Saturday, December 31, 2011

gummy bear lessons in mothering

I'm pretty sure that gummy bears taught me some important strategies in mothering. Note, I did not say good mothering. But maybe it was good mothering. All I can say is it took my daughter about 22 years to figure out what I'd done.

And I'd do it again in a heart beat if needed. Still. It was deceptive, if not cruel.

Here's what happened.

I put my precious daughter in her stroller and we zoomed down the hill to the produce market around the corner. The one with all the ethnic woven baskets hanging out front and piles and piles of sweet smelling long-stems to choose from. And wheatgrass baskets. And a machine to juice your own wheatgrass right then and there. And bins of coarse-ground bulghur. And three kinds of couscous, including dark whole wheat (which nobody in their right mind in North Africa would ever eat). And kiwis and mangoes and papayas when they were available. And Acme sourdough baguettes that you put in long bags yourself.

And on the bottom row of bins were gummy bears. And gummy worms. And chocolate covered raisins. And dried cranberries.

And I was lingering admiring the bulghur and filling a bag full for dinner (with caramelized onions and simmered in stock and wine)—when I looked down in horror.

My precious daughter had a mouth overflowing with bright colored twisty gummy worms and two fists full of gummy bears, mostly neon reds and orange. She looked like a gummy medusa who'd just devoured her own snakes.

She looked up at me, sugar-rush not kicked in yet. Innocent big brown eyes that refused to be admonished. I mean, the bins were placed exactly at her level, right? They were put there purposefully to tempt her. What's more—she was in that developmental stage that's pre- right-and-wrong. Although that innocent look looked like she was working it.

This vision went through my head right then and there. A vivid picture of a fat (I mean super-fat), unhappy, acne-faced, caries-ridden teenage girl who was my daughter. And it was all my fault for not taking action right here and now. My daughter, I suddenly realized, had sugar-lust. And probably gummy-things were made of much worse than sugar.

And as I cleaned up the gummy mess as best I could, and paid for our Acme sourdough, tomatoes and avocados, a new vision came to me. A vision of rules.

Until that point, I'd been mothering without rules. My first-born son didn't seem to need any. He was (and remains) reasonable in all things large and small (with very few exceptions). I don't remember any rules with him at all.

Clean-up time, for example when those Brio trains covered the entire family room with little pieces of everything, clean-up time was simple. A game we played either by color-coding or by letters of the alphabet. And the carpet magically reappeared in its totality after a full day's disappearance.

Games like that never worked with my precious daughter.

But this was serious. That horrible vision required an intervention.

Walking back up the hill, the rules began to take shape and form all by themselves. And they weren't all about gummy-things.

The ice cream rule:  No ice cream unless it's over 85 degrees outside.

The hot chocolate rule: No hot chocolate unless you've been skiing all morning or afternoon.

The cookies rule: No cookies unless you (we) bake them yourself.

M & M's: Allowed in gorp (aka trail mix) along with nuts and raisins. One sandwich baggie allowed while hiking on the weekends.

Gummy bears and worms: I couldn't think of a reasonable rule at all. There was just never a reasonable time to eat gummy worms.

But wait. Halloween to the rescue to cover everything else:

Candy and crap of every persuasion: You may keep all your Halloween candy that fits into a large mason jar. That's the candy and crap for the year. Ration it as you will.

Here's the weird part: It worked.

My daughter became an expert at weather prediction. Eighty-five degrees is pretty hard to achieve when you live in the foggiest part of San Francisco. But it does happen for a day or two in late September, early October. And in the High Sierra where we'd go camping. There were a few hot days then as well. And she managed to get her rule's-worth of ice cream in each year.

And she became an avid skier. And snowboarder as well. Earning her hot chocolate.

The cookies we baked were really awful. That solved that one.

And almost nobody gave gummy bears for Halloween. That kinda took care of that.

The loophole: Playing at other kids' houses.  Precious daughter found the loophole pretty quick once she was post-stroller. But by then, the rules had pretty much been internalized.  Although she was still trying hard to control the weather. Global warming, however, has had little impact in the Inner Sunset. Look outside: it's as foggy as ever.

So. Here's the thing. Both kids embraced the Rules. My son, the-future-lawyer, devised trick questions to get the rules more precise:

"What if it's only 85 degrees for five minutes that day?"

Stuff like that.

We built up rules together. Amendments to rules. For some reason, the kids were okay with the rules. Especially given the loophole.

Results: First-born-lawyer runs the NYC marathon and is licensed as a personal trainer. Precious daughter and sometime vegetarian aspires to Vegan-hood at some point.

She was in her early twenties when she figured out how unfair it was.

I mean, she really had worked the weather angle really hard. And no matter what she did, we just didn't live in hot weather. Whereas her friends across town in the Mission, Noe Valley, or even Pac Heights—all had sun. And we didn't.

We were in NYC when she called me on it. Yes, I admitted. Yes, I knew those ice cream days were going to be few and far between.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you so much!" She was effusive.

Can you believe that?

And she meant it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

homeland finale's insanity

Okay, so I've been hooked on this show. Best thing on since Caprica got axed. Why am I hanging on every word, every scene? Because it's about the larger picture.  Sure, it's got good story, good characters, and a good time slot. But I've never been swayed by good characters. In fact, the more the focus on them, the more annoyed I seem to get.

I don't care about characters, really. I don't care what happens to them. Their petty little lives. I think this why I can't watch a show like Nurse Jackie or the one with Laura Linney about cancer, or that other one with William H. Macy.  Or, god forbid, Dexter. See. I remember the names, but the shows are close to unbearable to me.

They're just not important enough.

Then there are the shows that focus on character, but pretend to have a longer arc. That would be stuff like Bones or the Mentalist or Warehouse 13. Maybe Eureka (that pretends to be about science). I'm embarrassed to say that I check in with these shows to see if maybe this time they're worth the bother.  And no. They're just bleeping not.

They're entertainment, you say.  Right. Exactly. And I want them to be important. Treme important. But even Treme isn't large enough for me. I want the larger picture. La longue durée.  I mean, isn't there enough large going on in the world to ask TV to contemplate it with us, rather than hand us escape?

Maybe nobody else wants what I want out of scripted TV. Fiction lets us imagine possibilities that the news just can't provide. Lets us think about the real world in new ways. BSG and Caprica did this. And Homeland does it now.

But the season finale, and last scenes thereof, just pissed me off.

I am sick to death of the strong-woman-turns-to-blithering-needy-idiot scenario in movies and TV. And sure, I know, they'll revive Claire Danes character and make her strong again or else have no show at all. But still. Electric shock treatment?

I'm not even against it. I know it works. It doesn't Cuckoo Nest me at all. It can indeed jolt the recipient back into functionality.

And I'm not strictly speaking against the Cassandra storyline, as frustrating as it is.

Partly, it's that I remember the weeks before what we now call 9/11. I remember being at the CDG, wondering what all the security was about. And asking. In my nicest French.

"Is this about the Israelis?"

"Non," the gendarme with the bayonet said. "This is about you. You Americans."

He didn't say, you con Americans, but I heard it in his voice. Con is a very French vote of disapproval.

"We have gotten warnings all summer of an attack on your planes..."

All summer. Before 9/11.

And that's what Claire Danes' character deals with in Homeland. Episode after episode. Knowing. And having no effect at all. And not being able to stop the march of history. Or, not much, anyway. Or, having an effect (season finale) and never knowing that she's made a difference.

It works. The Cassandra thing. It makes for good TV. It makes for good real-life, too, I guess. Thinking or pretending that somewhere someone gets it.  Someone like Lawrence Wright, who got so much flack for writing The Siege. Read everything he writes that you can get your hands on.  Or Greg Palast. Cassandra indeed. With next to nobody listening who can make a difference.

Homeland's first season is filled with that frustration of knowing, or trying to know. Of doing one's homework. Of (quite literally) banging one's head against the wall. Of insights that are ignored. And (yet another) tough female character who's blithering and raving and helpless in her final scene.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

the ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny diet

I've been reading these amazing diet books, which could drive a man insane.  At the one extreme is Dukan (recommended reading from my daughter) and at the other extreme is Skinny Bitch, before which I'm probably the last person in America to stumble and fall.  Reading these two together is, as I said, completely crazy making.

But wait! There's anthropological distance!

So. I've decided, with all of my knowledge of 19th century unilinear social evolutionary false categories, to make up a diet of my own.  Clearly the field is wide open to all takers.  Oh. Don't worry. I know the name's a misnomer. But I like the sound of it better than Morgan's Unilineal Social Evolutionary Diet. Which is not as appetizing.

I call it the 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' diet.  Cookbook to follow.

And this is my first go at it, so you're welcome to add in your own two cents worth of sea salt (or whatever).

I've decided to make it Creationist-friendly. Who am I, after all, to discriminate?

So. This diet is seven days long. And then repeat.  This should keep you in touch with either the evolutionary process or Creation, take your pick.  On the seventh day you can rest.  Just wait and see.  (And please note, this is right off the top. No edits. Not yet).

