Farewell an era

I remember sitting on the floor not far from the ironing board, where my mother pressed shirts with hissing steam while watching General Hospital, and sometimes As The World Turns.  I remember the faces, the close ups, the over-acted drama.  I remember getting a little older and acting out half-understood scenes from those soaps, trying to entertain her.  I also recall being a freshman in college, the main living room of the dorm populated midday by a mostly African American group of young women watching All My Children and howling at the screen.  I would occasionally attend, not to watch the exploits of the characters on the show, but to observe the group theatrics played out by the viewers.

I was never a joiner, never a fan of daytime soaps.  Like most people my age, I was an avid watcher of MASH, CHEERS, and various other evening shows.  But the daytime craze never reached me.  Perhaps it didn’t reach many of us, and it passed into arcane obscurity, and now one by one they are ending altogether.  It is the end of an era, several eras perhaps.

My mother used to tell me about listening to scary radio shows while she and her sister cowered under a blanket.   We play Podcasts in my home, but that is something different entirely and the content is not meant to inspire fear (although most recent news does so anyway).  Garrison Keillor still carries on the radio tradition with Prairie Home Companion, but it a re-created relic of another time, as entertaining as it is.

No, soaps were their own phenomenon, and so is the “reality” television that is replacing them.   My mother had her Dick Cavett and other talk shows, but they are not the same animal as what exists today.  A distant cousin perhaps, as the Carol Burnett show and Laugh-In were, and Ed Sullivan, Your Show of Shows, and others before them.  Soaps were entertainment, a distraction, a narrative based white noise (and very white they were) for individuals home alone (except for the babble of small children).  It was the background to my small childhood, and anesthetic for my father when he was briefly unemployed in the recession of the 70’s.

I find myself doing many of the same chores as my mother now, but instead of a soap I put the flat screen on to the Bernie Mac show.  It makes me laugh (and I try to find a reason to laugh every morning), and has a sly poignancy about family life that I find dead-on.  My children are in school, and no one sits on the floor next to me while I do dishes.   I am very much alone these days, and wonder how my mother must have felt.  Such a social person, not used to the new cul-de-sac suburbia of the early 1960’s.  I remember a few things from those days in the one level, aqua post-war house.  I look at photos and recall the objects.   I wish she were here to ask about those days, what she remembered, how she felt.  I would ask her what she thought of the soaps dying off, and watch a few final episodes with her out of nostalgia.  I would make us coffee, and sit next to her chair.  But she is not here anymore.

I make my way in the world, feeling time pass.  Technology changes, but people don’t.  We are still 3-D beings, make of flesh and bone who act on impulses, drives, and desires as well as carefully considered obligations, loyalties, and entertainments.  I shake my head this morning, oh we do become our parents!  We may run away from it, fashion ourselves lives that on the surface seem so completely different, but we do, we do become them.  For better or worse.  That phrase should not only be used at weddings, but when one finds out they are pregnant as well.  For better or worse- you are a part of this marriage, now this parenting, for the rest of your life (of course I recognize there are alternatives, but for most of us this is the social contract we enter into).  Your options have become circumscribed and huge responsibilities conferred, but not without privileges and joys.  And in the slow, quiet moments you can give yourself choices, small though they may seem these choices will become the background to your memories and those of your children.  I do not recall much about those soaps, but that they were the sound and sights of some consistent time spent with my mother.  It’s like catching her singing, or laughing to herself, those intimacies a child gets to see, those fleeting insights into the people we love.

So goes the soaps, so passes time.  Farewell to an era, a domestic ritual that has lost any meaning.  Farewell.

On death and dying

Holy Sonnet X, John Donne: Death be not proud.

Death is a fact.  Dying is an act.  After actively witnessing close up the acts of dying my mother and (most recently) my grandmother have participated in, I have come to a few conclusions.

