Saturday, December 29, 2018

Palliative Care: Our House and Our Heroic Cleaning Lady

We have a wonderful cleaning lady who appears on time twice weekly and does what she can with us. But now that we have a few days off and I'm trying to do what my daughter calls "deep cleaning," I see that our cleaning lady's strenuous efforts are little more than a band-aid on a gaping wound.  I daydream about the staff of eight or ten that would, in Victorian times, have routinely maintained a home this size. Of course if we'd lived back then we'd be dealing with Victorian drains and antibiotics wouldn't have been invented . . . still, thoughts of a brisk, efficient maid tidying up the bookshelves while another brisk, efficient maid goes for the kitchen and yet a third folds the laundry--ah, these are pleasant dreams.

Part One: The Sofa

Looks lovely and is great to lie on. Folded all the blankets strewn around by late-night TV watchers, dusted the pillows, then pulled the whole thing out from the wall. So that's where two blue crocs that don't match went! I've been wearing their mates for the last six months. Also a pair of green crocs that my daughter may have outgrown, a pair of black crocs, a single multicolored croc whose mate is probably upstairs near my ballet barre, centuries of dust, old Cheerios, and a pair of orange glasses decorated with a dead spider.

Part Two: The Kitchen

Yesterday, one of the teenagers removed eight bags of garbage and indicated the fact on the calendar, where he also indicated that another sibling must now "do it twice!" or more, since he's done that himself . . . my teenagers love to fight about whose turn it is to remove the trash. Oh, excuse me, in my opinion. Meanwhile, the stove is a grease slick, the wok needs cleaning before I make dinner tonight, and what am I doing three flights up in my freezing study typing?

Part Three: The Bedroom

I removed the ancient quilt that was leaving a trail of feathers behind it, removed it as far as the laundry pile in the bathroom. Did I say pile? I meant the laundry mountain. Several laundry baskets of clean folded laundry adorn the bedroom floor. I won't tell you how long they've been there.

But we threw out the paper trash a few days ago!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

"I Cannot Tell a Truth"

I wonder what Parson Weems would have done with Donald Trump. Mason Locke Weems, the first biographer of George Washington, invented the charming tale I was taught (or read in my parents' encyclopedia--I can't blame this one on my second-grade curriculum) that young George could not tell a lie. The future first POTUS chopped down his father's prize cherry tree with his little hatchet, so the story goes, and when interrogated said, "I cannot tell a lie," admitting the crime and being rewarded with kisses instead of punishment.
So the first president could not tell a lie--generations of schoolchildren believed--and the last (will America exist after Trump? Does it still exist?) can't tell the truth. He really can't. It's not even that he won't. He is incapable of telling the truth because he has no interest in doing so.

American Myth #1: The president cannot tell a lie. Now, like any other politician, he can. He's gone, in a way, all-embracing, if not upscale. American individualism, American expansionism, American exceptionalism, all express themselves with greatest fervor in the person of POTUS.

American Myth #2: "American history is immigration." It was. For Oscar Handlin, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Uprooted (1951) and the one who summed up American history in that memorable way, the people who brave the oceans and deserts to try to build themselves a life free of narcos and grinding poverty create America. That America now sits in cages at the border. Handlin, child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Harvard professor who directed eighty dissertations, could never have helped create America under the Trump administration. Imagine Oscar Handlin being told to go back where he came from. Or left in a cage to rot.
Maybe grass roots individualism still has a chance. Maybe free speech--which I thought Trump had rendered irrelevant--can get him after all. And if so, Merry Christmas!!:



Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Discombobulated Cancer Patient, the Ibrance and the Snooty Pharmacy Lady

I am probably known as the eccentric American at my local pharmacy, because I often cannot find the receipt for the medication I've paid for when I come to pick it up. Lucky for me the clerks are all very German and organized: "Ordnung Muss Sein" is the slogan by which Germans live, and they keep their own records and they find my stuff amazingly quickly.
But my personal style is more along the lines of "Chaos Must Be!" I find this sentiment works for many of life's thorniest issues, certainly the composition of essays, an activity in which I engage more and more. Fashion too. I buy a garment because the color grabs me, and later I realize it goes with this and that favorite thing. So I am only accidentally color-coordinated. I'm the same way with food: I buy carrots if they look fresh and four or five other items that strike my fancy and find, when I get home, that they all complement each other in a dish, and rare are the moments in my family when complaints emerge about the food. Maybe you'd call my style "unconscious" rather than chaotic. It's not deliberate, however, and not orderly, so would probably go with "chaos."
 I'm glad my dentist and my oncologist proceed along what seems compulsively careful, rule-driven lines. Less glad when the German bus driver opens the door on which I've just tapped only to howl indignantly, "PAUSE!" (translation: "It's my break! My five minute break! And no, you can't step in from the freezing temperatures and sit in the back of the bus while I consume my Butterbrot. Because I'm going to show you I have every right to my five minutes." To do otherwise would be to disturb order.
I walked into the pharmacy late on a Tuesday afternoon, having taught two classes, held office hours, and bought groceries. I was rolling a large shopping cart, carrying another heavy bag over my shoulder, and attempting to open my wallet and snag the receipt before the big bag fell off my shoulder. I didn't succeed. The pharmacy clerk, a new one unfamiliar with my lack of organization, beckoned me and I hauled all my bags up to her window and began explaining to her, as I went through section after section of the incredibly thorough wallet I bought at the (German) Christmas market last year, that I couldn't find the receipt.
"Are you speaking to me or to your wallet?" asked the clerk, smiling. It didn't seem to me that her smile was friendly. I apologized, located, finally, the receipt, and handed it to her. She gave me my medicine and as I put it in my bag I was still apologizing and feeling embarrassed.
So it was that I lost I medicine, I hoped not on the way home. I was searching for it for days, to the point where I nearly called my oncologist to request another prescription. I'd begun to consider looking up what I'd have to pay but of course chaotically did not, preferring to hope I wouldn't be spending more than 200 euros.
Now that I've just found the box of Ibrance, safe and sound, and will be able to start taking it as usual, the whole 21-day cycle again for the rest of the time the cancer lies in wait, not developing, being frustrated, I looked up the price on Drugs.com, which says: $11,797 is what I'd pay for a 21-day supply. 
After taxes, I make about 29,000 euros.
Good thing I did not lose that Ibrance, which probably would not have cost more than 2,741.61 euros here in Germany. Thank you, German government, and thank you, KKH insurance company, for saving the lives of women with metastatic breast cancer. 
No thanks to the sales clerk whose snarky moment pushed my normal discombobulation into enough chaos to eliminate my memory of where I'd set down the box of capsules. Bye-bye the two hours it took to find them. So glad to have them right where they belong on my coffee table.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Your Personalized Fulvestrant Shot: Every Nurse Has Her Own Style

