Monday, November 29, 2010

the real problem with the evil eye

George Foster long ago wrote a delightful article on envy and the evil eye. He spelled out exactly how the phenomenon works, particularly in Tzintzuntzan, but he claimed it extended throughout peasant society worldwide. The critics, primarily Marxists, claimed that he was wrong — but claimed it in such a way that they affirmed his essential hypothesis.

By now, it is commonplace to equate the evil eye with envy. That casting a covetous eye on what does not belong to you can, quite literally, make the object of your envy ill — sometimes terminally. And so, the solution in such societies is, for the rich, redistribution of a portion of their wealth for 'the people' to enjoy, ie, for the common good. This diffuses the envy by impoverished peasantry, reinforces established hierarchies, and helps prevent peasant revolts. Supposedly. Except, adds Fanon, in the case of Western dominance and colonialism, in which case revolution is de rigeur.

So. How does this help me with my love life?

After all, evil eye manifests primarily at the micro level. In little earthen gourbis and thatch-roofed huts around the world. Where a covetous eye is cast upon somebody else's wife, someone else's child. Where longing is the primary emotion in play. And there's nothing you can do about it.

Twice in my life I've been offered someone else's partner. Yup. The first time it was temporary. Here's the key to my apartment, here's the bed. Keep her warm and safe while I am gone. Right. No way. But I thought it was very sweet. Considerate. And thoughtful. The second time, was more serious. When I'm dead, take my spouse. Yes, ma'm I said, instantly. I mean, how can you say no to that? There's so much at stake. Especially when this is someone you already love.

Preemptive redistribution. I think that's what Foster would call it. Or maybe I'm putting words in his mouth. The fortunate one protects what could be coveted by giving it away, kind of.

Mrs Tzaddik did this recently. As a result of a brain injury, she fell into a delusion in which the Tzaddik, before his death, had built — brick by brick, so to speak — an exact duplicate of her house, along with everything in it exactly in its place. And she herself was living in the wrong house, trying to get home. When my birthday came around, she offered me a marble and bronze statue she greatly admired to be my birthday present. "Take it from the other house," she said. A brilliant way to both give and not give. To be generous and have it cost nothing at all.

I see the reallocation of one's partner not quite in such baldly pecuniary terms, but as an attempt at protection against the evil eye. We give away that which we treasure, but give it in such a way as to hold on tight — maybe tighter — than we did before. The thing we really cannot control is what happens after we die. It drives us mad, from time to time. And the rest of the time, we just let it go. Remain unprepared. Or write up a bunch of legal documents that we'll forget to revise at the time they're really needed.

The offer I received is actually not unknown in human history. Levirate marriage is based upon this principle. Social welfare systems are as well. Life insurance policies might be good for financial health, but they don't keep you warm at night.

I feel honored to have been considered for such a serious and deeply felt responsibility. I also feel cleansed of my own envy of such a perfect couple, such a pretty pair! I don't think this has anything at all to do with what will or will not take place in the distant future. Surely, I will precede them both into the hereafter, long before their own demise. I'm not willing to think about that or alternate futures at all.

What I do think about is honor. Protection. And the brilliant ways in which humans attempt to ward off the inevitable, protect their young, protect their partners — and try, against all odds, to keep them warm and safe.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

two shape-shifters, one bed

You probably know shape-shifters of your own, or you're a shape-shifter yourself. T would say that of course you are. That you shape-shift every time you switch consciousness from say, your corporate self to your personal self. Your social self, to your lover self. Your talking to mom on the phone self. To ... you get the idea. This being Thanksgiving, you may well have been shape-shifting all day and well into the evening, into an exhausting something you're not terribly happy playing at. Yah, T equates shape-shifting with performance. With performativity. Not that you're putting it on, exactly. No.

But that you can show others a different persona, at will. The at will part is important.

But not all shape-shifters agree that that's what it's all about.

The beautiful C used to live with me from time to time when she needed to. She had a house of her own across town but for 'complicated' reasons was having trouble staying there at the time. So. She had a room at my house she called her own.

C was a shape-shifter of extraordinary power. And people saw in her an antique man of her own lineage, who once had ruled Romania, and terrified the countryside by appearing to manifest as undead. C and her ancestor were in fairly constant communication, and I got to know him quite well. Nice bloke. Interesting family. Came to rule just after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. He didn't take well to the Turks ...

The point is that C took responsibility when her audience saw this ancient ruler instead of her when she spoke. She took credit for his manifestation, as well as for the deeds that he might do and the things that he might say. When you spoke with C, you were in conversation with the lot of them. Especially him. (I later learned that this ancestor and others of his family manifested to many in Romania at the time, and that C's relationship with him was not at all uncommon).

But when he manifested for her, other people would see him! They could describe him! They saw his long black ringlets— and that thick handlebar moustache. They could describe his big eyes and the crownlike cap upon his head. The carmine jewel at his forehead. And on and on. They saw him. They did not see her.

I never saw this stuff, but I certainly was in the conversation.

So. C used to stay at my house when she needed to. Which means the whole bunch of her ancestors were there as well. She claimed her own room. And she claimed her own bed. Or maybe it was 'they' and not her at all.

But I had another friend of the shape-shifting persuasion.

And he too would stay in what by default was becoming the 'guest bedroom' — since calling it my 'study' didn't seem to be working out too well, with all the house guests at the time. His home was in Budapest, but he would visit every two to three months for two or three weeks at a time.

He called himself a scientist. And what he wanted was to build a computer that could do what he could do: read energy fields and heal folks by shifting their magnetic fields. Or something like that. That's what he purported to do. Whatever it was, his hands-on healing was powerful. And I never thought a machine could duplicate whatever it was that he did. I just thought of it as 'body work' — until I myself saw him shape shift.

Right before my eyes (and no drugs in sight) he transformed into an ancient mythical being documented from northern Europe. It's not a figure I'm familiar with, although just the other day I saw its image on an archaeological volume at the meetings in New Orleans. T recognized him. I still can't remember the name. He had two very large antlers. That I do remember.

The scientist from Budapest acknowledged the shape-shifting, but his explanation differed from that of C's. He said that what he did was 'normal' healing within a realm that would be able (at some point) not only to be explained by science but to be duplicated by it. He insisted that what people saw during his healing sessions were projections that they themselves manifested — and had nothing to do with him.

So. Two views of shape-shifting. His. And hers.

His: people see what they need or want to see.

Hers: people see what she purposefully projected for them to see.

I'm not here to say one of them is right or wrong.

I'm here to say that they were both periodic guests in my house. Staying in my 'guest room.' Which should have been my study. And it was bound to happen that at one point they would both be claiming that room — and that one bed — as their own.

Now, I know that I should have taken charge of the matter. So, in essence, this is all my fault. But my excuse is that I really don't like making decisions for other people. I didn't want to decide between them who got the room and bed, and who slept downstairs on the couch. I mean, these are after all, both powerful magical practitioners that I didn't really want to piss off. She, especially, had a vile temper — and she was also my best friend. But he would come all the way from Budapest, and surely could use a decent bed.

So. I did something you'll probably agree was pretty stupid. I left it up to them.

