Saturday, November 28, 2015

the tattoo moment that I apparently didn't tell you—for madison

This is supposed to start with a "and there I was, and—" sort of thing. There I was standing in this bookstore, of all places...

But the fact is, I've always gotten off on bookstores. And libraries.  (But only really really good ones.)  And I do so love the smell of musty books... and ink.

So I guess what happened may have been inevitable, and doesn't start with "and there I was—" at all. Because I was always there. Always.

So.  If I say "when I was a kid my dad took me to Holmes Bookstore in San Francisco, and gave me a dollar—" —well, many stories would begin this way. And so, I have a history with bookstores. And, as I said, with libraries too.  And, I'm afraid to say, I've had more than one peak and downright orgasmic moment in one or the other.

So. To start with "there I was—" becomes kind of silly, since I was, so much of the time, there.  It was, I suppose bound to happen.

My official favorite bookstore in the world is Le Tiers Mythes, which is kind of behind the Sorbonne on the tiny Rue Cujas off the Boul Mich in Paris.  I've been going to this bookstore every trip to Paris for decades.

And each trip, the bookshop keeper would take a look at me, reach up somewhere on the tottering shelves, and hand me something and say—"this is for you."

And my life would shift into a new pattern from that point until the next.

So.  I was standing there.  As always, in exactly the same spot I tend to go to.  And in front of me was a reprint of a Revue Africaine from around 1885 and I was just holding it in my hands, not even open, when one of those moments emerged—

"What if—" I thought.

That's how the good moments start, isn't it?

I remember exactly what that moment felt like. One of those moments when everything just clicks into place, even if no one else on the planet gives a shit.

"What if North African tattoo patterns were really a lost ancient writing system of the Amazigh people?"

Yah, it's one of those kind of bookshops. Highly specialized for those interested in the legacy of French colonialism throughout the world, but particularly in the Middle East and especially North Africa.  And feminisms of the so-called Third World. Revolutionary figures from same.  Thus the name: 'Le Tiers Mythes' — but this was an esoteric moment even for there.

The bookseller went down the ladder into the dark bowels of storage, and came out with a stack of century old journals and reprints of same. And clunked them down in front of me.

I started collecting as many Revue Africaine reprints from that period as I could.  There were a series of articles by a Capitaine Rinn on the origins of Tifinagh, the writing system of the Berber  (Amazigh) language, Tamazight.  Rinn took an approach completely different from any study of a writing system I'd ever seen before.

And I did what any impressionable anthropologist of a certain age would do: I wrote a little grant proposal to study the possibility of studying the problem.

The idea was (as far fetched as it might sound) to drive down into the Sahara to the oldest Library in North Africa to look for documents that might link the images in tattoo patterns to the ancient tifinagh script.

First stop was Casa, to meet with a local professor who I'd heard was interested in the tifinagh problem.  This was Day One of our expedition to the the Sahara. Luckily, I'd brought my Michelin map of Morocco with me to the professor's house.

"I thought so too," he said. "So I went down there. And your vehicle, by the way, you would never have made it that deep into the desert. Jamais."

My grant didn't cover an expedition-worthy vehicle. I did, however, have a clunker. I hadn't really thought 'methodology' through, I was so caught up in this ridiculous proposition.

"There's nothing there," he said.

Everything in the ancient Library had been stolen or 'redistributed' long ago. It had long ago been emptied of its treasures.

"But anyway, for what you are after, that's not the right place," he said, as if this were an Indiana Jones movie and I was digging in the wrong place.

He took my map and drew a big circle on it surrounding an entirely different territory.

"That's where you will find what you are looking for," he said. We finished our tea, I thanked him, and left.

It feels like fraud.

You know—when you write a proposal for one kind of research only to discover that your premise (and therefore your entire methodology) is entirely just plain wrong. Day One of this project, and I had to rethink the entire enterprise.

Drove back to where we were staying. The house of a friend of a friend of a friend. Where, too, were other friends of friends crashed out on cushions on the floor.

When I came back looking so despondent, my host gave me that look and asked what could possibly have gone wrong before I'd even started my expedition.

I pointed to the map. One finger trying to account for the entire region of the Middle Atlas Mountains to where I was now being redirected.