Dying is ugly.  I will probably, like most, see back through jellied lenses at what I know and instinctively find ways to convince myself that it was deep.  I will make meaning of chaos.   But truly, dying is ugly.  I believe those who convince themselves otherwise are avoiding the issue or finding ways to be right with it.  That’s fine.  But at present I can’t escape the knowledge of smells, sights, sounds, textures, and smells that linger as tastes.  I can’t escape indignities, of the body fighting itself and the process of decay.  I can’t stop struggling to hope for more grace, a quicker route than I have seen pass. 

There are those who enact hospice, who find fascination with dying as well as defining themselves as enablers of peace.  I do not admire them, but know them to be useful to others.  So be it.  We have lost our rituals of dying; so that many of us are left to act as best we can, making it up as we go along, stumbling, hoping for better.

I despise funeral homes.  There is nothing, nothing at all, more fake than a funeral home (what home is this?).  The fake condolences, the fake fluids, the fake box.  The fake spaces, which never seem to be completely clean and always a bit shabby, tacky, and inept.  The only thing that is not fake about a funeral home is the stark black on white of the legal document agreeing to fork over very real cash, large amounts of it.  If one reads the fine print (and I did),  it is a laundry list of fake services no one needs.  If one takes a mental red marker to the list (and I did), what you are left with is a huge base charge for people you do not know to carry away your dead, pump them with chemicals, and display them for view.  The rest are add ons of every sort meant to balloon the profit margin for a business that has successfully lobbied over the years to take over our ability to mourn, to process our dead.  The strategic shame game when being offered boxes, the subtle sliding of more services to customers addled with grief, the “oh you should discuss that part with your pastor/priest” for the things they do not want to handle, and the awkward organizing that’s left is all just fakery. 

What I and my father know, what we have done to help our dying family members, looms large beside what we did not get to do.  We should have been able to complete the process we were so intimately a part of.  We did the dying, and were denied the death.  The last steps for thousands of years- the washing of the body, dressing, building a simple box, digging the hole, putting the dead in (or burning, if that is your tradition) then covering over- it should be our right.  It is the end, and to have experienced the rest and not the end is unfair.  It is wrong.  It is a step, an essential step, left out.  Once in the ground there is silence.  Others who came, leave.  Then it is time for bills to get paid, letters written to cancel services.  Clothes get donated, the room cleaned.  A once vital, well loved human finishes becoming memories. 

I know I was loved.  I know, however fragmented, I was understood.  I know I loved in return.  They are gone, two of those who loved me most.  Two of those whom I loved most.  I am left with a smaller circle of care, of family, of those I love and whom know me in return.   Death be not proud, but ugly.  Inevitable.   Now let us be about our business, those of us who witnessed and enough of fakery.  We know what has passed, and what is lost.  There is no end to the loss, just fact.  The act is done.

Goodbye beloved mother, grandmother.  

Sweet, salty, and bitter

I finally understand why a tomato is a fruit.  Not the scientific reason, I have known that for a long time: in general, all fruits develop from the ovary in the base of the flower containing the seeds of the plant.  The tomato is born from the ovary of the plant after it is fertilized.  The flesh is made of pericarp walls and the cavities contain the seeds. Toms are an herbaceous plant in the nightshade family (irony there that given the chance over several seasons to go wild, some revert back) and the fruit is classified as a berry.

I ate a lot of garden tomatoes as a kid, and have long known the difference between the artificially ripened tomato-like things at the grocery, and the red, deeply flavored misshapen berries out of a garden.  But I always associated tomatoes with salt.  I have seen tomato jelly for sale and wondered why anyone would treat it as a sweet thing.  Until this weekend.

I bought a pint box of tiny orange tomatoes from a farmers market stand.  As I waited for Husband and kids, I sat and ate a few.  It was unlike anything I have ever had.  They smelled like tomatoes, the texture was of a good garden tomato, but the flavor was sweet.  Down right sugar sweet they were.  I continued to eat the whole pint, each tiny fruit bursting with flavor the second I bit down upon it.  I bought a second pint for Husband to try, as I rambled effusively about the flavor.  One bite and he agreed.