These are two intelligent, articulate, periodically rational adults, right? I figured they could decide which one of them would take the bed, and which one would take the downstairs couch. Or maybe they'd come up with alternating nights. Or weeks. Something reasonable and mutually acceptable.

I went to my own room, shut the door, picked up a good book, and went to sleep. Let them figure it out.

But no. They both claimed the territory to the end. They both headed for the room. Both planted their stuff in the room. Both washed up and brushed their teeth. Put on their night things. And both climbed into the bed, growling and snarling at each other in some inhuman-sounding form. It sounded like whatever creatures they were, were ripping the house apart. I felt dismay that all my books, fieldnotes, and computer were in the same room with them.

In the morning they both came down for breakfast, which I had made. They ate my grandpa's Macedonian Sephardi eggs still glaring at each other, and went off about their day.

They never overlapped again.

But now, when I think of it, I wonder: is there a kaddish for the undead? Did anyone ever in history say a kaddish for Vlad Tepes, Draculea himself, prince of Wallachia, who lived for a time at my own house?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

epitaph for a tzaddik

New Orleans.

With the voudon priest. Again. He gives me a reading. And one of the things he says is:

"Don't go to the cemetery. He's not there. Go to the place where he still resides. The place where he still lives."

And all I can think of is well, where is that? Where is he alive? Where can I hold this conversation?

And with that reading, I fear that something just washed right out of me. I'm not sure if it was joy or sorrow. I sat there just crying my eyes out, for some reason. And then it was all gone. It just plain washed away.

But I still need to construct a stone. And write something on it.

What if we wrote what we really wanted to say — and set it in stone? (Though I've noticed that it's not stone anymore. It's these metal plaques that lie flat on the ground). I can't stand that the tzaddik is still left unmarked. Unvisited. But there's John T, saying don't bother going — 'cause that's not where he's at.

Where is he?

He's in half the books I own. He resides in Turkish brass trays. Mamluk Revival pitchers. He's in drawings. Paintings. Amulets. In an incredible amount of just plain junk. In every fragment of shredded textile that he gave me and that I haven't thrown out. All this stuff. He's there. He's not just in the museum. He's every unsolved mystery, unplaced artifact. He's in every job well done.

But all I want to write:

Pappa! Why have you forsaken me! and on and on like that ... Very very whiney. Overdramatic. Yah. I know. Pathetic.

Here lies the tzaddik... Yah. That doesn't work either. It's pure conceit.

Founder and Director of bla bla bla ... as if he's an institution. As if no blood ran through his veins.

How 'bout a picture? How 'bout a name. With dates.

How 'bout a tree?

And maybe it's that unmarked grave that makes his death feel so unfinished. And this is me dragging it on and on. Holding on to unfinished business. Or maybe just holding on. What right do I have to write his epitaph? He's still alive for me.

I pick up the phone to call, to ask him a question. I go to New Orleans and feel that I'm still supposed to collect that stuff for him? Am I supposed to take it on? Or just look, and let it go?

Do you feel it in these words? Something's gone. Something's really washed away. There is no power in these words. Is that the magic a yahrtzeit supplies?

Cultures prescribe a mourning time. But they proscribe it as well. They circumscribe the time of mourning. Start it now. Do it this way. And now, stop. Desist. And cease. Be done. Lest you fall into self-indulgent wallowing. Self-absorption. Decay. Decline. Just cut this out already.

Even the Tzaddik would say now, enough is enough. Now let it go. Go live.

And so, I turned to Precious Daughter. And we talked of China. Of infrastructure falling. Of going down with the ship. Or not. Of shape-shifting. Dogs. Cats. Brooklyn apartments. Crappy impressionists. Screenwriters who surprise us. Unfinished novels. Of choosing rationality. Of those we know who don't. Family recipes for borekas. Color. Sound. Upholstery. Mandarin. Business divinations. Those who succeed through malice. Those who succeed with humility. Travel. Bravery points.

We do not speak of failure, I notice. Only of being on the path.

And then his voice arises. He applauds. The tzaddik is back inside the conversation.

"Anyone can do it with money," the tzaddik says. "Remember, you can do it without."

There were no excuses with him. No judgements. No admonitions. Just a little nudge. No expectations. And maybe a phone number. "Talk to so-and-so..." And either you do, or you don't. Either it works, or it doesn't. You follow through. Or you don't. We make our choices.

Here lies the Director.
Collector. Protector.
Tzaddik, rest in peace

Monday, November 22, 2010

a kaddish for new orleans

The meetings. New Orleans. Again.

Our session this time was 'On the Circulation of Trance: Trance in 21st century globalized society' or something like that. One of those times when every paper led seamlessly into the next, each amplifying the concerns of the previous. Each of us, in our own way, questioning the problems of authenticity, as trance and trance rituals become things of the past worth either retrieving or letting go. A fitting topic for New Orleans.

New Orleans, after all, specializes in entrancement. And here were 5,000 or more anthropologists hitting the Big Easy over the last week, each one of them it seems having a pretty hard time staying focused on the meetings when the city itself beckons so seductively.

Something happened while we were there, that might strike you as not terribly important in the scheme of things, given Katrina and the the BP oil spill in the Gulf. But I think it was indicative of more of the same to come.

It was a little thing. The water went out.

Can you say that? Meaning it the same way you might say 'the power went out'?

You go to brush your teeth or wash your face, or flush a toilet, and there just isn't any water. At all. Just like that. And you think, okay, there's something wrong in my room. But no. It's the whole town. With no water. And no warning.

And then the warnings come on the phone, the papers, banners on the bottom of your television screen: When the water returns, don't drink the water. Don't wash your face with it. Don't let it on your skin. Boil all your water. Or use bottled water.

Until we figure this one out.

And it makes me think just how incredibly fast a city can go down. That infrastructure in any community — from a major city to a tiny oasis in the Sahara — is a miraculous but fragile thing. We build it over very long periods of time. Build it up from scratch and watch it take shape, and grow, and provide more services. And come to depend on those services. We talk about the provision of schools, medical care, protection from fire or crime. Electricity.

But before that, and maybe first of all, comes the expectation — the necessity — of good clean, safe water.

In the Sahara we carried our own water. And we had maps that showed every well across the desert. Without knowledge of where those wells might be, one does not venture out across the Sahara. We rationed carefully. But we also knew where those wells were. And if one was dry, we knew where to expect the next one, and the next, in close enough proximity to survive. And in the Sahara, it's very clear when travelers have been mistaken in this regard. The remains of bone and metal litter the panorama, picked dry by birds and bandits in equal measure.

So, I'm used to this from the places that I've lived or traveled. Abroad. The power, if there is power, goes out. The water is rationed. You improvise. You share. You help your neighbors, or nobody survives. I've taken this for granted when I'm over there. The Middle East. North Africa. West Africa. Central. East. Systems on the edge of no system at all.

America, however, presents itself as immune to collapse of systems. But all systems eventually fail, do they not?

New Orleans has been giving us a lot to think about in this regard. We've been seeing one system failure after another, each one a little bit different. Each breach very possibly having no real, durable, long term solution at all.

