Sunday, November 30, 2008

I've Loved You So Long

Despite how that title may sound, this is not another paean to a long-lost ex-boyfriend who broke up with me. As a matter of fact, breakups of the romantic sort don't figure at all into Philippe Claudel's French language film, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, which I saw Saturday night.

It was a fairly quiet film about psychological interiors and difficult relationships, and I enjoyed it very much. I don't recommend reading a lot about it prior to seeing it (and you should), as there are a couple of narrative turns that are best left as surprises. Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein, who plays her sister, are both incredibly good, even while the story might be said to have a somewhat melodramatic dénouement.

At the heart of this film is a very strong theme of redemption and also an examination of the idea that often none of us really knows anything about the experiences of others, whether they are close to us or strangers. Even when we try to sympathize, we may very well not know the whole story about what motivates anyone and what has shaped his or her demeanor or behavior. I find that exploration very intriguing as I work through my own issues of trying to be compassionate, sympathetic, and nonjudgmental. Ironically, I get most irritated and impatient with people when I feel they're unwilling to look deeper into situations and personalities and instead make snap judgments. I find that type of black-and-white thinking incredibly stupid and, well there you go: a lesson for me about working on my own judgments.

One final issue that keeps coming up for me when I see films or read some works of fiction: I have such a problem with "realism" that I'd call it an impediment. I have trouble taking leaps of faith in otherwise "believable" stories unless the conceit is handled in an exaggerated or highly stylized manner as in magic realism, broad satire, or fable. This is a problem for me -- not in detracting from my enjoyment of a story -- but in thinking that I could never release myself enough to write a story if I didn't feel that every narrative choice was inscrutable. I probably should get over that somehow. Just a thought. (And yes, the film does have a bit of that: a central element that I find not wholly believeable, but upon which the entire premise of the story rests.)

In any case, I highly recommend this film; it's exactly embodies the reasons I love going to the movies.

Sunday Morning

The weekend's been a good one. Dinner at the Canary Hotel with J on Thursday was really nice. The rest of the weekend involved a bit of shopping; reading the morning paper at cafes; going to the Saturday Farmers' Market; gardening; dining on fresh gazpacho, bread, and taleggio cheese; a movie; and enjoying the great sunny weather and mild 68-degree temperatures. Before the weekend's done I may make a pear-ginger upside-down cake, but first I really need to make a dent into cleaning up this house and various piles of clothes that need folding, as well as a mountain of paperwork and unopened mail. And then there's that angst about starting the workweek tomorrow... though things really aren't bad at work, aren't very busy, and may include a two-night business trip to West Los Angeles, followed by a Saturday reunion with college friends in Sacramento and a night in San Francisco.

Why am I having this existential crisis again? Oh yeah... the future. Much as one tries to live -- like a good aspiring Buddhist -- "in the present moment," that pesky future thing can't totally be ignored all the time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

All these wonders by the Master's hand

The following excerpt from a Los Angeles Times story made me almost cry on Friday, and has been haunting me since then. It's not that I have an illusion that I could ever "save" a child in a situation as bad as this one, but thinking about it reminds me how much I would love to actually raise and nurture a child. Maybe it's a ridiculous concept -- having that wish to nurture a child in ways in which one was not nurtured oneself (I don't think that kind of motive is exactly a successful one for raising a child, since it projects too much of the caregiver's unmet needs onto him or her).

However, that fantasy is still there: the fantasy of being a stay-at-home parent with a co-parent like W. or someone similar. It makes my heart ache because I know it's unlikely that I will ever be living in that type of situation. I supposed it's probably better to cultivate fantasies that have a greater likelihood of being actualized....
Cowburn and her husband had tried unsuccessfully to get their insurance company to pay for mental health treatment for the boy. The difficulty she had keeping him under control had already helped drive her to attempt suicide last year. Now she felt she had only one option: She flew with her child to Nebraska last week and tearfully left him there.
About four years ago, a crack addict in a North Carolina Wal-Mart handed her 16-month-old son to Melyssa Cowburn and promised to return after buying diapers. When the woman didn't come back, Cowburn -- herself adopted -- became the boy's guardian.

"I was 24," said Cowburn, who asked that the boy not be named in this article. "I just thought, 'I'm going to love this little guy, and it's just going to make everything better.' "

That wasn't the case. The child screamed for hours on end and kicked at her. As he grew, he learned how to rip molding off doorways in their rented houses and stab Cowburn's cat. He was routinely expelled from day-care programs for violence.

Cowburn said she took him to a hospital after one violent episode, and doctors diagnosed him with reactive attachment disorder, a rare condition that warps a child's personal relationships and stems from early abandonment. She later learned that the boy's birth mother was schizophrenic.

Cowburn's husband, Adam, an ex-Marine, rejoined the military to pay for the child's medications. He was deployed to Afghanistan last year. Melyssa Cowburn returned to Omaha, where her mother lives. At wit's end, she swallowed prescription pills one night and was rushed to the hospital. Her 79-year-old mother was unable to care for the boy while Cowburn recovered. The child was placed into Nebraska foster care for several months.