I was happy to have finally tasted a tomato that was the very definition of fruit, not just terrific tomato.  They were not the flavor of the “grape” tom, these tiny orange spheres are something else.  When I go back next weekend I will ask what variety they are.

Summer is in full swing with record heat waves, drought, pepper plant eating deer (I am now itching to shoot not only the dogs who randomly crap in our yard-damned the owners- but also the night stalking deer), itchy mosquito bites, bats swarming through the air at sun down, crunchy brown grass, and pots of basil that seem to multiply over night.  The split system heat pump and air conditioner we installed last year has been a blessing on days when the mercury has soared above 105, and the basement is always a good refuge from the heat.  The van shimmers and blasts out waves of throat-choking air when I open the door, and keeping the family hydrated is a constant concern.

The undecipherable tonking of speakers from a local baseball game sounds as the sun goes down, kids run dripping up the street heading home from the city pool.  Watermelon juice dries stickily on hands, chests, cheeks, and floors.  Cornhusks get composted, and the slow gray smoke from the black pot bellied grill wafts over the fence.  Cicadas sound early in the morning and late in the evening, and black birds converse as they take refuge from the heat in our black walnut tree. 

We buried Husbands 15 year old cat last week, at the end of the dry flower garden.  The boys and I found a small concrete sleeping cat, which we put on top of a 2’x1.5’ rock over the grave.  It was a major passing for Husband, a singular marker of middle age.  He had rescued the cat from a shelter as a kitten, and it was his companion throughout graduate school.  Last fall it had begun “losing its mind” according to Husband, and even after being confined to the basement continued to cause problems.  I give him credit, for knowing what had to be done and doing it.  He sat with the cat while the vet gently slid a drug into the small furry body.  He made peace with his friend, and let him go.  When he brought the box home with the body, he dug the hole and I helped him cover it over.  It was not an easy day for any of us.

Summer can be a time of bounty and sweetness, and a time of loss.  I swore like a sailor when I stepped out one morning last week and saw the leaves from my sunflower and pepper plants stripped bare.  I gave up trying to keep any of the lawn green after three weeks without rain.  And I cried for my best friend and the inevitable act he had to carry out that lessened our family by one pet.  I watch as my 95 year old grandmother winds down her life and her body, my father making sure she is comfortable and eating- I must remember to take her some of the tiny orange tomatoes.  I think one of the great graces of middle age is knowing that life ebbs and flows in a complex forward motion of the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, and lots of just plain doing in between being born and dying.  It is this knowledge that keeps the darkness at bay for me, the knowledge that I can still be surprised by life and that I will at some time again be tortured by sadness, but the sadness will not last.

I have never liked heat; geographic regions where the sun shines down and the air seems not to move and the temperature hovers in the 90’s.   I like rainy and cool places best.  But where we live is not always a best-case scenario, and things that happen are sometimes simply part of life.  There is always my family, the cool of the house, and the promise of sweet, bright orange garden fruit in the middle of summer.  Most days, that will do just fine.

Still Standing

Iris Chang was a young woman who wrote a famous book (The Rape of Nanking).  She became a symbol for many Asian-Americans, and blurred the lines between journalist and historian.  She was to all eyes a very confident, competent, attractive woman who “had everything”.  Yet her internal life went into free fall and she committed suicide at the age of 36 in 2004.  I just finished reading an inquiry into her life and death (Finding Iris Chang) written by her good friend, Paula Kamen.  Suicide seems to be a theme this week, with several young celebrities going that route.  I had been wondering about Ms. Chang for several days when I woke up at 3 a.m. completely at peace with an understanding.