In New Orleans, if anything, one expects too much water rather than none at all, right? But this week there was a drop in the water pressure on the east bank of Orleans Parish. And nobody's quite sure yet why. The Sewerage and Water Board power plant just failed. One report stated that apart from this the NOLA water system is leaking more than 70% of its water at present. I mean, that's worse than Damascus, isn't it?

Okay. So, I'm not talking here about how much I love New Orleans. How great the music is, everywhere you turn. How each person you meet is ready to talk your head off for hours at a time, just for the pleasure of the conversation. How walking the narrow lanes of the French Quarter makes my own town, San Francisco, seem downright boring, banal and tame. I'm not telling you anything about my visits with a voodon priest and meeting the newest young, sweet pythons in his brood. Or my tears over the loss of Jolie and Eugene, the elder pythons I remember. Nothing about the distinct flavors of 'Slap Ya Mama' spices, Alligator jerky, Swamp Fire Seafood Boil, or hot Cajun eggs. Not saying a word about New Orleans pride: the Bud Light 'Here We Geaux!' signs, the 'Geaux Saints' flags flying proud. Not a word about all that music. And not a word about Marie Laveau, the St. Louis cemeteries, and John T. Nothing about being called 'baby' or 'darlin' in that lyrical lilt every other sentence. Nothing 'bout just how very much I've loved New Orleans from the first time I set eyes on it about 25 years ago.

No. This is me, thinking infrastructure.

Thinking 'bout the Sewerage and Water Board proposing increased taxes to pay for projects to fix 'it' all — once they figure out what on earth the problem might actually be. This is me thinking about Mayor Landrieu saying, no, no way. No more taxes.

Thinking about how saying no to taxes is saying no to infrastructure.

A.F.C. Wallace reminds us, in case we have forgotten, that revitalization is not inevitable. The only thing that is inevitable is that the Steady State will fail.

And New Orleans seems to be our canary-in-the-coal mine in this regard. Our early warning system, that systems are going down. And we don't want to fix them. No, it's just so much easier to blame politicians for the failures and vote them out of office. And vote folks in who'll make sure nothing long term ever gets repaired again.

No taxes? Sure, we can do that. No water. There are, after all, consequences. Guess we don't want to think about that one when we call for smaller government.

Don't get me wrong. This is not a plea to fix New Orleans.

It might be a plea to think about la longue duree. The long term consequences of our actions.

Or maybe not that either. Maybe, as good little anthropologists, we just take notes and watch it all fall. Watch cities fail, one at a time. Maybe we move in time to save ourselves. Maybe we choose to go down with the ship. Maybe we say science can cure all this, if we just put our minds to it. Maybe we say, it's signs from the heavens. Maybe we change our habits. And maybe there are no habits that need changing. And maybe this isn't any problem that needs fixing.

Cities rise. Cities fall. That's just the way it is.

Well, for that matter, planets form. Planets die. No big deal.

Maybe we don't think large enough. Think geological time. Astronomical time. It's just a question of scale. In la long duree none of this really matters at all, does it?

Okay, so this sounds just like another bummer post from another bummer pessimist. But that's not what I intend here. The cosmic view might really be a thing of beauty. We step back and watch the choreography and ballet of it all.

I mean, what else is there to do with our gift of human consciousness?

And the insight of 5,000 anthropologists, (or however many there might have been), that we collectively might have on every human problem in every corner of the world, does not really help us when the water's going down.

The wisdom of New Orleans is a very matter-of-fact, "I just deal with it. Baby."

So, yeah. New Orleans entranced me. Again. And what all did I do with it? Well, what do you think I did with it? I took notes. After all, I'm just an anthropologist. Baby.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

the tzaddik sells his daughter

Jerusalem, 1961

The tzaddik, as we know, was a great collector of Judaica: manuscripts, ceremonial artifacts, and ancient pieces of junk. For him, every single fragment was precious and worthy of preserving. Each broken piece of something had matching pieces yet to be discovered. Every object had a story that had to be uncovered.

If the Holy One, Blessed Be He created the world by separating all its parts — light from dark, and earth from sky ... — it was the tzaddik's job to put it all back together again. But you already knew this.

He took Malkah with him on many of his adventures. Up the Motherlode, looking for cemeteries (he collected cemeteries, but only if they were Jewish). They drove up and down the mountains searching out each and every single one. The tzaddik would then find a donor who would help purchase the rundown little plot of land and broken stones, and bring it back into a state of preservation. He taught Malkah to decipher the gravestones when she was about eight or nine.

But in Jerusalem, treasures were boundless. Either that, or they were fakes. He always seemed to know the difference. He would wander through the tiny streets (of west Jerusalem — the city was divided at that time) until he turned at last in through an open door. He'd find a grungy little stall, and look through absolutely everything with equal deliberation.

Every thing has a story.

And he was a great storyteller once he figured out the tale. The other thing that gave him pleasure, was giving away the pieces of junk. Once he unearthed the secret of an object, the next step was to find its home. There was always someone — or some institution — whose story it was. It was for them to preserve the thing and keep it safe.

He always assumed that once each object had found its rightful place in the world, that it would be honored. That others would treasure it as he did.

He was the most unmaterialistic materialist the world had ever seen. Of course. A lamed-vavnik, putting the universe of separation back in order, one piece at a time.

So. They turned down a cobbled alley, and there was this dirty little stall. And sitting in the dirty little stall was a dirty little man. An old and toothless man, wearing what looked to Malkah like rags inside the ragged stall. The shop was dark before her eyes adjusted. It only had one lightbulb hanging down.

There was a mournful horn playing in the distance, from somewhere further down the cobbled lane. It pervaded the very marrow of the stone walls all around.

Can you hear that sound?

The dirty, old shopkeeper was sitting cross-legged upon more piled up rags upon the cold stone floor. A woven blanket maybe. It was too dark to see. The tzaddik and his daughter sat cross-legged on the other side. There didn't seem to be much more room in the shop than that. Most of the light streamed in from the outside, and so they sat as near the doorway as they could. The shuttered doors of the shop were painted that blue — you know. Evil eye blue. The blue of protection.

The tzaddik's eyes were filled with equanimity. But Malkah knew he wasn't walking out of that shop without the crumbling manuscript now in his hand. The shopkeeper knew the same. He got up and disappeared into the darkness of the back of the shop.

The tzaddik didn't lift his head from deciphering the text below, even when the shopkeeper returned with the steamy little glasses of burning hot tea. The tiny glasses were old; the painted floral decoration mostly faded.

The shopkeeper eyed Malkah hungrily and with a wave of his hand insisted that she drink. She took a tiny burble and was struck by a syrupy jolt. Her body shuddered. There was nowhere to spit it out and she was forced to swallow.

The hours passed. More rounds of tea. The horn began another mournful tune. The haggling went on for hours. The grubby shopkeeper kept glancing at the tzaddik's daughter.

"I have a son," he said at last.

"Mazal tov!" proclaimed the tzaddik. "A blessing on your house."

"He and your daughter would make a pretty pair."

The tzaddik turned to another page in the crumbling folio sheets. He grunted.

"You could take my son with you," the old man said. "To Amrika."

"He could use an education," said the tzaddik.