The state said the child seemed to improve, but Cowburn said he simply returned with a new roster of curse words. Cowburn's husband was deployed to Washington state, where the couple struggled to get insurance to cover medications. Social workers there said they could not take the child unless the parents were abusing him.

In despair after the assault on a friend's infant, the fire and the flood, Cowburn took her boy back to Omaha and drove him to Immanuel Medical Center the night of Nov. 13. She told him she was taking him to the hospital so he could get better.

"Maybe," the child said, according to Cowburn, "you can find a little boy who's better."

"I don't want anyone better," Cowburn said. "I want you."

She cried the entire drive back to her mother's home.

     ~ from “Parents' despair is left at Nebraska's doorstep” by Nicholas Riccardi
     Los Angeles Times; November 21, 2008

Tierra del Fuego

It's been well over a week now since flames were racing up and down the foothills a mere two miles from the house I live in. The strangeness of the experience has all but dissipated now, and the only people I know who were directly affected are mere acquaintances.

That Thursday night was an exercise in putting "impermanence" into practice, though. J and I had been driving home from work and immediately saw flames in the distance from the freeway, but it was hard to tell exactly where they were located. As we flipped around the all-news AM radio stations and got closer to town, it was apparent that the fire was up in the foothills, but definitely somewhat close to Santa Barbara. We weren't particularly alarmed and did an errand or two downtown, which by then smelled fairly smoky and had a few flurries of ash raining down.

We parted ways and when I arrived home I found my upstairs neighbor loading an armful of clothes into her car. Although I had talked to J about the possibility of packing up some stuff and spending the night at her place, it wasn't until I saw my neighbor that I thought things might be kind of serious. Not urgent, but serious -- at least for our neighborhood.

Since I knew some parts of the city were without electricity due to the proximity of the fire to some power lines, I decided I'd rather pack up some stuff before the power outage spread to our area. I live in the lower part of the foothills, and figured that there was only a slim chance of the fire coming this far. Even without a sense of "real" urgency, the exercise of packing up belongings "just in case" the place might burn down was an interesting exercise.

What would you pack up and take? I had a good couple hours to pack in a leisurely way, but what if I had only had mere minutes?

In ended up taking a few days' worth of clothes. A large shoe box of photos and negatives, some photo albums, and a couple of framed photos. A small framed lithograph I bought in Venice. Several wooden carvings from my time in Africa. Cameras. A box of blank checks. My passports. Eyeglasses. A toiletry case and all my supplies of medications. An entire box of colognes and perfumes (don't laugh: it's become a hobby and the entire collection is worth an amount of money that I'm almost embarrassed to admit).

My scrapbook from Africa and several old handwritten journals were packed up also. I had to dig around in a couple of boxes for some of the journals, and even then there were some that I just couldn't find (and I still haven't figured out where they are). I've made a mental note that I really should collect all of those journals and have them in one place. In this digital age, it would be nice if I had a scanner and could digitize all of them; I've also thought of transcribing them into some kind of online repository, but who knows how long before I get around to something like that.

The only book I grabbed was an exhibition catalogue inscribed for me by a former boyfriend (he had helped curate the exhibition).

So in the end: impermanence. I had to consider what would happen if I lost it all. My friend, J, seemed quite upset at the idea of losing all her objects -- even though her place was much further from the fire than mine, we both imagined what would happen if winds blew the fire Armageddon-like through the city. Although I could say it certainly bothers me, I don't know that I would be crushed to lose my possessions. There's part of me that feels that it would be great to have everything wiped clean and make a fresh start from nothing. However, without renter's insurance, that might actually be a heartbreaking (and budget breaking) situation.

I still haven't unpacked and put back in place everything I threw together that Thursday night. I also really need to go through my closet and the boxes of possessions that are stored all over this apartment and get rid of so much stuff. I have a hard time parting with many things, but part of me really hates "stuff" and has grown to hate it even more as time passes.

There was a time when almost everything I had was able to be transported in a single carload across the country. That time seems so carefree and exciting now. It's not that I have expensive pieces of furniture that I can't part with (though there are a couple nice pieces I wouldn't want to just pitch in a dumpster). I still find it hard to part with certain items of clothing, even when I haven't worn them for years (or in some cases, over a decade). I've saved almost every handwritten letter I've ever received, and many greeting cards as well, if they have significant inscriptions. There is one overflowing shoebox of programs, handouts, and flyers for performances I've attended.

Coincidentally, This American Life replayed an episode today about people who have to clean up the belongings of those who die with no next of kin. It's worth thinking about: What will happen to all our "stuff" when we're gone, whether we die unexpectedly in a bus crash tomorrow or if we live another twenty or thirty years? Isn't it worth doing a little winnowing ourselves now to spare some poor soul the job of having to figure out what to do with that Pikachu bath toy that looked so cute years ago when we just had to buy it?

Maybe that's why it might be a good idea to move residences more often -- and not just haul all the same boxes of junk to the new address, but to use moving as an opportunity to pare down and clean out.

Which brings me to my next topic (although I feel like I've written more than I wanted to at this point and maybe I should wrap things up): I really feel like leaving California more than ever lately.

