Archive for July 2010

My Afghani (in Goa)

July 31, 2010

My Afghani's Nose

Last week I wrote variously about warmth, watermelon, Proust, Afghanistan.  With all that floating about, I thought today about my own experiences of Afghanistan.

They are extremely limited.  Haven’t even been there.  I only came close once, in the early 80s, on a bus that had an overland route from Delhi to London (the “Magic Bus”).  I got on in Istanbul, and was seriously tempted to head East.  But, aside from the fact that I had already overstayed my trip, there was a Brit continuing on from the Delhi/Pakistan/Afghan side who warned strenuously against it.  He was a tousled (and tired) young lad who, after getting very drunk in London after breaking up with his girlfriend, woke on a plane to Bombay.   With no return plane ticket, he’d ended up on the bus home, which, he shuddered, had gotten through Afghanistan only by chance.  Theyhad been pulled over—by Freedom Fighters?  The Taliban?–somehow he’d managed to hide the fact that he was British and get through.

I got on the bus for London, but my interest/passion for Asia was further inflamed.  Turkey had ignited it.   Some people just love the exotic, I suppose, and patterns –that wonderful conglomeration of patterns that I always associate with Central Asia had already captivated me – the layers of geometry – rugs, mosaics, scarfs, tunics, pants, arches.

Soon after, I was able to go to India myself.  And all those things I’d thought to find fascinating were, in fact, fascinating.  Also overwhelming.  A few months into my stay, I took a break in Goa.

Goa, back then, was not India.  Yes, it was legally part of the country, but well–women greeted my boat at dawn with gathered skirts and baskets of freshly-baked yeasted bread.   They even had sausages!  Sausages!  It was mindblowing (and I don’t even eat meat!)

The beachtowns were largely taken over by Westerners, if I can include Australians and Israelis in that category.  Sun-beached, sun-tanned people that seemed like stragglers from Haight-Ashbury, refugees from the 60s. Everybody was beautiful, welcoming, (at the beach) nude.

I soon discovered one important difference from Goa of the 80s and my sense of the hippified 60’s.  There was lots and lots of of heroin.  People, stupid people, had the idea that it would not be addictive if smoked, so they were constantly rolling it up into tobacco.

I’ve never been very interested in drugs, any drugs.   I suppose I was just too (a) unconsciously maternal (had to preserve the good old bod); and (b) concerned about my own inherent manic-d-daily tendencies, to want to take anything that could hurt me, or induce feelings I couldn’t just stop.   So trying to  steer clear of the drug scene, I quickly took a room outside of town, and focused on yoga.

Easier said than done.  My room turned out to be in a house, that yes, had a very nice Goan family in one half, but also had a group of young Himalayans in the back (they sold Hashish); a very helpful older British man in the front (he turned out to be financing his trip by being a mule), and, in the house next store, a group of Afghanis.  They were apparently the center of the heroin trade.

My Afghani was not one of the guys next door; he lived, he always told me, at the edge of the beach.  He was wonderful– tall, broad-shouldered, handsome in a non-movie star, real person kind of way, with a slightly hawkish nose, very thoughtful eyes, a sweet smile.  He was quite pale – well, pink–you couldn’t completely escape the sun in Goa even if you only came out late afternoons.

I met him in the late afternoons at a little straw hut that served tea and fruit (watermelon!) and little omeletty things.

He, like all the Afghanis, always kept his clothes on – those long tunic-like shirts that have a western style collar and sleeves but drape almost to the knees over billowing pants, always pastels.  I too always had my clothes on in that little hut.

Usually, we’d just sit and talk about literature and look at the sun setting over the Indian Ocean.  He loved Jack London.   “The Call of the Wild,” he’d smile, shaking his head.  The sun went down incredibly quickly when it got to the lip of the horizon, so slow so low so slow, and then, blip, disappearing in less than a glance.

He said he’d been a chemist in Afghanistan, but had to leave because of the war.  (This one with the Russians.)   He seemed to have fought, to have been particularly targeted, to have to leave.

He laughed a lot, gently.  Sometimes we watched a bunch of Germans, in the distance, who did nude calisthenics in the evening cool.  They were red, some wiry, some not–luckily a bit too far to see clearly.

It was an odd scene, Goa.