Depression and degrees of sanity are part of the human condition.  When we slip into such degrees that it becomes clinically diagnostic is a question artists, philosophers, and most recently psychologists have been wrestling with for a long time.  Anyone can fall.  Just as anyone can slip and fall in their own house, anyone can slip, and start a decline that even they lose the ability to understand or stop.  That may be one of the reasons depression and insanity are so scary to us, because we know it could happen to us as well.

 I think supremely competent people are as susceptible, even if we don’t want to believe they are.  We all develop habits, and when those habits of mind and action are all we have to fall back on to block any pain or anxiety we have, they can stop working for us and begin to work against us.  Yet we keep dong them, because they are safe.  Those habits are knowns.  Ms. Chang worked.  She followed her habits of work because it was what she knew best.  She had responsibilities to her husband, son, and extended family.  She knew how to be forceful; she had learned how to perform.  But perhaps there came a time when she, like many of us, just did not want to do it anymore.  I’ll call it “pulling a J.D. Salinger”.  When people just say STOP.  They change their lives, and quit doing what they had been- no matter how successful it seems to people around them.  Many times, these people get happy.  Sometimes after long stretches they go back to what ever they had been doing (for better or worse).  I woke up at 3 am and I just knew that Ms. Chang had not been able to say STOP, when she may have really wanted to.

 The consummate achiever and self described geek with rough social skills may have just not known she had that option, or felt too ashamed to take it.  It’s a cliché to say Asian people commit suicide more frequently than any others, and often do it out of a sense of shame that is difficult for Westerners to understand.  Ms. Chang was second generation Chinese-American, and while that may have played a role, I think it was complicated.  What was not, it seems, was the clear inability for her to feel any differently than she did.  She fell, and could not get up.

I read recently about a forest in Japan that has been around a long time, but is a taboo subject for the Japanese.  It is a place where people go to die.  To commit suicide.  There were gruesome photographs of bodies everywhere in various states of decay, like some over populated CSI training lab (the likes of which they have in this country, using donated corpses).  Is it part of our world now that especially in first-world countries, suicide is just a fact?  I sympathized with Dr. Kevorkian when he lobbied to be able to help terminally ill people end their lives sooner rather than later.  That is an agonizing thing, to be sure, but an option I believe ought to be available for people who have terminal illnesses.  I know with complete certainty that if I develop Alzheimer’s and treatments have been useless, I want that option.  But this forest of lost souls, this is something different, I think.

 I talked with Husband about the value of real friends, and strong friendship-based marriages.  He agreed that we need those few folks in the center of our dartboard, the bulls-eye, who know us well enough to help us when we don’t even know we need it.   Those most intimate with us, not the rings and degrees of less intimacy that spiral out from our cores.  We need those central stabilizers, those perspectives.  Especially those of us with strong minds and hearts, whom others rely upon and seem to “have it all”.

 Developing such friends is not easy, and not overtly rewarded in our culture.  It takes a tremendous amount of work, and willingness to shunt some folks off to more superficial levels of friendship or eliminate them from our lives all together.  It also takes time.  We live in such geographically fragmented, fast-paced, demanding realities that the very idea of slow anything- slow food, slow friends, slow entertainment, slow work- seems impossible.  But the lesson I take from Ms. Chang is that anyone can fall, and fall fast.  Three things may have helped- I do not know, but I feel it to be true for myself.  1- knowing that anyone can fall, and letting oneself ask for help, and say STOP.  Change it up, let the ego go.  Pull a Salinger. 2- Teach my children the value of intimacy, real friends, and laughing at oneself in joy as much as self-deprecation; and living it as an example.  3- Live slower and let go any anxiety about what is let go as the compromise.  One last addition to this list is the “don’t put it in your head” rule.  There is so much suffering in the world, and we can read about it, see it.  We must, I believe, be a form of witness.  But also, we have limits to how much we can stuff into our head and try to balance.  So I choose not to watch violent fiction, or read it.  There is too much fact I have to carry around, and I don’t need the added images, ideas, or darkness.