"My grandmother lives right there," one of the friends of friends of host said. "And she's got tattoos like you're looking for. And we're going there tomorrow to celebrate Eïd. And you are welcome to come and join us."

His grandmother lived right there—exactly where my random pointed finger had indicated the vastness of the entire mountain range. And so, right then and there the new direction of my inquiry took (re)direction.

Years later, and many grandmother's tattoos later—I found myself in the valley before a fortress village way south and deep in the High Atlas Mountains. The valley and steep mountain sides on either side of the river looked uncannily familiar.

And I glanced at my tattooed hands.

The tattoo on my left hand suddenly appeared to be a map. Not a treasure map, but a map of this very valley. And with the help of Capitaine Rinn's articles from the 1880s and beyond, I was able to decipher it.

On my hand was a stylized river surrounded by two mountains just like what was right in front of me.  With Amazigh tents on each side—little triangles inside the larger triangles.  And on my hand was (using Rinn to decipher it) at the peak of each triangle was the symbol for a matriarch gathering her sons about her.

A call to arms.

And that's what we found.  The height of a movement for Amazigh language revival.  You could tell by the spray painted graffiti on the mountain walls. A call to arms (without the arms) before it's too late. A call, it turned out, to preserve tifinagh and the Amazigh language, Tamazight before it disappeared entirely in the next generation.

And was there a connection between Amazigh tattoo patterns and tifinagh, the ancient writing systems?  Undoubtedly. But the women of the High Atlas did not know of it.

"It's forbidden," they said.

No more tattoos. No more tifinagh.

All that was left were the patterns.

And the women diligently put the patterns into their rugs. And into their pottery. And the men put the patterns into their architecture.

"It's just decoration," the women insisted.

"Folklore," the men said with a smile.

"We speak Arabic now," they said in not-quite Arabic.

"You can take pictures," they said. "We love tourists."

"But you cannot ask questions."

"Or write anything down."

"Writing will get us arrested."

And they put their fingers to their mouths, to shush me.

And I took pictures.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

the suicide

So.  I keep getting mail about my high school reunion.  Remember to reserve. Are you coming? Repeat. On daily basis.  Here's the class list. Page after page of names in 2 columns scrolling down, each with a link to the class reunion website.

Somebody put this thing together. Someone is planning the reunion. Getting the venue. Selecting the menu with meat, fish and vegetarian options. Scheduling the mixer. And the morning-after breakfast. The night before something. Probably drinks somewhere.  They picked a 'nice' place (it must be, right?) on the waterfront.

At last message there were seven reservation slots left.  So I think there was room for an even hundred, and not a body more.

Fifty years. Half a century after escaping from what we called then the 'pink prison.'

I'm not sure I knew anybody at my high school. Anybody. Although I recognize some names. I was too busy cutting school and taking the bus over to UC Berkeley, climbing into a cozy couch in the Student Union, pulling out my Penguin Aeschylus, and pretending I was a student there.  It never once occurred to me that cutting high school and demonstrating to yourself your intellectual prowess does not, actually, get you accepted into the college of your choice.

Yes. I was an idiot.

I had to take the long way round to get into the schools of my dreams, grad school—and eventually into the career of my dreams (if not a dream job). But I did it.

And all the years since, I've thought of one guy, and one guy only from my high school class.

The one who didn't make it.

And I don't mean those who died in Vietnam.  We had, apparently, around ten of those. Or the ones who died of misadventure. Three or four of those, two of which from drowning...

Yes, all of this is up on the website. With links to obits whenever linkable.  Somebody did this. Somebody maintains this list.

I looked for that one name.  That guy. The suicide guy I've thought about for half a century.

He was talented beyond reckoning. A bit goofy, but smart. Sensitive. Actually, I'm making all this up. This is what I thought. How I remembered him. It's not that I knew him. I think once maybe we were at the same holiday dinner together at the house of family friends.

I'm being vague here for a reason.

So. The suicide happened first year of college. The college of his choice. I heard it through somebody who heard it through somebody.  Drugs made him do it, they said. Depression, I think. I mean, it was the 60s outside. Both were possibilities. And all I felt was this oppressive sadness.  Here was somebody who was doing it all right. With talent that was nurtured and put to productive means. (Yes, I know, vague again). I had the you-coulda-been-somebody-important anger at him. Coulda been significant. Coulda made a difference.