Each nurse, I have learned, is unique. Each knows just how comfortable she feels about giving shots in general and that shot in particular, the one with the very long needle and the fluid that has to enter excruciatingly slowly.
"Wouldn't you like to stand?" said one nurse. "All the other ladies do!" She gestured to a medical machine sporting a small, apparently decorative railing where I might rest my hands as I waited, pants down, feeling very dignified as she drew imaginary lines on my buttocks with a finger, trying to find the exact right spot pictured on the diagram she was probably holding in her other hand.
Neither of us anticipated me needing that railing for support when I started to faint. The only thing that prevented my doing so as everything went black before my eyes was awareness of that dagger-length needle deeply embedded in my right gluteus maximus.
Next time, I asked "the other ladies" which nurse knew how to give the shot. Two nurses are reputed to be particularly skilled and they have the same name, let's say Susy. One is short, the other tall, so they're known as Big Susy and Little Susy. 
When I go for my monthly shot I ask if either is around and if I'm lucky I get to lie on my stomach and forget the shot after the initial brief stab. 
That was before I read some medical literature and discovered that many nurses don't know that Fulvestrant is supposed to be administered intra-muscularly, not sub-cutaneously. In the muscle, not just under the skin. This is just one of the several worrying info-sheets I discovered on the topic: https://voice.ons.org/conferences/best-practices-for-im-injection-of-fulvestrant
Every time I go for my shot, I introduce the term "intra-muscular" into the conversation, but of course I have no way of telling whether the shot's being served up that way. 
My last CT scan was clear.  Is that a clear sign the medicine's muscling its way through, well, muscle?
Meanwhile, yesterday's nurse insisted I lie on my side with one leg, the one with the targeted buttock, in front of me. I've been told to lie on my side before, but the leg-in-front was a first.
"But this is the correct way!" insisted the nurse. "This way, the muscle is relaxed!" If you say so, nurse. Definitely hurt more that way. As she administered the shot (takes a few minutes) she noted that I seemed to have very strong muscles. She seemed rather surprised. The other ladies don't do, or didn't do, ballet. I did do ballet. My muscles are not the relaxed muscles she was expecting to see. But then who's relaxed while experiencing a needle halfway up her butt cheek, through which a liquid battling cancer cells is pinching its way forward?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

American Optimism and Breast Cancer Commercials

I can't imagine more of a fun challenge than metastatic breast cancer--going by the various American commercials advertising Ibrance, the stuff that's keeping me alive (oh, with the shot of Fulvestrant in each buttock every month, the needle as long as a chopstick). I should be grateful, and I am--all this is much nicer than the chemo infusions I had before, which made me sleepy and nonfunctional and are allegedly chemically cousin to mustard gas. But the idea that cancer is merely pesky, that you can forget all about it--ahh, the commercials make that seem possible: "Alice calls it her new normal . . . because a lot has changed--but a lot hasn't." Or this line: "Metastatic breast cancer never quits . . . so neither do I!" Go, prizefighter! The voice-over tells you the stuff is great at "delaying disease progression" but no one can tell you how many golden drops of life that delay contains. Eight ounces? Just a teaspoon? How about the Atlantic ocean? I'm reminded of Thor getting tricked into saying he could finish off a whole drinking horn . . . only to discover that it was attached to the sea. I want that ocean--the ocean of life. The days when I never thought in terms of limited time, but in terms of forevers. I assumed a great deal. I assumed I'd live to see my children married, to become a grandma, to write a few more books, to get some second honeymoons with my husband. But what if the Ibrance only works for another few months? Then there's the Verzenio:
Yeah, cancer's tough, but so am I! Okay, got the message. You can look young and gorgeous even though all these meds are for postmenopausal women. Meanwhile, enjoy forgetting all about cancer. If I forget something that big, it's likelier a sign of brain rot, one of the side effects listed on the back of the package. The drug companies don't use that term, but when your estrogen's chemically compelled to dry up the first thing to go is memory. Am I complaining that big Pharma is really inventing big ways to prolong my life? Of course not. I'm inclined to find perkiness suspect, is all. I'd go for a commercial with dark humor or wit. I'd go for anything that doesn't call cancer "a journey." I'd go for something other than battle imagery, with the women as the lone fighter against the big bad monster. The underdog kicking the giant "to the curb." That American underdog stuff is old. I want something new: in the meds department it should be sweet, chewable, painless and entirely lacking in side effects. In the cure department it should be, well, complete.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

On Renting Rooms

There's nothing people lie about more than their romantic and erotic past. Except, maybe, real estate. That's the conclusion toward which my husband and I have been tending, as we committed the classic error of landlords: we wanted to be friendly enough to ignore a dubious first impression and give the guy a chance. We should have been all business--at least until we got to know him. But we like to like people. We're university teachers--in the interest of squeezing a better essay out of a (lazy? distracted? indifferent? traumatized?) head, we sometimes ignore a deadline and encourage the kid to try again. Occasionally that works. After all, we're modeling what we wish for students to emulate: tolerance, perseverance and hard work. We follow that formula much of the time, but such second chances don't fly with candidates for rented rooms.
After my husband painted and renovated the room and bathroom our last (lovely) tenant had inhabited for nine years, we advertised and got a call from a distracted-sounding young man who seemed very interested. He reminded me, over the phone, of a marathon runner who'd forgotten which direction his feet were facing. But I figured he was charging around between work and potential rentals. I'm acquainted with stress, and figured his condition was temporary.
In person, he made a better impression. He told us where he worked and what he did, he convincingly assured us he wouldn't be a smoker by whipping out an asthma inhaler, he said he didn't cook much and worked long hours, and when we figured out he'd mainly be using the room to sleep and have a cup of coffee, and return to his large extended family over the weekend, we decided to offer him the place.
He wanted to pay in cash, right then and there.
That was when I should have asked myself whether he had a bank account. We didn't accept that offer, suggesting instead that he return to sign the lease when he could also bring proof of employment. 
In the States, I could ask for three references, including an employer, and phone them. Folks don't do that here, but I figured a letter or even an email from his employer would be a reasonable request. 
We made an appointment for our prospective renter to bring said proof and sign the lease. Instead, when he was supposed to be there, he phoned saying he was in a traffic jam. Could he come two hours later? Sure, we said. Another phone call: Could he come another day? Too much traffic. 
We settled on another day and a definite time. He wasn't there. He wasn't there half an hour after the appointed time, nor an hour later. We went to the movies. When we returned we found he'd called more than three and a half hours after our appointment and left the following message: "I had an emergency. Please call me." We didn't, instead emailing him that we'd given the apartment to someone else, figuring he was no longer interested. He then phoned three or four times in as many minutes insisting that we had to give him another chance because he had no other options and besides, he'd ordered furniture. We told him to cancel the furniture. Emails followed--all insisting he couldn't understand our position, none offering any proof of employment or explanation. 
I wish I'd trusted my first impression, and I hope the young person finds a suitable place. I'm so very glad it's not ours.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Donald Trump on the Pittsburgh Shootings