Because my Afghani did not live with the rest of the Afghanis, I never connected him with the heroin trade, but, now it’s difficult to imagine how or why he could have been there if he was not part of it.

My housemate, the drug mule, was furious with the Afghanis by the end of his stay, complaining how they followed people out to the beaches.  These were always people who were making a point of trying to quit heroin; who were avoiding the towns, the late night cafes, but, my housemate fumed, the dealers themselves would track them.

I used to think, as my housemate raged, that if these friends of his really wanted to quit, they should probably not stay in Goa.  But they didn’t seem able to leave.





This is reposted for Imperfect Prose.

in the hush of the moon

Confused In And About Afghanistan

July 30, 2010

I admit to being stymied on the political front this week, particularly as it relates to the issue of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, and the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

First, I must confess to a knee-jerk dislike of Mr. Assange.  His face bears (to my mind) an unmistakeable imprint of narcissism.  His statement about wanting to crush bastards strikes me as, well, arrogant.  The whole notion of someone being able to leak 92,000 classified documents, and Wikileaks publishing them, is worrisome (and kind of repugnant).  I understand whistle-blowing and uncovering cover-ups, but so far, the documents do not seem to be truly revelatory.  The war is not going well;  the goals are confused;  our “friends” – the Pakistani and Afghani governments – don’t really like or trust us, and we would be stupid to trust them.  Does this actually surprise anyone?

Can there ever be a true handing over of power in this area?  Possibly, hopefully, but it is doubtful that the handees will have the same priorities and goals as we do.  (Any gains in women’s rights, for example, seem unlikely to be safeguarded, and bases for terrorists seem likely to continue in force.)

Putting questions relating specifically to the leaked documents aside – questions of their benefits, the morality of leaking, the mantle of self-aggrandizement of the publishers- they heighten the focus on the Afghan conflict.  So what about it?

For my part, I hate war.  When Bush first announced the invasion, I wept.  But (call me partisan),  I cannot believe that Obama has continued the conflict carelessly.  I just can’t accept that the guy who went to Dover so soberly in the middle of the night reinforced the war effort because he did not want to seem insufficiently macho, or tough on terrorism, or inconsistent.   While I certainly worry that Obama could have been over-influenced by the sanguine hopes (or despairing predictions)  of military advisors, I have to believe that Obama himself (and even most of these advisors) are sincere in thinking something good or, at least, necessary can result from this conflict.

(What really scares me though is that, if push came to shove, I’d probably have to say the same thing about Bush;  that, for all my disagreement with him, he thought something good or necessary was to be gotten from these wars.)

Which means that I’m not willing to accept Assange’s characterization of all those involved as “bastards.”  At the same time I also know that if I had a child killed or injured in Afghanistan (God forbid), I would not be able to understand why.  My grief would not be mitigated by some sense of meaning, my distress would not be comforted.

Buck Off!

July 30, 2010


Terry Pratchett, my favorite writer of all time (other than, perhaps, William Shakespeare), has a wonderful scene in Guards Guards! in which Lady Sybil Ramkin surveys the rank and file of the Ankh-Morpork City Night Watch–that is, Corporal Carrot, Sergeant Colon, Nobby Nobbs, and an orangutang (the Unseen University’s Librarian) who is serving as an ad-hoc guard.

‘A fine body of men….errr anthropoids,’ Lady Ramkin puffs as she sails down the line.

The guards, their chests sticking out, felt considerably “bucked up,”  by Lady Ramkin’s inspection, Pratchett notes, ‘which was several letters away in the alphabet from how they usually felt.’  (This is quoted from memory but you get the gist.)

Bucking up, cheering up, “chin up”, are old British watchwords;  activities as seemingly traditional as stiff upper lips and tea at 4.

With all due respect to Lady Ramkin, just give me the tea.

Bucking up makes me feel trivialized; patronized, sometimes furious.    (Does it even make traditional Brits feel better?  Or does it just make them adopt other “up” activities as in “put” and “shut.”)

Sympathy implies someone sharing your feelings, not trying to lever them away.  (I have a  image of the bucker heaving dirt from a hole in the ground into an upper level window box, which, ironically, holds only plastic flowers.)

The sharing of gloomy feelings may confirm gloominess, but that comfirmation, that added firmness, gives me, at least, a foundation to step up from.  (And a step works better than a push, here.) 