These, I realize, are thoughts I have never once had about myself.

But I thought these things about him. And as a result, I worked like mad to make something of myself, however modest a contribution that might be. Made the decision to follow my dreams, despite the long and arduous path. If he didn't get to live that life, I was going to make sure that I did.

And then— a half-century later, there on the high school reunion list was his name.

And there was no asterisk implying he was dead. And no double asterisk implying he was missing.

Alive and well, after all this time.  No tragic demise, no youthful indiscretion. No blow your brains out (which was the image stuck in my head those long 50 years).   And it's because he's alive and well running along merrily just living his life that I won't tell you a thing about him.

All I can say is that he influenced my path, and kept me on it as I thought about alternatives. I owe my PhD to him. And probably my children too. Poetry and academic writing. Enjoying the daily hikes with dogs along the trails overlooking the Pacific.The beauty of the world. I owe to him. Because I thought he blew his brains out when life was just beginning.

But here's the thing.

If I hadn't thought him a suicide, would I have thought of him at all?

Oh. PS
That reunion thing? It's today. And no. I'm not going.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I want 'true love' she said...


Sorry.  Let me start again.

Gevalt.  I guess it just starts with gevalt. And with me rolling my eyes, which is downright mean, I suppose, given that this is a good friend I'm talking about.

"What's wrong?" I asked, "you look sour." Okay, not my best conversation starter, but it was the best that I could do. And the most polite I was likely manage.

She started crying. And she had reason to cry. Someone close to her had died recently. But this look wasn't that. Sour. That's what I called it.

"I don't have true love," she said. "Like you do." And she wasn't referring to my current partner.

Huh?  And that's a big 'huh?'

Here's where I'm about to sound incredibly cold and callous. And stupid.

Do people really cry over such things? Never once in my life have I thought about the notion of 'true love.' I always thought it was a construct for the movies. Princess Bride, and the like. And even there, they're pretty much making fun of it. At least, that's what I thought.

At any rate, I was shocked by this, and I'm sorry to say it put me on a bit of a tirade, of the usual kind.

"What are you talking about?" I said. "I don't do 'true love.' I do road trips."

She gave me that look of incomprehension, and so I went on a bit. Here's what I do, and it has nothing to do with 'true love' —or I think, 'love' of any kind. I do:

crossroads: when you meet someone, and it's this moment, a juncture, and the two of you make that incredibly hard transition take place. This was the one she was calling 'true love'—it was standing in the crossroad with someone who needed to go the opposite direction. It wasn't about permanence, or holding on, or staying together. None of that. It was about crying, wailing really, in the crossroads, being afraid to cross over to the other side.

parallel roads: this one's really nice. Moving along in the same direction, but not quite on the same path. This one can be short or long. The most I've managed is two or three decades worth. But eventually, something else happens—because parallel roads can get boring after a while and you can reach a

dead end: dead ends aren't bad, really. When I was a kid I used to ride the busses all over the place wanting to see what the end looked like. I always liked knowing the end. When I read, I read the end first. Movies, I read the reviews first. It's not that everything stops at a dead end, it's that you get to

u-turn: and look at the same road, but from the other side. And it's funny, now the other side of the road feels so different. Coming might have been filled with expectation, surprise, a little fear, and  a lot of adventure. You thought the road would look a certain way. But it just doesn't. Leaving feels great! You've mastered this road. You know it well. Been there, done that—and hopefully, it was a good road, a really good one. It's not that you were a tourist, exactly, but

timed lights: at a certain point, you were hitting all the lights at exactly the right speed. Which meant that you couldn't see anything new anymore, because all you're thinking about is making the next milestone at exactly the right moment. Think of those folks with their five-year plans... or longer. They want all the lights to line up, they're just zipping through checking off the milestones. Worst part about it is they can be completely

derailed: when the lights don't line up in accordance with their expectation. Well, I really like stop lights. They give me a chance to look around and appreciate the landscape. And I like being

just a passenger: sometimes. Because I really have gotten tired of

doing all the driving: I had this dream once. This omen, really. In the dream, I was trying to drive my husband's car and my car at the same time. Which I was perfectly capable of doing, apparently. But one of the cars rebelled—I think it was mine—and started driving itself. And as we struggled for control, my car took over, and backed us over a ledge and down into the depths of the 7th Avenue reservoir. And we (my car and I) sank. And as the water started to fill around me, I didn't struggle or try to escape. I said, with relief: "I forfeit."  And that was the end of that. I think we call that a

car wreck: and car wrecks can do a lot of permanent damage. And it's hard to get back on the road again. And you have to make a really big change.