 I have known depression, more than once.  I can’t say for sure what pulled me back from the edge, from falling over an edge I could not come back from.  But I know I have a very few good friends who helped.  I also know that I felt shame, I made huge mistakes- and I still suffer regret, but I am letting it go and trying to stop beating myself up about it.  I also know I am now middle aged, and I probably won’t be the high achiever I wanted to be.  I have to say, “oh well”, I pulled a Salinger of sorts in the past and now I am slower for it.  Oh well.

 Life goes on for me.  For many of us.  Sometimes it is enough not to know why, but just to be glad it does.

I read the news today

Alan “buddy” Peshkin told me he did not read the newspapers, nor watch the TV news anymore.  It was at a grad advisee meeting, and I noticed the small clump of cotton on his arm, and tape.  I asked him if he was O.K.  He did not reply.  He died approximately three years later.  The comment had been a piece of advice; advice with knowledge of what he had left and how he wanted to spend it.

I read the news today.  I read the news every day in some form, on the ‘net.  I also get Wired magazine, my dad’s month-old National Geographic, the Economist and the New Yorker.  Our techno-centric culture wonders at all that can and might be, as written about on those pages.  Cancer cured by nano-tech is the latest hot headline.  But what of it?

I read about a young woman, fourteen years old I recall, who had been ritualistically stoned to death in front of an arena of over a thousand people– people who were in all probability all male.  Her crime?  Having been raped.  I have an active visual imagination, and I cannot wipe the scene from my mind.  The calling out of the privileged few who got to stand close, skin hot and sweaty with anticipation, maybe even feeling the rise of hard-ons, as they held stones in their hands.  The ritual reading of crimes perhaps, and the girl buried in the ground so her head sticks out, or hands and legs tied as she lay on the ground (both methods are used in extreme Islamic regions).  Then the throwing of the stones, the target practice lobs, the laughs, the yelling, the rise of sound as the crowd cries for blood.  The thousands of egos, feeling powerless and emasculated in so much of their lives, venting forth in the death of this girl.  And her head eventually exploding, blood everywhere around her, brains, hair, flesh. Nothing left but a ragged stump where her small mouth, fearful eyes, and nose breathing fast used to be.  Where her mind had been wondering what kind of God existed, that let her be raped and then led through the courts, forced to take blame for having a vagina, being young, and who knows what else.  Her bad luck to have been born in a place that not only allows such punishments for no personal failures, but encourages and enforces them.

Some crow about our amazing evolution as beings.  But are we so very far from the Well of Children in ancient Carthage?  That place where thousands of children were thrown, left to die with broken bones, of thirst, or of the head injuries they suffered on the way down.  Two year old and four year old boys in very different parts of the U.S. died recently from a form of torture—water deprivation.  A long, sad, lingering death.  I can see these little boys crying for a drink, and as they were given cups laced with hot pepper and Tabasco, screaming in pain, needing the drink.  I can see them curled up on the floor, no longer able to produce tears, whimpering, just hoping someone would pick them up and hold them, let them drink, love them.  Then they died.  The foster mother of the four year old said she didn’t know it was wrong– even though it took the child seven days to die.  Her companion said he didn’t know either.  The caretakers of the two-year-old thought it an appropriate punishment for wetting the bed– also using cups laced with hot sauce.  Most two year old boys are not toilet trained, nor able to be.  It took him four days to die.

I also read about the millions– yes, you read the number right, the last number I have seen is over six million– millions of women, children, and men in central Africa who have died in the last several years.  Horrific deaths, defenseless, often starving, in what has become a culture of torture across many nations.  Churches burned with entire villages inside, children forced to watch parents raped, tortured, then killed.  Then, children forced to do the same as indentured servants and slaves.