Guns in a house of worship? That is what Trump wants. He blames the dead for not bringing guns to synagogue. He blames the dead in high schools for not bringing guns to school. Trump has Jewish grandchildren, a Jewish son-in-law, a daughter who at least nominally converted to Judaism. Does he care about them? Does he assume they'll never have a problem because he can always hire bodyguards who carry guns?
He cares more about the NRA than he does about his family. Or about the American family. A mafia don, he's telling us we need protection.
Gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control gun control!
Amen.
Please, gun control. That must now become our political, religious, moral, philosophic, and patriotic goal. All hands on deck.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Weathering it: American Serial Bombers

"We will get through this," I thought wearily, watching police cars zipping along a Manhattan highway with a bomb container unit. From the Weather Underground to the Unabomber to the Chelsea bomber, Americans have seen too many serial bombers. But the notion of bombing as an heroic act is unfortunately enshrined in our national anthem--the rocket's red glare is just what a crazy person imagines will give proof through the night that our flag is still there. He (it usually is--have there been any female serial bombers?) is lunatic enough to think our omnipresent flag, our flag that can't be avoided on T-shirts, pencils, decals, coffee mugs, aprons, is in danger of disappearing. And that the only thing one can do to protect it is bomb somebody you don't like.
What if America reformed itself the way Germany has? The Germans got rid of Hitler's "über alles," the notion of Germany "above all," and the German national anthem is now all about unity, protecting the fatherland through peaceful brotherhood:


Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Für das deutsche Vaterland!
Danach lasst uns alle streben
Brüderlich mit Herz und Hand!
Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Sind des Glückes Unterpfand;
 |: Blüh' im Glanze dieses Glückes,
  Blühe, deutsches Vaterland! :| 


Translation: 

Unity and justice and freedom
For the German fatherland!
Towards these let us all strive
Brotherly with heart and hand!
Unity and justice and freedom
Are the foundation of happiness;
 |: Flourish in the radiance of this happiness,
  Flourish, German fatherland! :| 


Like the American national anthem, the German one leaves women out--efforts have been made to put them back in, or at least to speak of "homeland" rather than "fatherland" and "courageous" rather than "brotherly." Change doesn't happen quickly in Germany--possibly happens more slowly here than elsewhere. But you don't see serial bombers sending explosive packages to their least favorite politicians. There's no NRA dominating the economic scene. Violence is unfortunately enshrined in the American national anthem, associated with glory, with a perverse version of "manhood" and with the gory triumphs of violent conquest. How about a makeover in the national anthem department?

Thursday, October 18, 2018

"American History is Immigration" and the Honduras Caravan

In The Uprooted (1951) the historian Oscar Handlin observed, "American history is immigration," a statement that stirred pride and perhaps stemmed racism. The Irish, so abused a century before, had settled into the middle class. Other groups became the new kid on the block. Although the tension between the notion of the "natives," sometimes deeming themselves the "real Americans," and the recent arrivals has never been eliminated, the Trumpesque choices to separate Mexican babies and children from their mothers, to turn back the desperate Honduran group on its way to the U.S. border, and to tell the president of Honduras that all aid will be denied if he allows Hondurans to enter the United States, represents yet another un-American low. Trump has normalized trauma, but the wholesale rejection of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free destroys the ideal on which America was founded. Not to mention his earlier scapegoating remarks. Divide and conquer, divide and conquer, divide and conquer: that is Donald Trump's modus operandi. Can we return to the foundational concept of E. Pluribus Unum, out of many, one, instead of the divisive "In God We Trust?" Our gods are as diverse as our origins, Oscar Handlin might have observed. But out of our many, we can still make one group dedicated to the peaceful betterment of all. And that includes welcoming the the wretched refuse of some other nation's teeming shore. America is rich, and could use its wealth to welcome those who want to work, to belong, to help.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Cringing at Kavanaugh

Watching Brett Kavanaugh get sentimental--"My little daughter--she's all of ten (choke!) said we should pray for the woman!"--was sobering. Does he actually believe what he's saying? Or does he feel his past just doesn't work in the conversation right now? Or is it dawning on him that he hopes to protect her from guys like himself? Would anyone be surprised if, when she grows up, she goes for guys who have alcoholic blackouts?
In 1991, when Anita Hill was testifying about her boss, Clarence Thomas, eyeballing her and commenting on her "large breasts," Senator Arlen Spector seemed to think this was "not too bad" and Senator Joe Biden questioned her in jawdroppingly inappropriate ways--the C-SPAN recording of the event may be found on You-Tube but not uploaded, but at approximately one hour and three minutes the harassment of Hill by senators who ought to have known better intensifies. Politico has harvested the worst moments on another video that won't upload.
The difference between the "younger, whiter Clarence Thomas," as Randy Rainbow dubbed Brett Kavanaugh, and the original lies in the degree of violence. Both men kept going when the women whom they assaulted said "no," and "please stop." Thomas's assault remained verbal--urging Hill to watch a video called "Long Dong Silver" when she wouldn't accept his invitation to go out with him. Kavanaugh's drunken physical assault on a terrified Christine Blasey Ford, who thought she would die of asphyxiation, when both were teenagers, may be something he can't remember--but he remembers going out with his friends, partying, and drinking into oblivion.  As many American law professors have noted, a man who responds with the arrogance and belligerence of Kavanaugh on the witness stand is not a man whose judgement is steady enough for the highest court in the land--whether he's guilty of assaulting Ford or not. Asked whether he'd had an alcoholic blackout, Kavanaugh retorted, "Well, have you?" His tears came across to me as "No fair, Mommy." A woman crying like that on the witness stand would have been shredded by her questioners. Somehow, his tears were seen by those in power as humanizing him. And they do--they show our worst side. No one, he has said, is above the law. He may well get away with lying--it looks as though he has done so, and I wish I could be optimistic about efforts to impeach him. But the truth has a way of worming its way to the surface. No matter what he may achieve, no matter how high he climbs, he'll always know how drunk he got and how the booze brought out his worst side. He'll always know from his pals what he did when he was drunk. What affect will his past have on his daughters? The truth will out in their lives, possibly in their choice of future life partners.




Sunday, October 7, 2018

Criminal Confirmation

Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a symptom. A man of bad character, a liar, one who feels entitled to lie, has just been confirmed to the Supreme Court. He's not the first justice unworthy of the court--we can look back to the Dred Scott decision, the Plessy Vs. Ferguson decision. Lists of bad justices are popping up on the net. But we thought we'd risen above. We have Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We still have her. A man like Kavanaugh, however, makes it impossible to respect one of the most powerful institutions of the land--a defining American institution. Our democracy is in tatters. Is civil war next? We are already engaged in a civil war, divisions growing ever deeper. The answer is to "hold together, try to be nice," as the German satirist Jan Bohmermann sang, prophetically, in his video, "Be Deutsch," reminding Germans who reject immigrants of the dangers of division and racisim:

We Americans have to hold together, try to be nice, too. Even with Kavanaugh in the court. The next step is impeachment, of him, of Trump. Not despair--not screaming through confirmation hearings, either. Just unified, absolute opposition. Kavanaugh is a symptom of who we are becoming--behaving as badly as he behaved during his hearings should not be one of our options. Removing him from office in a quiet, absolute, legal way is the next step.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Supremely Kavagaughed