"An education, yes!" the shopkeeper said, and started wrapping up the manuscript in newspaper, and tying it with brown twine.

A filthy boy just Malkah's age stepped into the shop, as if by magic. He had dark vacant eyes, huge teeth and sunken cheeks. His clothes were as tattered as his father's.

"An education," repeated the tzaddik.

"A shittach," said the shopkeeper.

The boy giggled, but with lack of comprehension. He cleared the teapot and the little glasses and off he ran. Malkah noticed that he was barefooted. As if he'd never worn a pair of shoes.

The tzaddik rose. The shopkeeper rose, kissed the tzaddik's right hand, and thrust the newspaper wrapped packet into the tzaddik's left. Malkah rose. The shopkeeper patted her on the head.

"An education," he repeated, looking the tzaddik in the eyes. The tzaddik grunted.

When they had left, Malkah was fuming. She had just turned thirteen.

"That's how it's done," the tzaddik said.

And he tucked the treasure under his arm and they walked on down the cobbled lane. Another piece of the cosmic puzzle was returning to its rightful home.

You could hear the horn finishing off its last five notes. Triumphal affirmations, finding their strength and hitting their stride.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

birthing and deathing

Birthing was easy. Well, I mean, it wasn't easy easy. But it was easy. Pregnancy was easy. There was a time limit to pregnancy and birthing, and it's pretty fixed and universal. This is how the body works in that regard. Expect this. Breathe like that. Push now. Baby. And there were a million books to read. Granted that pregnancy and childbirth don't always go by the book, no matter which book you're reading. But for the most part, humans have this one pretty much down.

Deathing isn't like that. It can be a poof! you're gone kind of death. Or a lingering on in diminishing capacity for years or even decades. Or it can be treatments. Or not treatments. 'Procedures.' Amputations. Meds, and more meds. Hospital visits or hospital beds. Incontinence. Dementia or delusion. Caregivers. No caregivers. Point is, it could be anything, anything at all — and last for a very long time.

It's that Dylan song, that lyric:

he not busy born is busy dying

Which we used to quote smugly looking at our elders. They were busy dying. We were busy living.

At a certain point, I realized that I was busy dying. I think it was when some financial rep came walking into my office (and every office on our floor, building, and likely the entire campus), trying to hook me on planning for my retirement.

I mean, was that some kind of joke?

Busy-being-born people don't plan for their retirements. They're too busy being in the present to be inside that future.

But I did it. I learned about IRAs and TSAs and deferred taxation, and all that shit. And I came to care about it.

And then I started budgeting my paycheck each month, and my expenses each quarter, and my obligations each year.

And then it was long term care insurance. One thing after another...

You get the point. I became one of those older people busy dying. And truth be told, I thought it was kinda fun.

Thinking about the financial part of living and dying, I realize, is one big reaction formation. Yes, the psychoanalysts have a word for this. But it's more than this. van Gennep, in his classic work, Rites of Passage, analyzes both the structure and function of life cycle rituals.

Rites of passage, he says, ritualize the major transitions of our physical being, from birth to death (or cycles of being) — and we take comfort in this. He covers many of the functions of ritual in this regard, including, for example:

public acknowledgement of the transition: Here, the community essentially proclaims that a shift is made, whether or not you feel that you've made the transition at all. Thus, suddenly you may be declared 'a man' or 'a woman' even if it's not at all what you feel. After this point, everyone in the community will treat you as this thing they claim you are.

public acknowledgement of expected shifts in behavior: And once the community declares you man or woman, or married, or widowed, or dead or alive — you are expected to behave in keeping with the rules associated with that status. This can be a very big bummer.

relieving anxiety regarding the life cycle change by transferring the anxiety to performing the perfect ritual: This one is why people make such a fuss over weddings. If you focus a year or two planning the perfect wedding, you don't really have to think much about what being married is all about. Likewise, if you focus on having the perfect birthing experience, you're probably not thinking about what it's gonna be like taking care of that kid for the rest of your life.

Futzing around figuring out retirement finances falls into this last category. Moving numbers around (at least in your head, if there are none in your account) is the great distraction from thinking about this latter end of the life cycle. We don't have to think about what it's really like to get ill or old or frail.

And then our parents start falling into that stage. And all our friends' parents do as well. And thinking about IRAs and retirement isn't the same as dealing with dementia or incontinence or frailty or simply not being recognized anymore. And, unlike the general incompetencies of infants, we know that the older generation (and eventually we ourselves) are not gonna just outgrow it. It's gonna get worse and worse and worse.

Being busy dying turns out to be an opportunity of sorts. An exercise in humility. Patience. Paying attention. And (for many) forming a strong personal relationship with their maker. Learning something new about yourself and the people you care about. I know this sounds like an awful lot of platitudes. I'm just trying to apologize here for the contempt I felt in my youth for anyone who spent an iota of time thinking 'bout the busy-dying end of things. This may well have been the pervasive attitude of my generation.

I realize I've conflated a number of different issues here, but the timing seems to go together: the death and dying of our elders, preparation for our own elder years, and thinking about our own death and dying. These, clearly, are not the same — but they all fit that concern with being 'busy' dying. And the rites of passage to be performed seem to include a mountain of harrowing paperwork to focus on in order to keep our minds off the real stuff: feeling it.

So. Birthing was easy. Raising kids was easy. This isn't easy. And I think this is why some of the older folk I know begin obsessing about grandchildren. Or a new puppy, or something. Focusing on the continuity from one generation to the next, and their birthdays, and their rituals, is another way to not be present with the hard transitions of the moment.

So here's the plan. Being present. To this moment. To this stage, whatever it brings. Not deflecting. No new puppies. Doing this as well as can be done.

Not sure what that's supposed to look like. Haven't read a single book on the subject. I think it's just about paying attention. Could be wrong. And could be fun.

Friday, November 12, 2010

of gummy-worms and caterpillar tales

I have two very strong images in my head from when Precious Daughter was a wild young thing of maybe two-ish. Actually, there are more images of course, but these two have been haunting me lately. They remain vivid without photographic reminders of these little moments.

Scene One, which is the earlier Kodak moment of the two, took place around the corner at the produce market. You know the kind: the one with the bins and the little shovel to scoop out real live unpackaged foods. I had Precious Daughter in the stroller, having run down the hill with her, just for fun, on a jaunt that was just something fun to do together. We were at the bins. Guess I was taking way too long trying to decide between bulk orzo and bulk bulghur (the kids loving each of them equally), when I looked down at my too quiet daughter.

The little monster had one hand holding a lower bin open, and the other hand was shoveling fists full of gummy-worms into her gaping maw as fast as it could. Gummy-worms were hanging out at all angles — she was right out of a classic horror movie playing both sides of the equation: Faye Raye and King Kong both squeezing in to possess the same little daughter at once.

Scene Two, Asilomar. Not long after the above. Not quite monarch butterfly season. The caterpillars were crawling over everything in sight in the little wooded garden between the lodge, the dining hall, and the trail to the sea. Precious Daughter is free to run, with no vehicles to worry about running her down. She picks up some crunchy leaves and squeezes them into bits, watching with wonder as they take off on the wind. She reaches down for another handful, and squeezes — but this handful squishes... A handful of caterpillars, oozing out between her fingers. Their life extinguished before she knew they were alive. Her mother running in horror to intervene before they reach her mouth. But it's too late to save a life.