Have we forgotten Stalin?  Have we forgotten Pol Pot?  Have we forgotten the camps of WWII?  Are our memories so short and our compassion so limited that these events pass into being stories, and then into just disposable news?  I am haunted.  I can’t trust the glories of science, technology; the glossy pages selling hope while the reality of our collective human existence rages on, oblivious to the labs curing cancer in mice.  I am a product of the 20th century.  I am an adult of the 21st.  I have a split reality, I read the news on my computer and wonder what I can do about what I read.  I feel powerless. 

I was brought up to believe in God, I was told Mother Mary cried tears for us all, for our sins.  I think she cries out of sadness, yes, and out of powerlessness.  I am agnostic now, and if there is a God, it is without feeling for us.  We have been left to our lonely planet, our environments, and our evolution.  Hell is other people, as certainly as heaven is. 

I read the news today.  There are things I wish I did not have in my head.  I work very hard to keep them out.  But sometimes, things slip in.  And they are images I will never be able to erase.

The Numbers

Cheeses, antiques, geological formations, star systems, all things that benefit from age, the passage of time.  Yet for we specific biological beings, not so much.  Cellular disruption occurs from the moment we become a unit, a cluster of split cells.  Our DNA flips off and on in response to various environmental factors, and we face the onslaught of oxygen breakdown (oxidation), the very stuff of life, our atmosphere.  Since I have been in my forties, I have realized mortality in new ways.  Not just the death of a parent, not just the usual life experiences that add depth and breadth to understanding have come my way.  I have actually pondered this thing, this run of time.  Not as eloquently or masterfully as many before me, to be sure, those who add comfort through their poetry and song. 

Consider: If from this day forward I am in the second half of my life- if I live to be over 88- then I have 16,060 sets of 24 hour cycles left.  That may sound like quite a bit at first, equaling 385,440 hours.  If one is incapacitated, oppressed, or incarcerated, it may seem inordinately long (Nien Cheng’s book “Life and Death I Shanghai” is a good meditation on time in confinement).  But if you, like many of us, measure your life in days, 16,060 seem too little.  Each year is a paltry 365 days.  Financial advisors would say if we put away $2 for each day, we would have 730; if we put away 5 per day, we would have 1,825 (that’s approx. 150 per month); and over time if invested, we would have a nice little nest egg.  Sadly, many of us can’t do that right now.  With recent economic issues (inflation- fast rising food and energy costs especially- and housing negative values, unemployment, under-employment, etc.) pressing on most citizens in the world, saving money is difficult.  I know we lose sleep and gain acid reflux from the stresses of thinking about what has been lost in retirement accounts and the value of our home, as well as Husband’s stagnating salary (higher education jobs have never kept up with inflation, and we did the numbers long ago and realized that he is expected to put into his job the equal of 5-7% of his salary.  That, once taken from the “take home pay and benefits numbers”– we won’t use or discuss the computed hourly wage– makes him the equal of our UPS deliveryman, and less than our garbage collectors.  Oh yeah, it’s a myth that college professor’s children get to go to college for free.  We won’t be able to send ours). 

If I free myself for a moment from those numbers, I am back to the hours, the days (a fine film that ponders quality of life issues by the way, “The Hours”).  It seems so small, so trivial.  I am spending this time overlapping with many other people, people I do not know, but who share this gross “time”, as well as people I love.  Imagine a large computer screen covered with small dots.  Each dot is someone known by name at this moment, both dead and alive.  Over time, dots are replaced by other names as some people fade from memories, from history.  While they existed, they helped make up the gross movements, the impact of humans on time, place, and matter.  Yet most of us will fade.  Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) is remembered by name, but his servants and friends are not.  Eventually, even his name will fade from the screen.  We become the bricks and mortar of history, each overlapping the next, unrecognizable as individuals.  I think the focus of religions on individuality, of god/s knowing each person by name is driven by this collective knowledge, this consciousness of mortality as the loss of individuality.  It is a last desperate bid, hope, for self after the living is done. 