I'll take the Randy Rainbow version of the story--it's the likeliest. Salt in the Jeff Flake elevator moment and what do you get? I'll play it safe and say I don't know, but I made sure, long before I could hope that Bill Cosby would serve time, that my fourteen-year-old daughter and my sixteen-year-old son knew never to take a drink you don't open yourself. Before I said another word, my sixteen-year-old added, "And no means no." We raised him right. We raised them both right. Their big brother got the same talk, and set a good example. 
What goes through the minds of the entitled, the privileged--the Chase Finlays, the Bill Cosbys, the Brett Kavanaughs? What goes through the minds of their defenders? Maybe the last question is the easiest to answer: fear. I think these women, the holdouts of the cult of domesticity, believe their protectors will vanish if certain crimes are acknowledged. It's much easier to say boys will be boys, look forward, not back, pretend it didn't happen, or if it did, it happened so long ago that we should all forget about such things. Distasteful to mention, distasteful to think about. This stance encourages Chase Finlay to call Alexandra Waterbury a "career ruiner" and to send his goons to threaten her. This stance allowed Cosby to stay free far too long. In an ocean of evidence, he kept his head way above water. This stance--it allows Kavanaugh to whine: "No fair, Mommy!" say the tears spouting from his eyes. The cynicism pouring from his sentimentality is nauseating. He would have done better to concede at the outset, to say: "Yes, I behaved wildly as a young man, I drank too much, I had blackouts, this vision of me presented by Ford rings true--but I'm no longer that man. I've reformed." He might have lost his chance sooner, but he could have walked away with honor. That option is no longer open.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Sex, Lies and Privilege at the New York City Ballet



Alexandra Waterbury’s nightmare would be mine: photos of me, vulnerable, naked, taken without my knowledge or permission.

For some time, I’ve wondered why anyone would permit nude photos in the first place--but these were not permitted. Why hand ammunition to someone of whom you may, at the least, tire? Not to mention dislike? Hate, even? I’m often met with a blank stare when I mention nude photos to persons younger than myself. They feel that any old photo, including or especially nude ones, is just a regular part of a relationship. They’re de rigueur.

These photos, taken on the sly, stole Waterbury's trust, her peace of mind, her sense of security. Taking a woman’s photo without consent exploits the woman. The obvious needs to be stated. I can well imagine Ms. Waterbury’s shock, sadness, disappointment—I can imagine the moment when she realized she had trusted a man whose desire to score overpowered any sense of judgement he may have had. If allegations that he trashed a Washington D.C. hotel room, encouraged friends to treat girls like “farm animals” and “sluts” are true, he was a bad choice for a boyfriend.

Mr. Finlay comes across on videos as a highly talented dancer from a wealthy background. He is devoted to his craft. Born and raised in Fairfield, CT, he loves to golf with his father. Every inch the privileged preppy, he remains a familiar type. A generation ago, male dancers often felt they had to prove they were straight by treating women like sex objects. Is that still the case? Or is the exuberant Mr. Finlay just getting away with his bad behavior because the NYCB did not think to curb it?

What did his parents teach him? How I wish I’d been a fly on a golf club, listening to the conversation of father and son. Or perched on the perfectly polished glass coffee table, taking in the family atmosphere. If there is one.

Because nice boys just don’t do what he did. Take advantage of a girl who was naïve, and probably dazzled by his fancy background.

But such exploitation is not new at the City Ballet. I am old enough to remember the stories of Balanchine bribing female dancers with household appliances if they let him cop a feel. Telling girls with agonized ligaments to just have a glass of red wine. Handing Gelsey Kirkland amphetamines to force her through a performance.

Drugs and anorexia seem to have faded from dance education, but the sexual balance of power continues to be a problem. I applaud Ms. Waterbury’s courage; it’s not easy to sue a big ballet company, to get stuck in a limelight much less glamorous than the stage at Lincoln Center.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Mr. Or Ms. Anonymous New York TImes OP-ED

My money is on Jared Kushner. Ivanka Lady-Macbethed him, and I would bet she'd have plucked the baby's boneless gums from her nipple and dashed its brains out had she sworn--the dud promised to marry her, right? Oops, that would be dude. Dude. But from her point of view, we can leave out that final "e".
Or did she write the thing herself? No, maybe Kellyanne Conway? These are some alternate facts all her own? Or the whole thing was a team effort led by Mike Pence? Oh, let some computer analyze the style.
The Hardy Boy books were written by committee. And it'll take a hardier mind than mine to figure this one. Sure doesn't bother Mr. T, recently pictured by Barry Blitt running through the woods just ahead of the basset hounds. I liked the missing shoe, Mr. Blitt. I wish the real Trump were as foolish as he seems in your cartoons and onscreen, but my fear is he reads people and situations like Sherlock Holmes. Maybe I'm wrong. Tell me I'm wrong. 
P.S. Thank you, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. Undermine from within. Do it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Opioids and Me: A Cautionary Tale

No, I didn't take them to entertain myself. I had to. They'd planned on spinal anesthesia, the young doctors down at the university hospital, but after several painful tries on my scoliosis, they gave up--I was glad they did--and moved on to this other big O. 
"You will feel darkly disoriented," said the surgeon in green (I'm translating a German verb meaning exactly that). I was lying on the operating table, a rubber-scented oxygen mask over my nose and the room already spinning.
I can liken today's experience to extreme drunkenness, an unpleasant state I have endured only once, at the accidental instigation of my mother, who brought a gallon bottle of Gallo (this was 1970s Gallo) to a lobster dinner. The two of us drank every drop, since our friends had brought their own beer. The room, nay world-spinning feeling--our friends had to walk us home--culminated in the very same side effect as the operation-room opioids: projectile vomiting. 
This known side effect had inspired the notion that on this occasion, the surgeons would rely on spinal anesthesia. Last time, I totaled the bedside phone in my hospital room, and remembered when my oldest child, a large bowl placed beside his head, nevertheless turned and vomited across the room, missing not one spot.
"Mommy, you put the bowl on the wrong side!" He insisted. The look on the nurse's face, as she was attempting to clean the phone before giving up and throwing it away, approximated, I suppose, the look on mine upon receiving this information from my child. 
After today's surgery--minor--I requested breakfast. I got hospital lunch. First, it seemed to go down fine. I was very hungry. After I got home, my stomach rebuked me.
But I am proud to say, Gentle Reader, and if you're still with me you really are gentle! that  today, I projectiled into the toilet. At least all this happened in the comfort of my own home. I was experiencing one of those dreadful choices one must make when both ends of the alimentary canal urgently need to unload. I gambled, and I won! "Pee or puke first?" I made the right choice, you need not know which one. I am so glad to be home. It's my twentieth wedding anniversary, and my husband and I had been anticipating a night on the town, complete with wine. "No wine today!" said the doctor who let me go home. Good thing I followed orders.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Yes, We Have No Anesthesia