And you find yourself back at the crossroads...

So. Don't speak to me about 'true love.'

But. I've been on some quite beautiful roads. And what they say is true: It is the journey and not the destination that makes 'it' all worthwhile.

Monday, September 21, 2015

once upon a time there was a cool day with breezes...

"Tell it again," they said—

Just one more time.

So.  Okay.

Once upon a time, there was a cool day with breezes. The ocean waves rose and fell, and you could stand on the cliff and watch whales playfully spouting on some days, And on other days, you could see dolphins leaping in unison like ballerinas.  Only in their proper seasons, of course. But it did happen, I swear.

Fisherman hung out in little clumps on certain auspicious spots upon the beach. They caught real fish and carried home three and four footers that didn't quite fit inside their red and white coolers.

The sand was white with specks of mica gleaming, In some places it was so spotless white that even in the sun it was cool to your feet.  In those days, you could walk barefoot upon the beach. I know you don't believe me but it's true. Sand wasn't black and glossy then.   And it didn't leave sticky smears on the bottom of your feet if you walked without footwear at the ocean's edge.

Children collected sand dollars, and made sure not to step on the occasional jellyfish. That too, in their own season. Kids could sit directly on the sand for hours at a time making sand castles with motes that ran with water  each time the tide came in. Or  they'd bury each other up to the neck in the cool, clean sand. They'd even taste the sand sometimes, not believing it was salty.

You could walk for miles without seeing swarms of flies busying themselves around the rotting seagulls, seals, and things called whales. A walk for the most part without the stench of death.

Sure, everything does die, of course, somehow, somewhere. Just not all at once, and not all together in piles—or strewn in lines that run for miles upon the shore.

There were long strands of seaweed with bulbous heads that we could whip around and play with, turn into instruments, or braid into baskets. It was okay to bring them home, let them dry, and even give them away as presents. We could put fruit in seaweed baskets and keep them on the kitchen table.  And they weren't poison.

"You know the rest," I said, "about the glass and plastic bottles that weren't there, the cardboard wrappers, and paper coffee cups and plastic bags—that did not exist and did not blow about and sink beneath the sea..."

I know you don't believe me. And it's not a proper story, after all. For how can you tell a tale of things that weren't there?

"I like that story," one of them said. "It's funny."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

blindness at the break of dawn

I had this panic attack, I think that's what they're called.  A real first.  It was about a month ago, one 5:00 AM or so.  My usual time for waking up and worrying about the seas rising. Trying to calculate whether I live in the flood zone or out of it. And by how much either way. Worrying about liquefaction.  Yup, I worry about things like that. Worry about whether I can pay my bills, balance the checkbook to the penny, live long enough to prosper.  I'm really good at worry.  But not panic.

This was a panic attack.  A real one.

It was about blindness.  My eyes have been misbehaving more and more of late. And in the place of my usual global-sized concerns came this quite visceral and personal one.  I contemplated life without sight, and what that might be like, and whether I would be willing to live that life., or let life go. I thought of every single thing in the world that I'd have to give up.

Could I live without color?  I really wasn't sure I'd be willing to try. I thought of every pleasure in my life, and every drop of it for me was visual.  Petty little things. Like hiking on the cliffs, picking fruit in the market, driving.  I included driving—and I hate driving. But it made for a good panic.

Got into a disagreement (too short to call a fight) with my partner's mother over dinner not long ago.  Or maybe it was breakfast.  Something I made, and I apologized.  It didn't look right.

"As long as it tastes good," she said. And I begged to differ.  How could it taste good if it wasn't beautiful?

And we dropped the subject. It would not have been a fruitful question to explore.

So. The panic.

I should note, that even now as I write, my eyes are starting to fail.  I'm not sure if I can finish this post before the screen fades completely before my eyes. Solution: I'll keep it short. Very short.

Went to the eye doctor, and what did he say? Cataracts still 'not visually significant' but getting there. And okay, so panic gone. Something can be done about it, right?