Bucked-up Exchange:

Low Person:  “I’m so low.”

Bucker-Upper:  “Awww.. Just get going and you’ll feel better.”

Low Person:  “No, I won’t.”

Bucker-upper:  “You will, I promise you.”

Low Person:  “I WON’T.  [There follows a compendium of the many ways in which the bucker-upper is contributing to the “won’tness.”]

Non-Bucked-Up Exchange:

Low Person:  “I’m so low.”

Ideal Answer:  “Boy, you sound really low.”

Low Person:  “Yes…  But I’ve got to going.”

Ideal Answer:  “It’s hard.”

Low Person:  “Yes.”  {As Low Person begins moving.)

Of course, the tea helps too.

The Remembrance of Things Watermelon

July 29, 2010

Proustian Watermelon

Yesterday, I promised “Proustian.”  And watermelon.

 I have to confess to not having read much Proust.  I know about the alleged inspiration–the tea and the little cakey-cookies (which, in turn, always makes me think of the children’s book of the little girl who, with others, traveled in two straight lines.)

(In case, you are not a children’s book devotee, that’s Madeline.)

I do have a vague memory of the beginning of the Remembrance Of Things Past, in whichthe writer/narrator is in bed, remembering (I think) the shushing sounds of his mother’s feet in the hallway, and too, of a candle or lamp. 

I am right now in a bed, listening to the shushing sounds of people’s air conditioners.

Watermelon is really great stuff, with or without Proust.

When I was a child, the melons were huge, and generally meant group activities, picnics, barbecues.  It brought a communal aspect even to a meal of just my family.    (I suppose that’s also the feeling that comes from sharing a roast, but a huge green and red fruit seems somehow merrier.)

I internally dubbed one Aunt a genius because of a fruit salad which she poured back into the scooped-out watermelon like huge oblong bowl, complete with rind handle.  (The salad was doused with a hefty quantity of rum, which probably also fueled my childish awe.)   Pre-sushi bars, cooks were not nearly so creative with presentation; this seemed extraordinary.

As I grew older, I had a more personal relationship with the fruit.   They were making them a bit smaller then a half-fridge size by then, and I would sometimes buy one even just for myself.  That was a time, both for me and the world, of wacky diets whose simplicity -you just ate one food, or one kind of food — was supposed to be somehow magical.   Now, they would probably call these cleansing diets, but, back then, we were fairly open about our goals  – melting pounds fast.

The watermelon diet.  It was hard to leave the apartment when following it.  Particularly if, like me, you followed it in a manic, stomach-bulging way.  (One further problem – even watermelon is not slimming if you eat enough of it.)

When my daughters were little, they were introduced to Wattamelon!  In Florida!  At Friendly’s!  It was a blend of dyes and sugar that looked amazingly like a wedge of the real stuff – lime, lemon, watermelon sherberts layered, then speckled with chocolate bits.  

It seemed to symbolize Florida for my kids  – a place where everything seemed bright,  flat, plastic, a place not just of Friendly’s, but Walmart.  (We didn’t have either in NYC.)  Of aisles, and lights, and brightness, and cheap largess.   Even the plants – palm trees – had a waxen, unreal, surface.

Summers were spent in upstate New York, a rocky, un-flat place, where my mother-in-law,  an extremely elegant woman, would relate a saying about watermelon at every picnic — it was an Italian saying (which she repeated in the original Italian, of course) about how it filled the stomach, quenched the thirst, and washed the face.    The last part was said with a curved smile, and slight caress of the chin and cheeks.   It was a story essentially told to make sticky guests feel at ease;  she herself could manage to eat the juiciest wedges without a single drip.

Connecting to Time – Summertime – With Watermelon

July 28, 2010

Watermelon Time

Despite the date, despite the heat, it hasn’t felt like true summer to me yet.  Partly this has been because of the lack of extended vacation time – that purposeful indolence that I always associated with summer as a child; partly this vagueness results from the general disengagement with time that seems to go hand in hand with growing older.  As you age, time seems to slip through your fingers like extremely gritty sand–with a fair amount of discomfort (itch/scratch/burn) but too fast to truly grasp.

And partly, I realized last night, my disconnect from this summer has  stemmed from an inexplicable lack of watermelon.

Where has it been?  Why haven’t I bought any?