That's the story I got when the interns knocked on the door--I'd been prepped for surgery the day before: taken my numbered slip from the machine, gone through the conversation with the secretary for whom I feared I might have to find my American passport, brought my labels and papers to the nurse's desk. Many a test tube of blood was drawn by somebody who was clearly in the learning phases, a conversation with the anesthesiologist completed, the hospital evening meal consumed--a greasy slab of mortadella, a cheese labeled "Gouda," though you'd never know, and two slices of bread. Then I lay awake--who sleeps on the night before surgery? Good thing I didn't take the sleeping pill they offer to the anxious. I'm always anxious--why start with pills now?
So there I was, an indelible black X circled on my leg, where surgeons are going to remove the too-long screws, which hold in place the rod now decorating my femur after a tumor was removed last January. That rod, incidentally, has visited the Eiffel Tower, plus papal and princely palaces in Avignon and Monaco, without setting off metal detectors. I always whip out my hospital card, identifying myself as a patient with metal in her leg, and they always wave me through, and the sophisticated machine never beeps, a fact rendering me nervous.
So there I was, with the black X, the white compression stocking on the other leg, a signal not to cut there, and the unspeakably unattractive hospital johnny that barely ties at the back, plus the nylon net panties that don't bring out the most attractive aspects of one's privates.
There I was. In they came, the interns in the white coats, saying they didn't have good news. "We have no anesthesia," they claimed, hastily adding that the nurse's strike--currently in its twelfth day--had "nothing to do with the problem." My surgery is not an emergency, and they were doing emergencies all night. Apparently the anesthesia people require sleep. But hey, I wanted to say: I watch Gray's Anatomy, and I just know they never sleep. Yesterday, however, during the conversation with the young anesthesiologist, I observed the bags under her eyes and estimated she'd been vertical for more than 48 hours. I guess she's human after all. But so am I. Now I'm, home, disoriented, and doing laundry. In a week, I'll return to the hospital, possibly with the X marking the spot still intact.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Tale of the Unsent Postcards

When we were in Monaco on a day trip--dragging ourselves away from a lovely Cote D'Azur beach--we bought postcards of the Grimaldis, the beaches, the casinos. By the time we'd driven to Paris, the cards were written and ready to go. But the Paris post office's normal hours start at ten--in summer, at 1:00 p.m., long after the time we'd planned to hit the road for the drive back to Northwestern Germany. Back into the white paper bag went the postcards, then deep into my copy of Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay, the only book large enough to ensure the cards wouldn't get bent around the edges. So, my husband and I said, too bad, we'll mail them when we're back in Germany. We hadn't counted on being stranded in a small Belgian city when our car's clutch died. Our insurance company went about finding a taxi and a rental car in the most dilatory way imaginable, such that we nearly had to spend the night. What we did have to do was leave a suitcase and a lot of other stuff--the wine, cookies, and Dijon mustard for the nice neighbor who looks after our guinea pigs and fish--in the car. The postcards, too. They are cooling their heels somewhere in car shop, and I hope we'll be able to mail them eventually.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

National Stormy Daniels Day

It's National Stormy Daniels Day--Trump is acknowledging that he has THE VERY BEST crooks in the business, and that they were convicted of THE VERY BEST fraud.
Yes, Mr. P.
In our VERY BEST courts. "All the President's Crooks" are getting convicted, one by one, and I hope they get the VERY BEST sentences, very long ones, in VERY secure places. Stormy Daniels, strut your stuff. Without you, none of this would be possible. Hail, Goddess!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Hybrid Cucumber Sandwich

When we were in Bavaria, our friend Heidi gave us a humongous cucumber, organic, straight from her garden. We planned to eat it right away, didn't, and brought it along with us to France, where it dawned on me, as I was observing a huge edifice, the Palais Des Anglaise, near the Super U market, that I might as well make cucumber sandwiches. Why does a French supermarket have a big yellow curlicued English palace next door? I have yet to research the matter.
I have the perfect recipe at home in a little book, complete with pictures of the Ritz. All I could remember was a lot of salt and white vinegar. And on this occasion the net was no help. The net almost universally disapproves of the kind of cucumber sandwich I so enjoyed on my single trip to the Ritz, back in 1982. The net touts "healthier" versions without the vinegar but with a lot of herbs and, of all things, garlic powder.
No non noooooo! Not on cucumber sandwiches. Lemon. Check. Salt. Check! Industrial strength white vinegar. Check! Mix that up (juice of one whole lemon, handfuls of salt, around a cup of the vinegar, and add a bunch of thin slices of cucumber. One entire cucumber. Should soak in that mix for a while, at least an hour. Drain. Press between paper towels. Get out the nice, soft, incredibly flavorful French butter (that's the first part of hybrid). Then get out the baguette! Split the thing in half and schmear (now we're up to three ethnicities) it with butter. That French butter--it's thick and soulful and flavorful enough to be cream cheese. 
Note: The pure English 19th-century method would be to smooth, not schmear, the butter, so thinly that you'd think it was being rationed. Which maybe it was. 
Once you've got the bread ready: drain the cucumbers through a sieve, and again, don't forget to squeeze out the excess vinegar-lemon-salt juice. Then pile up the cucumbers on the baguette, and slice:
See? Looks like a sub, but tastes like a "hybrid cucumber sandwich." I know they'd be tearing out their hair at the Ritz, but instead they should just sit down with one of these and brew themselves a nice pot of Earl Grey tea. Pour it into a cup, add lots of sugar and cream, stir. Take a bite of sandwich. Sip. Yum.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Cote D'Azur: It's Really That Blue

Now that we're here--after a fourteen-hour drive broken by a night in Dijon (where we purchased, of course, mustard) I can tell you the sky and the sea area just as blue as their name. Azure. Yes, like lapis lazuli. The view alone is worth our astronomical rent. But we've saved on plane tickets and confidentially our rent is not as !@#$RTYUlly high as it would be in St. Tropez. Which is not far. The best supermarket's in Monaco, a fifteen-minute drive. But we went to the one that's only a ten-minute drive. Wine from Bergerac. The perfect poulet. Cheese, enough to plaster the house. A lovely pebble beach a short walk from the house. The sky, the sea, as blue as the Mac icons at the bottom of my computer screen, or as in the "fair use" photos of the region that decline to load. What more could we want? I wish I hadn't stubbed my toe. I wish we were all perfectly healthy. Other than that: swimming and books occupy me: David Sedaris, Tobias Wolff, Philip Lopate, Asne Seirstad. And more. 
I hadn't spent much time in France since the nineties--a trip to Euro Disney when the kids were little does not count--and back in the nineties, it was still impossible to find a bad meal. Now it's possible. What's different? Back then, the French were stylish, but unwashed. Now they're washed, but un-stylish, and they eat American fast food. Their supermarkets still boast the fantastic arrays of cheese, wine, and seafood for which we longed, but the French themselves? Here's the dirty little secret: I can't tell some of them from the Americans!
Makes me, well, a little blue.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Days in Bavaria: Gossiping with My Pals at a Barbecue