Day One—Gather:  On the first day, you may eat what has fallen from the trees and bushes and shrubs.  We haven't even invented hunting yet. We're barely even scavengers of the carnivorous beasts yet. Still too dangerous. We're pre-hunting-and-gathering, being of the gathering-only persuasion.  No fire. So don't cook.

Note that I'm not saying on Day One eat eggs and on Day Two eat frogs.

Day Two—Scavenge: On this day, we commemorate our vast leap into the realm of following the big predators and eating their left-overs. This includes sucking out left-over bone marrow, and sucking on bones.  We've managed fire. Yay us. So. Take that stuff you're still gathering. Add the bones. And a bunch of flavored grasses (like chives...), as well as the miracle of salt, and appreciate soups today. And the acquired taste of stuff thrown into fire.

Day Three—Huntin' an fishin': Oh, how we've progressed! Now we kill things. And boy, with that invention of fire, have we gotten a sweet-tooth for it. So. Pig out. Literally. Catch your limit and don't throw any back. Wrap those trout in bacon (something I've recently learned from my favorite hunting-and-fishing family in the world) and stick 'em on the grill.  Throw on some roasted almonds. More of those chives and a sprinkle of sea-salt. Enjoy the innocence of killing for food. A shame the killing part got so addictive.

Day Four—Horticulture:  It's an early stage of growing stuff.  Really early. As in, plunk it in the ground, go off still hunting and fishing. Come back a season later, and voilà!  Manioc! That you get to beat with a stick and leach out the bad stuff. And then wow, the possibilities are endless. And not just tapioca pudding.
Oh, but now we've got the taste for the really starchy stuff.

Day Five—Agriculture: Which first started out pretty good until we decided to make everything refined and white.  So. On this the fifth day, you can have your cake and eat it too. Just today and not tomorrow. All the home-baked breads and pies and cakes that you can imagine. This is the stage Real Estate agents love. They trick home buyers who just can't resist.  Cinnamon rolls baking in the oven!

Note that Jacob and Esau play this dietary battle out. The competition between hunter/gatherer's stage (roasted meat and lentils) and agrarian diet (pita and hummus, with baklava for dessert). In case you don't remember, Jacob (agriculture) wins. Esau is hypoglycemic which leads (it's a long story why) to his losing his birthright. Jacob (agriculture) not only wins, but gets an additional prize: to be renamed 'Israel'. But that's another story.

Day Six—Chemicals: If you're not totally revolted by the deterioration of your evolutionary recapitulation yet, this is the day for you. For now, we've invented better living through chemistry. Additives. God, how we've evolved! Twinkies! If you're gonna go out and commit a crime, do it on Day Six and call it a sugar/carb/additive overload.

Day Six might feel like the pinnacle of the evolutionary process in your week's recapitulation, but no. Day Seven is always what it's about.

Day Seven—Cholent: Here it is. The Sabbath.  Mom's authentic antidote to the entire week slowly drying out in the oven. Not to worry. It's kosher. Cholent and chicken soup will make you long to start the week all over again. Long for nothing more than picking dried cranberries off the kitchen counter. Or dipping into the dry-roasted almond jar. Simple fare, you're longing for. Realizing not that we've come a long way, baby, but that all we really want to do is return to simpler days and simple pleasures.

That's it. That's all I've got. A good meditation on what it really means to be human, and how hard we've worked to get here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

procrastination makes the heart grow warmer

Let's see now. I've gone to a holiday party. That for sure counts as major and desperate procrastination. I've  spent hours searching for the perfect set of specs. Oh. And a perfect pair of socks. I've watched worse than bad TV on the tube, almost puking my guts out over 'Christmas Specials.' I ate leftover Thanksgiving pumpkin ice-cream. Blech. You'd think I'd be ready to sit down and grade the effing term papers by now, but no. Oh. Here I am writing about procrastinating.

Let's take them in order:

Spectacles: Do you know how many eyeglass frames there are out there? This alone should be enough to procrastinate well into Retirement when I won't need any more excuses. I found a company I like called Mykita. Had fun reading more about the internal fights between the founders of the company, and their philosophy on Asian nose bridges than searching for the perfect pair. Further procrastination: finding a place in San Francisco that covers Mykita (there were two retro frames I actually liked). And then a whole evening in the Castro and Noe Valley— Funny that opticians here are open very late. This seems to be an evening entertainment in the City. For first dates? Nothing else to talk about? Procrastination? Oh. Let's look at spectacles.  I found Spectacles for Humans looking like it was closed. But no, I think they were just saving energy. There was a parking space, so we went in. We talked Mykita. We talked the Ukraine. We talked Zeiss mostly. I've been looking for frames for almost two years. Mostly in procrastination season. Dmitri showed me the exactly perfect set of frames. I spent almost $700 in one night of not grading papers. They weren't Mykita.

Socks: The socks were at least cheaper, but they weren't cheap. This bit of procrastination only wasted about an hour and a half, but it was well worth it.  And, in my own defense, it wasn't my fault we walked into Any Mountain—a place I'm generally too snobby to set foot in, what with Marmot down the block one way, and REI down the road the other way. T was looking at shoes. Blame him. Or, thank him for another hour's diversion.  There were three different sections carrying socks. Oh. Why did I need socks in the first place? I gave my cushy thick socks to my precious daughter, who's working on a film in the cold and snow of Vermont.  So. Hiking socks: boring. Skiing socks: wow. Did you know that skiing socks have built in shin guards? I found a couple pairs I thought might keep me warm. Oh, but then! The snowboarding socks! Brilliant and perfect in every way. Cushy, with the most outrageous sense of humor I've ever seen in real live functional socks. I picked up a pair of chicken feet. And I'm going back for more. The best gift ever! And good for hours more procrastination, given that I bought the last pair at AM.

Christmas effing Specials: My brain is surely mush by now.  And here, it's not my fault. I thought the new season of Eureka and Warehouse 13 had started up. But no, just utter and total Christmas crap that doesn't even fit in with where the season left off. If it weren't for the procrastination value, I'd boycott these shows forever more, not being the forgiving type. But. Credit for two wasted hours not spent grading.

What happened to the good old days, when I spent not-grading-papers painting the house? Or getting tattoos? Or belly dance for the very-very-timid. God I've become an indolent slug.

Ice-cream: This was just sheer self-loathing, I think, at all the procrastination. Self-punishment of the worst kind: leftover pumpkin ice-cream from Thanksgiving still in the freezer. Revolting. And only worth 15 minutes procrastination time. The function of the ice-cream was somehow supposed to make me brave enough to go to the holiday party. If you understand the logic there, be sure to let me know.

The holiday party: Something under normal circumstances I avoid like the plague. What was I thinking? But my good friend, O, the most tolerant friend a friend could have, did the driving and got me out of there when the music started blaring. Whew. Along with the bad-TV antidote, this bit of procrastination was worth about 6 hours, and by then, of course, it was too late to start grading. I got to bed late, and—

Read a book curled up in bed: Which is worth the rest of the night and the next morning. Which means that after walking Rosh at Fort Funston, it is now almost 4:00 PM on Sunday, and I have yet to pick a single paper.

No more excuses! Time is just plain running out now.

But first:

A cup of tea...
Oh. And maybe I should work off that ice-cream first...

Saturday, December 3, 2011

breaking dawn part one — the good, the bad, and the very very bad

Now that the crowds have calmed down, we went to see Breaking Dawn—Part One.  And this turned out to be the perfect night to see it.  The audience was fairly up in arms...

But first, here's a review of Breaking Dawn—Part One, in no particular order:

The pregnancy:  blurry, with crackling sounds. Stephanie Meyer really gets pregnancy. The movie doesn't.

Vampire-'werewolf' fights:  blurry, without crackling sounds.

Vampire-human sex: blurry, with feathers.

Telepathic shape-shifting wolves: noisy, but drowned out by audience laughter.

The wedding: gorgeous but with sappy music and way too much dizzy camera gushy stuff.

Jacob: not as annoying as usual. Maybe because he keeps his shirt on most of the time.

The Cullens: crappiest distracting white makeup and hair to date.

The lovely couple: doing their best, I suppose, given what they've got to work with.

Soundtrack//songs: Too schmaltzy for words and bounced the audience out.

Okay, but the movie itself wasn't the most interesting part.

The best part was standing in line for the Women's Restroom after the movie. Which tonight was totally packed. There were two hostile camps of young women. Those who'd read all the books (or listened to them) and those who had not read the books. They shouted and screamed at each other, but managed not to rip each others' hair out.  One camp expected the movie to be well-made, comprehensible, and gratifying. The other camp couldn't care less, because they could fill in the blanks from their reading the books numerous times. Both camps were pretty yucked out by pregnancy. And that's probably a good thing.

Consensus: Sucky music. Very sucky wolves. Suckiest wolf voices. And most of all, not enough vampire-human (safe?) sex rather than just noisy smooching.

But these are things that can be fixed.

My advice: get back to the editing room until you people get it right. How hard could that be?

So. You're wondering. What then was the good part?

