Happy Thanksgiving

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Shark Toilet, Shark Totem

SharkToilet

This shark toilet is so grotesque that I feel obligated to balance the horror with a little spirituality.

If you’re obsessed with sharks like I am, you might have wondered why they manifest in your dreams, plague your waking thoughts and perhaps even haunt your toilet.

Check out this fascinating discussion about shark symbolism.

It may inspire you to start a new religion.

The Path of Playing Cards (Or the Gospel of Salty Junk)

On Tuesday afternoon, walking to the parking garage after work I passed a perpetually trash-strewn patch of plants and stopped to free a Macy’s bag impaled on a  thorny branch. Grumbling with fatigue, heat and misanthropy, I snatched the bag and tossed it in a trash can, not feeling quite self-righteous enough to recycle. 

In the trash barrel, I noticed a tiny card from a children’s game. Delighted, I snatched this vintage treasure from the bland refuse that surrounded it. The illustration showed a fisherman hauling a net of blurry colored trash from the edge of an unseen sea. I found the title vaguely obscene: Salty Junk. I couldn’t imagine where the hell this old sod had come from. All I thought of was a haunting story I’d read in the New York Times about the debris field left by the Malaysian plane that crashed in the Ukriane, how the writer reconstructed passenger stories through objects: Bali guidebooks, passports and a scattered deck of children’s playing cards. 

I tried to engineer a reverse synchronicity in my mind to make the discovery feel inevitable. Hadn’t I just been thinking of how I’d make all of these entries into a book?  Hadn’t I just been thinking, how much I’d actually enjoyed cleaning the little piles of dead balloons and tar balls off the beach, especially when my friends came with me? Could the universe, my throbbing narcissism insisted, maybe be acknowledging me for my own modest harvests of salty junk? 

My love for piles of free and abandoned things aside, I don’t know why this little card had the force of revelation to me. I dug through the can, but found no other tiny red cards among the Subway wrappers and coffee cups.

The Wednesday walk to my car was similarly uneventful. But today, past the trash can where the concrete sidewalk curves up the hill, I found another tiny red card  face down on the ground. I turned it over as if awaiting a revelation from the Tarot. There she was: Wacky Witch like some emissary from childhood classrooms dressed up for the New England fall, the green faced dime-store hag with cat, owl and cauldron, her leering face somewhere between a comic strip and a tribal mask.  I scanned the brush for more cards, but found nothing. To what scattered and abandoned game these old icons belong I will never know. But I sensed their odd, intermittent path was something I was meant to follow. 

saltyjunkWackyWitch

South Africa: Part Deux

I am trying to write and remember more about South Africa, before the memories take on the feelings of dreams, before mundane realities of day-to-day life in L.A. eclipse my beautiful visions.

Here are a few things I can’t stop thinking about:

1. The time I felt most sacred: when a stray piece of bait floated in through the viewing window of the cage. No shark in sight, but I instantly flung the fish head back out into the water just the same.

2. My first full day in South Africa it rained. Apex kindly arranged a wine-tasting tour for us. It felt funny getting slightly drunk on very fragrant wines so early in the day, but I managed to get through it. At one winery near Stellenbosch(?) I stood next to a roaring fire, petting a fat, contented calico cat. A group of school kids on a field trip tramped into the room and collapsed on chairs around the fireplace.  They were probably only about 15, but holding their glasses (each one with a swallow of gold in the bottom), scarves wrapped about their necks, they looked impossibly sophisticated. As one lovely dark-haired girl approached me, I had that incredibly rare and warm feeling that I was acting in a scene from a movie. I told her that “my fellow Americans” and I had come to South Africa to see the sharks. She looked wistful. “Once I went diving with ragged tooths. One shark was pregnant and as the sun slanted on the water, I could see her babies inside.” She looked so happy remembering this, her cheeks flush with the fire. A dashing schoolboy approached us, gently breaking her reverie. Maybe it was the wine, but everything felt effortless and scripted at the same time. “Do you mind if we take a photo with you and your friends?” he asked. “It’s not every day that we meet Americans.”

3. On my last day at sea, the swells were high and dark. We weren’t sure if the sharks would come. But they did. Standing on the deck of the boat, as the dark water rose around us, and a near 15-foot shark surfaced near the side,  I felt empty in the most beautiful sense of the word: empty of everything except the moment of witnessing: the fin, and tall, sharp tail, then the shark itself, turning on its side, white belly flashing in the sun, jaws opening, closing, then sinking beneath the waves again.

4. Looking at the eye of the shark as it swam close to the cage and feeling recognition, but not knowing if this meant that the shark saw me, or I saw myself in it.

