Wednesday, August 10, 2016
I feel sick to my stomach and it would take very little to make me begin to cry. When I look at my hands, they are steady but inside I'm trembling. I should be hopeful but there have been too many glitches in the past four and a half months to keep me from feeling that way. Instead I'm scared, perhaps not to death, but closer to that than I would like to feel.
My two bottom front teeth were pulled in early April and it is only now, in early August, that they may be replaced. This has been a time of inertia. I finally even stopped writing because all that came to the page was my missing teeth. There are places I haven't gone, people I haven't seen, and things I haven't done because I have felt disfigured.
It doesn't matter that friends have said they haven't noticed the gap in my mouth. The most difficult thing I have done perhaps ever was to leave the house and speak to people without clapping my hand over my mouth. And yes, people have noticed, in the same way that I in the past have noticed other people's missing teeth, with a mixture of pity and revulsion.
At first I castigated myself for being vain but that isn't really fair. This has been like walking through the world with any sort of visible disfigurement; it's not like leaving the house without wearing eye makeup. The best that could be said was that this was temporary; the worst is that it was not temporary enough.
Other people have said they have friends and family who have gone through the same thing, with a gap in their mouths for months. It seems to be normal dentistry. But if that's true, this is a profession that needs serious revamping.
There is a temporary disposable denture for these situations. I've read about it in Dentistry Today. Apparently my dentist has not, since she insists that any denture used in the beginning will then become the permanent one. I've stopped discussing it with her, but if I ever see a dentist again, that will be at the very top of my agenda before submitting to care.
I have gone to this office before, eager to have a permanent crown or this same damned denture put in my mouth, only to learn that something else went wrong and there will be another delay. This is why I'm shaking now. If I go tomorrow and learn once again that this isn't ready, I am truly afraid that I will hurt someone.
Wish me luck, please. If all goes well, I'll be smiling, if I can only remember how.
Saturday, August 6, 2016
“Mine eyes hunger for you above all things,” a Tudor wrote, probably Henry VIII whose visual appetite knew no restrictions. My eyes have always been hungry and without custody; I feed on what they give me. Every morning I take my pot of espresso to the table on the porch and I gaze—at the increasing greenery of new leaves, a new splurge of blossoms, the soft and gentle blue of a fresh sky that’s not yet set into blaze by the sun.
This morning the air settled on my skin and I felt no difference in temperature; it touched me like another layer of my own flesh. It’s what I imagine shatoosh would feel like, the forbidden scarf woven from the hair beneath a goat’s chin and many parts of the world that I have lived in, it’s as luxurious and as highly prized. In Bangkok the air goes swiftly from pre-dawn chill to a furnace of heat; in Seattle I usually flinch from stabbing coolness when I go out to survey the morning landscape of my neighborhood.
The physician and essayist Atul Gawande says we learn to embrace the present moment as we grow old, rather than yearning for a yet unattainable future; nobody seems to know if that change is due to wisdom or a decline of chemicals in the brain. I’ve found that as some hungers leave me, other appetites grow fiercer with the strongest being the visual. The sprays of pink blossom outside my bedroom window refresh me when I look up from my computer; the shadows on the house next door are photography in flux and make me wonder if those plays of light and darkness were the inspiration for motion pictures. The luxury of so many shades of green in the backyard remind of how my eyes would lock onto random patches of greenery that emerged from Bangkok’s cement, physically feeling the relief that those cool, bright hues would bring.
Appetite is the easy loss in aging. At one point, as I approached fifty, I was terrified of losing the sensation of physical attraction. What is known as the sexual peak had been so overwhelming and gave such affirmative pleasure that when I thought of life without it, I could only see days of black and white. I had no idea that other colors would intensify when that particular hunger left me, and that the lack of that consuming yearning would give me powers of concentration that drugs had never offered.
The power of being happy in the moment is a guarantee of lasting happiness. The only other time I remember anything close to this was when I was little on a good day when the sun was bright, the dirt was warm under my bare feet, and there were no mosquitos. Still something always came between me and that particular feeling of joy—the annoying call of a little sister, a mealtime, or some small chore. Now very little gets in the way of my happiness, except for loss and its accompanying pain.
I know I’m luckier than most. A doctor’s visit has no unpleasant surprises for me and the backaches that had me crawling on the floor over the past few years seem to have gone with the purchase of my new desk chair. My mortality still seems abstract, although people I love have died and the pain of missing them should remind me that my turn’s coming. Even so, when I look at the extravagance of light, color, and shadow that’s separated from me by a millimeter of glass, it seems impossible that I won’t always be around to love it.