Is this how we learn about life and death? Note my lack of horror for the leaves!

Was there any difference for her between the life and death of gummy-worms, caterpillars and crunchy leaves? Is the intervention that tells us cease and desist with caterpillars qualitatively different enough from cease and desist with gummy-worms to get the point across? As I recall, it took some fancy footwork to explain the difference between the two. To a two year old, are gummy-worms less alive than caterpillars? Is the taking of life something we do or don't outgrow? Or just the natural order?

"From the war of nature," Darwin wrote in his conclusion to The Origin of Species, "from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of higher animals, directly follows."

And just how clear is it that a mouth full of gummy-worms is not good for you, while a mouth full of caterpillars is not good for them? Especially when your taste buds do not concur.

Okay, you may be thinking, isn't two a little late for the oral phase, anyway? This would be a distraction, for to tell the truth, these events may well have been a full year earlier. I don't keep track of time that well. The point remains:

How do we learn that life is precious?

How do we learn that gummy-worms can kill you? Or that caterpillars are a whole lot more healthy for us, in point of fact.

It's not just the choking thing with shoveling gummy-worms down so fast. Not just the high-fructose corn syrup that's out to get us. No, in addition to all that, it's that gummy-worms were linked to BSE and Mad Cow Disease at the time of my daughter's adventures in oral pleasures. Though, all this is a sidebar to the larger issue.

I've always felt I had some unfinished business with the gummy-worms and caterpillars. And I think I finally know what it is.

As E has written a kaddish to all the creatures she has eaten, I offer that as well, and raise you five: A kaddish for the things my kids in glee might well have gobbled; or crushed between curious fingers, toes or mouth; or tread upon with crunching sounds; or put inside a baggie filled with salt, or thrown over a fence to give the neighbors ... all this and more — bad mothering — or things we take for granted. Not really an apology, but an honoring of all things gone as a result of actions or inaction. Take on the world of pain and inequality — no, I will not go that far.

I do not here take on all misadventure, nor claim it as my own. But whether thinking or not thinking, they cannot be undone.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

of gummy-worms and larger creatures

Michael Pollan has been eloquent in his appeal that we change our eating and growing habits. He sums it all up in seven syllables — not quite a koan, nor haiku either, but nevertheless giving off the impression of a wise and ancient teaching:

eat food
not too much
mostly plants

A modest proposal from a modest man.

So why does it sound so radical here in Amrika?

On the tzaddik's yahrtzeit I stopped eating animals. It was a very long time coming. I can hear my friends on both sides of the aisle berating me over it. The veg-folk for having it take so long, and the meat-folk for having let go one of the great tasty pleasures of life. The fact is, I love the taste of meat. But I can't stand the word anymore.

I think I became a vegetarian because of the word 'meat'. I finally heard it. Just that, and nothing more.


It's a word that bothered me very suddenly, listening to an interview on public radio with Jonathan Safran Foer. His new book is entitled Eating Animals. I had just shown Rouch's award-winning film, Les Maitres Fous, to my night class, and more than any other part of the film, students react to the slaughter, boiling and eating of a sweet medium sized short-haired trusting dog. I've seen the film hundreds of times and it gets me every time. I can't get used to it.

But they also sacrifice a chicken and a lamb or a goat as well. Why is it no one even mentions those? And they break raw eggs upon the Hauka altar of the 'governor's palace.' How come that doesn't bother anyone either? For that, too, is wasted life.

I think it's because we think of chicken, lamb, and goat as meat. And meat is something that we eat.

But Foer's book isn't called Eating Meat — which would make almost any potential reader defensive and oppositional instantly. The title of Foer's book is Eating Animals, and that's something altogether different. When you put it that way, it's something we really don't want to do.

That's the dog in the Rouch's film — an animal, not meat — and why eating dog is so horrific and unwatchable. We just don't think of a dog as meat.

It sounds like Foer is stating the obvious here. He doesn't push the point. But I'd like to push it here. Language matters.

Pollan and Foer share this facility for hard-hitting simplicity in their writing. They're both reasonable and not fanatics. They both are okay with folks who eat meat. Just not too much. Foer's soft sell on the radio, I guess just got to me when combined with having just watched the dog sacrifice for the umpteenth time.

I had no problem eating meat.

I had a big problem eating animals.

So. Is this about morality, ethics or ecology? Arguments I've been reading since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Nope. It was just about the power of words.

Words, like music, can have this awful power over us that is not quite rational, not quite irrational. We are moved beyond reason. We use words to come up with a reason for our reason. And if we commit to them, we are transformed.

Sure, I do feel different. I've had a belly ache for a month, to tell the truth. I don't think I was designed at all for not eating animals. Maybe I'm doing it all wrong. But I'm gonna hold the course and see how it goes. Not dogmatically (excuse the terrible pun here). No. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But for the first time, it feels right even if it feels awful.

Where do the gummy-worms fit in here. They do fit in, I'll give you that, but yes, another time. For once again it's later than I'd like, and my eyes are dry and closing. I've listened to Erin's kaddish tonight and it took me to the Siberian steppe, with only a single tree on the horizon, an ironwood. And there were nomads there, with their sheep and goats. Beloved animals. But over the fire in the fire pit: nothing but meat.

And I hear nothing, nothing but the kaddish.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

we dying dogs

Sometimes we just slow down and stop. And that's it. We're done.

That's what happened today at Funston, heading back from the cliffside trail. This woman's dogs were going just nuts as she tried to protect one between her legs who was just plain done. It was like she was paralyzed there, not paying attention to the growing chaos around her. Six or seven of the younger dogs just didn't give a shit that their elder was ready to go.

The expression came to mind: to be on your last legs. This old dog had only three. And he wasn't going to use any of them. His head was lying there in the sand. The phrase felt so literal, and I wondered really what it would feel like to be ready to just plain stop, and have no volition to ever get up again.

Just before he died, the biofather told me a story. I had asked him if he remembered anything about me from when I was little. He got this glowing, glorious look on his face.

"One story, yes!" he said. He came back to life with this memory. He was no longer an elderly man in a wheelchair with limbs cut off from the diabetes, and scars from his cardiac bypass. He was young and authoritative and in control again.

"You were very little," he began. "You were very sick. Your mother called me and begged me for money to pay for the medicine you needed. And formula or something. She needed food for you."

He had this enormous smile on his face, as he paused. I had always dreamed of him as a knight in shining armor who would one day come rescue me. But I had never heard this story before.

"And I turned her down. I never gave her money," he said proudly. And this hero's light came into his eyes. He sat up a little straighter in his wheelchair, so proud of himself.

"After all," he said dramatically, "you don't feed a dying dog."

And he looked me in the eye and grinned his winning grin, having concluded his victorious tale.

And I sat there staring at him. I mean, what can you say to that?

And I thought about his tale as I stared into the eyes of the dying dog on the cliff today. The one who was done, who was really ready to go. And I wondered about that baby in my mother's arms. Wondered if that child had felt the same or not. Ready to be done. Ready to move on. The light going out of her eyes.