5. All the terrific people I met: Chris and Monique Fallows the most gracious hosts and enthusiastic naturalists in the world, Renee and all the great people at Apex Predators, Carrie from New Hampshire with her bright enthusiasm for South Africa and her saint-like patience with annoying peopleSimons-town, Sam who worked at a farm animal sanctuary in Wisconsin and had an uncanny eye for spotting seal predations and her husband Brad who told great stories, Janet with her quick wit and impressive collection of shark swag who gave us all shark neckties, lovely Christine from the U.K, a fourth time visitor to South Africa who knew all the sharks on a first name basis, our kind, funny and amazing guide Alistair, our patient and helpful B&B host Jonathan, generous Peter from Buffalo and his wife Andrea who didn’t even swim yet plucked up the courage to climb in the shark cage anyway. Thanks to everyone who laughed at my jokes and everyone else I’ve forgotten and thanks especially to the sharks for showing up and changing my life.

Day 354 6/24/14: “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”

When I was a child, I scanned the TV listings every week. If a Beatles movie was being shown during school hours, I would feign illness or just beg my mother to stay home and watch. She usually relented. I loved everything they did, but “Help!” always blew my mind because of John’s “pit bed” his Dylan-sneer, the rich color, and because let’s face it: they all looked so damned beautiful.This clip, like all things Beatle, is a forever source of inspiration and happiness for me. I would love to hear if The Beatles cast an enduring enchantment on you.

Day 348 6/18/14: Liberation, Extinction & the Power of Jill Clayburgh

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Summer school starts next week and I am supposed to be reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book “The Sixth Extinction” and although I know it will be a well-researched, well-written book, I am avoiding it because I am happy right now in a state of forgetting. Forgetting that we are living through a mass extinction by remembering fragments of  a movie I just watched: “An Unmarried Woman” from 1978.  I am still channeling the weird chunky aesthetic of that time—how many things seemed woven and hippie,(chair backs, art objects) and also oddly preppy—women’s tailored jackets and miscellaneous plaids mixed with futuristic (silver picture frames and lamps). All of these designs carry emotions—hope for the future, a belief in tradition, in the safety and humble things of earth, and my own adolescent memories of art teachers who struggled to make me understand the horizon line and the mothers of friends, women who to my eternal befuddlement had once loved The Beatles, but by the late 70s embraced Anne Murray or Kenny Rogers.

I am thinking of how old movies return one to lost parts of the self. I remember how the red marquee letters spelling AN UNMARRIED WOMAN rose above  the Daniel Webster Highway as my mother and I drove  south to Massachusetts and how the red words made every movie seem like a potential scandal like THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH and I remember thinking, “What is it that unmarried women actually do?” Now I know that answer has something to do with cats and volunteer work, but then it felt drenched in sex.

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Day 335 5/26/14: Trigger Warning: Soft Rock

UnknownThere’s been a whole lot of hoopla lately about trigger warnings, those cautions about potentially traumatizing content (sexual abuse, colonialism, racism, etc.) in books or movies or on websites. Now that UCSB students have asked their professors to include trigger warnings on their syllabi.

What I find baffling about this is that for the “hypersensitive” among us, the entire world is a trigger. Advertisements, trees, the sound of church bells, the font on  a candy wrapper, the particular way the sun slants on a garden wall, the sound of dead pine needles underfoot, the sound of gum ball machines, thrift store smells.Depression-prone people tend to fall easily down memory holes. They let a single melancholic moment metastasize into morose delectation. Songs are the most irresistible and potent memory spells ever conjured. Vanished pleasures, deep sorrows–even the most banal or obnoxious song can evoke a soul-altering tragedy. Case in point: Bread.

Today I was waiting for my spin class to start. As the previous class wiped down their bikes, I could hear the earnest opening of “Everything I Own,”  Bread’s 1972 hit, except I guess it was NSYNC’s version. This song, like the way-more-wrenching Nilsson tear-jerker “Without You,” always reminds me of the death of my 19-year-old sister Julie in 1973. I was really young then and Top 40 helped me mourn. Love songs became larger–encompassing other forms of grief and loss. Although Julie died over 40 years ago,  music always makes her loss more present than any photograph or letter. The memories aren’t just visual or aural, but physical, as if all the places and states of being live quite literally inside my body. The rising “I would give ee-very-thing I own,” makes me see again the rolling green fields around our house, the aching feeling of listening to Top 40 in the car while the New England landscape rolled by, and thinking of the childish bargains I would make if only I could have Julie back again, or re-living the last time I saw Julie when my parents drove her to the hospital and all the things that I didn’t or couldn’t say to her.

Waiting to go into spin class I felt startled by the song, but not ambushed by childhood trauma. Maybe if I was already depressed about something else, I would have been more vulnerable. Maybe if it had been Bread and not NSYNC, I would have meandered down the familiar, beautiful, wrenching path toward that deep sadness that is always there. Julie’s death can always be conjured if I so choose along with a million other sadnesses, losses, anxieties, unresolved obsessions. “The shit,” my first therapist said, “is always there.”

I know that all trauma is not created equal. The earnest, eerie refrain of nostalgia isn’t the horror of the combat vet with PTSD. Once triggered, certain traumas are immediately physical and terrifying. But even so aren’t we all ultimately responsible for our own healing whether it’s finding a shrink or a meditation practice or writing or love?  The world will never cater to our particular wounds or losses. Shouldn’t a blanket warning about potentially upsetting book or movie be enough?