The good part is that the story is important.  Stephanie Meyer depicts—and the movie attempts to address—the transference of allegiance from the gooeyness of romantic love to the ferocity of partum and maternal love, all of which comes down to biologically triggered hormonal madness.  I mean, who writes about that shift for young, purely romance-driven girls? It's something they now get to talk about. Or scream about in the Women's Restroom.

It's just not a very pretty sight on screen.

Post-mortem: If done right, the descent of Bella in Breaking Dawn Part One into oxytocin-spiked spine-ripping self-sacrifice should be redeemed by her grande post-partum/postmortem empowerment in Part Two.  Those who can't stand Bella's current apparent lack of agency will just have to wait till next year till she comes into her own.

Either that, or pick up the books and read. It's a hell of a lot more gratifying.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

the MILF story

I'm shockingly ignorant. It appears everyone knows this term but me. Even my daughter (I've heard tell) has referred to someone as MILFy. Not in front of me of course, but I have it on good authority.

So. I was away for the weekend down the road from Asilomar with a friend. Long walks. Books to read. More long walks. Papers to avoid grading. Paper to write for the Anthropology meetings in Montréal. Scrabble. Birthday (hers) dinner. More long walks.

We had a nice dull time of it. Didn't even go on pilgrimage down to Big Sur. Not even Carmel. And only once to Monterey. And that's what we were there to do: nothing.

But after a while, nothing needs a little help.

The traditional nothing to do is, of course TV and the movies. And there was a big screen in the room. The typical number of choices: never enough. Never what you're looking for. Never what you feel like watching.

The point being, really, that we didn't agree on what to watch. But it was either TV or grade more papers. Or play more Scrabble. Or—

I suggested it.

She, of course, was horrified.

Being an anthropologist, you can justify just about anything as research.  So. Call it research rather than utter boredom or avoidance of work. But I took over the remote and checked out the Adult Movie Selections.

And it was nothing but MILF.

I mean, what the hell was that?  The teaser pictures on each selection was not any help in trying to figure it out.

Did M stand for 'male' and F stand for 'female'?  If so, I tried to work out what the letters in-between might mean.

Male Israeli Lebanese Female?

That's all I could come up with. Okay, that would be my mind not in keeping with the American wet dream. We were both completely mystified.

But wait!  I had my computer with me. The computer I was working on to finish up the conference paper.

"Don't use that!" she said. "You could end up with a virus on your computer!"

Yikes. A sexually transmitted disease attacking my computer? That would be a bad thing.

I picked up my iPhone instead.  Somehow feeling that Apple would protect the sacred little hand job object. And I looked up MILF.

No way. No possible way. No, no, no, no NO!

It just didn't seem possible.  Every porn site in a mainstream coastal 'resort' was MILF?  That was the part that got me.  The category just went on and on and on on the TV in our room—and there weren't any other choices.

We watched Helen Mirren do tough-old-ganster in something unforgettable.

But at least it wasn't another Scrabble game.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

OMG, I'm just like my mother!!

I'm looking for one of those little yellow faces that shows absolute horror, but couldn't find one to express today's just plain awful epiphany.  And yah, every once in a while a friend (or daughter) will tell me I'm just like my mother. And I always chalk it up to that they're pissed about something. Usually about not getting their way about something.  But no, apparently that's not it. Or that's not all of it.

Today I discovered that my friends (and daughter) were being descriptive.  I am like my mother. I could see it today.

I almost cracked up the car when I I finally got it. I was driving. I was driving my mom. And I took a different route back to her house, trying to make the way more familiar, because she's been losing her way of late.

When we got to College Ave things started to look familiar to her.

"That nail salon," she said. "They're unclean. They give you fungus."

I shuddered.

"That bookstore," she said. "They don't have high quality books. I don't go there."

She commented on just about every business we passed. The ones she recognized, anyway.

"Filippo's," she said with a scowl at her usual favorite neighborhood restaurant. "Not up to par."

And on and on it went, until at last we had turned on Ashby and the Elmwood neighborhood shopping area was past us.

I do that, I thought.

Not the same way, of course.  I've got excuses for the nonstop negativity.

"Protection against the evil eye," I say.  Can't say something good because something terrible will happen.

But it amounts to the same thing. One negative statement after another.  What a drag I must be to be around. Or at the very least, exhausting.

Which is weird, because I actually think the world is filled with beauty and not just shit. I see beauty. I strive for it. I'm filled with awe this time of year at the fall colors on the Berkeley trees. Giant bouquets of reds and yellows and browns. God I love Berkeley in the fall.

And I don't, as I drive, say: "well it's not Vermont. Vermont does this so much better." I never say that. I don't even think it. I'm immersed in the beauty of the world.


I recognize the onslaught of negative thinking. And I'm vowing to pay attention to it.

Lately, I've been saying the positive bits much more than the negative.  Especially the ultimate faux pas:

I'm happy.
Not sure I ever said that one out loud before, but I've been saying it of late.  Tempting the fates, as it were. Because I really and truly do believe that talking about one's good fortune is the kiss of death. Possibly quite literally.  Does NLP help reprogram the brain on this one? Does psychoanalysis? Not that I plan on trying either one. But I could read about it. Think about it.

Meanwhile. Horrors.

Oh, but wait. No. I take that back.

Meanwhile. I'm happy.

And that means—

But let's leave it right there.

mourning mourning

At a certain point, I suppose, one just gets sick of the whole damned enterprise. And that's the time to step back and write a paper about it. Which we did. And presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Montréal. We just got back. The presentation went really well. Maybe a little too well. It was good to step back and take stock and have something academic to say about the one year experiment.

But this is what I'd say here:

Our Kaddish in Two-Part Harmony was not just a success, it was a grand failure as well.  We set up rules to mourn by—and broke all the rules that really counted.  Maybe if we'd stuck to our guns, we'd still be in mourning-mode today. But instead of immersing in our sorrows and staying there, our sorrows lifted. And after a while, impossible as it seems to me, the sorrow's just plain gone. I mean, is that fair?

Not that that means that we don't miss our dearly departed. No, not that. But we're no longer in mourning.

And I kinda feel guilty about that.  I've put those photos away. I've stopped lighting candles. I no longer say kaddish unless I'm coerced.  The loss is there, but it's not the same black cloud looming overhead. And worst of all: I'm just plain happy. We both are.

Now what kind of mourning project is that?

So. What it tells me is that ritual works. It does the job if you stick to it on a daily basis. And just that doing, day after day, is enough to do the trick.  For us, it did the trick a month early. We were both ready to stop. Stop and move on. But my Kaddish partner is better at keeping on than I am. And because of her, we'll finish the year's experiment in formal mourning on November 27th. Will it feel any different then than it does now?

The main problem is that I've been happy.  Now what kind of mourning is that? And as a result, I haven't written a single word in a month. Except for the paper we presented at the AAA Conference.  But not a word on our blogs. Almost as if writing and unhappiness go together, which has to be absurd, right? Or a very bad habit.

For one month, it's been analysis rather than wallowing in death and dying.

But now, it's time to switch gears. And I can feel those gears heading into some new, strange, and dangerous territory...

Friday, October 21, 2011

a kaddish for qaddafi. of sorts.

This one is reposted from kaddish in two-part harmony, but maybe it belongs here as well, what with all the Ibn Khaldun and thoughts about current uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Comments are welcome at either site.

I feel like I'm supposed to write a kaddish for Qaddafi. And I'm having a lot of trouble doing so. What I want to do is defend him somehow. Say that he's been maligned for decades. Tell you about the jokes Tunisians (Libya's neighbors to the the west) used to tell about Qaddafi, all the way back in the 1970's...