Dunno. But she was a very melancholy child, the grown-ups said.

I do think it possible that some of the light in her eyes winked out that day. And a bit more, I think, winked out upon hearing the old bastard's tale. But the light was replaced, I think, by something maybe tougher. Resilience, maybe. Autonomy, for sure. An I'll-take-care-of-myself, thank you. Somewhere along the way, if it was trust that was extinguished, it was self-preservation that ignited instead. And some kind of fortitude (defined here as being a stubborn, obstinate chayah), I think, replaced it.

Lights on, lights off. I look at that dog lying there. He, in slow motion. The pups speeding around him, jumping, chomping at each others' necks and ears. He doesn't intervene. He doesn't play top dog, the way he did a week ago, a month ago. He's not quite there anymore, hovering between this world and the world to come. They slow down, and they just plain stop.

It's only humans who drag out the process with advance directives and life-prolonging measures.

I watch the dogs at the Fort or in my arms or at their home. And they tell us so clearly when they're on their last legs. So clearly, I'm just not getting up again. They close their eyes. They're often miraculously not in pain. They're just ready to go.

A kaddish for them, for us — we dying dogs.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

a kaddish for Caprica

Something was bound to go wrong on the Tzaddik's first Yahrtzeit.

It was a day I had hoped to bring my mother to the cemetery for the first time — for she herself had been too gravely ill to understand at the time that he had actually died. In the next room. In her house. Though when I told her that day, not knowing if she understood, she suddenly awoke out of her brain damage for the very first time. Her mind began to struggle back to life.

But this year too, the Tzaddik's wife was too ill to be brought to his still unmarked grave.

I'd controlled the tears all day just waiting to unleash them at the right time, the right place. And goddamn it, I still wanted to visit my father's grave, despite it getting dark already, despite it being rush hour by the time I was leaving Berkeley. I got lost, of course. Got hung up in a wrong lane, and ended up heading for Marin instead of wherever it was I was supposed to be. And I started falling into this insanity: Does he mind? Is he upset? Disappointed? Did he expect it? Doesn't he deserve better than this? How could I leave him there alone? Again. Still. Unmarked. All I wanted to do was something completely out of character: throw myself on his grassy mound (if I could even find it) and wail.

Impressions of Irene Pappas as Elektra: I wanted to pour libations upon his unmarked grave. I was born for this role.

It was now pitch black outside. The cemetery, even if I could find it, was already closed.

The Tzaddik lay there patiently, behind those enormous iron gates, alone in his allocated spot — gypped again out of his due. But you know how the tzaddikim are. The lamed-vavniks. They're a very patient lot. They're saints. Literally.

I crawled across the bridge. It took hours. Bumper to bumper. It was a Tuesday. I had worked myself into a raving lunatic, at least on the inside. Started focusing on not cracking up the car, instead.

I thought, okay, I'll go home and wallow in Caprica for a while. Not that Caprica would (or could) lift my spirits.

Caprica was killing off good characters left and right. Bummer. Didn't they have something better to do? And the Adamas — except for Sam — were a whiney lot.

Still stuck in traffic here. With time to think about the Caprican/BSG mystery that bothers me the most. The one I think no one else cares about.


For Adama, of course, means earth in Hebrew. Earth.

I mean, did they do that on purpose? I mean, they must have, right?

And throughout BSG I expected this to come up. But no, it never did. Adama searching for Earth. A destroyed Adama, finding a destroyed Earth. A renewed Adama finding a renewed Earth. Adama naming Earth 'Earth.'

And nobody saying a word about it.

So, of course I figured it would have to come up in Caprica. But these Adamas were a snivvely, sorry lot. And why wouldn't they be? Their own land had been heavily colonized (in the old sense of the word) and exploited. This is all so terribly biblical...

And stuck in traffic, contemplating BSG puzzles, and Caprican potentials, my mind began to settle a bit.

At home, for some reason Caprica had not recorded.

Had I screwed something up? Where was my fix on this awful day? Eventually, I looked online to see if it had been preempted. Tuesday night Caprica just wasn't as fun as Friday night Caprica (or BSG). But shit! It was gone. Just frakking gone.

Caprica died shooting self in foot.

I mean, think about it. The post-apocalyptic BSG had had rough times, but an awful lot to laugh about as well. And here was pre-terminal hedonistic Caprica with nothing but angst, desperation and turmoil everywhere you turn. The only character having even a smidgen of fun was the PhD candidate in Graystone's lab — so yah, why not just blow him away in a careless random moment of meaninglessness?

Was there nothing better to do than gratuitously blow away good characters just to what? Wonder who's gonna get axed the following week? Poor strategy.

Rh thinks Caprica got cancelled because it was too queer-friendly. Do you think the show lost viewers on moral grounds? I mean the whole panorama was right out of Ibn Khaldun: Permissiveness gives way to its own destruction...

I didn't cry for Caprica — although my tears had been waiting all day for some good excuse to let loose. No, I didn't cry — I got mad instead. All that great potential — wasted!

As far as I'm concerned, I'd have been just fine if they'd taken the whole cast, one by one, and locked them into those robotic Cylon bodies. Yearning for another crack at resurrection.

David Eick and company aren't crying either, 'cause they too have resurrection in mind. Another spin-off of BSG. This one tentatively called, Battlestar Gallactica: Blood and Chrome. This one is to take place when Adama is in his early 20s — around forty years before the fall.

Can I say for the record: blech.

I guess the problem wasn't so much morality dissonances but that boys just weren't getting their blow-em-up spaceship fix. And I'm sure the costs/benefits analysis concurs. Blowing up shit is literally more bang for the buck.

I still haven't gone back to the cemetery. But it seems to me that each day brings another reason to pour a libation upon a Tzaddik's grave.

When I finally do go, I'm going to tell my dad all about Adama, as he lies there underneath. He'll have a good chuckle about it. And because he can perform miracles, I'm hoping to see the Earth move when I'm there.

If you read of any earthquakes on that day, just know it's the Tzaddik having a little giggle over Adama — and under adama, too.

Monday, November 8, 2010

a kaddish for eichmann

Has anyone ever said kaddish for Eichmann? I had this argument tonight. Rh insisted that someone somewhere has mourned him. But that's not what I meant. I did not mean just a Mourner's Prayer. I meant a real live authentic kaddish. Maybe even with a minyan. And my thought was no. That it was very likely that no one on earth has ever said a kaddish for Eichmann.

Rh thought I was insane. That I was underestimating the power of forgiveness.

Forgiveness? This is Eichmann we're talking about.

Maybe Hanna Arendt came the closest. Not that she forgave. Not that she said kaddish. But in a sense she excused him. Said he operated 'unthinkingly' with no consideration of the effects for those targeted by his bureaucratic assignment. It was she, after all, who coined the term 'banality of evil' in reference to Eichmann.

I mean, think about Adolf Eichmann.

He was a mechanic at heart. A mechanic and a manager. Not a philospher. Not even a polemicist. He was good on order. As in 'following orders.' And, as he said in his trial, it wasn't just about following orders, but about following the law. So give him a break.