I’m not exactly sure, but I suspect it has to do with too much rushing about, too much uncertainty.  The purchase of a whole watermelon is a commitment.

Whatever.  I had my first pieces of the season very very late last night and finally July felt somehow real, a part of my personal mosaic of “July”,  one more member of the conga line of continuum.

I love watermelon.  In a childhood without much A/C, it represented a hand-held cooling system.

And the piece I had last night (in a similarly unairconditioned, thirsty state) was just as sweet, delicious, cooling as I always remembered it.   I remembered a lot of it – the melon was like my own red/green, seedy, crunchy/soggy madeleine.  The inner fruit self-moistened, no tea necessary.

The “Proustian”—errr—ManicDDailean results tomorrow.

Dog Days Of Summer (Any Day Around Now In Which You Have To Do Something)

July 27, 2010

Hot Dog on Summer Dog Day

At a certain point mid-summer, the days become dog days even if not beastly hot.  If, that is, they are work days.

Many, in my generation (boomers), were lucky enough to be raised on summer vacations.  I say, raised “on” rather than raised “in,” because summer was a halcyon time of little supervision; we were hardly raised at all during those hot months, but were out in the street, a back yard, someone’s basement, the pool (or a slow rota of all of the above).  Adults were there but not right there.  They were sort of like life guards  – near enough to be summoned in a crisis, occasionally blowing a figurative whistle, mainly just hovering somewhere vaguely above us, and (on weekends at least) sunning themselves.  Their reprimands could usually be avoided by some judicious tip-toeing or scoots.

There is something magical about unstructured time, especially for children, and especially when screens (other than perhaps sunscreens) are kept, more or less, off-limits.  Unfortunately, today’s kids experience unstructured summer days less and less; school is succeeded by various day or sleep-away camps, summer schools, prep courses, and when all parties (parents and children) have vacation, it’s such a brief, valuable, time that the conscientious working parent feels (rightly) compelled to spend it actively together with their child, doing something planned.

I started to write – what about some good old-fashioned boredom?  But I’m sure modern kids get plenty bored; it just seems to be a more frenetic/passive kind of boredom, a boredom fed by digital or electronic current, or, at a minimum, a current of someone else’s control or content.

Adults suffer too.  We were raised on summer vacations, remember!  Days and days of trying to think up something fun, sometimes succeeding.

Body of Apricots

July 26, 2010


Hard to adjust to a new day after the death of a friend.  The burden of sadness seems to sink into one’s joints (not to mention eyes, chest, forehead).

All day yesterday, I was poignantly conscious of the joy of a body.  What a delight it is when it works.  To simply move — to move simply– is an actual physical pleasure when all the parts are in order, more or less.  To stretch one’s legs, swing one’s arms, feel gravity beneath the feet.  To be touched by air, much less another person.

To eat!


Even less than ripe apricots!

So tart, almost like plums.  (Less than ripe plums.)  With that same inner coolness, but a soft blushed cheek.  Peel.  Skin.  Body.

Blog Birthday

July 25, 2010

From "Thin Birthday"

Today is the one year anniversary (ironically, the “paper” anniversary) of this blog.

I have made 473 posts and gotten over 10,000 views.  (A small number for a blog, but amazing to me.)  Writing the posts, drawing the pictures, and putting them out into the world with a click of a button has been fascinating; doing this on a daily basis has been both stressful and freeing–yes, it’s been a lot of work, but because of the pace, I have been continually forced to move on from whatever I just did to embarrass myself.

I first want to thank all of you who have followed the blog, or even just occasionally checked in.  If you are a regular viewer, you must know that I have an (a) obsessive and (b) moody temperament; this combination has occasionally translated into repetitive and tormented checking of “stats”, a whole new form of masochistic escapism.   However, you regular viewers have really done a lot to buoy me up over the last year, you irregular viewers to thrust me into momentary despair. (Ha!)

I especially appreciate your time and interest since, as some of you may have already realized, I am not a natural blogger.   Yes, I write and draw fairly quickly, but I don’t really know anything.  (Oops!  Important caveat – I do know quite a few things in the area of my non-blogged profession.)

But I can’t give advice on household management, money-saving, science or health. I’m not even particularly political, though because a daily blog works a bit like a newspaper column, I tend to sound off in that area.