I can never remember a time when I was not in love with what I see and there are still few things that can distract me from that. Yet last week I looked without seeing, caught in a jail cell of grief for a physical part of me that had died and had been tossed away.
Teeth have been a problem from the time that I was seven or so, but they were always fixable, replaceable, filled, or crowned. I knew one of my bottom front teeth had become perilously loose but certainly there had to be a solution for that. There always had been. But when it came to my mouth, my check, as a good friend has said about physical ailments, had bounced. I’d overdrawn that account and my gums had paid the price.
Both of my bottom front teeth were taken away, slipping from my mouth in a way that horrified me with its ease. The gap where they had been for over sixty years felt Grand Canyonesque, and it couldn’t be filled until all of the work on the bottom of my mouth had been completed.
Ordinarily I only cry when I’m angry but as cotton gauze was packed into the bleeding holes where my teeth had been, I was surprised to feel tears on my cheeks, and more slipping to join them. It was an action as involuntary as a sneeze, a physical reflex to something that my mind still hadn’t understood.
It took longer for that mental numbness to wear off than it did for the anesthetic that had been shot into my mouth. I walked home in an eerie fog on a bright day. My hand was fixed over the face mask that I’d been given to hide any blood that might seep through it before I could replace the gauze in privacy. In my bedroom I stared at the “bare ruined choirs” and the teeth that still surrounded them, tinged pink with blood.
Those teeth had been with me for years and they would never come back. Eventually bits of porcelain would fill the space that had been theirs, but they would never be part of my living bone. They had died, and what came with that knowledge couldn’t be escaped or ignored. I had begun to die.
“He not busy being born is busy dying,” Bob Dylan told us in his tuneless croak when I was young, but who had time to think about that in those days? As I looked at my mouth on the morning my bottom teeth left me, his words pierced me and II was lost in a wave of sadness that nothing could distract me from. I stayed in bed for two days.
When I woke up today, a week after those 48 hours of grief, my tongue felt the mournful emptiness at the front of my mouth, but my eyes had other plans. Light warmed the fabric of my bedroom curtain and I got up to pull away that barrier, eager to see what the world had to give me. Surging back came the curiosity, the delight, the impetus to love. Even though I was toothless at a crucial spot, I felt the energy of joy, springing from who knows where? As the Beatles said,”I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
“Loving is a habit and takes practice, like any other,” Martha Gellhorn said when she rescued a small cat on a West Indian island. She bought it a little basket and carried it with her as she hopped about by boat in the Atlantic during WWII. Before flying back to the States, she realized the absurdity of what she had done and gave the cat to an Air Force base while realizing it had been much happier in its original forest home.
A judge recently decided that a dog was a sentient being, not a lesser creature, which is a fine thing to recognize, and high time too. But still that dog is subjugated to the whims of its owner. What and when to eat, where to sleep, even the elimination of its body waste is on somebody else’s schedule--and then there’s the true crusher. Dogs and other animals aren’t admitted to into heaven. Even Buddhism allows that to happen only after a human incarnation, although dogs, far more than many people, exemplify the Buddha nature like nobody’s business.
Cats of course go way beyond sentience into omniscience and divinity, a state that no doubt existed long before humans could record their speech in writing. Among modern deities, Shiva is the one they are most closely related to, but cats would rather destroy worlds that others have created than to take that energy to create one themselves. That is what humans are for, and lurking in the dispassionate gaze of any cat is the sad truth that we are doing a piss-poor job in that ongoing act of creation. Still we are the best that they’ve got for the task and they continue with their silent directions which we ineptly follow.
People who dislike cats are the ones who are most closely attuned to the power that felines wield, although they fail to articulate that vague knowledge. “Dogs love their owners; cats tolerate them,” is usually as close as they get to voicing their unexamined knowledge that cats rule the universe. And what’s more, cats are certainly not going to let us into whatever heaven they may have constructed.
Like Martha Gellhorn, my life feels incomplete unless it includes a cat for me to love. Still I have never really believed that my love is reciprocated in the same way that I bestow it upon any of the felines that have shared my bed and board. When I do their bidding, they emit approval that at times I can almost convince myself is affection. Even the small black feral kitten that I adopted in Bangkok never gave me the same regard that he had for his counterpart, another small black kitten who found him and became his partner in crime. I was always the warm lap, the pair of opposable thumbs, the imperfect instrument who made sure that he had what he wanted.
