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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

malkah looks in the mirror on new year's day: a fairy tale

So.  When Malkah was a girl she identified heavily with Snow White.  Little abused girl, sent off to scrub the floors and dishes, dust and mow. Whatever needed doing, there'd be a note for her day's tasks attached to a magnet on the fridge.  Her mother, the witch, aka Mrs Tzaddik, spent her days looking in the mirror wearing nothing but a silken slip.  She also answered the door that way.  Think Mrs Robinson. Very scary.

But Malkah grew up and had a daughter of her own. And vowed she'd be the opposite of her bipolar narcissistic infantile maternal unit.  Such was her hatred, fear, and yes, loathing.  And Malkah's daughter, Anat, was beautiful.  Oh so beautiful.  And the more beautiful her daughter grew, the more Malkah decided that she herself must fade and let her daughter shine.

On New Year's Day, the yahrzeit of Mrs Tzaddik, Malkah at long last looked in the mirror. And what she saw was downright hideous. Frightening. And unhealthy. After years of making sure she was no competition for anybody, she had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

The story of Snow White, it turned out,  was not just about the curse of narcissism, but also a lot about the post-menopausal freak-out that follows beauty's inevitable fall. At least as seen in one's own mirror.

But a strange thing happened in this tale of ours.  Malkah's beautiful daughter was not another feudal princess locked in a tower or hounded through the inhospitable forest. No. She was astute and thoughtful, and sought after health rather than beauty. And immersed in the health-paradigm as she was, and being a little Scorpio (direct and to the point), she confronted Malkah, her mother.

"Time to see a nutritionist, mum," she said. And she had a lot more to say as well.

Malkah looked in the mirror, New Year's Day.  Yahrzeit of her mother the witch.  And what she saw was frightening, unhealthy and downright the fuck scary.

And it was not okay.

In a reversal of the original tale, it was as if Snow White turned around, went home, and helped the wicked queen deal with her own post-menopausal decline.  What Malkah's daughter needed was not a mother who made sure she was no competition.  What she needed was a healthy mother who could live long enough to enjoy even another generation to come.

Malkah looked in the mirror. It was time to make some changes.  After all, that's what New Years are for.

Mum, you picked a wonderful day for a yahrzeit.  Don't act too surprised,  but I miss you madly.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

the magic chair

Ok.  I got a new chair.  I've tried a whole bunch of chairs through the years.  I was looking for the magic chair.

The first chair that applied for the position the tzaddik got for me at Clars auction as a surprise. He knew I was looking. He decided to act. It was about 200 years old. Intricately hand-carved, and it had an embroidered seat. Nobody would sit in it. They were all afraid.  But it was great to look at.  So Vladdie, our black kitty, took it upon himself to inaugurate it as kitties do. It lasted a number of years, and then it went back to Clars. Nobody appreciated it there, either.

The second chair was the Mormon chair. Hand carved, austere, and just plain awesome quarter sawn oak. Carved by a Mormon farmer in Utah about 100 years ago. I had dreamt this chair. And the next day it appeared to me in the flesh at the Alameda Flea Market, and so of course I had to bring it home. Nobody would sit in this chair either. I moved it from spot to spot for years. Until eventually it went off to auction as well. I miss it. Nice to look at.

The third chair was a bright orange Scandinavian Designs jobbie that was one of those trick chairs. It was comfortable as hell in the store, but when you got it home it crippled your lower back. So the solution, of course, was to order the matching ottoman, thinking that feet up might do the job. Uh. No.

I complained about the third chair to a good friend.  I had forgotten that I'd given her my dad's 'grading chair'—a cushy chaise that he never got to use because Mrs Tzaddik had stolen it from him because it was a thing of beauty.  She never sat in it either.  It was there to be looked at.  My friend, who was sitting in said bright orange back-breaker while I was complaining about it, said she liked it just fine, in fact quite a bit better than my dad's grading chair. I proposed we trade.

Why the bad colors in chairs? Floor models. Half price. You should see the couches. Purple. Now faded, so they embarrass my daughter less. She still thinks I should get rid of them. But hey, the dogs like 'em.