I’ve said before that my subject is “some overlap of stress and creativity”.  (This may be a cipher for “whatever stressed me feels like creating that day”.)  But as the year mark passes, I really would like to move more into the area of creativity and a bit further from the area of stress.

This, of course, is easier said than done.  And I’m not quite sure what I even mean by it—I hesitate to spell it out yet in the light of that uncertainty.

Any ideas?  Suggestions?

Thanks again.

(And as always, check out 1 Mississippi by Karin Gustafson – publicizing that book was the real reason I started the blog, but I’m afraid I haven’t done a very good job of it.  It really is a cute book–discounts are readily available if you write me.)

No A/C (With Anteater)

July 24, 2010

Anteater with Brain Freeze

My sweaty brow turns now to Stan Cox, an agricultural scientist and author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer), a book which argues against the excessive use of air conditioning in the modern world because of its negative environmental and societal effects and its effects on overall health.   Cox, who lives surrounded by cotton (barely) and fans (liberally) in Salina, Kansas, had the nerve to write an opinion piece in the Washington Post in the midst of this record hot summer, explaining the downside of air conditioning.  He received 67 pages of negative emails, which included death threats, and the epithet “Idiot!”  And these weren’t even from his family!

I know it’s hard to make a choice against A/C.   A New York apartment without it feels not only muggily hot but horribly grimy.

And yet, and yet… if you just stay still enough (so that the sweat congeals to a 98.6 degree layer between your skin and the 102 degree world), and keep your rooms dark enough (so that you can’t quite see the grime), it really is quite liveable.

I can hear some of you thinking—”you call that a life?”  or, “but why?”

All I can say there’s something kind of lovely about heat-enforced laziness; and the relief that comes as evening falls, as cold baths are slithered into, as icy smoothies are sipped (despite the brain freeze), is really pretty cool.

(PS – I’m trying to branch out from elephants, but if you like elephants, check out 1 Mississippi by Karin Gustafson on Amazon.)

Cancer – Fight For the Miraculous – Hard with Cannons

July 24, 2010

Trying to regroup a bit today, not to think too much about sad things, after the death of a dear friend.  Cancer does keep popping to the brain, though in a curiously disengaged way.  Not so much why people get it – that one’s a bit too scary.  As an inhabitant of New York City who’s ingested all kinds of particulate matter, and still makes decisions that are not proactively anti-carcinogenic, I prefer not to think of it.

What comes to mind more easily is how people fight cancer, and why?

I, thankfully, have not had a personal reason to study these issues minutely, but I have to confess to some general bias against Western medicine.  It’s always seemed to me to specialize in cannons;  approaches to illness that involve heavy artillery used on a landscape (the body) which is nuanced and delicate (despite all those limbs and outgrowths), a landscape which one would just as soon save more rather than less of.   I am skeptical enough that the concept of a “surgical strike” seems hardly more precise to me when conducted by people in masks around an operating table than by pilots over a tableau of largely civilian dwellings.

I don’t mean to say that modern surgeons aren’t capable of precision (the whole skill seems to me to be absolutely amazing).  But I do think that the medical profession sometimes underrates the complications attending the procedures, the truly difficult healing processes and side effects.  The body is so complex and self-regulating;  it doesn’t particularly like to be messed with (even when its systems are out of whack.)

Pharmaceutical applications seem even less precise.  Dealing with my father’s diabetes has been an interesting lesson in this, his blood-sugar-lowing medication having been the prime cause of every emergency room visit and hospitalization over the last few years.

So complicated.  Does early detection of cancers save lives, or does it just extend the counting period?  How much good do chemotherapy and radiation do against aggressive cancers?  Does this good outweigh their stress on the healthy parts of the body, the body’s own defense mechanisms?  Or would the healthy parts of the body be weakened even faster by the cancer itself? Does the fight for extra time actually give extra time or just wear the patient out?

Of course, each case is different;  results are not fully knowable in advance.  And though experts seem to be getting better at identifying really aggressive cancers, those marked by a terrible predictability,  they have to allow for the slim chance; some possibility of unpredictability, some miraculous outcome.   Of course, it’s difficult to force the miraculous, but, as modern Americans – proud fighters, believers in belief itself, and above all, dutiful family members  – we cling to these slim chances, feel bound to try for them.

A difficult arena.