In those days, Tunisians used to sneak over the border 'basbor de-la-lune' into Libya to work. They'd cross over at night, their passports being nothing but the light of the full moon. Qaddafi put people to work. Even Tunisians.
In Tebourba, people said that just working in a cafe in Libya brought home more money than anything they could do back home.  And so they'd go. And they'd stay until they'd made their fortune. Two years. Five years. And then they'd come home briefly, bearing massive gifts. Sewing machines and heaters. Fancy fuzzy carpet and grandfather clocks. Electric fans and electric ovens. Even if the electricity couldn't handle it. They brought the hope of employment and wealth. And then they'd be gone again. To bring back more.
Tunisians used to joke that Qaddafi gave everyone a car and everyone a house.  Every Libyan, that is. And that Libya was so rich, that when the car ran out of gas, they'd just abandon it right where it stood. Libya was that rich.  It was a very Tunisian joke. Tunisia was surrounded by rich neighbors, and their humor was the worst kind of self-deprecating.
Until last year. When Tunisia led the way.
And then the neighbors followed.
Qaddafi was killed today.
And the media is still making jokes about him. How ludicrous he was. The crimes he perpetrated. Remember when Reagan called Qaddafi a 'Barbarian and a rat fink'?  It was headline in the SF Chronicle way back when. Today, even NPR still felt the need to joke about Qaddafi's hats, his ego, and his tent. The media has enjoyed decades of making him look clownish and stupid. A country bumpkin who ended up in power. Although, he never did hold any official title beyond 'colonel.'
My favorite Qaddafi story is when some Minister in Tunisian President Bourguiba's cabinet handed him an edict, and the first president of the republic signed it, sight unseen. Only to discover that he'd just given his country away. To Qaddafi.  Under the edict, Bourguiba would stay president of the newly combined nation, and Qaddafi would head the military.
When Bourguiba realized his mistake, the story goes, he threw the Minister in prison for a while, and went on national TV.
"I'm an old man," President Bourguiba said, "and someone took advantage of me."
Tebourbis told me this story. They loved this story.
And then Bourguiba—right there on the tube in front of his entire nation—admitted that he'd made a mistake.
He picked up the edict in his two hands, held it up for all to see, and tore it to pieces. Khalass. No more treaty.
God, that was simple.
And that was the difference between the two North African leaders.
Qaddafi tried to merge Libya with Egypt, too. And Chad, as well. It just never seemed to take.
I was once in Chad when Qaddafi was visiting N'Djemena. As we traveled south from the capital, the tribesmen were riding north to pay him homage.  Thirty five years later, he still had sub-Saharan and even Tuareg allegiance, even in recent days. He desired a greater Maghrebi union. And believed that kings and royalty were anachronistic in the modern age. That the Middle East and North Africa should let go of monarchy already. For himself, no title, just rule. Seems he was more opposed to titles than despotism.
Long live the revolution. That's what Qaddafi used to say.
But if the rest of the world is holding its collective breath for the blossoming democratic institutions any time soon, you can say kaddish for that one starting right now.
Yes, I know. You're sick of my invoking Ibn Khaldun. But there it is. A prediction of yet another oscillation of elites. The 'Arab Spring' may well be an upheaval against a generation of despotic rulers across the Middle East and North Africa. But expect preexisting opposition factions, parties, and leaders-in-exile (or prison) to step into power vacuum more than democratic proceedings.
But if democratic institutions somehow miraculously do flourish one day—thank this eager new generation (with their cell phones, smart phones, social networks) for finally doing what every generation before them could not manage. Keep in mind how the 'Arab Spring' started. In Tunisia. With one young man. Underemployed, and bureaucratically hampered. One young man with no future at all.
Unemployment of a plugged in hip new generation. Linked in to global scene. Aware of options and lack of options. No movement, uprising, or revolution has solved that one at all.  Not anywhere. Not even here.
The next leader and government of Libya is going to have to do at least one thing that Qaddafi did. He—or she—is going to have to somehow put this next generation to work.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

call me daddy — day one in the foster home

Malkah was two. Or maybe three. Or somewhere inbetween. I don't remember. I only remember one thing about that moment. And that would be the door.

The door was huge. And the adults who answered the door seemed huge as well. Malkah had been taught, I guess, her politesse. She was dressed as well as she could be. She was soft spoken and polite.

The door opened. And so she said,

"Hello Mr and Mrs S—" and the two of them loomed over her from inside.

The door opened wide enough for her to step inside.  I think she had a little bag of stuff with her. A change of clothes, probably.

The house smelled funny. Not bad, just funny. Unfamiliar.  Later Malkah would identify that smell as cooking smells. But I don't remember what.  So. Smells, the first impression. That's more the point.

The door closed with a decisive click.

And he smacked her one. Loud and hard, right across the face.

"That's for not calling me 'daddy,'" he said.

He glared down at her. His jowls had turned bright red.

Here's what I wonder.

I wonder if anyone had bothered to tell her what was about to happen.

I wonder if she had any idea of how long she would be staying.

I wonder if she had visitors.

And most of all—

I wonder what that first day must have felt like.

All I know, is that after dinner the whole extended 'family' went into the living room to watch TV.  Papa bear sat in his big overstuffed arm chair. That was the only thing that Malkah noticed. The only thing that mattered.

She found in her hand a giant pair of scissors.

Quietly, she slipped behind Mr. S's chair and sat on the floor behind him.  She grabbed a handful of her long dark hair.

And started cutting.

A memory.

The sound of cutting. Soothing and safe.

Until the yelling started all over again. And the smacking. And the burning.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

the retirement

They live on a large island on the west coast. Of Norway. Population 3,500. It's got panoramic vistas of the water in every direction. No high rises. Even the few new houses look sleepy and old.  Wooden houses, right up to the rocks and the water. It looks very very quiet. But they've got a little boat and they go fishing. And if the cat gets lost, there's an animal-man who can conjure kitty home.

If there were any woods, I'd say it was very back woods. But there aren't any. There are just neighbors not too close, and a market you can walk to. Though you wouldn't want to hike back with a heavy load of groceries.  Retired, remember. So, yes. They have a car.

So. They live in this remote, idyllic place. The kind of place I tend to dream of.

And then there's Thailand.

They've been to Thailand thirteen, fourteen times. They're hooked on Thailand.

And they've been to Disneyland. The one in Florida.

And they've been to Spain. And France. And Turkey.

But mostly, it's Thailand.

"What did you used to do?" I asked.

"I worked for a big company. Service."

I'm not sure what that means. And it didn't get any clearer.

They were animated and delightful and energetic. Got in almost at midnight last night. Their host had started to worry. But they'd been to a million places that I myself had never been to in my own city. Truth be told, I know nothing about what-to-do-or-see in my own town.

I've decided that Norwegian is an impossible language. It appears to be composed of mostly slurry vowels.  I can't get a grasp on a single word without some major explication.

I've decided that remote idyllic islands might not be something I should dream about, at least not for moving to in case of actual retirement. I mean, here they are living in Paradise, wishing it weren't quite so cold, and traveling abroad as much as possible.

Actually, they're having the time of their lives.  Visiting places like my home town.

And I've been invited to their remote island.  And sure, I accept, how could I not?  And maybe I will master some of those slurry Norwegian vowels. And maybe I'll go fishing upon that quiet sea. Maybe I'll walk down the path to their painterly water's edge—

Only to discover that I live where I'm supposed to. Only to find that I'm doing what I should.

But there it was, for a brief moment, right in front of me: Two people. With no papers to grade.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

from AIPAC, with love

My mom gets all this AIPAC mail.

"Dear friend," it reads —

The word 'Nazi' doesn't appear until the third line, just before the word 'annihilation.'

The word 'Holocaust' doesn't appear until the next paragraph (a whole line further down from the above).

A tragedy is revealed. A tragedy, I suppose, that if enough people had been paying attention, if enough people had been donating money, perhaps, maybe, possibly — tragedy could have been averted.

But that's if you're reading the 'Dear Friend' missive, which is the most subtle part of AIPAC mail.

What hits you hard over the head every single time you open one of these mailings—are the maps.  Large enough to post on your bulletin board.  Sturdy enough to use for school.

Map One is titled: Israel and its Neighbors. Oh my, how shocking, the map screams out.  Poor little David to the Goliath that surrounds.  This is more effective visually in that the map starts with Morocco and goes all the way to Iran.  Look at all those Arabs, ouch!  Be paranoid, the map tells you. Be very very afraid.  The caption on the bottom reads:

Israel is surrounded by Arab nations and Iran. These countries outnumber Israel more than 650 to 1 in terms of land and 56 to 1 in terms of population.

Map Two is titled: The Iranian Missile Threat.  And it's another high-drama map, this time with looming Iran in the middle almost 3D on the page. In darker color is the range that Iran could strike if it just felt like it.  Gee whiz, all the way to India, though India's not the point.   This map's caption says:

Iran has ballistic missiles that can carry a nuclear or chemical warhead a distance of 1,500 miles. Tehran is developing missiles that could reach the United States.

There are two more scary maps.  I'll spare you. But way at the bottom is the following disclaimer, which I think is hilarious:

These maps are for illustrative purposes only and do not imply any views regarding future agreements between Israel and its neighbors.

Is that a peace threat?  God forbid Israel should have good relations with the neighbors. I mean, what would AIPAC do then to raise big bucks?

When I was a kid, the approach was radically different.

Plant trees, we were told.  Plant trees in the Holy Land. Make it flourish, make it thrive.  We'd buy little leaf-stamps and put them on our own little poster trees. And when each leaf was paid for, we knew our tree would be planted. And that someday we'd see our tree.

It was a hopeful pitch. And I like it much better.

Even the neighbors can sit under my tree. And be shaded from the heat. And eat from its fruit.

That's planting trees. Not pulling ancient groves up from their roots. For security purposes.

Offer me to plant trees, AIPAC, and I'm happy to comply. Even the Occupied Territories could use more trees...

Thursday, September 29, 2011


It doesn't seem like over thirty years but apparently it is.  I can't say that I've known him all that time.  I can merely say that we've had the same abbreviated  conversation for probably about that long. Ritualized. Mumbling. Not really checking in. Rote. Playing our roles. Routinized.

But sometime this past year something changed.  Is it that he looked up or that I did? Not sure.

"You're that doctor," he said, actually looking in my eyes.  "Wait, don't tell me ..."

I waited. But the line was going to get restless.

"Anthropologist," I said.


And the conversation for a few months went like that—

"Wait, don't tell me—"

I'd wait.

"Archaeologist?" he'd say.

Close enough.

And after all these years of mumbled, "debit or credit?" the conversation took a turn at the check out line.