In The Summer Book, Tove Jansson just about sums it up when she describes the hopeless passion that a little girl feels for an impervious tomcat. For a long time I thought this was the perfect depiction of the flawed nature of human love, but now I know I was wrong. It’s a recognition of the despair that we feel when we realize that our divinities are impervious to human demands and desires, especially the feline variety.
Monday, June 27, 2016
When Jacob persuaded Esau to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage, my sympathies were with Esau. I had to ask what it was that exchanged hands and although pottage sounded unappetizing, let alone a mess of it, it was obvious that Jacob was the conniving little chiseler who would be shunned in any schoolyard. Only a weasel would convince his brother to relinquish something he had the right to own for a temporary pleasure. It violated every rule I’d been taught about fair play and I was shocked that Esau, not Jacob, was punished.
I read the Old Testament in the same way that I devoured Grimm’s Fairy Tales and after encountering Esau, I absorbed its lessons in a twisted fashion, tempered with moral outrage and skepticism. The foolish virgins made complete sense to me; why save that damned lamp oil for a day that might never come when there was a party going on right now? I lived in a household of lamps, fueled with a byproduct of oil, and nobody ever said turn out the lights to save fuel for tomorrow. We used what we had and did without when it was gone.
It is probably a stretch to blame the Old Testament for what’s going on with me as I approach my 68th birthday but I’m fairly certain that it comes into play as an influence in my formative years. Wiser virgins flossed and used sunscreen. Moisturizers were part of their daily rituals, and as information emerged about skin cancer and sun damage, they cultivated pallor, not a solar-induced tan. But not me.
I took great pleasure in absorbing as much sunlight as I could and only burned on tropical beaches, when light bounced off saltwater. I went beyond bronze to brown in a nanosecond and soaked up direct sunlight every chance that I had. Sunscreen seemed to be a big waste of time and counterproductive to a woman who felt that summer began only when her tan was secured.
When the subject of wrinkles arose, I countered with the unassailable beauty of Georgia O’Keefe.
Then came the day that I smiled at myself in a mirror and almost screamed. The crowsfeet that I had always thought brought character to my face had become pterodactyl tracks and below them on either cheek were small lines that had gone rogue. It was as though on the night before, as I slept, my skin had been sprayed with battery acid.
Moisturizer, I discovered is not retroactive, although I have wondered more than once about glycolic chemical peels. When I do, Germaine Greer comes to mind, scoffing that in fending off the effects of age, women run the risk of turning into petulant, querulous old girls. Two images come to mind: Georgia O’Keefe and a curdled old Scarlett O’Hara, still flashing her earbobs and stamping her feet, and I know it’s time to ante up. I bet and I lost. That particular lamp is out of oil.
High blood pressure has turned me into that dreary old broad who squints at sodium labels in the aisles of grocery stores. Loss of bone mass makes me spend the equivalent of a perfectly good Happy Hour on a single pill that I swallow once a month. But that is not the worst of it.
The best that can be said about the worst is that it is temporary and it certainly isn’t life-threatening. The worst is that it will have lasted for three months by the time that it’s finally over and those three months have been a portion of my life that has been truncated as never before.
When spring burst into flower, I was diagnosed with gum disease and because of it, two of my teeth had to be removed. Since they were my two front teeth on the bottom, I have not smiled since the beginning of April and their replacements won’t be ready until mid-July.
My face has never been my fortune but my personality has. I’ve always had a voice and I’ve used it, getting by on wit of sorts and a smile. Now I dip my head when I speak in public and my smile is closed-lipped and inauthentic. I had to restrain myself from buying a burka to wear on trips to Trader Joe’s and I only spend time with the people whom I know best. Not only has my travel been curtailed, so have my local excursions, and that is difficult.
Paying for past sins is one way of looking at this, so are those foolish virgins, and poor old Esau staring at an empty plate and a bartered future. But the only sane point of view, as far as I’m concerned, is this is my life, all of it. Some women use sunscreen, some women don’t floss. Whether we have spent our days being prudent or happily squandering everything we have, we all face vanished waistlines and sagging necks. Some of us however come away with much better stories than our wiser sisters. And for some of us, the stories are worth the physical loss that comes with reckless adventures or satisfied appetites, and I’m positive Esau would agree with me.