And the panic went away, making me feel silly. And selfish. I had panicked over something so personal, rather than something larger than the self. I felt ashamed.

But in my panic, I visualized life without sight. Right down to the minutest of details. I practiced, even. Waking up and going through the morning rituals with my eyes closed.  A shower's not so bad, unless the bar of soap slips out of your hand. Then it's a bit more treacherous...

A couple days ago, someone I hold dear went suddenly blind. And she may or may not regain her sight. She did not panic. She faltered. It was more than her sight she was losing. Her platelets were rebelling against platelets. An autoimmune disease.I find it all so inexplicable. There is no why.

She's handling it with such grace, except for the eyedrops she must endure every four hours. She's relying on other senses to get her by until her malady passes.  And I insist it must, it must pass. And she must live. And I look at her, and all I want for her is life. And she shows me how it can be done.

They key, of course, is that she's surrounded by so much love. Humans who adore her more than anything else in the world. She is cared for. Protected. And most of all, adored. She has those loving bodies curled up next to her, warm against her skin. The love wards off panic and fear, and maybe some of the confusion. She's calm. And greeting each and every moment.

And I? I'm a bit jealous.


I'm not proof reading this. The blur and haze are setting in for the night...

Saturday, June 13, 2015

les troyens —the trojans, more or less

Okay.  Now that I've sat through the whole 5 ½ hour opera that Berlioz wrote and composed, I get to forever more call it by its French name, Les Troyens, instead of The Trojans. And of course, I never have to see it again.  Which is not to say that I didn't like it enough to see again (which I didn't), but rather that it is unlikely to be produced in its entirety ever again in my lifetime, at least in San Francisco.

My worries about Les Troyens started before we even got there. I was hoping they'd skip the whole dying soprano thing. But no. Long-winded female suicides started even before the first intermission.  And the really long-winded soprano suicide, well—we had to wait 5 hours to get to that one.

Berlioz was obsessed with telling this story since his dad read to him about Troy when he was a kid. So. It just festered until he finally got to write a version for himself (words and music both). Clearly a work of love. Only I think nobody told him that works of love require an editor. A really brutal editor. I think the first two or three acts could have been taken care of in about 5 minutes.  Ten minutes, tops.  But Berlioz really wanted us to suffer along with everyone else in the production.

I started suffering long before we found parking. Mostly about whether I could make it through the whole thing without running out to go pee. Turned out that was on a lot of people's minds. The silver-haired set predominate at the opera.

The curtain finally opens. And I'm already confused. Everyone's dressed in clothes from the wrong period. So. Clearly, I say to myself,  this opera is supposed to be a parable about something. But the program said nothing about it. And I didn't do my homework early enough to already know. Looks like the 1850s to me. I figure, Troy. Hm, that's Turkey. 1850's the Ottoman Empire was strong, but also just starting to fall apart. The Tanzimat reforms at that time tried to raise enough money to keep the Empire going... Maybe it's a commentary about the fall of the Ottoman Empire? But, no—the Empire hadn't fallen yet. And Berlioz wasn't that prescient, was he?

Trying to figure out the time period got me through the first couple of acts. And already a bunch of suicides, Cassandra's being the most prominent.

Turns out it wasn't entirely an Ottoman parable, but  a commentary on the Crimean War. Which did have something to do with the Ottomans. But also the Russians (apparently, they lost), the French and the British. During the first intermission the place lit up in iPhones tuned to Wikipedia trying to figure out the same thing.  Now, I'm pretty fuzzy about the Crimean War in the 1850's—but didn't Putin just invade and take over Crimea. Again?

So. Berlioz was on to something.

Needless suffering. That's what opera is about. And this opera is full of it. Needless to say, all the main female characters reminded me of my mother. Especially when they're groveling on the stage floor, tearing their hair out and threatening suicide.

There's also a lot of steampunk touches. The Trojan Horse, piles of military crap lying around here and there, and a giant Trojan Warrior that's meant (I think) to be heroic, but has a prominent cable holding up its arm. Very broken marionette. Very distracting.