Not that I really want to leave, but I've been in an indecisive limbo about how and where to live my life for so long now. It will break my heart to leave California whenever that happens, but I feel such a strong pull back to the Northeast (mainly because of my grandmother's advancing age) that I know I can't just keep feeling this tug indefinitely without some possibly tragic psychic consequences.

In addition, developments at work have conspired to make me entirely fed up and depressed about the situation there. Without elaborating, I'll just say that I'm pretty much being moved to another affiliated unit against my will, and while it's being spun as an "opportunity!" by some, what I really feel is that it's an opportunity for my direct supervisors not to have to deal with me challenging them or making them uncomfortable now and then. Seriously, I'm just disgusted, but as I said, also depressed because at times like this I really start to think about other job options and I seriously have NO IDEA what my qualifications are, if any. They're so generic, in my mind, as to be meaningless.

In truth, all I want to do lately is sleep because I'm so depressed, and while I'm not really actively thinking of suicide (honestly, I'm way too afraid of death), the thought does cross my mind about how such an act might play out. Sleep is so enjoyable that eternal sleep doesn't seem like much stretch or hardship. Seriously, though, I don't view suicide as something that might happen in the near term, but I do wonder if that's ultimately going to be one of the most likely options in the far-off future. My health is declining and will only continue to do so. I have, essentially, no career, and the thought of trying to "sell oneself" to prospective employers as age advances and one is less likely to be perky enough to pull it off with enthusiasm alone (especially when one doesn't really have a "profession") just seems more and more ridiculous. And the carnage of a few disastrous relationships recedes into the more and more distant past with nothing promising on the horizon to replace them.

I want to sell off all my things and pack it all up by April for a retreat to New Jersey. That also plays into a childish fantasy of "sticking it to" my employers by leaving at an inopportune time. Silly, but it feels good to have that fantasy right now.

However, the stress of worrying about health insurance, possibly buying a car, trying to come close to earning my current salary... and the chances of working at something I love and that would satisfy me on a molecular level.... it's all too much, so here I sit contemplating crawling into bed at 9:40pm (and here I was intending to soak in a bath tonight).

“Television in India is so uplifting!”

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Never Can Be Broken

No earthly church has ever blessed our union
No state has ever granted us permission
No family bond has ever made us two
No company has ever earned commission

No debt was paid no dowry to be gained
No treaty over border land or power
No semblance of the world outside remained
To stain the beauty of this nuptial hour

The secret marriage vow is never spoken
The secret marriage never can be broken

          ~Sting (from “Nothing Like the Sun”)

This song has been haunting me for the last week; it and I go way back.

Listen here. Bring Kleenex if so inclined.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, and into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope --
Good morning.

          ~Maya Angelou

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Los Muertos

I decided to set up a little ofrenda on my mantel tonight to commemorate Día de los Muertos. I was introduced to this tradition in practice when I stayed with my friend B at his house in San Miguel de Allende back in 2006 (see some photos here.)

The photos I put up are of my grandfather and my friends Chris and Dianne, who are really the only significant people I've lost in my life (though there are some great aunts and uncles I could include as well). Chris, of course, was sadly added to this group just last summer. Note the small glass of whiskey, which I know all three of these people I love would heartily enjoy.

Spending Día de los Muertos in Mexico made me realize what a nice tradition it is -- and in many ways, an important one that we all should probably learn from. I think connecting back with our dead loved ones is a form of respect, a recognition of the love we shared, and (maybe most importantly, at least for me) a clear reminder of our own mortality and to not take one minute of life for granted. I also like the fact that in Mexico it seems to be a fairly joyous and lighthearted holiday, a time for people to enjoy themselves as well as a time to come together and trek to cemeteries to decorate the resting places of their dead.

In a similar vein, a non-Jewish friend of mine has taken to observing the Jewish tradition of Yahrtzeit, lighting a candle and setting up a small shrine on the anniversaries of her parents' deaths.

I believe we still carry on relationships with those we love, even after they've passed... and that they carry on relationships with us. Some of my most beloved and tender dreams are those in which the three people I've commemorated in this altar have appeared. I especially remember a dream in which Dianne and I shared a beautiful and heartfelt hug, during which I was able to say to her, very sincerely, "Oh, I've missed you." That dream-hug was as real as any I've experienced in my waking hours.
“One by one we are all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age... Think of all those who ever were, back to that start of time, and me transient as they flickering out as well into their grey world, like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling....”
     ~James Joyce, “The Dead”

Persimmon Sunday

I haven't yet sunk my teeth into one of these crunchy delights, but I will soon. The thing is, I don't exactly love persimmons (or kaki, their Japanese name). If anything, I'm indifferent. Their flavor is very subtle, and reminds me of something almost as bland as sugarwater: pleasant enough, but nothing that makes me crave them as I do some other fruits and foods. They're always far too beautiful to pass up buying a few, though, and I'm determined to try to enjoy them once again and maybe discover some hidden ambrosia quality that has thus far eluded me.
Tell them
I was a persimmon eater
who liked haiku
     ~Masaoka Shiki, 1897