Slowly, I learned that he had been a history major at San Francisco State. That what he loved most was history. And that he had over three hundred history books in his apartment. And that he spent four to five hours a day reading.

"I have a book for you," I'd say. But invariably I'd left it in the car. And thought it obnoxious to go back out to get it. And then at a certain point, not standing it any longer, Rh cleaned out the back of my car — and I couldn't find the book.  Still can't.  But I've got another copy.

So. Today's conversation took another turn.

"Archaeologist?" he said — after we went through the preliminaries.

"Close enough. Anthropologist."

"Right," he said.

"I still have that book for you—"

"Today's my last day," he said.  "After thirty-three years, I'm retiring!"

"Mazel tov," I said, realizing that was culturally inappropriate. "Congrats," I said. And "yikes— I still have that book for you—"

I ran home with my four bags of groceries and left them in the car.  I scoured the garage. No Ibn Khaldun.  The one I wanted to give him was pristene. I'd given it to bio-father about thirty-five years ago. It had never been opened. And yet Al-Muqaddimah is one of the most profound takes on world history that ought to be read in the West.  It was written in 1377, and — and you're probably sick of hearing me talk about it.

Scoured upstairs as well. All I could find was my own home edition of Al-Muqaddimah. You know, the one with all the paper clips, stickies and underlining.  It was sitting on top of the three volume edition that I hold as close to sacred as I can manage.

I took a breath, and grabbed my own copy. And headed back to Andronico's.  He still had five more hours before leaving the grocery forever. Yet still, the line before his register seemed as endless as it did every single time I'd stood in it.  Wow. In a few more hours, no more Mark! But the uncaring line would pile up anyway.

I handed him the book.

"Do you want it back?" he asked, noting the clips and stickies.

"No, keep it," I said, hoping that my notes might help.  I realized suddenly that he too might not read it, just as biofather had not. But that the notes might help him engage and make it more user-friendly.

"It's written in 1377," I added, hoping that would help.

"A primary source!" he said.

And he beamed.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

cut off kid on extreme left

I don't have a date for it.  I don't remember it. I don't know who gave me the photograph. Probably T who found it among the last remnants of my dad's stuff. But there it is in black and gray and white. A telling photo circa early 1950s.

The kids look like the seven dwarfs lined up in a line that surely lasted no longer than it took the photographer to snap the picture over and over and over again until they just couldn't stand it any longer.

Starting from the right, there's:

Pretty: The adorable little 7 year old dwarf holding one of the two piggy banks for this obviously staged kid-tzedakah Zionist Kodak moment.  And then there's:

Fatty: No more than 8 years old, but with a well defined double chin and bushy hair not quite tamed by her mother's desperate and likely painful comb. My guess is that her parents are both Holocaust survivors. She's got that overfed precious-child next generation look. And then there's:

Nosy: Looking over her shoulder to the end of the line, at me, it turns out.  I don't remember this at all. Not one face rings a bell. This one's got a superior look on her face, but I could be wrong.  Pretty, Fatty, and Nosy curiously all have the same little ribbon-tie peaking out of the collar on their blouses. Is this called style for little kids in the early '50s? And then there's:

Sharpie: The only dwarf looking straight at the camera, as if to say WTF are we doing here? Of all of these kids, I imagine that she's done by far the best. Become a journalist, maybe. Or more likely a social worker. Which was de rigeur for 1950s Jewish girls who grew up and wanted to work.

Who are these people? Were we a class? Or just Zionist guinea pigs taught that it was our duty to give give give to the Zionist enterprise.

The sign in the back says Keren Ami which means 'The Fund for my Nation' — and a bunch of coins are spread about the table in front, clearly emptied from one of the two piggy banks.  There's a male teacher (or something) standing benevolently in the back with his arms around all the lovely dwarfs, save one.  He has a pencil moustache and looks a lot like Walt Disney, only Jewish.

The next dwarf is a boy dwarf:

Goody-Goody: The tallest of the dwarfs. He stands there looking older, maybe 9 or 10, leaning on the table with his fabricated smile plastered on his face—like he could hold (or maybe has been holding) that pose all afternoon as the photographer tried to capture something print worthy. And next to him, another boy dwarf:

Clueless: Tabula rasa of the lobotomized sort on his round little 6 year old face. This little dwarf has got an actual suit jacket on, and a white shirt with cufflinks.  He's one of the two littlest ones. Him—and the last little dwarf next to him on the left. This photo shoot must have been a dress up affair. Somebody actually cared.  Looks to me like the little dwarfs had been told to look their best. Or rather, their parents had been told.

And that leaves the last little dwarf.

She's the one not encompassed by the arms of the Disney grown-up.

She's apart. Other. Like the others, dressed up for this moment by her mother. Evidence: The done-up knotted scarf around her neck— but not the same kind Pretty, Fatty, and Nosy have on. And instead of light colors, she's been done up in darkness.  And on the way far left is this last little dwarf, and who (in shock) I recognize to be a 6 year old me. But here, we'll call her:

Downer: This little dwarf has eyes of resignation. And there's that wholly recognizable melancholic mouth. Not even trying. Her hands are folded around each other dutifully set—but in her right hand, she clutches a tiny envelope. Her tzedakah offering for the piggy bank, which is for the Keren Ami, which is for the building up of the Zionist entity. And the indoctrination of little Zionist children. And little Downer dwarf has the look of utter despair on her dark little face and her deep little eyes. Unable to attempt pretense—in that sense, just like all the others.

And so there they are in the photo, starring—from right to left—the seven little dwarfs, six of whom are enveloped by the warm embrace of the Disneyesque indoctrinator into the faith:

Pretty, Fatty, Nosy,  Sharpie, Goody-Goody, Clueless, and Downer.

And written in pencil on the back of the photo is:

                                           Cut off kid on extreme left.
And that would be me.

And of them all, I know only what happened to me, know only what I've become. Professional Other. Woman in Black. Professional Mourner in a Kaddish in Two-Part Harmony.  Morose little Downer that I am— The unenveloped kid to be cut off on the extreme left.

And I'm okay with that. It's somehow fitting, somehow just and right.

I don't have a date for it. Don't remember it. But this snapped moment captures us all midstream in the delicate art of becoming.  Or perhaps we always were, and never changed at all.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

god forbid you should have a good time

Does this happen to you? It happens to me every single time — and I can't seem to ever remember that it does. And then (for some reason) I'm actually surprised by it. And then mad at myself for being surprised. Because (after all) I should have expected it. It happens every time, right?

The point being that I should just never take actual vacations. Not even a weekend's worth. And definitely not at my favorite place in the world (apart from the Sahara), and that would be Big Sur.

This time it was a camping trip with the new girlfriend. I'd made reservations for this camping spot long before I'd even met the new girlfriend, that's how determined I was to take a couple days off.  Don't get me wrong, I DID bring work with me. Papers to grade, because it's already that season. So. I felt pretty protected from god forbid having too much of a good time.

Unfortunately, I had a good time.

More than a good time.

And when the weekend was over and I got home — there was a flood in the garage. And no, I won't describe it.

So. Instead of taking that well-needed post-camping shower, I got out the good plunger and worked at the drain in the garage.  After about an hour, the flood subsided, but not enough to proclaim it cured.  After all, this has happened before. After a trip to Paris (for work, of course) and some other trip I don't remember, except that I had fun. Fun being the operative word that brings down the waterworks chez moi.

I'd been warned the last time or two that the sewer pipes (like the water line before it) was in far from stellar condition.  The house is, after all, over a hundred years old.  The pipes may or may not be original, but they're old. And ceramic. And broken. They've been at war with the tree roots out front for decades. I've observed their war up close and personal when I had to replace my water line.

So. Was I surprised at the diagnosis? No. Sticker shock, yes.  Half my savings, down the drain — literally.

Is there a point at which everything that can go wrong will already have done so, and I can go away for two days of camping in the dirt and smoke and pretend I'm relaxing, and not come back to some portion of my 1907 cottage having a little shit fit?

Is it just bad timing? Am I unconsciously going on vacation exactly at the time my house most needs my attention? Is my house really a big furry cat who needs to make a fuss every single time I go away? Or am I supposed to go away more often in order to train it?

I'm pretty sure that if I'd had a crappy time, I would have come home to an intact house.  I'm pretty sure it's the fun my house is complaining about.  I'm pretty sure. But I just can't prove it. The experiments are just too costly.

All I know, is that next time I plan a trip just for fun, I'm going to sneak off and not tell my house at all.

Except that now, with a broken sewer line, there's not going to be a next time any time soon.

This has all happened before. And it will all happen again.  Just when we're the most decadent. The cylons attack.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The INTP — INTJ interface

I'm completely unfamiliar with the Myers-Briggs inventory, but have friends who use these blasted initials all the time to explain what on earth is going on between people (or between them and me). Another model.  And, well, I am a model-junkie.  Any model that helps explain human behavior is okay in my book, as long as it doesn't pathologize everything in sight.  Insight, however, is welcome.

And as a result of my first contact and thinking (of course, thinking, what else would it be) about the model and four-letter reductionism, I came up with (not intentionally) my first joke ever.