Each day I am usually aware of at a macro level, when I am falling asleep.  I am aware of having wasted it to some degree; feeling guilty over not having taught my children enough, of not getting enough done, of not having let go and laughed enough, of not loving the people who love me enough, of not having listened well enough, of not having been a better citizen, of not being more healthy, and of being too self-involved.  I am also grateful to have been able to observe the crazy things we call culture, and public life.  I am grateful to have smelled food cooking, feel the autumn air, and see the leaves in different colors.  I am grateful for the warm, quick hugs of my small boys, and the lingering embraces of my Husband that can make me feel calm and safe (really- it slows my heart rate and lowers my blood pressure.  I find it an amazing effect).  I also know these things are fleeting, and exist only in our shared memories, which will fade someday as well. 

I have a Jewish friend who impressed upon me the importance of remembering, and of witnessing in her faith.  She noted the importance of remembering names, and events, as ways of keeping not only the gross reality of her religion alive, but individuals too.  I told her that made the Old Testament so much more relevant to me, as a document of remembering names.  So much of it is taken up with a boring list of who was, and who was born of whom.  The Mormons have engaged many Jewish persons in this remembering process, as part of their dedicated genealogical studies.  The vast Mormon databases of who was and who was born of whom is open to anyone, and is quite useful I am told. 

I want to fill a jar with 16,060 dried, small black beans.  Each day I want to remove one, a symbol of what is passing, to remind me to step back and love my life a little better.  The clocks on the walls of every room are not enough, the tickers of moments on the top of my computer, my cell phone, my auto dash board that constantly flip numbers.  I want to more tangibly remind myself to witness, to forgive, and to be aware of time as it passes, of my self and others as we pass and fade into the background of history. 

Horton alone heard “We are here!”  but someday our noises will fade, the lights will dim, and all the dots will go black.  Space spins on, most of the larger mysteries not knowable to us, in a framework of time and matter we can’t begin to grasp.  The sliding scale of reality can go into the microcosms of organisms that exist only for seconds, then spiral out into the vastness of time (A film was made about these ideas, Powers of Ten, 1977, by Ray and Charles Eames; look it up on UTube to see it for free). 

I’ll use my tiny beans to remind me, “I am here!” for as long as I can think it.  Descartes was right about one thing; we recognize our own existence as long as we are living it.  Whether or not we can call it reality is another discussion. 

Quality and Quantity will always be debatable in the consideration of this thing called living, and time. 

For the most part, the food is terrible and the portions so small.

In sum, the alternative is much less, significantly less palatable than what I know.  At least for now, for me.  Goodbye David Foster Wallace.  This time will be much less a place worth sharing without you, the 16,060 days I might have left.


Addendum:  I have read today that adding Jewish persons to the Mormon genealogical database is prefaced by baptizing those who have died first.  There is an active movement against this practice.  What seemed like such a good cross religious effort now seems like just more religious hocus pocus.  What a shame.

What do you do with a desiccated orange?

In my hand I hold a wizened orange.  It got lost behind a bag of cereal and the sugar jar, just under the kitchen window.  Said window, missing trim now for a year from a rehab project for which Husband has not found time to finish.  I could do it, but it was not my project.  Thus a few nights of cold dry air seeping under the window turned this lovely fruit into- what?

If I was Martha Stewart (and I am not) I would probably advise myself to “Go ahead!  dry out a couple more, hot glue them with bay leaves onto a grape vine wreath for a decorative piece on the front door”.  No offense to Martha, I admire her: the divorced mom- spurned even though she did it all like she was supposed to, jailed for fuzzy reasons, no-nonsense boss, funny, getting old with wit and style woman.  But I do not confuse the woman with the hype, the product, and the M.S. magazine reading, Oprah attending types for whom the new mothering magazine Cookie has been designed. These women I generally avoid comparison to.  You know who I am talking about- a largely affluent, white, appearance obsessed base, aged 22-55.  Living in those June Cleaveresque, strained superficialities of homes, no desiccated orange will be found. 