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Some days all you want to eat is simple food and you don’t want to cook it for yourself. Whether you call it diner food, bistro food, or street food, it’s all based on comfort. Why else would a grilled cheese sandwich prevail as a popular menu choice well into the 21st Century? Why is macaroni and cheese making a sudden resurgence in chicken and waffle joints across Seattle, if not the country?
When I lived in Thailand, an American friend and I would play a sad and masochistic little game called What Will You Eat First When You Go Back Home. Surrounded as we were by one of the world’s greatest cuisines that waited for us right outside any hour of any day, we had humble yearnings for our introductory meal. “Chicken fried steak,” was my friend’s usual answer while mine was “A meat loaf sandwich.”
Simple food can’t be confused with food that’s indifferently prepared. Nothing is more disgusting than a burnt grilled cheese sandwich or mac and cheese that’s soggy, except perhaps a meat loaf sandwich that’s been made with overly fat ground beef. Simple dishes are perhaps the most demanding of all food choices, because they rely on only a few ingredients without a lot of culinary flourishes.
Like most foreigners in Thailand, I found the gateway drugs to what became my lifelong street food addiction were dishes that were comforting, easy to find and to pronounce, and somehow familiar: wok-fried rice and noodles with chicken and soy sauce. Gradually my choices became more adventurous but these street food staples remained as two of my favorites. The stinging miasma of garlic and chile sizzling in a hot wok would lead me to the places that would give me what I wanted, where I knew I’d find my Bangkok version of simple, satisfying comfort.
It had been a long cold post-holiday season here in the Pacific Northwest and as we neared the end of January, I needed Thai fried rice. In Seattle, this isn’t an easy dish to find. The almost toxic cloud of garlic and chile frying at high heat would cause an entire restaurant to flee the premises and wok cookery isn’t just an art—it’s hard, hot, and painful work. Many other things are much easier to prepare than fried rice, and that’s what most people make: curries, grilled meat, and braised Sino-Thai dishes. I couldn’t blame them but nonetheless, in the same perverse and nostalgic spirit that prompted me to occasionally search in Bangkok for a hamburger that wasn’t a Big Mac, I wanted khao pat that would taste as though it had been made on a sidewalk in deepest Thonburi.
To find that, I needed to find a place with woks, and Thai Tom in the University district of Seattle came instantly to mind. The owner had found an old diner and kept it intact. Cooks worked behind the counter in full view of the customers who were seated nearby on stools. Woks were at center stage and when the place first opened, people crowded to the place, eager to watch the spectacle of open flames shooting menacingly above the guy who was making their food.
Now there’s more than one wok behind the counter and each one is smaller than the original that I remembered from twenty years ago. The joint is still hopping. I showed up well after the lunch rush and two cooks were still in motion, which was a good sign. I ordered my rice and watched and waited.
“How hot do you want it?” the waitress asked me and I said, “Normal. Just please bring me some fish sauce with chili and I’ll fix it myself.” She ladled what I’d asked for from a container behind the counter and handed me a little bowl. The chili was so finely diced that it looked almost like powder and the fish sauce smelled old. I braced myself.
The cook tossed a handful of sliced pork into the wok and let it sizzle, then added an egg and tossed it about for a while. Then he scooped out enough rice to feed several starving orphans and dumped it into the wok. There was a spurt of obligatory flame and then he turned his attention to someone speaking to him from the kitchen. Then he returned to a short burst of moving the rice around the wok and then it all went on a plate—my plate.
It wasn’t the worst fried rice I’ve ever had. That honor goes to Phnom Penh Noodle House, which once brought me a plate of it that had been scorched. It was however a plate of rice that had been heated, not fried. There were hunks of warm chicken, a slice or two of onion, and some basil leaves. I could, and have, done better myself at home, and I left most of it uneaten.
It took a while before I had the strength to resume my quest but at last a day dawned that was bright and sunny, daffodils and crocus decided to bloom, and my optimism returned. On a whim I stopped at Song Phang Kong on Jackson Street, the one place in Seattle that is so much like a Thai noodle shop that I always expect to see motorcycle taxis waiting outside it when I leave.
I’ve had good food here, sausage both Thai- and Lao-style, papaya salad with a generous dash of fermented fish, and chicken that had been grilled over charcoal. I knew that the lady who had presided over the kitchen had died but her husband was still in place. Although fried rice wasn’t on his menu, fried noodles were, so I asked if he could make me what I was longing for. “Yes,” he said.