INTP:  I don't know what I feel —

INTJ:  I don't know why I'm crying —

Both:  Let's analyze it!

This, essentially, (in slightly more words, pretty much) was real (so I guess I didn't make it up).  But I do recognize that it is funny, at least.  Which keeps it from being tragic, perhaps.

Or not.  The point is, I now believe that it's just not so terrible to not know what you're feeling or why you're feeling it.  With the help of Myers-Briggs, I can now just think of it as 'just' another pattern worth exploring.  No pathology. No self-recrimination. No blaming the other.

Just something to explore.

And another came to me about this Myers-Briggs thing, apart from worrying that I might have spelled it wrong.  And that is:

Why are all my friends Introverts?

That part kind of sucks.

I'll have to analyze it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

gone fishing: excuses for september

Here's a list of the September blog posts that haven't made it here for one reason or another.  I'm not sure if it's downright laziness or too much sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Or if it's about being all blogged-out. Or if it's because of some existential malaise. Or if I can blame it all on the new-girlfriend, or lack of sleep, or generalized ennui, or — back to laziness.  I don't think it's laziness, however, so that leaves everything else.

But I do have them.  Written down, even.

Here are the titles:

—— What Jews do when they're happy

——  They suck petroleum d[u]ck

—— The good thing about Qaddafi

—— The sleep study

—— Upping meds / downing meds

—— That bummer happiness

—— my Kettler

The question is — does it matter if I write or don't write? Does anything change at all.  How self-indulgent is self-expression, anyway?  Oh. And is that last one bloggable or just worth fretting about while on the Kettler?  And can I blame the Kettler for lack of writing?  Is there anyone/thing available for a good blame?  And then there's the old why-bother?

School started.  That's really what September's all about.  School plus everything else.  Looking to get my sea legs back.  But in the meantime,

Gone fishing.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

bad mother movies

I clicked past something horrible on the screen the other night, and then found myself clicking back to it, somehow hijacked by the awfulness of it.  I hate bad mother movies.  They're just so painful to watch.

This one turned out to be called 'Raising Genius.'  I'd never heard of it.  Shrill mother in an apron. OCD father reading the paper. Unbearable spoiled smart kid locks himself in the bathroom while working on equations. Therapist who gets trapped into sex with shrill mother looking for better sperm. And why on earth did I watch bits of this thing? Everyone in the movie is almost paralytically dysfunctional.

It reminded me a bit of 'Harold and Maude' — which has, I think, the best bad mother on film.  The 'Raising Genius' bad mother seemed to have been trying to imprint on Harold's mother, but just wasn't able to carry it off.  And the 'Raising Genius' genius kid is named Hal (short for Harold), and almost but not quite has the Harold look.  But he's not smart (in the British sense), and he's not interesting.  And he's as much a piece of work as everyone else in the family.   'Harold and Maude' on the other hand, is a class act across the board. No point even going there: this is something everyone knows.

'The Graduate' comes to mind for Anne Bancroft's bad mother class act.  I saw this one when it came out and found it so disturbing (especially Anne Bancroft's role) that I could never watch it again.  What is it about these bad mother movies that just scares the shit out of me?  Of course 'The Graduate' also drove us all crazy because they're driving the wrong direction on the Bay Bridge to Berkeley, and they used somebody else's campus and called it ours.  WTF?

'Black Swan' turned out to be another bad mother movie, although it didn't overwhelm the film.  Still—what did bad mother do here? Drive daughter beyond retrieval, right smack into the best scene of shape-shifting I've ever seen.  You have to sit through the whole bloody movie to get there, however.

'Ordinary People' had Mary Tyler Moore showing her bad mother chops.  Shocking to see after all her sunny TV persona. Well, wow.

In 'Bee Season' I'm not sure the bad mother counts as bad or just psychotic.  Either way, she's more part of the problem than part of a solution.

'Mommie Dearest.' Enough said.

'Postcards from the Edge' with Shirley MacLaine having a ball doing Debbie Reynolds' bad mother.  This is the most bad mother movie that I can handle. There's contributory negligence enough in here to be doled out all around.

Maybe I can take bad mother movies if they're funny enough.  Without the funny, they throw me into a despondent frenzy.  They're not like real life, are they, where you can pretend to change the outcomes. In the movies you can't change anything.  The bad mother doesn't get any better.  She doesn't learn her lesson. She doesn't change her ways.  She's frozen on the screen, just sitting there in her awfulness, and driving all the action in almost every scene.

Are there good mother movies?

Maybe Jessica in 'Dune'?  Hm.  Nope. Even she (in her ambition and pride) drugs herself on spice while daughter Alia is still in utero. For all her goodness, Jessica's still a bad bad mother.

Are good mothers too boring to put in movies?  Are they crap at motivating their kids to rebel in movie-worthy ways? Are all good mothers dead mothers?  (Think Babar, Curious George, and every fairy tale you ever read as a kid).

Is it only the loss of good mother that leads the little ones out onto their adventure? And if she's not dead yet, do we need the bad mother in order to excel?

Help me here.  I'm thinking about American films not films from other parts of the world.  Are there any good mother films out there that are produced in the US that still work (i.e. aren't sappy or cartoonish) and that really do the job?

Monday, August 22, 2011

evil eye, reprise

So. This is how the evil eye works.  You acknowledge (just to yourself, mind you and not even out loud) that everything's just fine thank you.  Or worse yet, just fine and dandy. Or worst of all, actually, you can't complain. But deep down you know that things are frakking great.  And that's bad, really bad. Really really really bad.

You have activated the evil eye, by just knowing what you know and completely denying it.  Too late.  Too late.

I am so bummed out by this.

Actually, there's a sequence that comes just before the bomb drops.  It's the warning signs.  Warning that your life is just a little too good right now for words.

I won't say what the good is.  Won't admit the truth of it.  In fact, I'm happy to deny the whole bloody thing.

Things are shit.

How's that? Does that sound convincing enough?

The thing about the evil eye is that somehow some force out there knows better.  Knows when you're lying.  Knows that no matter how long your face, that deep down you're actually thrilled to pieces, solvent, just plain happy, won the lottery, having the greatest sex in your life, paid off your house, have kids who are thriving — whatever it is that you're trying to hide behind that sad sack look.  It doesn't work.

Initial warning sign:

You're doing okay financially, and decide to purchase some little indulgence.  Your first iPhone, maybe, or some other indulgent Apple product. Opera tickets. Um, clothes to wear to the opera (unless you live in San Francisco, where you can go to Opening Night in jeans), or how's about an elliptical trainer to pretend you're really really going to get in shape?

And bam. You car goes out.  Or the roof falls in. Your back goes out. Your dad drops dead. Your girlfriend walks out.

Something. Really. Bad.

I'm sick of trying to outwit the forces of nature.

Actually, there's another way of thinking about it.  And that is, that good fortune and bad fortune are just waves in the ocean.  It's not volitional and it's nothing personal.  Things happen, and not just shit.  Take it in stride (somehow).

Remind yourself that you're not living in Somalia. That you don't have relatives in Afghanistan right now. That you actually have a job. That your teeth haven't fallen out of your head.  That the pain in your hip isn't currently so bad that it makes you cry and keeps you up all night.

See?  Counting your blessings is not entirely antithetical to the evil eye.  Done right, you can still do it and not incur the wrath of whatever forces run things like this on our little planet.  Keep the counting of blessings fairly generic and impersonal.  Not too emotionally charged.

Say something like, isn't it great that the migraines don't come every week but only once (or twice) a  month at the opposite peaks of your lunar cycle.  Say wow, I only have to up the dosage of my heart meds just a little bit, I mean, how cool is that?

Say something, in other words, where the blessings being counted are also being countered by some big implied downer.

This goes for compliments as well:

—"Wow, your dog is sooo beautiful..." [with even more effusive chatter following].  Oy yoi-yoi, appalling behavior. Your poor dog is in for some major health problems to follow. You've got to ward it off and protect her.

So you say,

—"Well, she's a little hard of hearing / has a touch of cancer / just had surgery / lost her pack mate / is getting old and arthritic / is incontinent / you should see what her meds cost ..."

Something. Anything. Anything except "Thank you."

The problem with 'thank you" is that it implies recognition and acceptance of the good. And you don't want to do that.

Girlfriend gets effusive about how much she loves you.  On and on and on she goes.  Yikes! Ouch! Feel the evil eye giving itself an evil little wink to self, gearing up for some serious action.

Drive shaft breaks.

Air bag sensor goes berzerker.

Mum slips and almost breaks her hip.

Pup gets major runs.

Something.  It's gonna be something.

Solution?  I'm just not sure.  Because once you stop curling up into a little ball and start to unwind some, you just want to unwind a whole lot more and finally just let the sunshine in.  I mean, should a little bit of happiness really be quite so fraught with drama?