So the fourth chair to apply for the position for comfotable-chair-in-the-living-room was the tzaddik's pristine cushy Italian green chaise, same as my own old grading chair that sits across the living room. Also from Scandinavian Designs (a winner but they don't make it anymore). I now had two grading chairs virtually side by side, and they battled it out for the territory. The dogs preferred my old grading chair and had beaten it down pretty well. It was a glory of a broken in chair.  I had gotten it many years before as a present to myself for getting tenure. Or full professor.  Or something like that. But they duked it out and the Tzaddik's grading chair won.  It was a shock to me.  My beloved old grading chair had to go.

Luckily, I had a former student who was participating in our Beit Malkhut Study Group. Now in a PhD program. And she has claimed, (though I think she's being both sweet and sardonic and kind, and doesn't mean it at all) that she wants to grow up to be me. So. What better person to appreciate my old grading chair? After all, her own papers (generally turned in late or very late, but very well worth the read) were read and graded in that very chair. She accepted the wonderful old grading chair with all the pomp it deserved. And put it in storage along with her daughter's furniture.

We have ascertained that I am not good at this.

I sat down (low kitchen stool) to really analyze  my chair history. I had tried chairs based on beauty alone (as I'd been raised to do). As if chairs (and everything else) were only about aesthetics. I had purchased chairs because they were so hideous they were affordable. I had tried chairs because they were gifts and you couldn't turn them away. Because they were used. Because cats had already dug into them, so nothing to worry about them. Because they reminded me of someone I loved. Hm. Beauty and comfort didn't go hand in hand. And now my spine was making its own demands.

So. What are we up to, fifth chair. Now, in the Middle East, the number five has great protective value. Against the evil eye. For good health. You know the word 'hamsa' and maybe you wear a little hamsa that looks like a hand (five fingers) around your neck or on a keychain. Or have one up as an amulet about your desk.  At any rate, I now realize we had reached the fifth chair.

The magic chair.

I decided to go for the real deal. It had to be beautiful. It had to be new. The color had to be decent. And it had to be comfortable. And Stickley was having a sale. The tzaddik and the Mrs Tzaddik would be pleased in their graves. I think.

So I tried the fifth chair, my new Stickley recliner. A piece of absolute beauty. And I'm not going to admit that it takes some adjustment and compromise to be truly comfortable. But it's good enough. I mean, my god, it's a Stickley. And it's not from the flea market. A miracle.

So. I sat in it. I brought a tall glass of water with me to keep me put (I'm supposed to drink a ton of water. Ugh). I did not bring my iPhone or iPad. It was just me and the Stickley and the glass of water. All alone. Nobody home.

And I looked up. And I saw my living room. I saw the purple couches. The tzaddik's green grading chair. The old brass trays. The overgrown plants. The 'rescued' Moroccan armoire from the Middle Atlas Mountains. And the paintings.

I have two paintings in the living room. One over the purple couch. One over the (fake) fireplace. Over the couch is an 8' wide painting of an enormous red bull, and a person struggling to pull it in a direction it is not willing to go. Everyone I know hates the painting. It used to be kept in the red bull room (essentially, my closet) so it didn't disturb anyone. I'd wake up every morning, look at the painting, and think 'don't do that'  at least for today. Just. Don't. Do. That. And I'd be set for the day. No need of coffee. But no one else seems to 'get' the red bull painting. Some of them remember Red Bull Bob, a long ago student who had painted the red bull for a class project. He went to grad school. And stopped painting.

The other painting is a poster framed by the online poster company, but it does the job. It's La Belle Rafaela, by Tamara de Lempicka. de Lempicka was walking through the Jardin du Luxembourg one afternoon, and noticed that everyone was staring in a certain direction, and so she turned. And there was Rafaela. She approached. And the glorious odalisque painting that emerged shocked even 1920s Paris.

So. I'm sitting in my Stickley both looking, and seeing as if for the first time. The Red Bull that my friends despise. And the de Lempicka they adore. Or at least don't complain about. Two such different paintings. The red bull in bright thick strokes of red and red umber oil paint. The struggling white man (painted quite literally in white) trying to move the enormous red bull. A parable of colonialism and resistance. A domination game the white man will never win. And La Belle Rafaela, stretched out in all her orgasmic glory in tender strokes of evening colors.

And there they are, right there on my living room walls. The agony and the ecstasy. The paintings are perfect together. Neighboring figures emoting in accordance with the choices that they make. Blunt and to the point. Guiding us. Before, I saw them as individual works of art. Now I contemplate them together.