I was supposed to be at that trial.

It was late June, early July, 1961. Jerusalem. I was 13 at the time. Great Bat Mitzvah present, don't you think? Tickets to the Eichmann Trial? My parents were attending. Kids did not attend — but my mom worked like hell to get me those 2-day tickets. Only problem was that I was sicker than I'd ever been in my life, and had ended up curled up in a tight little ball for days, while they attended the trial. Jerusalem, it turns out, always makes me sick to my stomach.

And you might think it downright child abuse to want to take a kid to hear the proceedings of a trial on crimes against humanity. Genocide. But for her it was about being a witness to history. And witnessing firsthand the confrontation between the survivors of the Holocaust and the monster finally on trial.

I remember that I hadn't thought anything of attending. I took it for granted that I would go. After all, I'd been raised on the Holocaust. Grew up with the scars of bullet holes through the arms of my friends' moms. Saw the numbers tattooed on older people's arms. Saw photographs. Heard stories told firsthand. Heard the screams of parents during sleepover nights. Saw the yellow stars that had been preserved. Saw the Torah scrolls used as canvasses for crappy Nazi oil paintings of pastoral scenes. Mengele stories. I was raised on Kafka's Trial. Durrenmatt's Quarry — and after The Quarry nothing at all is scary.

I was supposed to be at that trial. But instead I had to make do with transcripts of the trial. Which you can find at the Nizkor Project website put out by the State of Israel's Ministry of Justice. The site includes the text of the Wannsee Protocols from January, 1942. Now that's something to read.

Imagine all of them sitting around the conference table at Wannsee. Sipping their tea, lunching on fancy china. Surrounded by the pristine snowy, wooded estate. Such beauty! All the while trying to figure out what to do with the Jews. Looking for the 'Final Solution.'

Eichmann's job was to find a way to get the Jews out of 'every sphere of life' of the German people. Out of 'every living space' of the German people.

He saw it as a transport issue.

At Wannsee they had lists. The number of Jews in every country targeted for expulsion. The final count, including Russia, was 11 million people.

A real headache for Eichmann.

The first idea was to ship 'em to Palestine. In 1939, Eichmann had been made head of the Office for Jewish Emigration, and had a number of Zionist contacts. Unfortunately, he was having trouble getting a visa to go to British Palestine to figure it out. The idea was to tax the Jews in Europe to pay the costs of deportation. By 1941 he was told essentially to forget all this emigration stuff; the Jews were to be exterminated. At Wannsee, a year later, it was determined definitively that the notion of 'accelerated emigration' was just too damned slow. Genocide was just a whole lot more efficient.

Lists were made up to work out bloodlines. What about those who are half Jewish? A quarter? Those married to Germans? Those who had little Jewish blood but 'looked' Jewish? Every category had to be documented.

And transport still had to be arranged — though now it would be to death camps. And Eichmann was in charge of all those trains that would carry them all to the gas chambers.

No wonder I was sick those days in Jerusalem.

But shouldn't we think about the early Eichmann? The Eichmann whose transport problem was British Palestine. Think about maybe a Michael Chabon novel of alternate histories. An Eichmann responsible single-handedly for the creation of a Jewish Homeland. It was, after all, all the same to him. Transport is transport. He had, after all, even met with an agent of the Haganah to talk transport. Think of the might-have-beens if only the British had given him that damned visa. Can we say a kaddish for that Eichmann?

Consider, just consider for a moment all the other unthinking banal bureaucrats of the world who get their kaddish.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

kaddish in two-part harmony

I've been challenged to a kaddish a day — for an entire year. That year starts today, right now in fact. On this very line. I'm not sure this is a healthy thing to do, but maybe it's exactly the right way to work it through.

Bibbo tells me of the baths his babalawo prescribes. He's prescribed them to me as well, and I've written them down. Each on a scrap of paper I never find again. Magic! I've been writing on scraps of paper since I was a kid. Thinking I could hold on to an idea, thought or even person, if I've just committed them to written form. That they will be preserved. In such a way, at eight years old I invented the Genizah all by myself. Sacred words preserved, even if I can't ever find them again.

The idea of the baths is to wash 'it' all away — whatever 'it' happens to be. There are also the oils. And they do the opposite: they bring things to you. You let them soak right into your pores. I'm not sure if our kaddish in two-part harmony is more like the Ife baths washing the pain away, or more like the oils, letting them really soak in. Maybe, like a wave, it will be both, flowing in two directions.

Flowing between you and me. Through our fingertips. A responsive reading of sorts. Call and response. Though I'm not sure who's calling and who's responding. Did I call and you responded? No matter. This is all your fault.

And I'm going to accept the challenge on two conditions.

The first, is that we do not meet. Not face to face and not directly by phone. I don't mind a kaddish left on my answering machine. The voice of a horn. But not the voice of a voice.

The second condition is that this not become a tyranny, as in, oh shit, I have to write a kaddish meditation today, what a bummer. So the question is, can I write a kaddish (I'm calling it a kaddish meditation) coming from a place of love (yes, I just said that) or even anger — but not from a place of obligation.

Hers will be a daily kaddish on horn. Mine, right here, for the most part, in writing. But it won't always be right here. We're off to New Orleans shortly, for example. Some of these daily kaddish meditations likely will be transmitted by other means.

The whole enterprise is daunting. An integral transformative practice I was not expecting. But I do know how to do this. And I know how powerful it can be. Or it can be crap.

There's a third condition. And that, through kaddish, I do not fall in love with you. Not sure if there's anything you can do about that. Not sure if it's already too late. But I'm going to reaffirm right here, right now, that this is not about you or me. It's about the material at hand.

Let the kaddish begin.

Friday, November 5, 2010

what is it about musicians?

I was at the bookstore at the airport, and you know how much selection they have there, don't you. Close to nothing at all. Couldn't believe I was traveling without a book in my bag. But then again, the whole point of the trip was to go collect books, so it also made sense not to head out with one. This was SFO, however, and so I picked up volume something or other of lesbian erotica, right there at the airport. And as I read the tales, all I could think was, I could write this better.

And so I did. The one story I've ever written in my life.

And then I read it to her, when I got back in town. And it just blew her away.

what is it about musicians?

That's what it was called. And I thought about it tonight and tracked it down in a very old file still on my computer, but in dire need of translation to an updated Word file, and then reformatting and the like just to be able to read it.

But I didn't read it. The point was only that I found it. Only that it was a reminder of the hold musicians have had on me. Used to have on me. Not now, of course — I won't allow that trespass.

Because I've been on musician strike. A boycott of all things music. Especially musicians. Like an addict who finally says enough is enough — and seems to mean it. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange being desensitized. Like a moth to the flame saying no!

I've had it with musicians.

No. The truth is, I've had it with myself around musicians. And the weird thing about that is that I've always been so careful and restrained.

I do not play.

I will not dance.

I met a Yoruba today who made me smile. He went to school not 20 miles from Ile Ife. He told me tales of the Oduduwa, the original ruler of the Yoruba. That his grandfather was chief of his village. His father declined, and so did he.

"I can't worship all those deities," he said. "I am a Christian."