Note to self: 
Wave theory. Good stuff in. Good stuff out.
 Stuff just happens, both the good and the bad. 
Get over it.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

broccoli man

When M was little he had night terrors.  Not a lot. And not for long. And weird be told, he woke up completely refreshed, saying that he'd slept well.  Meanwhile, in the middle of the night — well yikes! There was a man who would rise from the gap between his bed and the wall, brandishing a huge long rifle (I have no idea what kind) (I'm rifle-challenged that way) (a good thing). And the man would rise up, take aim, and —

It was Broccoli Man.

For M, Broccoli Man was the terror that comes in the night.  Broccoli Man filled his nightmares—but he inhabited that night terror zone as well, as it turned out.  Strangely enough, M never had any problem with the vegetable itself. That would be me, who couldn't eat it at all.  It gave me such sharp pains in the gut, it was like someone stabbing me over and over and over again.  But M didn't know about that (as far as I remember).  Nevertheless, for a while there, Broccoli Man consumed him.

The worst part?  He couldn't wake up.

He'd be screaming, and I'd run in there, and nothing! He'd be telling what was happening, but he couldn't exit. And I'd hold him and rock him, and hold him some more, until finally, exhausted, he fell back into a more quiet sleep.

Night terrors are not nightmares.  Nightmares, you can wake up. You can tell what happened. You can even lucid-dream it all away with some good solid practice.  Terrors, you're frozen in there unable to respond. Unable to escape.

There was only one thing to do.


We got out the large sketchbook with the good paper, not the newsprint. This was serious stuff. And although M could draw plenty of disasters — usually houses (brown) that catch on fire (red, yellow and blue), with smoke (gray), then the fire engines roll up (more red), then they hose down the houses (more blue), then the smoke rises (billowing black, covering the page), then it's all fine again (only there's no picture left)* — and had had plenty of cathartic moments doing art projects, he just couldn't bring himself to draw broccoli man.

So we did it together.  One line here, one color there, and before you knew it, pit'om! there was Broccoli Man in all his sinister glory looming over us, it seemed. And yah. Pretty scary.  But as you can imagine, he was also ridiculous.

And that was the key.  M started cracking up. And Broccoli Man bowed his head in shame and never brandished his rifle near my glorious first born son ever ever again.

It's the Mel Brooks Effect.  And M and I are firm proponents of the Mel Brooks effect.

You see, Mel Brooks isn't just about 'broad humor' (as the new girlfriend called it yesterday) or walk-this-way and fart jokes. He's really about the alleviation of major suffering. Not personal suffering, really. No — something much larger: historical suffering.

In his work, he takes on the pain of inequality, torture, abuse of power, genocide, religious intolerance, racial discrimination, injustice and more, all with the 'broad' brush of the ridiculous.

If you can laugh instead of cry, then you can conquer trauma. That's the Mel Brooks Effect.

M loves Mel Brooks. And so do I. His work holds up because we haven't solved these larger terrors yet, have we?

Laughing at Broccoli Man was as powerful an antidote to nightmares and night terrors as Springtime for Hitler was an antidote to the Holocaust.

My mother, of course would disagree. To her, Mel Brooks trivializes our suffering. Maybe it's a generational thing. Dunno. But what Mel Brooks did at our house was have the kids want to know more about what really happened.  Want to visit Versailles and see the Bastille. Want to know about the Inquisition. Want to ask. And want to talk about it.

Likewise, once Broccoli Man was right there in the sketchbook staring back at us, we could hold the conversation.  Broccoli Man wasn't so tough now, was he, when we could draw him any way we wanted?

I met Broccoli Man yesterday, which is what made me think of the original. He was just as traumatic in real life, and I was just as doubled over on my way to meeting him.  Turns out he's Russian, and his name is Alex. But that's another story. And it'll have to wait till next time...

*I think this processual drawing technique is why M is a musician, which is so much better at containing these elements on a single page.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

little peachling

I almost never eat peaches. It's because I still half expect to bite in and find a tiny child inside. A Japanese child, no less.  When I was just learning to read, I got this beautiful book about the peachling child. His name was Momotaro.  On the cover was a picture (Ukiyo-e style of course) of a peach cut in half, and instead of the pit, Momotaro is sitting inside. There are peach blossoms all over the cover, and a black frame lining the edges of the cover.

The illustrations were magical.

Little Peachling grew into a full-sized man who could commune with animals. He left his adoptive parents, a woodcutter and his wife, who of course had been childless before the miracle of his coming.

So. Childless couples have always existed. Bachofen would say that if a folk tale has a story about it, then it's probably something that's really been on the minds of humans for a really long time.  Inability to conceive is certainly like that.  As is finding foundlings. And adoption. I think I was comforted by that as a child. This vulnerable foundling grew up and found his strength and power. It could be done.

In Tunisia, when we lived there, children were fairly transmutable.  Since I didn't have any, people were always giving me one.

"Take my child, please—"

And so, I would borrow children when I needed them.  They made social intercourse much much easier. A woman without a child. Real bummer. No validation at all. Walking around town all alone? Couldn't be done.  Walk with a child? And a woman could go anywhere.

Children in rural Tunisia made great little spies. They saw everything. And were so easily bribed.  They had access to everyone. Delivered messages. They could shop in the markets and handle money. Girl or boy. Didn't matter. They had access to the courtyards at home. The cafés. The bath houses. Cemeteries.  Uncles. Aunts.

They were free.

And as they grew, their lives bifurcated. Girls lives became more restricted to the courtyard, farm, or field. While boys had greater access to places further afield. Especially, as they got older, those cafés.  The women and girls were generally pretty happy to see them go. North Africa, at least then (and less so now) was extremely homophilic.

Girls and boys. Growing up. Sticking to their own kind. More and more.

Momotaro didn't do that.

I was completely captivated by his tale. He had, of course, this miraculous genesis. And then he grew into 'a strong and brave man' — with not a single word in the tale about courtyards, farms, fields or other people. Not a word of the mundane in his story. He goes from peach boy to warrior in one fell swoop. He carries a sword. And a fan.

I wanted to be like that. A sword. And a fan.  Took a long time to get there.

The Peach Boy had three nonhuman friends and companions. A dog. A monkey. And a pheasant.

I wanted friends like that.

They went off together to punish Ogres for their wickedness. They had a quest. What could be better than that?

The whole story captivated me as a child. I think it set the stage, without my noticing, for a lifelong passion for all things from long ago Japan.  Like Arthur Whaley, who translated Lady Muraski's Tale of Genji into (Victorian) English, I never wanted to actually set foot in contemporary Japan. It would ruin my 18th century impression.

My vision was all Ukiyo-e woodblock print impressions. Kuniyoshi impressions. Primarily from the Edo period. That's what I see—and I don't want it to change.  For all my usual desire to know, in this case I'm just fine not knowing. The tale gave me strength and courage and hope if not downright knowledge that everything would be okay. Surely that's enough.

Why think about this right now?

I cut into a beautiful and fragrant peach just now. Very carefully, as I always do. One slice along the spine. And gently (as always) pried the two halves apart, and opened wide. And held my breath.

No baby boy within.

My shoulders sank. As they always do. My breath released with a sigh. No tiny child. No child to grow up strong and brave and take up sword and fan. And befriend dog and monkey and pheasant. And fight the Ogres. And win. And come back home again.

I sliced it up into thin crescents. And ate it slice by slice.

And realized. I have my sword. I have my fan. I didn't need to be a man. And when I read that story then, that was when my quest began.

Oh. And it's delicious. The peach, too.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

one teaspoon each collectivism and autonomy, two tablespoons hypocrisy

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them wholeheartedly — but not enough to take them back.

The issue:  She made a collectivist offer. An offer to share. From subscriptions to memberships. Things like Costco. Things like the New York Times. Stuff like that. It wasn't altruism nor was it generosity.  We'd each be covering one thing or another. Just an instance of sharing. Which would bring down costs for both of us. An act of pure economic rationality, especially in a time of dearth.

And I said no.

I didn't just say no.  I said no emphatically. And I meant it. You can tell because I used italics here.

Partly I was just ashamed that it wasn't I who had come up with the idea in the first place. God forbid someone else should have a collectivist bone in her body. I guess I'm very competitive about my collectivism.

Partly it was that she's currently in the process of dissolving a collectivist arrangement that didn't work out.  Ach.  Been there, done that. Don't want to do that again.

Partly it was a scream (albeit fairly silent) of freak-out-ishness of the potential loss of my own hard won autonomy.

What a bleeping hypocrite!

I talk a good talk. About the joys and power of collective action. But I don't so much as ask for another person's help when I need it.  Ammendment: I didn't used to.  Now I do recognize that yes, every once in a long while I need to ask for help with stuff. Sometimes.  It's aging season, for example, and I'm not willing to risk the likelihood of further damage to my wrecked lower spine by schlepping and lifting the heavy stuff anymore. Nor will I offer to help with the schlepping and hauling like I used to. On the other hand — I never used to ask for help. And now I do. And hate every minute of it.

But asking for help isn't collectivism.  Collectivism is about union. Sharing tools, land, water, seed, and labor—essential basics—collective production.  Growing enough for others to take their basketful, knowing that you're welcome to do the same—collective distribution.  Interdependence. Emphasizing collective need over that of the individual.  The joy of sharing.