I used to be very vulnerable to memory. If a sad song played, I had to relive whatever it summoned. I had to feel the agony of lost love, death, lost time. It wasn’t so much a decision, as what David Foster Wallace might have called a “default setting.”  Not being pulled in the direction of every thought, memory, song was something I had to learn. Unless I really want or need to remember, to renew a memory for fear of losing it or unless I am writing something and need to remember deeply, I find “catch and release” a nice motto to live by.

When I checked Songfacts for more information about “Everything I Own,” I learned that David Gates wrote the song not about a lost lover, but about the death of his father. I also noticed that beneath the usual trivia about chart positions and things like that, a few people had posted their own personal memories of the song, many of which seem pretty traumatic. Alcoholism. Sexual Abuse. A lost sister. For many the “you” in the song is God. For these people this song has become a memory about not just about the trauma itself, but a reminder of their own survival, a way of creating perspective, marking time.

I feel curmudgeonly. I want to write something about today’s kids needing to “toughen up.” Life is often brutal and the best literature is often unsparing about this truth. If Nabokov or Baldwin or Achebe or Fitzgerald evoke trauma and pain, think about what they actually might be saying about racism or pedophilia. Maybe they aren’t so much triggers of trauma as catalysts for deeper understanding. If a Bread song could initiate a contemplative exploration of childhood grief and loss, just imagine the power of Virginia Woolf.

 

 

Day 328 5/19/14: 58 TV Commercials from 1977

The flu + youtube= a melancholy meditation on pop culture

58 TV Commercials from 1977

When did sagging, bulbous bologna become happy baloney:

slang sung by children peeling sweaty circles from the lunch bag’s caress

Who in the schoolyard knew of crazed pigs chewing each other’s tails off?

Who had heard that the runts were slammed to death against the slaughterhouse floor?

Or that a pig that met such a fate was known by another childhood name: Thumper.

We loved the oblivion of mayonnaise.

We learned to laugh off those surreal familiars: leg, shoulder, breast, wing

as we forgot our longing for an ecstatic father

who ate Golden Grahams in a tent

or drank Nescafe from a transparent globe.

I trace the inception of pre-adolescent dread

to my inability to reconcile disco and earthiness,

transparent lip gloss and false ferns

I blame the crackling aftermath,

the lingering shot of the silent game board

or cake mix in lengthening shadow.

That tension between ultra-sheer understatement

and memory yarn,

the shame of instant milk.

Day 317 5/8/14: On Childhood & Shelter

Having become infatuated with the idea of divesting, of giving away, of selling, losing things, I find a worn and heavily annotated paperback at a book sale: The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos by Gaston Bachelard. Having loved his other books The Poetics of Space and The Psychoanlysis of Fire, I buy it for 50 cents. Although the acquisition makes me queasy, I also believe that books find us when we need them. I open to a page at random:

A beautiful poem makes us pardon a very ancient grief.

I take the book to the newly clean Echo Park Lake. I have an hour or two before I go downtown to the architecture school where I will do phone interviews with incoming students. The newly clean lake is full of lotus flowers. On the surface, they are the pink flowers I’ve seen on the front of countless books on Buddhism, pink-edged metaphors for unfolding, for beauty that is possible in the muck and maya of the world. Beneath the water, in the haze of silt, the pale green roots serve a practical function. The frogs lay their eggs among the stalks, a submerged forest, a place for trout to rest.

Bachelard quotes the poet Friedrich Holderlin:

” ‘Don’t chase a man too quickly from the cabin where his childhood was spent.’ ” Isn’t this request by Holderlin addressed to the psychoanalyst, that bailiff who believes it is his duty to chase man away from the attic of memory where he would go to cry when he was a child?  The native house—lost, destroyed, razed—remains the main building for our reveries of childhood. The shelters of the past welcome and protect our reveries.”

A mother duck and eight ducklings glide into the floating lotuses. The ducklings walk across the broad, floating leaves, heads of fuzz, maniacally pecking at some invisible feast.

Later I drive aimlessly above the squalor of Sunset to a gorgeous street of trees, grand houses with broad porches, stately Victorians. One of the palatial lawns is covered with chairs. I can’t tell if the family is moving in or out of the brown shingled mansion.

On the way downtown, I think I recognize an embattled stucco house at the top of a terraced hill that should lead to a temple, not to a sad bungalow. I’m convinced that I’ve seen the house before in a movie about a gypsy with a milky eye. And that other house, the one above the faded 80s mural of the runners with their hair swept back in the wind, starred in a movie about love ending. I remember how it perched, a dark nest above the syrupy ribbon of the freeway.

As I drive to school, I think of childhood shelters and all the facades from nameless movies that have become inseparable somehow from real-life buildings, like a rain-soaked magazine I found in a ruined house, the image and text a blur and tear, a one-ness.

At school I pick up the phone, call a student in China. Just to chat. To see if he could use an extra English class before beginning his fall program.

Tell me about yourself, I ask. What are you reading these days?

Bachelard, he says. He writes about childhood and space.