The Stickley. It's a keeper.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

malkah ascends the chariot

Someone called Malkah a mystic the other day. But I don't think so. Just because she romps around with letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet... Just because she's more comfortable in the cosmic... Just because she can't hold a pshat conversation, even about a movie like say Little Shop of Horrors (or a TV series like BSG)... Just because she sees people acting out letters of the Tetragrammaton and taking them on as archetypes... All that and more does not a mystic make.

Malkah once asked her mother, Mrs Tzaddik, what she had wanted for her when she grew up. It was a question Malkah had just never thought to ask before, but now was curious as hell. Ask it now or never. Mrs Tzaddik was not going to be long for this world.

"How could I have wanted anything for you?" Mrs Tzaddik told her, voice raised in operatic frenzy.  "You took drugs in the '60s!"

Ah. And there it was. No achievement was ever going to be good enough for Mrs Tzaddik, was it? Malkah took drugs in the '60s.  And actually, thereafter as well.

Malkah was calm about Mrs Tzaddik's outburst. As she was calm about just about everything. Equanimity was her primary practice.

She said, "Ma, everyone took drugs in the '60s." It was just a fact.

But Mrs Tzaddik was too steamed up in the tragedy of her own disappointment to hear it. And she didn't like facts.

I want to say "what happened in the '60s stays in the '60s" but you and I both know that's just not true. Berkeley in the '60s, and San Francisco in those days engaged a generation to see beyond the veil. And this was not just about pretty colors on the wall, or politics, or what the music really means. Malkah and her generation weren't just lying around reading Carlos Castaneda all day. They were also reading folks like Thomas Kuhn. The '60s were paradigm-shattering.

Now Malkah had been raised on storybook tales of how the Hebrew letters searched desperately for the Queen of Heaven, aka the Sabbath Bride, aka the Shekhinah, who had disappeared from the world. The letters were alive in those books when she was a child. And that didn't change. It was pure animism. She was raised with a living alphabet. Hebrew at her school was in the morning—vibrant, exciting, and alive. English was in the afternoons—dead as a door nail, just making words and nothing more. The English letters didn't run off trying to bring the Shekhinah back to Earth so that the world could be healed. They told baseball scores.

Something much later led her back to the tales of her childhood. The tales her father had told her. She needed to rethink them. Malkah discovered that these were no mere children's stories made up by imaginative children's authors. Instead, they were rooted in baudy ancient stories and serious medieval texts about the birth of God and the emergence of pre-biblical Creations. In other words, they were 'raw data,' and 'primary sources.'

And what those tales did was make Durkheim extremely dull. Durkheim, yes. But not Weber. Weber was all about charismatic figures rather than statistics.

Don't get me wrong.  LSD did not make Malkah religious or anything. God forbid. No. It just made her a better academic. It made her take those mystical texts seriously—as treatises on the miracles of grammar, ancient languages, and the formation of words.

Malkah became a better academic. She had fun with the material. And then she got out there and made something of herself. And Mrs Tzaddik was confused. Proud (sometimes), but grudgingly so. You can't possibly do well if you took drugs in the '60s.  Right?

So. On this election day, my vote's for Malkah's-no-mystic. She's just a product of her times. She seeks the whole above the particular. She privileges ancient tales over current events. And she loves the letters of the aleph-bet because they're still opening doors to the mysteries of Creation.

Along with Scientific American.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

malkah's little crush on ba'al

She's not supposed to. He's not part of her tradition.  Except as a traditional enemy, I suppose. He's somebody else's god. And not even the top dog at that. So. I was asked the other day what drew Malkah to Ba'al. And I suppose I should come up with something that makes it all sound reasonable.

Believe it or not, it started with the Tetragrammaton. One night, a very long time ago, Malkah discovered that everyone she cared about seemed to act out one of the letters of the Tetragrammaton.

There were Yud people. They were El people. Frequently bullies in their insistence on (white) male privilege. They had created something (as a head of a pantheon ought) but then they didn't want any more change. "I made it.  Now leave it alone." Creation. Just as I put it there, and not a drop of evolution since. Yud people. Not very attractive.

There were Upper Hei people. As watery as El was fire. These folks just wallow. They gripe and moan, and nothing, just nothing, is ever quite right for them.  They sulk when they're supposed to be incubating.  They take a sabbatical and spend the whole time obsessing about how short it is.  And then they get nothing done.

I should say right now that we all do these things. Sometimes. But El people. Fucking control freaks. And Upper Hei people.  Too many anti-depressants.