But my collectivist ideology and my autonomous constitution are at war with each other.  I love the idea of working together, sharing expenses, collaborative writing, sharing authorship, seed, soil, and all that.  And I do these things well. On the other hand, basically I wish I could do everything myself.

And so I had a little hissy fit. Without explaining anything.  Without understanding it myself.

I want it. Collectivism, I mean.

And right now it scares the shit out of me.  So why is that?

I think it's not the fear of collectivizing per se that's done me in.  I think it's the fear that if I re-collectivize that it'll be harder than ever to dismantle it when its time is over. It's the idea that I have to trust someone. That she'll keep her side of the bargain (whatever that bargain is). The fear that I'll lose the knowledge or ability to fend for myself.

Autonomy is a crock.

There's really no such thing.  Not yet, anyway.  Although it seems that Congress would have us go more and more in that direction.  Dismantle the U.S. Post Office. Public education. Social Security. Medicare. Less government, more privatization. But we (I speak collectively here realizing that this 'we' doesn't include 'me' at all) don't want to pay for collective benefits. But we do seem to all want the particular benefits that we ourselves enjoy.  Let's just support the military some say. Or how 'bout education?

So. This isn't just about me and my health insurance or Costco or Netflix membership. It's a national issue, and we're not united about it. I guess that's the point, isn't it?

For what are we willing to take collective responsibility, and for what do we stand alone?

L. H. Morgan saw the rise of civilization as the movement away from collectivism in favor of greater and greater autonomy and competition.  Darwin, on the other hand, saw competition as the primitive root leading to the 'higher' animal. 'From the war of nature, the higher animal directly follows...' he said.  Kropotkin tried to tone him down with the benefits of Mutual Aid, but never got a response from the great man.  It's still in print, but clearly not as popular as Darwin's war of nature bit.

But is any of this going to help me with my little conundrum? What am I really scared of right now? That once we're each dependent on each other that the whole thing will fall apart? That it leads to a slippery slope of elder care (or equivalent) of the till-death-do-us-part variety? Am I scared that I might like it? That I might end up with the loopy lab? That she might end up with the house?  Wait, wait! That's not collectivism—that's marriage.

So why is the American public so gung-ho about the Defense of Marriage Act but downright freaked about the provision of services like health care to the larger community?  Whereas, I feel just the opposite. Collectivism, I'm for it. Marriage, not so much.

And sharing a Costco membership?

I'll think about it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

month of aaarrrggghhh now ending

Where have I been? Well, last night I had another awful night at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and another movie we just walked out of.  This year's SFJFF has been a real disappointment.  And I'm a little concerned that this year's festival was simply designed to fail.  Because there's a theme of aaarrrggghhh running all the way through it. And that theme appears to be films that are self-serving, self-referential, and self-reflective except without the reflection.

Now maybe, you might say, we've just managed to hit a bad film here and there.  But goddamnit, we've got All Festival Passes — which means that we've seen more movies —more bad movies— than anyone has a right to.  It also means that we've walked out of more movies than I've ever walked out on in my life.

To tell the truth, the bad-movie experience started on opening night at the Castro.

Mabul — The Flood  by Guy Nativ, was the Opening Night Film.  It was torture to watch, but I gave it a chance and sat through the whole thing.  It actually worked as a movie, and unfortunately, you really do have to sit through the whole thing in order to get the point of it and experience the redemptive ending.  The Director and principal (child) actor were there to answer questions and explain stuff, and that helped a lot. Still, I walked out wondering if the rest of the Film Festival was going to put us in the audience through more of the same.  But no.  It was going to put us through worse.  This one, at least, had a point.

Bobby Fisher Against the World was next.  This one wasn't terrible at all, just depressing. And while it didn't help us like Bobby Fisher any better, it didn't help us understand him better either.  But I think it tried.  Or maybe that's over-generous.  Maybe they didn't try to shed some light on what-happened-to Bobby Fisher. Maybe they just tracked down a bunch of footage and did a good editing job — and are leaving the interpretations up to us.  And maybe if Bobby Fisher had been given / and taken meds, all his genius would have melted away?

Connected, An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology by Tiffany Shlain was by far the worst movie I'd ever seen in my life up until that point.  And that was true — until tonight, when something worse topped the Worst-Of list.  And it was beginning with this film that I formed the hypothesis that there was something dreadfully wrong with this year's SFJFF.  There was a lot of local-girl-makes-good cheering before the film began.  It's local-girl using local-money, and aren't we all so precious and precocious?  Tiffany is Leonard Shlain's daughter. He's the brain surgeon who thought he knew all about the mind.  First book was a good one, but his Alphabet book is one 19th century reductionist blunder after another.  All innuendo, and all of its argument refuted a century ago.  The film, therefore, is a fitting tribute by Tiffany to her dad, right down to making us watch her home movies and her crying at his memorial. The argument in the film is that the internet is connecting us all in new ways, and isn't that special? We walked out, but it was almost over by then, so I guess that doesn't count.  It didn't seem like Mabul at all — there wasn't going to be any redemption at the end.

The Names of Love by Michel Leclerc was an absolute delight, thank god, and I thought the festival redeemed itself with this one. It dealt with pluralism in France in a nuanced and fun manner, bursting stereotypes, and still managing to cover Jewish angst, Franco-Algerian struggle in the younger generation, French radical activism, and a whole lot more — and still manage the delight.  Now, was that so hard?

Don't Tell Santa You're Jewish hit the mark exactly.  I remember that dilemma when I was little.  A fun little ditty.

Spartacus.  Well, it was great to see Kirk Douglas get the Freedom of Expression Award that the SFJFF gives. And to learn just how much Spartacus reflected the political sentiments of Douglas.  Important movie.  Still, I didn't make it past the intermission.

Jews in Toons included three TV cartoon series' episodes on Jewish themes.  The Family Guy episode "When you wish upon a Weinstein" was forced and not quite as terrible as it promised to be.  South Park's "Passion of the Jew" is of course a classic that everyone should see. And The Simpsons "Like Father Like Clown" was the least interesting of the three.  The audience was then subjected to Mike Reiss' comedy onstage, which, like the Simpsons episode that he wrote, should have been (like his "Queer Duck") edgier and have a point.

Life is Too Long — I know I saw it.  Can't remember a thing about it.  And that's after rereading the blurb about it.  Good title. The only reason I'm sure we saw it is that it came with a short entitled Grandpa looked Like William Powell, and I know I saw that one.  Or at least some of it.

The Queen has no Crown we got through.  And I think it's important despite the self-referential quasi-home movie/quasi documentary surface.  Here was another depressing movie addressing in part the very large point of whether Israelis have lost the dream. And whether the Israeli diaspora may be a sign of the failure of the Zionist entity.  The film is understated and more important than it seems.  Still, it's more home movie than I ever want to see in my life ever again.

Between Two Worlds was another self-referential home grown local-girl-makes-good movie that starts out particular (right there at the controversial 2009 SFJFF at the Castro Theater) and moves rapidly to the downright massive, if not cosmic, question of who gets to speak for the Jews today? This film is the opposite of The Queen has no Crown, which focuses on the particular and lets the audience contemplate the larger questions.  This one tries to cover absolutely everything, and ends by being way too diffuse to be useful.  Sure, Deborah Kaufman gets credit for putting the SFJFF on the map. And that's a good thing.  But the film just isn't. The panel afterwards was moderated by Michael Krasny. The only person worth listening to here was Rabbi Kula — who reminded us that our identity is rooted in part in the fact that we do debate this stuff...  (He said it better, and had a lot more to say)

100 Voices was another self-referential let's-film-ourselves flick. Only these were American cantors going 'back' to Poland and giving concerts in Warsaw and Krakow.  This one was better than I expected, although I ended up in Ashkenazi overload despite the presence of not one, but two Sephardi cantors participating.

Sarah's Key — despite the Terry Gross interview with Kristin Scott Thomas nothing in the world could have made me want to see this film. I just don't think I could take it.

which brings us to tonight's

Flawed was a short preceding Four Weddings.  It was a 13 minute stop-motion animation that was another me/my life movie, but it managed to keep it humble, keep it sweet, and keep it short.

Four Weddings and a Felony — which we walked out on, and then so did a bunch of other people as well.  And that, was after the writer/director/actor of it even came out to introduce the thing.  This one may well tie with Connected as worst-movie-ever, except that we didn't stay long enough to find out. Yes, this is another follow-myself-around-with-a-camera and let's-talk-about-me-some-more movie. And if it's got a redemptive quality to it, well you'll just have to let me know.


If you've wondered (and I've gotten email that proves that there is some wondering) why the hell I haven't been writing anything in a couple of weeks, well, here's your answer.  It's been bad movies and more aaarrrggghhh movies over the last couple weeks.  I know that's no excuse.

Oh. And I was dragged to see Captain America on Saturday night.

"You'll hate it," she said.  "But you have to see it."

She was right.  I was appalled. But it's an important movie. A propaganda film about propaganda films — unashamed of itself, and promoting hard every inch of the way.  An important movie. Do not underestimate this film. Its subliminal message isn't subliminal at all.