I didn't think I was going to make it past the first intermission. But I thought I'd be brave and try. At Act III I was rewarded grandly when the curtain lifted onto an enormous North African ksar, or citadel—nicely accurate, at least for the northern Sahara—though I'm not sure Carthage ever looked like that. Still. It was beautiful! Finally some color! No more drab Crimean War steampunk and gray, but just the right reds and yellows and greens and stripes, and Berber tattoo patterns on the mud walls of the ksar.  I was a happy camper.  And so were the (entirely new) set of characters. Sweetness and joy and beauty and generosity ensued for a brief moment in time. At least until the Trojans hit town. After that, it's more rending, needless torment, and even more needless female suicide.

So. What I learned is that thinking about the fall of the Ottoman Empire can get me through more than an hour of drab scenery and singing. And the sight of something blatantly North Africa after all these years still instantly brings me joy. A ksar on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House can keep me staying put for 5 ½ hours, no problem.

The entirety of Les Troyens—and maybe all operas—really ought to be rewritten. By women. Not to supplant all the great operas out there. But as just plain antidote.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

spanish boots of spanish leather

Her name was Liz, and she scared me. I admired her too, but she scared me tons.  Tons being the operative word.  I had never met anyone obese before.  Wildly, actively obese.  Or whatever the word is that comes after 'obese.'  'Morbidly obese' is probably right, but that's not what she died from.

Liz was the most brilliant woman I'd ever met.  She was wildly, actively brilliant.  It was the 1970s, and she had started a women's newspaper in Detroit.  And as I recall, it was wildly, actively subversive for the times.  And certainly for the place.

I admired her wildly. Actively. Fearfully. I knew I'd never have the energy or inclination to be that innovative, progressive, radical, and whatever word comes after 'radical.'  Libertarian is probably right. In the old sense. No one. Ever. Should impede her.

She was a powerhouse.

So this would be the moment to say "But—" and start telling you why she scared me so much. And that's what I was about to do. But. I remember more.

Her husband was a sweet and tolerant man. At peace with himself in many ways. Like someone who meditates. Not like someone who smokes too much weed. I admired him, too.

But this is all beside the point. Brilliant. Feminist. Those were the parts I admired in her.

It was the screaming, raging, and fressing that terrified me. Watching her interact with food. Watching the food fly. Watching it shoveled. Watching it fall all over her body. Watching it hit the floor.

She was a very angry woman.

And she was also by far the most interesting person I had met in my three years in Detroit.

And this, too, is prologue.

At a certain point not long after our sojourn in Detroit, she became quite ill. Terminal, in fact. Cancer.

Let me step back a few years. To pre-Detroit. To hitchhiking around Europe with my officially sanctioned, mother-vetted  'boyfriend' at the time. To Madrid. To the most beautiful store window I'd ever seen. A mannequin dressed in black, covered in an antelope cape and matching antelope knee-high boots.

Spanish boots of Spanish leather.

And me, with all my travel money in hand for the whole of my summer travels before having to return Stateside. After a year abroad. And a war. So. The year must have been 1967. I was 19 years old. There were no credit cards. There was lots of Dylan. That song had been on the first album of his I had ever heard and owned. The Times They Are a-Changing. From 1964.

You couldn't ignore an image like that. Spanish boots...

And so. I spent my small fortune on an antelope cape and matching boots of Spanish leather. And as a result, by Athens I had promptly run out of money, ended up in Constitution Square looking for a hitchhiking partner to finish my travels on the cheap. Instead, I met the 'him' who would many years later be the father of my children.

That's what those boots mean to me. And the antelope cape as well.

But y'know. You come home at last from your travels. And who the hell is gonna wear such things? An antelope cape better suited for a matador. With matching boots. A line of silver frou-frou down the sides. Gevalt. What had I been smoking?

I never wore them. Might of put them on once or twice, and taken them all right off a second or two later.

It was the first time I thought about consumerism (a word that did not yet exist). It was the first time I read about conspicuous consumption. And the weird thing is, I owned next to nothing at the time. Which made the possession of these luxuries even more ludicrous.

She wanted them. Liz, that is. The raging, fressing, ranting, brilliant feminist. She wanted to be buried in Spanish boots of Spanish leather. She wanted to be buried in an antelope cape.

And I thought, well yes. Let me bury my own indulgences with her.  And never ever ever be that impulsive and consumptive ever again.  A fitting tribute. A fitting farewell.

And then credit cards were invented.