Before disappearing into the kitchen, he made me a Thai iced tea that was almost sinful, tart with lemon and tamarind and topped off with a thick layer of half-and-half. Traditional? No. Delicious? Absobloodylutely. My hopes soared a little higher and were nourished by the view of one of his arms, visible through the kitchen doorway, moving in the St. Vitus dance of a seasoned wok user. My only reservation was the rice he had taken into the kitchen, scooped out from deep within a rice cooker. Perhaps, I told myself, it was rice that had been cooked the day before.
He brought me a plate that was heaped high with rice, chunks of chicken, sliced onion in profusion, and a generous helping of broccoli and carrots. That was fair. Although the green vegetable usually used in fried rice was sold right across the street at Viet Wah, he had no reason to have pak kana in his kitchen. I’d ordered off the menu, after all, and he’d obliged. When he showed up again to ask me how my food tasted, I told him it was delicious.
I lied. The rice was clumped together as if it had been meant for sushi. It was soggy and mushy and I couldn’t finish it. I ate enough to be polite and asked that the rest be put in a box, although I never intended to touch it again. But it was my fault, not his. I’d asked for fried rice and he had cooked fresh rice for the day to accompany the dishes he had on his menu. I told him I’d be back soon for his sausage and I certainly will be—but fried rice will never be my request again.
I was still hungry. Slowly and sadly I made my way up to the end of Broadway on Capitol Hill, where Rom Mai has been for decades. Full disclosure: I’ve known the owner for over twenty years; we became friends long before he opened his own restaurant. So when the waitress asked me what I wanted, I told her I wanted to ask her boss a question.
“Can you make me fried rice with pork? Not with broccoli but with pak kana, like Bangkok? The kind where the rice isn’t soggy?” I was almost in tears and his answer was swift and reassuring. “My wife takes the rice from the top of the cooker and she works out all of the lumps. And we give people whatever vegetables they want to eat. She’ll make you Bangkok khao pat moo.”
When the rice was put in front of me, it was spread out on the plate in almost individual grains. Each bite had the flavor of the garlic, onion, and pork with which the rice had been fried. It was succulent, without a trace of sogginess, accompanied by pak kana cut on the diagonal and pork that was thinly sliced but still flavorful. In a restaurant that is almost formal in its decoration, where dining is the word that comes to mind rather than diner, I had khao pat moo that was as good as any that I’ve eaten on a sidewalk from a pink plastic plate on a table that bears a holder filled with a roll of toilet paper. And for me there is no higher praise than that.
Rom Mai offers fried rice with crab as one of its specials. I’ll be back. Soon.
Monday, May 16, 2016
Although every household in the small Alaskan community that I grew up in was equipped with a rifle, it was a tool of last resort, used to bring in food when supplies ran low. Although people traveled on foot and by dog sled, a rifle wasn’t usually what was carried on a pack-board. Between wild beast and mankind existed a form of peaceful coexistence, unless the animals were in rut, or with offspring, or needed on family dinner plates. Then all bets were off.
Scotty, a quiet, gentle family friend whom I adored, ran an eleven-mile trap line in the woods near his cabin outside of what was with some exaggeration called “town.” He was on the trail when a bull moose came out of nowhere and charged his team of four dogs. The dogs, three-year-old litter-mates and no pushovers, went for the moose, fangs bared, while Scotty, who carried only a hunting knife with him, grabbed a chain that he used in the traps and joined the dogs in their battle. The moose backed off and then came back in a second charge, kicking viciously at the dogs and leaving deep head gashes on two of them.
At this point the story takes on Paul Bunyanesque proportions. Scotty made a noose in the chain, managed to throw it over the moose’s head, pulled the makeshift lasso tight, and tied it to a tree. He drove his dogs a safe distance from the attack scene and went back to release his captive. He couldn’t reach the chain to untie it because the moose was in full panic mode, thrashing about in unsuccessful escape attempts.
With two of his dogs badly hurt, Scotty had to walk back to his nearest neighbors for assistance and four men returned with him to unchain the moose. A rifle wasn’t deemed necessary. One of the group lassoed a hind leg with an easily removed half-hitch knot while the others freed the moose from the tree and eased the chain over its neck. Once liberated, the moose charged the group again; they fought it off with the chain until it gave up and disappeared into the woods at last.
Scotty and his friends estimated the moose was around 900 pounds, full grown and uncharacteristically aggressive. It was “on the prod” because of the hard crust of ice that had formed on the snow and turned dagger-sharp when weight broke through it. With bleeding cuts from that crust, the moose was in a bad mood and Scotty and his dogs were the nearest target that it could find.