And then there's Vav. Upright and slim. And tall, with his head held high. Ambitious Ba'al wanting to make a difference in the world. Baal people are fucking activists. Thwarted by the powers that be at every turn. And shadowed by the loving gaze of Upper Hei —Asherah (Athirat, if you will) at every other turn. Ba'al wants to change the world. He's the original ecologist. An agriculturalist. An inseminator. Of the earth, that is. He makes things fertile, if given half a chance. Not that El will leave him be. And, well, Ba'al's been shtupping the wife, Athirat, so yah, I guess El has kind of a reason to be pissed.

There's no reason to make such a fuss about Ba'al's peccadillos. It's in his nature to spread seed. That's what he's supposed to do. The real deal, though. No Monsanto for him.

I had a student once who burst into tears when I started talking about Ba'al. Really wailing. And shaking too. She was of African origins and was raised to believe that Ba'al was the devil himself. So. Just speaking his name gave her the willies. And hearing something positive about him —like that he was just one of the top four deities in the pre-Abrahamic pantheon of Ugarit— just was too much to bear. I might as well have been talking about Saddam Hussein (more of an El character than a Ba'al one, for sure, but you get the idea). Say something good about the devil and you've got to expect a bit of a rocky response.

In all fairness, I must say Malkah was drawn to Ba'al's sister, Anat, (the lower Hei on the Tetragrammaton)—but she didn't have a crush.  No.  Instead she wanted to be the fierce and loyal lady of the hunt. A natural born killer.  I think Malkah didn't take that part too seriously though.  She saw Anat as just incredibly competent and able to get shit done. She killed. But she didn't kill. Can you hear the difference?

So. Malkah's crush on Ba'al is a bit weird, I suppose, in that she started with YHVH and worked her way backwards in time instead of going along with the program.  Back and back and back until she met Abrahams's contemporaries in the land of Cana'an. And found those top four, El, Asherah, Ba'al, and Anat had all gotten carried over into the Judaic godhead, sight unseen, having a good laugh, maybe, and blithely going about their business in the god department as if they hadn't been slaughtered by the invasion of the monotheists.

So. What's the problem with telling Malkah's secret? I think it's that almost nobody's going to believe it.  But if they do, there's sure to be someone saying she took up with the devil. Or that she's gone all pagan on us. But I'd like to think that she's just gone deeper. Deeper into the history of her own tradition.

She came up for air, and there he was.

I know, I know. Alchemy makes for pretty crappy punchlines.  Either that, or I'm just very bad at it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

closure, with a side of fries

Wouldn't that be nice? A closure machine? Press a button and it (whatever it may be) doesn't hurt anymore?  Or is that machine already called TV and we can sit and stare and just zone out? No pain. Or do we get our sense of peace somewhere else instead?

I've been studying the problem of 'closure' since 2009. Been wanting to put a stone on my father's grave since he died.  Figuring that maybe, magically and just perhaps, if there's no stone, he's really not down there at all.  He's around the corner, picking up the Sunday NYT.  He's at the Flea Market, chatting with his cronies.  He's in India collecting artifacts. North Africa, being handed manuscripts and swallowing secret others.  He's on some grand adventure, and I'm either out there with him, or, well, not. He's nowhere to be found.

It's all a grand adventure.

But put a stone on a grave, and it's like he just can't escape out the top anymore.  The matzevah is pressing down too hard. The grass is growing 'round it, roots conspire to keep him down. Granite base, bronze plaque.  It reads:


Collector, Protector, Magnes Founder and Director

I thought about what to say for all these long years—and now the deed is done.  He's firmly fixed down under there.  It's inescapable.

It wasn't just artifacts and manuscripts that he protected, although that's what he was known for.  No, what he protected most of all was me. Seems more to the point than 'beloved father.'

And she's got closure too. I think she'd like what I finally came up with:


Teacher, Writer, Human Rights Fighter

These are the things that made her proud.  Especially the 'fighter' part.  Which is the part I always thought was unnecessary.  But, well, whatever.

The point being—it finally does feel like closure.  It really does.  And she resisted it for so long when she was alive. Or maybe it was her anger he was gone.  She herself had to wait one year as well—but that's expected. Within reason.  He, on the other hand, was stoneless for four years.