Bavaria: land of the flowing Weizen beer, the Lederhosen, the maypoles decked out in the blue-and-white checks of the Bavarian (national) flag, as the locals might tell you--and my husband would agree: whenever we drive from the wilds of Northwestern Germany to his Paradisiacal place of origin, a village decked out with a medieval monastery and a cathedral, he's so happy he's practically dancing the Schuhplattler Knee-slap dance, which you can see right here:
When we arrived for the yearly barbecue with the folks from our former English language class, our friend told us about her non-traditional Bavarian pals, Achmed and Jihad. Achmed and Jihad were arguing one morning, Achmed insisting Erdogan "is wonderful! The papers treat him badly! He's great! Anyone who says different is pushing fake news!" But Jihad--yes, his mother named him that--says the reverse: "Erdogan's what we know him to be: as bad as Trump, and worse."
"Did they say it in Bavarian dialect?" I asked my friend, Heidi.
"No!" she said, disapproving. "They speak in Hochdeutsch!"
 These gentlemen of bucolic Bavaria represent the Turkish population here; like the rest of the (mostly Catholic) Bavarians, they're divided. The Bavarian Turks are divided about Erdogan. The Bavarian Catholics are divided about the church. Many are leaving it. The latest? A local bishop in Eichstätt speculated, losing sixty million euros of the church's money--the kind of money that usually goes to orphans, museums, good deeds. But the very assimilated Mustapha, who speaks broad Bavarian, goes into a rage when another Bavarian of Turkish origin's parallel parking is not up to par: "These damn Turks!" yells Mustapha, frustrated because these folks have made it impossible for him to park, and shaking his fist. "They should go back where they came from!" Where they came from? That would be . . . .wait for it . . . beautiful, bucolic Bavaria

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Now She's a Lucifer to Light Her Fire: The Guinea Pig Romance

Lily the guinea pig has been leading a lonely life; her longtime companion, Scarlet, died of various tumors and an apparent infection a few months ago, so Lily's been moping around her cage and actually starting conversations with me, paws on plastic wall, rather than ignoring all humans, as is her normal modus operandi. My husband drove me to an animal shelter in the neighborhood that had guinea pigs but declined to let us know anything about their gender. Since we needed a male companion with no reproductive capabilities, we could not take the girls in the pen. Lily always fights with girls. She did not play nicely with the ones with whom she was once sent to live--when she returned, she gave me a baleful look--why had I sent her away? And to live with other chicks? Really. So we bided our time. I thought maybe she was the Greta Garbo of piggies, content to live on her own. Little signs of loneliness appeared--the odd, plaintive squeak, the signs, despite her efforts to be cool, that she had missed me when I was gone.
Yesterday, we got a call from another animal shelter. Yes, they had a young male, (tricolor in the video below) and yes, that young male had been rendered infertile. You'd never know from his reactions to Lily. He's clearly under the impression that he still has all his junk. She didn't rip his head off or, in fact, draw blood, as far as I could tell, although she affected to complain when he single-mindedly turned his attentions to her, waggling his hips, growling, and then clicking his teeth when she did not immediately agree to his terms. That teeth-clicking has stopped, as of today--it sounded like "helicopters" according to my son; I considered it saber-rattling. Today, things seem smoother. He chases her--he is, alas, only a fourth of her age: it's the middle-aged lady (Lily's four or five) and the young buck (Lucifer's one) scenario. But hey, how cool is that? Here are scenes from their courtship:
Three days later, they do not appear to agree about everything, but nobody's screaming. Dare I saw they seem rather fond of each other?
Down at the animal shelter, they'd named him, of all things, "Troll." A troll is a nudnik who  emerges from his cave only to be turned to stone. Or, in the Harry Potter version of things, to be felled by his own club. So I have re-named our little guy Lucifer. Besides--as he's nosing around her (Lily calmly snatching a carrot) doesn't he remind us all just a tiny bit of Tom Ellis?

Friday, July 20, 2018

My Life as a Dope Fiend: Me and Lance Armstrong

Imagine my surprise when my oncologist suggested, as she put it, "a little doping" to take care of my anemia. 
The spectacle of my scholarly, prim, stereotypically cautious German oncologist suggesting I inject the stuff that propelled Lance Armstrong first to temporary stardom and then to disgrace, plus cancer of the testicles, gave me pause.
"But he has cancer of the testicles!" I said. I didn't add that one testicle has been gathered to its fathers. But being Lance Armstrong, he's squeezed enough juice out of the other to father children.
"Yes," agreed my oncologist, ever calm, "but you don't have testosterone, so this is not a problem."
I wanted to say I had enough to sprout chin hairs, the kind I pluck with special tweezers marketed just to menopausal women. I have enough to feel energetic and like sex. That's another worry, when you have estrogen-positive cancer. They're injecting stuff into you to banish the estrogen, naturally. But every time you eat broccoli, drink a glass of wine, or have an orgasm, your estrogen levels go up.
"Should I give up broccoli, wine, and orgasms?" I asked. Apparently not, though her explanation was too technical for me. I still don't like the idea of taking a drug that gives you energy. Well, what it really does is make your bone marrow produce more red blood cells, without which you feel exceptionally tired, and pant while walking up the hill to the tram stop.
"Can't I just eat liver and onions?" 
She shook her head.
"But I really like liver and onions!" And I do. Especially with broccoli, red wine, and . . . oh, you know.
Apparently no intensification of my liver consumption will suffice. My cancer drug, Palbociclib, so effective in banishing cancer cells, also banishes white and red blood cells. That's why the very same dope--technically, it's called Aranesp--that Lance Armstrong pumped into his veins to steal the Tour de France is the one she wants to give me.
The necessary side effects having been detailed (thrombosis, but you're probably okay since you don't smoke and you do exercise) and, prescription in hand, I can feel much better. Soon. The Palbociclib leaves me really tired by the end of the 21-day cycle; after a week off the stuff, I feel almost normal. Scuttling all meds would leave me feeling great--until the emperor of all maladies, as Siddhartha Mukherjee put it, returns.
Now that I've doped twice, I can tell you I never had the experience of feeling high. I just no longer feel like I have to nap all the time. Shreds of the normal hang about the middle-aged lady.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Trumpsplaining: When Ondold Rump Misspoke

Our Great Leader, Ondold Rump meant to tell us that Vladimir Putin is a really mean guy, only he just accidentally said he was a really nice guy, mommy. Here's the transcript: "I don't know what you're talking about and it's sick to make such a big fuss. It's real news I mean it's fake news. Fake news! I misspoke and a guy's got to live, he's got so much to do. I'm dumping the country I mean I'm running the country. NBC I mean CNN tells lies. Flox I mean Fox is goodish. Good. You're all supposed to tell me how wonderful I am right about now. I'm waiting. I'm waiting. Maybe I'll just take a very long vacation. My daughter, I mean my wife, says I need a vacation. Ivankamelamawhatever. Commere. So the FBI is a fine institution and that's my people working there and yeah, maybe Putin misspoke too. You don't see his people, the KGB people, bothering anyone. For crying out loud, what I put up with. You should be ashamed. You too. And you. I'm the greatest thing that ever happened to this country. I am. I said so. You should listen to me. You too. I think we're done. I'm ready for my close-up now!"