The dogs recovered from their wounds and Scotty decided perhaps carrying a rifle on the trail might be a good idea from now on. “You know,” he told a big city reporter from the Anchorage Times, “’that moose could have been a big bull.”
Thursday, May 12, 2016
For the first time in three weeks, my room is filled with the scent of coffee and with my first bitter sip my mind stretches, yawns, and agrees to wake up. It is my drug. Tea is too subtle for me; espresso is too fast. I need to swallow freshly ground beans bathed in boiling water to feel alive in the world and for all of my synapses to fire properly. After over half a century of drinking coffee, the grooves it has worn in my nervous system are too deep to sod over and reseed into a refined green tea landscape. I’m addicted as my mother was before me. I’m sure that coffee ran in my veins before I was born.
Dad thrust a cup of hot sweet milky coffee into my fifteen-year-old hands when I came home from a long, wet, chilly horseback ride to pick up mail and library books. I drank it as a sacramental rite of passage but my next cup was black, and so were all of the others after that. I drank it all night as a teenager and was delighted to find that by morning I had lost five pounds—legal speed.
In New York I was always amazed to find that in that city I didn’t need it. The rush of a Manhattan street woke me into life without caffeine, which was fortunate because the coffee in NYC was vile anywhere above 14th Street. Still I drank that battery acid from the depths of hell that was sold in diners because that was what fueled the city that had given me birth.
My father was the one who bought me my first cup of espresso, down on Mulberry Street, when children still played on the sidewalks with grandmothers in shapeless dresses sitting on stoops to guard them. I drank it with a shot of anisette in a neighborhood joint where nobody questioned my age. As I sipped and felt a tinge of sophistication long before my time, a car pulled up and a man got out wearing a black homburg and an expensive-looking black overcoat. He walked in with an aura of regality and everyone in the place paid him homage with their attention. “Good morning, Large Joseph,” the bartender greeted him as he took his place at the counter and even I, who had barely ever heard of the Mafia, was in awe. Ever since then I’ve associated the taste of espresso with power.
The machine that made that first espresso for me was large and made of gleaming copper; it looked as though it could fuel a small battleship. It took skill to operate, I learned, when I went to a place in Seattle that used a similar system to very bad effect. Before Starbucks, when espresso was still Italian and barista wasn’t a word applied to teenagers who pulled shots after school, what emerged from a well-operated machine could raise a heartbeat from death to hyperspeed in three minutes flat.
And that of course is where the danger lies. I love my little espresso pot with its ceremonial undertones and its chaste little white cups and saucers, but what it makes is not really my friend. Espresso isn’t meant to be sipped; it cools too quickly in those sweet little cups and I could down three of them in the space of writing a paragraph. I need my coffee in a mug that retains the heat, the way I learned to drink it in Alaska.
My parents and their friends drank coffee the way winos clutch bottles of cheap wine, killing a pot at a sitting, their maintenance doses. It was a socially sanctioned time to down tools and talk in long conversations that ranged from the price of chainsaw fuel to the state of the world. In another time and place I use it to fuel conversations with myself and it sparks thought in a way that never comes with the gentler infusion of caffeine in green tea.
This morning I was awake before six, knowing what was waiting for me in the kitchen, and that I know is the thrill of addiction. I’m sure my blood pressure is above sanctioned levels at this moment and I do not give a jolly damn. I have had my drug, and I will have it again tomorrow, and the world is a much less torpid place for me.
And without thinking very much about it, I’ve gone past my first page this morning and am more than happy to write more. The sun is up and so are both of the guys I live with and I am in my caffeine bubble, oblivious.
Monday, May 9, 2016
Watching All Things Must Pass last night before I went to bed has Tower on my mind this morning, close and familiar. Faces I knew and others who were always invoked but never seen, the toad-like face of Stan Gomen, bizarrely normal Bud Martin, squishy-featured Michael Solomon, the anointed one who failed his father, and of course Uncle Ross, a mixture of Kris Kringle and Mephistopheles, drinking Scotch in front of a great wall of books, not records, videos, or cds. Rudy Danziger, who was so proud of having a signing with Beverly Garland by the pool at a Sacramento Holiday Inn, not Norm whose last name I can’t remember but whom I spoke to over the phone every week, who told me “We’re going to get you to Sacramento, why should Seattle have you?” and had me shuddering with disgust, and Heidi Keller, who let Rudy go during the agonizing dismantling of an empire by saying, “Rudy, I want a divorce.” Later she knew the guillotine awaited her when Russ called and asked her to lunch, because in all the years she’d worked for him, he’d never done that before.