I could feel him hovering, exploring, looking out for Judaica in the wee unlikely corners of the world.  He was still out there on the hunt and prowl.  And now, it's strange, he's not.  Closure. He's happily ensconced.  Just wishing that I'd bring him a pastrami sandwich from Saul's, heavy on the deli mustard.

They're in there. They're down there. They're under ground. They're quiet. Too quiet! Here's me. Up here. Still wanting to do them proud. Funny, I think about that now—making them proud—I never did before.  Before. When they were alive, I did as I pleased. Studied what I wanted. Specialized in the not-usness that marks my chosen profession. But well, reprise: whatever. They like what I'm up to now.

Here's the weird thing. With closure, I seem to be able to write again. Though still the words are jerky, stiff and awkward. They don't flow. Watch them stumble across the line, almost embarrassed to take their places inside these clunky sentences.  Oh well. At least it's writing. One word after another. A little rusty, sure. But real live actual words!

Is that what 'closure' does?  Help us stumble on.

We wake up. And stretch. Clean the blech out of our eyes. Check ourselves out: Hmm. No broken bones, although the heart still aches. Is that what closure brings: Return to the land of the doing? Have we learned something yet? Are we a better person?

If so, I mean, well, this is America:  Shouldn't there be a machine (or magic pill) that could do all this mourning for us quick and dirty? Help get us to the lessons of the closure side a helluva lot faster? Skip all that grief and pain, and go directly to 'just carry on'? 

Or if no machine or pill has been invented, let's use the BigMac model. After all, we like to eat more than we like to labor. 

I'll have my fries dipped in mourning sensitivity, (just not too much). A sprinkle empathy and sympathy, but only just a pinch. Gobble fast, greasy, and most of all, unthinking. Fast food for the bereaved. And then, you know, just let us rest in peace.

Will that work?


Monday, April 1, 2013

oba and oya have it out

I've never talked about Oba, not in public anyway.  More, I whisper about her.  Whisper to her.  Whisper around her. Anything might offend. I try not to think about her too much.  Living with her can be pure hell.  But only sometimes.  Here's the problem:  her self-defeatism, if that is a word.

We had a conversation yesterday, 'conversation' being the polite word for it. She fucking cried, pouted, complained, and blamed (everybody else). Again.

"I'm all alone," she wailed, like I'm not right there next to her, as usual.

She then went on—you know the drill—nobody's helping her. Nobody's supporting her. Where's hers? I've heard this all before. Nobody's giving her a break, how 'bout a grant maybe, a really good job where you don't have to work.  How 'bout free rent? Or no rent at all. How 'bout sex? Where's mine?

She cut off her ear, they say, to feed it to Chango.

You know, I just don't have much sympathy.

Oba could use a really good therapist, as far as I'm concerned.

She counters saying I don't understand her. Don't understand her pain. Her sense of humor. Her struggles. Her ambitions.  How-hard-it-all-is for her in this world.  She's absolutely right. She struggles like mad, and everything's a struggle. 'The world' just isn't taking care of her, and she's furious about that.

She's got to do it herself, and that just pisses her off. And she's sick of people telling her to pull herself up by the bootstraps and do it the fuck herself.

She raises her voice. She yells when she's not being just plain morose. She cut off her ear and fed it to Chango. (I mean, it didn't work too well for van Gogh either as a coping mechanism, but hell, at least he didn't stop painting).

Do you think that kind of behavior makes her more attractive?  Do you think Chango was moved?

I'm not much of a supporter of woe-is-me strategies. I grew up hearing them, and I must say all it did was harden my soul.  Make me want to never ever ask anyone for anything. Not long for anyone. And certainly not pine for them. I have no sense of 'deserving' or 'undeserving'. No sense of entitlement at all.

Expect nothing.
Be ready for anything.
Be prepared.
Maybe I'm a Boy Scout at heart.

It's not like Oba needs to pick up a sword to make her point. Granted, that's not her way.  Just pick herself up. Dust herself off. Hold her head high. And get goddamn to work.

See what she's done?  She's got me the fuck swearing.

Maybe I've got way too much of Weber's Protestant Ethic in me and not enough of Mauss's prestations.  Or maybe I'm too selective in my sense of reciprocal obligations. Maybe I'm just a bitch with a sword. Maybe I'm supposed to fix her tight little universe for her. Find her a Chango and hand it to her on an ebony platter. Cut off my own ears and feed them to her so she can see I'm listening?

A good therapist is what she needs.
Maybe I should give her mine.