Saturday, July 14, 2018

That Trump Baby Blimp--Bob on, Blimpies, Bob On

Piers Morgan, whom I normally admire, tweeted his outrage about the blimp, complaining that it was disgraceful--we wouldn't have allowed such a display during Obama's presidency, would we? Of course we wouldn't--Obama behaved in a presidential manner. Trump acts like a tantrum-throwing baby in a diaper--the blimp depicted him perfectly. Of course such a man should be ridiculed--not because "we have free speech" but because ridicule is, at the moment, our only real weapon against that juggernaut of catastrophe that is Donald Trump. 
Daily, I receive numerous inflammatory messages about Trump from do-gooder political organizations: adjectives like "outrageous," phrases like "battle for the soul of America" abound. 
Outrage doesn't cut it. Remember, Trump won by getting people outraged. Yes, by cheating and bribing and all sorts of skulduggery, we know--but he maintains his power by keeping his base outraged and frightened--outraged about all the injustices he says are being done to them, frightened of the terrified people crossing American borders, to whom Trump refers as "infestations" or "criminals." 
The person who gets Trump's base to laugh at him gets my eternal gratitude plus a  home-baked apple pie or batch of Tollhouse chocolate-chip cookies. American sweets to the sweet! Who will fly the next blimp? Who will Saturday-Night-Live the next remark? Keep laughing. That's all we have at the moment as ammunition. Don't forget, the man said he didn't feel welcome in London. That blimp does appear to have wormed its way under his hide, a hide known to be lacking in sensitivity. Never underestimate the power of ridicule. 
And don't forget that today is Bastille Day in France:  On July 14, 1789, troops stormed the prison known as the Bastille, spurring the French on to their rejection of, dare I say, Trumplike monarchs (but that insults the French--we know the American president to be much worse). After the Bastille was stormed, the French revolution ignited, the French found their way to the political values that now inform their happy land and used to inform the politics of the United States, namely, "liberté, egalité, fraternité." Trump tramples repeatedly on these values. I'd prefer laughter to heads rolling, and I think that if enough people really laugh at Donald Trump, laugh hard, in his face and often, he really will just fall down dead. And in that way, we will have the bloodless revolution we so desire. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

It's the Fourth of July: Let's Have a Funeral

Three thumbs down for the red, white and blue. I am so blue. Barry Blitt's July 2 New Yorker cover, "Yearning to Breathe Free" says it all: frightened Hispanic immigrant children peek out from the folds of the Statue of Liberty's skirts. She's not allowed to protect them. We are the land of the caught-out. We are the home of the cowards. I send my three dollar, my five dollar, my ten dollar, sometimes my thirty-dollar contributions to Cynthia Nixon and politicians defending Roe v. Wade, with the nagging feeling that (1) I ought to be in the middle of a refugee center handing out clothes and food and drumming up lawyers and (2) I'm no match for the Koch brothers and their pals.
What follows, below, is the kind of spirit we need (but without the doomed outcome): 


There's also 1776, the musical. Not quite as stirring, but love that folksy faux-New England accent: 



We need every man, woman and child to remember that America is a place that can so easily absorb the people coming across the borders. We need every man, woman and child in America to remember their own immigrant roots. Where ego lurks, let heart invade. As long as Trump is in office, fly your flags at half-mast.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Lone Star State and Lone Children

A Texan with a large ranch bordering Mexico said he supported Trump's policy of separating migrant children from their parents: "These people are criminals," he said. "In the United States, citizens who commit crimes are separated from their children." He said he wept for those children--American children--not those who cross American borders illegally. Democrats, the argument continues, care more about these migrants than they do about Americans.
What would the Texan rancher do if he found himself suddenly unable to feed his family or pay his bills? If his children were crying from hunger, if rats were invading the baby's crib, if a drug lord put a price on his head? Would he steal food and fuel for his family? Poverty makes criminals of us all. Australia, the noted historian Niall Ferguson has observed, was a nation founded by shoplifters. British persons convicted of stealing stockings or food got put on ships and deported there--at a time when most transportees initially regarded the region as alien as the planet Mars is to us.
I live in a nation with great health care and reasonable food prices. I'm easily able to feed my family well-balanced, nutritious meals and I don't have to worry about robbery or crime in my neighborhood. Once in a while everything stops while a bomb from the Second World War is found and defused--that happened at our local main train station today--but otherwise, life goes on, with the many, many refugees Germany has absorbed. 
The realities--that the vast majority, if not all, migrants coming across the border are both harmless and easy to help, that the richest of nations can easily afford to help these poor people, is not something the Trump administration cares about. Might I persuade the Texan rancher? Somebody tell me how. 


Monday, June 25, 2018

Zero Tolerance and the American Heart



Our former students left East Germany before the wall fell—the husband by masquerading as a businessman from another part of Germany, counterfeiting an accent unlike his own. The wife followed under mysterious circumstances she’s never explained. The children, both under the age of four, were left with grandparents. At the time our friends left, they had no idea the wall would come down a few months later. They were willing to leave their children behind for an indefinite period. I understood how desperate they were when the husband, a builder, revealed he’d had a friend at a construction site pull out a splinter that had landed in his eye. They'd been “borrowing” materials from the site. Being blind in that eye saved him from going to the hospital, where the doctors would have been too scared not to turn him over to the authorities for stealing.

When I try to imagine conditions that would make me willing to risk death or eternal separation from my children, the families pouring into detention centers in Texas come to mind. They have some idea of the cruel deal imposed upon them by the Trump administration. They are fleeing conditions that make the unwelcome ones they encounter luxurious. Better to be deprived of your children but know they will be fed and clothed; better to be stuck in a cage lying on a pallet in a former WalMart than killed by drug lord, chewed by rats, or starving. I listen to the Pro Publica recording of weeping children begging for their parents and try to imagine what Emma Lazarus would write. Her “New Colossus” sonnet is affixed to the base of our national monument, the statue of liberty,



“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”





We might as well tear down the statue of liberty. She's no longer allowed to lift her lamp and welcome the "wretched refuse"  because our president insists on blocking refugees from what he's infamously called "shit hole countries." 
 Trump’s business is to separate. He’s separating parents from children, he’s separating citizen from citizen, party from party—his immigration policy is the logical extension of his lifelong mission to divide and conquer. He’s saying and doing things that make us angry. In spite of him we should—as the German comedian Jan Böhmermann said in his “Be Deutsch” video, “hold together, try to be nice.” Ignore the haters—or laugh at them. Volunteer for groups that help get those children reunited with their parents. Speak up, Republicans, and remember Abraham Lincoln’s vision for your party.

When our East German friends settled in a Western German state, they decorated a hallway in their home with a placard purloined from an East German tunnel: “You are now leaving East Germany.” Let us leave behind those who separate; let us pull together and re-make America. On the (1999-2006) TV series The West Wing, the fictional president played by Martin Sheen solved an illegal Chinese immigrant crisis by looking the other way so that detainees could melt into the population. A president with a heart would do this.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Dotard and the Rocket Man


The sun was shining on the nukes
Shining with all his might
He did his very best to make
The mass destroyers bright
And this was very odd because
The men weren’t there to fight.