The shocker was photos of Heidi when she was young—the woman I knew as a harridan with cold eyes was shiny and really beautiful. “They told me to wear miniskirts to work and then they all looked up my skirt,” which was borne out by an earlier story told to me by one of the old reps. “I walked into Watt Avenue and there was a pair of long legs wearing a miniskirt on top of a ladder, pulling stock.” “Leopard skin underpants and a mini skirt,” the old Heidi vouchsafes in the movie, for all posterity to remember.
“They taught me to swear, to drink, and do drugs. I was one of the guys,” she said, and I winced. That was me, except for the drugs. I too learned to be as tough as any man I worked with but not as much as the redoubtable Ms. Keller, who said, “I went into labor twice at the register.” She didn’t say when, but I would bet it was during Christmas or the 30% off sale.
If she was like me, labor wouldn’t have kept her from either of those events. There was something weirdly exhilarating about facing a line of customers that extended the length of the store and getting them all out the door in minutes flat. There was no attention given at those times, just sheer crazed efficiency.
Two little girls used to come to Mercer and I would always ask them if they wanted their own little bags. They showed up in my line during the 30% off sale and stared at me with reproach at the end of the transaction. “We want our own little bags,” the biggest one said and I quickly apologized, bagged each book, and they let the line continue.
Open to Midnight, 365 Days a Year, was the boast but a customer wrote to us in outrage
once because he came to the store at 11:55 on December 31st and the doors were locked. That occasioned more outrage from upper management than the two times that we were robbed, once at gunpoint.
once because he came to the store at 11:55 on December 31st and the doors were locked. That occasioned more outrage from upper management than the two times that we were robbed, once at gunpoint.
We made nothing, but our employee benefits were immense. There were Tower Building Blocks that we could cash in when we finally left the company if we stayed for a specified amount of time that I can no longer remember. I think I cashed mine for about 200 bucks after five years. We had employee charge accounts that we could put rep comps on for credit, we had sick leave of sorts and a decent number of vacation days. We had medical, dental, and vision insurance that was better than any employer-based policy that I’ve had since, and the annual parties were bacchanalian. Employee meetings were always at a restaurant that served booze; so were many of the sales calls. The tab from any of those meetings was equal to what any of us made in a month.
When The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death sentence, we kept the book front and center on the new release table, sold every copy we had, and then took special orders, which we put proudly and visibly on a shelf behind the counter. The only caveat we received was that we shouldn’t have the customer’s name also visible, on slips of paper tucked into each book that was waiting for pick-up.
“It wasn’t a job, “one former employee kept saying throughout the movie, “It was a way of life.” Tower Culture, I called it, and it absorbed almost all of us who had ever worked there. We worked and ate and drank together at Mercer, just one big dysfunctional family. Even after leaving by choice, I still dream about the store that is now a bank, vivid dreams where I walk in and try to make it the place it used to be.
There were people who made real money there, all of them in Sacramento. Everybody wanted to be a manager but not for the money, which was laughable even at that level. We wanted our own stores, and it was Russ Solomon’s peculiar genius that made us feel that the store we would manage would be ours.
I was given a 250 dollar bonus once for launching a reading program in several Seattle elementary schools. I could well have used the money but I was outraged. “They can’t give us raises but they hand me this for something that I couldn’t do without the support of this store?” I spent the money on an expensive Krupps coffee maker and a grinder for the beans which had a place of honor in the backroom until some idiot burned out the element.
The best part of the movie was in the outtakes, when Gomen told the story about an elephant they dyed pink and brought into the Watt Avenue store for a Big Pink promotion. He claimed the elephant peed on the floor and drenched the carpet. Russ’s version was when they put the elephant back in the truck to leave, it let loose and he watched a river of urine rush down the street toward the store. “That’s not what Stan said,” someone remarked off-camera, and Russ wheeled upon Gomen. “Well that’s what so-and-so told me had happened,” was his defense and Russ roared “You weren’t even there.” And then two old men were laughing their asses off on a street corner where a beginning of an empire once stood and reigned and went to hell.
Thursday, April 7, 2016
This is Mukdahan, on its walkway by the Mekong. When I first went there, the walkway was empty; the last time I was on it, it was crowded with vendors. The view is still exhilarating and two years ago, I could still buy coffee from this truck and watch the river as I drank it.