But his face lit up at the mention of Ile Ife. It wasn't just the surprise at my bringing it up. I could watch him fill with joy and pride. We talked about the rhythms of the Orisha... and I was happy, just like that. Happy.

And there we were again, at the power of music and musicians. It's inescapable. And I'm still trying to escape.

I'm trying really hard here not to use the word 'seduction.'

But maybe there's no other word for it. The spirits entangle us through their rhythms. They wrap us up or make us writhe (or if we don't writhe, we write instead). Those rhythms that draw us, that suck us in, that drive us mad with desire — it's a visceral thing that cannot be resisted.

And here is me resisting hard — since I was a very small child. Knowing that the music is a trap. Entrapment. Maybe even a subspecies of rape.

You think I'm being overly dramatic here. I may well be. But hear me out. This is about loss of control. Losing our minds. Losing our souls. And something else enters us of its own volition, and doesn't let us go. With or without permission. You know what it's called. It's called possession.

And I'm afraid of being possessed.

I asked my new Yoruba friend about the Hauka, and if they still inhabited West Africa — but he had never heard of them. He suggested Googling them, which was pretty funny. Of course, I've tried. And I come up with Rouch and Stoller and not much more. I had heard that the Hauka had entered Brooklyn in the 1980s, but maybe that was wrong.

I don't like the Hauka rhythms — they're too annoyingly European. But that's the point isn't it? It's what happens when your (spirit) possessor is your (colonial) possessor. The music is just there to hook you, nothing more.

So, I wrote this beautiful story about how musicians can take over your body and soul. And you're powerless to resist their every move. And they tie you up with silken cords, and play you. And play you. And what could be more intoxicating than that voice, or the voice of their instrument? And your volition melts into the ether. And you're on the road, you've turned the corner into the other world, you've walked through the crossroads. You're lost on the other side.

How many visions did those damned musicians give me!

And here comes this seductress walking into my life. Another musician. And one who can write! And write the seduction of the music and musician. Who can articulate the power the musician has (or can have) — and articulate how the musician wields that power.

And offers me a taste!

And this is me saying no!

And running as far away as possible to not feel it. Not hear it.

I've been boycotting music like I've been boycotting humans altogether. The more drawn I am to their rhythms, the more dangerous they become. It's not that the music is bad. No, it's that it's powerful.

My favorites: Nusrat. Cheb Khaled. Rachid Taha. If I listen any more, I will fall right through this world into the other. And (at least for now) I can't afford to fall.

It's a form of imperialism. The imperialism of the soul.

It's a very hard thing to admit to being so thoroughly vulnerable to the sound of certain sounds. To admit to having put on this hard shell of resistance very much on purpose. Trying to keep the music at bay.

To those of you (which may well be most of the planet) for whom music is just that, music — or worse still, background music — well, I think that's great. For me, music is just never in the background. It's the primary thing happening, and when I hear it I can't do anything else but crawl inside it as it crawls inside me. I think most people are just fine with that. But these days I'm listening to nothing more harmful than NPR. Especially in this time of mourning.

So. Musician.
I cannot hear you play.
Not now.
It will shake me to the core, and I cannot take it.

Not ready for music. Not ready for musicians. Not ready to unleash a floodgate of either tears or joy. Not ready to let anything or anyone in until the heart is mended. I know, I know — they say that music's healing. But if you play me that Mourner's melody, you will surely possess me. And then you'll walk away. With my heart.

And then I'd have to write another story.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

growing up on chicken little: having a 9/11 moment

Bad day. The empire's falling, and all that. It's not like this is anything new. A century from now historians will date it — here it begins... or rather, here it begins to end. The so-called 'American Century' — did it start to decline when Joe Mc Carthy cut his teeth in the Senate? With Johnson? Nixon? Reagan? Was there no American Century, after all — but just one disaster after another? But it makes me think...

A weird thing happened to me on the way to 9/11.

I was at the airport — yes airport — in Paris. CDG. That would be Charles deGaulle. It was late August, 2001, and I had to get back to the States in time to start Fall Semester. Just barely making it back on time. I took notes on this event, minute by minute. There was nothing else to do.

I was sleeping at the airport. Which doesn't mean I got any sleep. It just means that I had run out of money one night too soon, and left my favorite little place on the Rue Cujas (overlooking Le Tiers Mythes, my favorite bookstore in Paris). My bags were filled with books from l'Institut du Monde Arabe, a bunch of bookstores and publishers from around the corner on the Rue des Ecoles (l'Harmattan, Presence Africaine, le Livre Penseur...) but most especially Le Tiers Mythes, which magically always had exactly what I didn't know I was looking for, but there it was, with the proprietaire handing it to me, with his "take this, you need this..." Gotcha, every time.

So, I was hauling all these treasures around the airport from all my favorite bookstores. Not letting them go for a minute lest I lose track of them. Yah, obsessive. Guilty as charged.

And I wanted something to eat, so I dragged my bags downstairs to try to buy a sandwich. But the guy at the kiosk wouldn't sell me a sandwich cause all they had left was jambon/fromage. And I insisted that fine, that was okay with me, Mais non! He wouldn't sell me the treif. "C'est pas pour vous!" he scolded me. He was a conscientious Muslim.

So, I went back upstairs to the Gate and thought I'd sleep on the benches. When the Announcements started blaring about keeping track of your luggage or it would be confiscated.

And the gendarmes started wandering through with bayonets on the end of their rifles (or whatever they were), which seemed a bit excessive to me at CDG, don't you think?

And the Announcements got grouchier. Will the person who left a package in bla bla bla sitting area please come to claim it? And the gendarmes were heading my way. And the package was right next to me, not more than six feet away. And it was three in the morning, and there was hardly anyone else around.

I moved away from the package. The gendarmes closed in on it.

It was an old cardboard box, about 2' x 2' and had been taped clumsily. The gendarmes cordoned off the area despite the lack of people around, and by god, they shot the package! Right there in the Waiting Area. Not with the bayonets, but with something. And the package exploded.

With a teddy bear flying through the air. And bathroom towels. And underwear... and stuff like that.

And this woman came out of the restroom, holding the hand of a child. And it was quite obvious: it was just too damned hard to carry her cardboard box luggage and take her kid to the can all at the same time, at 3:00 AM when there was nobody around to bother her stuff.

And one of the gendarmes hauled her away.

And I went up to one of the gendarmes (still hauling around my duffle of books on wheels), and asked what was that about? Was that about the Israelis, I asked him, noticing at that time a sign for El Al nearby.

"Mais non!" he said, "that is about you." He switched to English.

"We are getting warnings all summer long about an attack on American carriers. And so we are watching. We are watching all the entire summer!" he said, glaring at me.

And I took notes on this, for some reason. What time I couldn't get a baguette jambon fromage. What time the Announcements started getting annoying. What time and how many bayonets. What time they blew up the teddy bear and towels. And what he said: Warnings. All. Summer. Long.

It was the end of August, 2001.

The airports in the States were quiet and lax and uneventful.

No bayonets. No frantic announcements. No blown up packages. Nothing at all.

I got home. Unpacked. Took a shower. And threw my notes away.

And didn't think the obvious question for another two weeks.