The dotard and the rocket man
Were walking side by side
They smiled like anything to see
What other folks had tried
We’ll pile up nukes and dough, both said
And slapped their bellies wide.

The dotard showed the rocket man
A film of future days
One man, one choice, big trains, hotels
On beaches cannons graced.
"Take money, try my brand he said
I’d never be two-faced."

His chain-saw signature poked at
The missile-launching scrawl
Their loose-fit trousers swished and sagged
But signatures stood tall
Each smiled and saw he’d bulldozed fast
And had the other bagged.

“The time has come," the dotard said,
To talk of many things:
Of power, threats, fake news and tax
Of dominance and things
And why those climate changers plot
And damn, we pigs have wings.”

Friday, June 1, 2018

Symmetry in Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry

When I want cleverness, I go to Renaissance poetry with its puzzles and paradoxes. Or I go to T.S. Eliot with his puzzles and paradoxes. Give me George Herbert's pruning poem or "I saw a peacock with a fiery tail" or John Donne's "nor ever chaste except you ravish me" or the humdinger, attributed to Nicholas of Cusa, Empedocles, and Voltaire: "God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."
I'm not looking for a story when I'm looking for cleverness. I'm looking to be amused, enlightened,  thrust into a philosophic mood, and startled by the beauty of language.
When I read a novel or a short story or a memoir--a narrative of any kind--I'm looking for something different, something that makes me, I am sure, the wrong reader for Lisa Halliday's experimental Asymmetry. When I read a novel I don't want puzzles and paradoxes: I want to know what happened, meaning, how the central conflicts get resolved. I want to know whether Snape is a good guy; I want to know what makes Anna jump; I want to know--and Lewis Carroll will tell you--how Alice got through the looking glass and made it home.
Halliday's Alice neither gets through the looking glass nor back home again. She's stuck between the float glass and the aluminum powder within three narratives bereft of resolution. 
The tricks--spoiler alert ahead--don't do it for me, because the characters created (and apparently remembered) are so extremely well-drawn, their worlds so anthropologically accurate (how I admire the way Halliday's created the neighborhoods of my youth in New York!) that we want to know what happens to them. We never do.
In part one, "Folly," Mary-Alice, who like Lewis Carroll's Alice is getting bored, meets Ezra Blazer, the pewter-haired stand-in for Philip Roth. She's a grown-up, unlike Alice Liddell, but the pedophilic implications play over the scene nonetheless. The two remark on their relationship as it develops in lovely ways, he wondering whether it's tragic, she conceding it is "around the edges." At the end of "Folly," Ezra's in the hospital and Alice is thinking of leaving him. Then I turn the page to the "Madness" section and find myself alone with Amar Jaafari, a young Iraqi-American inexplicably detained at Heathrow, clearly on charges of flying while Arab. He has something to do with Alice's story only in the sense that she's been reading about Iraq, longing to be a writer, longing to write about people more important than herself, trying to imagine the mind of the "Muslim hot dog seller" and whether she, a choir girl from the midwest, could ever do so. 
We learn all about Amar's life and his tragedies, and toward the end of this section, we're treated to a view of a young blond woman weeping in the holding area across from him--and we know she's Alice because she's wearing the same Searle coat with the black fur around the hood that Ezra bought her back when the two of them were a thing in "Folly." But we don't find out why she's there--except that we're supposed to see her as a character in Jaafari's story, the author of it? Or he is the author of her story? Keep 'em guessing. The final clue comes not in the "Madness" section--which leaves both Alice and Jaafari in a Kafkaesque lack of closure--but in the "Ezra Blazer's Desert Island Discs" section. There, we're treated to Ezra's ramble about the two or three or "all right, maybe four" times that depression hit, when women left him and his brother died. Then the kicker, at least it's supposed to be the kicker, on p. 260-261 of the British edition: "Our military might is unmatched and in any case the madness is at least an ocean away. And then all of a sudden we look up from ordering paper towels online to find ourselves delivered right into the madness." [Get it? Amar's madness, the war madness, Iraq and Middle East madness.] Ezra goes on: "And we wonder: How did this happen? . . . what good will it do, the willful and belated broadening of my imagination? A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we're able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It's a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author . . . " 
So now it's confirmed that his young friend, Lisa Halliday or Alice, wrote Asymmetry.
I am one of those readers who feels cheated. Especially because we're getting slammed with that overused "looking glass" metaphor again. No, we did not get through the looking glass. If we had, we'd have learned how Ezra and Alice's relationship ended, what happened to Amar and whether he ever got out of the airport to see Alistair, and what Ezra thinks about Alice's novel--much more of what Ezra thinks of Alice's novel! And then you'd have three novels. Three very long novels. Instead of one skinny, clever novel--too clever by half. I can't help but think this novelist chose not to go through the agony of living through Alice's and Amar's states of mind when they're thrust into the dramas she creates. The ending is a clever deus ex machina rendered popular by the death of my hero, Philip Roth--I think of the miraculous voice of Portnoy and the scintillating plotting--not to mention the panorama of America's race, politics, and gender issues in The Human Stain--and conclude that Asymmetry is a footnote to the life of a genius. 
But more: Lisa Halliday is, I persist in feeling, cheating herself as a novelist. She's selling herself short. Her gifts are considerable--she can create endings, but perversely (it must be that--it could be a desire to be mathematically precise--it can't be laziness) she won't. 
The question of whether the choir girl can imagine the mind of the Muslim hot dog seller--of course she can. Of course he can imagine her mind, too. Literature abounds with unlikely narrators: how did he think of her? Vice versa? One example will suffice: In Thomas Mann's Schwarze Schwäne ("The Black Swan" in English) a menopausal woman who has inexplicably begun to bleed again, argues with her daughter, who has cramps, insisting menstruation is a wonderful experience the daughter ought to appreciate.  I first read this story in a graduate seminar with the late lamented and brilliant Steven Marcus--who, and this is the only time I ever saw this happen, didn't get it. He began the class by saying, "this mother and daughter are having a wonderful, loving conversation." Both I and another women sprang to our feet--I think we did, at least we interrupted him, which none had ever dared to do--and informed him that this mother was anything but loving--she was jealous. How, I later wondered, had Mann gotten so far inside the mind of women that even Steven Marcus didn't understand--when any woman would?
So the answer to Lisa Halliday's Alice is: Of course you can imagine. So imagine. And then imagine Amar's fate--imagine how he does nor does not get out of that airport. Imagine Alice's fate: what are her last romantic moments with Ezra, and why?
Plotting. The hardest part of all. Mastery lies in plots that wind up the reader, moving so smoothly that you can't imagine how the author agonized his or her way through them.
Ms. Halliday: please agonize--tell us the rest of the story. I don't want the symmetries: Oh, look, here's Alice, and here's Alice imagining Amar, or vice versa, and here's Blazer imagining both. I want to know what happened.