Across the river is Savannakhet, another favorite spot, where Laos people are separated from their Thai relatives only by the border formed by the Mekong. The language, the food, the friendliness is the same as it is across the Friendship Bridge that takes me over the river into another country.
Along the river, a short van ride away is Nakhon Phanom, I still miss that lovely, peaceful place.
And there's Korat, where I always stop and spend a day or two before going on to the Mekong cities.
Then there are the people and places I see from a bus window as I travel through Isaan. They haunt me as much as the places I've spent time in.
I think of the small towns that the buses pull into at dusk, where I think briefly of getting off, finding a room, and staying for a while. Someday I will.
But for now, I'm grateful for the knowledge that Bangkok is only a pale reflection of the rest of the country. All that is being erased there is still thriving and vital in smaller cities, tiny towns. Next time I'll skip the capital and go to Thailand.
Sunday, March 20, 2016
“Developing country” is a description that is almost completely owned by Thailand. The development is raw: tall buildings of striking design tower over tin shacks that house construction workers, their families, and their dogs; ramshackle buses stand still, paralyzed by traffic under the elevated tracks of the Skytrain; children wearing the uniforms of prestigious private schools have after- school snacks in shopping malls of regal splendor while their less fortunate counterparts sell flowers on the streets outside. It’s become a photo gallery of traveler’s clichés: barefooted monks strolling past Tiffany’s, a Mercedes pulling up to buy food from a street vendor’s cart, the homeowners selling their recyclable papers and cans for what amounts to pennies to a man in tattered clothing who drives from house to house on a motor-scooter with a wooden platform tacked onto the back where he places his gleanings.
Development is less stark but always present in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film about his home country, Cemetery of Splendor. He has set it in Khon Kaen, the major city in Thailand’s Northeast and one of the country’s largest, but the movie’s setting is rural. An improvised hospital that has been put in an abandoned school building sits beside a lake, surrounded by trees and near a small temple. Across the water, the shadows of modern buildings break the dome of open sky that features heavily in the film; in a setting this placidly bucolic, days are given drama only from the storms that might break from the puffy-cotton clouds.
The silence is broken by the daily noise of construction equipment that excavate a large piece of ground near the hospital. Nobody knows why, nobody seems to care. It’s a government secret, one person speculates, so secret that there’s no need to hide what’s being done. In the hospital are beds filled with soldiers, spellbound men who spend most of their time in sleep that resembles a coma. Body functions take place without interrupting their slumber; catheters drain urine, and erections caused by dreams are noted with amusement by the hospital staff. The men awaken long enough to eat something and often collapse facedown into their plates midmeal.
Like all of Apichatpong’s movies, this is one is surreal and demands more than one viewing to appreciate. The film’s pace mirrors the lassitude of a Thai afternoon, its unending hours punctuated by meals and snacks and random snatches of chatter. The conversations, though brief, are telling ones. Beautiful ghosts, figures venerated in a local shrine, come to one of the hospital volunteers to tell her that the hospital is built upon the burial ground of past kings who are sapping the energy of the sleeping soldiers to fight ghostly battles; the men will never awaken fully. A young psychic has been summoned to their bedsides to penetrate their dreams and offers to lead the volunteer into the sleeping world of the soldier she has informally adopted as her son. It is a palatial vision, more glorious than anything the volunteer has dreamed of herself, and as the psychic reveals the soldier’s dream world, the volunteer traces her own memories on the grounds of what was once her schoolyard.
Both journeys are equally spectral; a former bomb shelter for children who were threatened by the war in nearby Laos still stands in place near broken statues that filled the grounds of the ancient kings who once ruled this place. These remnants of history, these provinces of memory, are all fragile and doomed, threatened by the buildings that are making their slow progression across the city and the escalators within them that carry mute and passive shoppers, the mysterious backhoes that scoop sacred ground from a royal cemetery.
On one lazy afternoon, the hospital volunteer shares a meal with her adopted soldier-son, who quotes the famous maxim of the revered historical monarch, King Ramkhamhaeng, “There is fish In the river, rice in the fields.” “Rice in the fields and then there is nothing,” is her response, which would be a criminal act of lese majeste in Thailand.
At the end of the movie, she and the soldier exchange dreams. Whatever she is given remains a secret but it has stripped the beauty from her aging face. The close of the story shows her sitting near the excavation site, her eyes staring fixedly at some terrible vision that only she can see.