetic, and loving. I understand my grandmother’s silence as a way of ensuring a sense of stability and normalcy. Keeping her mouth shut came at a price I can only guess at. Some mornings she would wake up with her mouth covered in blisters. My mother and I always knew this meant she had dreamt of the massacre, but still she wouldn’t speak of it. It’s easier for me to imagine the inspector’s face than my grandmother’s suffering. Only once do I recall her describing an atrocity: how the Turks, laughing, stabbed the bellies of pregnant Armenian women as they were giving birth. I assumed that this was something she had heard about. There is so much I will never know about the woman who raised me. I wish now that I could raise my voice and speak for her.

This year (this month, in fact) marks the centennial of the Armenian genocide, and the AG Campaign for Genocide Awareness website has gathered hundreds of personal accounts and family stories. I'm honored that my grandmother's story has been included here (in slightly different form) with so many other important stories.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

On Mars

A few years ago, NASA put out a Call for Haikus as part of its project Maven (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission). NASA received an astonishing number of entries for the contest—12,530 in two months—far more than they'd expected. In the end, they changed the rules and more than 1,100 poems were included on a DVD and placed in a rocket to Mars. It takes 10 months just to get to Mars, where the spacecraft will orbit the planet and transmit information back to us for about a year and eventually, when it runs out of fuel, enter the Martian atmosphere and burn up.

"The contest resonated with people in ways that I never imagined," said Stephanie Renfrow, who worked on public outreach for the project. "Both new and accomplished poets wrote poetry to reflect their views of Earth and Mars, to share their feelings about space exploration, to pay tribute to loved ones who have passed on and to make us laugh with their words."

Thirty-six million
miles of whispering welcome.
Mars, you called us home.
     —Vanna Bonta, United States

Stars in the blue sky
cheerfully observe the Earth
while we long for them.
     —Luisa Santoro, Italy

Mars, your secret is
unknown to humanity
we want to know you.
     —Fanni Redenczki, Hungary

These were among the top five poems that were selected. They are probably written by earnest SciFi enthusiasts and utopian techno-nerds with dreams of colonizing Mars, but they read like little death wishes, each of them. Each its own spiritual SOS; a message in a bottle, times 1,100.

When the Call for Haikus appeared on my newsfeed those years ago, my heart quickened and I had already written five poems about the absurdity of sending poems into space before I became exasperated by my own absurdity and threw my haikus in the trash. Later, the glibness of some of the selected poems would piss me off, as well, and I found myself losing patience with whoever was judging the submissions. Stuff like this, the first-place winner:

It's funny, they named
Mars after the God of War
Have a look at Earth
     —Benedict Smith, United Kingdom

The likelihood of a Martian, or anyone else in the neighborhood, having a DVD player is pretty low. Pen and paper would have been the way to go for dramatic impact, but I suppose the weight of 1,100 poems would have prevented liftoff.

Lately I've been wishing one of my own crappy poems were out there now with the other eleven-hundred Chosen Ones. My words would have been circling Mars for about six months already, having traveled an unimaginable 442 million miles to get there. I want to imagine my words leaving a trail that leads through the universe and all the way back to me like a vapor trail, or breadcrumbs in a forest. I want to imagine my words encircling a planet the color of rust, a place wholly incompatible with life. Imagine, the defiance of our own words orbiting Mars, unspoken, just because we can. Our secret selves—our out-of-body selves—made manifest and swirling through space, unseeing, unseen.

And years from now, out of fuel, our orbit growing nearer the dead planet with each pass, our destination looming closer and closer, we will finally arrive, in flames. How our rainbow-words will blacken the molten disk. Perhaps an ash or shard will drift intact, if we're lucky, into the red desert. Our frozen ash. (I looked it up; in summer the temperature can reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but the poles in winter drop to -195.) No one will see this, no one will know about our absurd act of faith except us, right here and now. 

Night always descends:
Flicker of stars, the red blot.
We run out of words.

Imagine how little any of this matters, and how much.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Day After Valentine's Day

The day before Valentine's Day, I happened upon an unretouched photo of lingerie-clad supermodel Cindy Crawford displaying her authentic 47-year old charms. I noticed because the leaked photo instantly went viral so it couldn't be overlooked. Women seem to want to praise Crawford for her empowering message of self-acceptance—as if her wrinkles alone will give the rest of us permission to accept and celebrate our own aging bodies. But the fact seems to be that she didn't authorize publication of the photo and, so far, has declined to comment. 

          The next day, her husband of 16 years, Rande Gerber, wished his Instagram followers a Happy Valentine's Day, posting a photo of his wife reclining poolside in a tiny bikini, looking uncannily taut and smooth.
His caption is, She got flowers and I got her. Happy Valentines Day@cindycrawford.

          What are insecure, aging women to make of Gerber's response?