After 55 I think these women just get drunk, break a few dishes and emancipate themselves, shoving the magazines into the trash and going out for a walk.  At least, I hope they do.  Because we have no magazines or films or TV to tell us what they do, only our personal experiences, our own mothers.  Entertainment executives don’t think they merit attention, are off the collective cultural radar except for rare parody or soppy Lifetime snoozers.

This orange?  This once ripe fruit, bursting with sensuous scent, firm flesh and bright appeal?  No, decoration is not for this objet d’art.  I am compelled to take a knife to the hard skin, see if it still retains any smell, and sate my curiosity about what is inside.  Is it black?  Is it soft and rotted?  Or is it stringy and hard, all the moisture drawn away?  My bet is on the latter, given how much it weighs.  I could toss it into the compost heap, that big box of organic matter we started in the back yard.  Where that compost will go next year is in question.  Our lovely black walnut tree, offering such cool shade in the summer, so good at keeping down weeds, is I just found out a poisonous, selfish thing.  Easily one third of our yard is hostile to anything but grass and the off-spring of the Big Walnut.  The only stretch of yard that nurtured my crazy striped tomatoes has become another in-progress home improvement site.  So what of this orange, this possible compost?  I am not sure where it will go now.

I have been told by a young friend whose family runs a large cherry farm in Washington State that we really don’t know fruit in the U.S.  Most of the “good” fruit gets sold to Japan, and most of our fruit is so engineered, so greenly picked, that it has no flavor, no textures, no taste.  Having read Epitaph for a Peach-
four seasons on my family farm (Mas Masumoto, Harper San Francisco / Harper Collins, June 1995), I knew fruit, like many things in the U.S., had become something other than the celebrated production of the fertile, ripened ovary of a flowering plant.  When I was pregnant, the only smell that could curb my nausea was that of a fresh orange.  Oranges revive the spirit, as well as the body.  Oranges glow, and color even the most drab scene- meriting its own crayon, a very own color concept.

My mother used to put an orange every year in our Christmas “socks” (those felt creations no more useful on a foot than the plastic fruit in her table bowl to our stomachs) and we would take the oranges out on Christmas morning, thinking to ourselves “What the heck is this about?” tossing them aside.  Later when she was clearing the torn paper, broken bows, and empty boxes she would sigh as she picked the fruit up and put it back in the kitchen.  Only once did she ever tell me that as a child, she had gotten an orange every Christmas, as had her mother before her.  Oranges used to be rare, a treat every bit as wonderful to a child as candy.  In the Little House on the Prairie books, I recall the iconic scene when Laura gets an orange and is thrilled.  Now days, if I can find an organic, reasonably fresh California orange (I have given up on Florida. The state ag powers are not interested in demanding decent worker conditions, restraining pesticide use, or ever offering anything edible) I am thrilled.  Hence my guilt at discovering this sad shriveled specimen.  My sons like oranges, and I had saved this one for them, putting aside my greed.  It silently slipped away, and was forgotten.

Excess at Christmas is more than just the toys, the noise, the lights and general public pandemonium.  It is as simple as having access to fruit everyday, even if it is not the best fruit, and forgetting it is there.  Once forgotten and now found, what does one do with a desiccated orange?  Alas, poor orange! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath been eaten but a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those pips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? 

This orange, like my mother, is gone.  All that is left is the memory of the orange, the knowledge of what a good orange is.  I place the desiccated wonder on the sill to ponder further, to remind me of what is passing.  Merry Christmas, mom.  The boys will have fresh oranges in their “socks” this and every year, as often as the fruit is available to us, and I will not wait to tell them all the reasons why.  I hope I never live to see the horrors of Soylent Green or Silent Spring, and I hope one of the last scents I smell when I go to meet you is that of a fragrant, fully realized orange.