          I don't know about the rest of you, but I love it. It moves me, the way only old love can, with its utter defiance of convention, its indifference to hard facts. Sure, we all long to be accepted for exactly who we are. But aren't we more than sagging flesh? 

          At 74, Jane Fonda (who is famously outspoken, physically fit, and insecure), had this to say about The Eye of the Beholder in terms of her relationship with 70-year old Richard Perry:
I have never had such a fulfilling sex life...I feel totally secure with him. Often when we make love I see him as he was 30 years ago.
          Maybe as long as we have imagination and recognize what it is we really, deeply desire, the distinction between fact and fantasy is trivial, even if we're not supermodels or movie stars. 
          I spent this Valentine's Day alone. My kids and I exchanged kisses, hugs, and chocolate, and then they had sleepovers with friends so the house was all mine. I nibbled Lindt chocolates while watching a movie my kids would have hated and then I read in bed till I fell asleep. Did I mention I was surrounded by cats and that there was a magnificent snowstorm in progress? That I slept with Pablo (my cat)?
          Other years this solitary state of affairs would have depressed me—but not because I don't enjoy my own company. I would have despaired (or at least pouted) only because of this damned Third Eye I've got. In Hinduism and other esoteric, mystic traditions, the third eye is associated with extraordinary perception and out-of-body experience. But my third eye seems to have been hijacked by a nasty Republican or a punitive middle-manager, sometimes a controlling Jewish mother, or one of the mean, popular kids from high school, but it is always someone who bitterly disapproves. The Eye sees an 80-year old crazy-cat-lady in pajamas, alone in a big house (while the rest of the world is having sex), gobbling chocolate, a frigid agoraphobic who will never, ever have sex again, never to spoon or cuddle again, never to love or be loved, who will die alone in shame/squalor/anonymity. And with lots of wrinkles. 

          It's probably the same eye that makes me edit a sentence nine times.

          I've tried to poke out this eye, but it won't budge, so at some point, I must have just turned the damned thing around. I redirected it to other Valentine's Days with Rambo, the ex: that unwavering annual ritual of supermarket flowers, tacky lingerie, and mandatory sex followed by hours of criticism and weeks of The Silent Treatment.

          I really do love movies, books, chocolate, cats, snowstorms, my house, and the pleasure of my own company.

          What if I'm not lonely or lacking, just alone? What if I'm happy, but because my happiness isn't for reasons I think are valid, I'm duty-bound to be miserable? Fantasies of the perfect Valentine's Day, the perfect family, lover, or life can help guide us, but they can also get in the way of our experience of what actually makes us happy. 

The day after Valentine's Day I finished reading the critically maligned novel,"Fifty Shades of Grey," (which has sold over 100-million copies, so the joke's on the critics). It shares a lot of the same criticism that was heaped on "Twilight," which is no surprise. In fact, "Fifty Shades" author E L James started her literary career sharing her work on a "Twilight" fanfiction website. The aim here is not Literature, and that isn't the criterion on which these books should be judged. These blockbusters represent the highly individual erotic fantasies of two middle-aged moms—they're not supermodels or Pulitzer-prize winning authors—and they appeal to ordinary women. 

          As you know, "Fifty Shades of Grey" is porn. (Erotica, if you prefer.) (Or Adult Romance, if you must.) And one of the great things about it is that it's written by a woman. The difference is point of view, emotional attachment, a genuine storyline, and proper reverence for the Almighty Clitoris, for starters. But instead of applauding women's erotica, feminists are outraged at the political incorrectness of the Dominant/Submissive paradigm, citing the novel as an endorsement of abuse. Even the BDSM camp is pissed off, patiently (boringly) explaining that "Fifty Shades" gets it all wrong and is foisting a lot of dangerous misconceptions on an already ignorant public. Yawn. (The funniest is Anthony Lane's review of the movie in The New Yorker.)

          But since when is political consensus a prerequisite for fantasy or arousal? 

          I downed the book pretty much in one go and enjoyed it, and that was probably because I didn't read it like a novel. When something didn't work for me, I just did some quick mental editing and pouf! it was gone. For instance, when Ana, our heroine, repeatedly misuses the term "subconscious" or makes reference to her writhing, panting "inner goddess," that gets shut down. Whenever Christian, our hero, says Ana is "bewitching" or "beguiling," that goes, too. Embarrassing transcripts of their email correspondence which try too hard and fail to be witty and risqué...No. The list of edits goes on and on—how many times does she have to run her fingers through his "copper-burnished hair" or remind us how hot he is? 

          There was one section, in particular, that rubbed me the wrong way (don't) where Ana's broken some rule and is about to get a really serious spanking. The beautifully built-up scene is interrupted by Ana's somewhat unprecedented fear and Christian's bewildered, touching sensitivity. At that point I had to stare off into space and do a mental rewrite before I could return to the book. Those flaws don't matter, in the end, because E L James and I were collaborating, as lovers do. In pure fantasy, though, there's no need for negotiations or consent.