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120_howtogetahead_originalMy mother is in the hospital for an infected wisdom tooth. She thought at first that the soreness was her sensitive teeth, and, to compensate, she chewed on the side of her mouth that didn’t hurt. As the pain progressed, she self-medicated with Tylenol, with its effects diminishing after an hour or two. Before long, her jaw had swollen, and she could only open her mouth a crack—not enough to eat or drink. A friend urged her go to the emergency room.  If that infection gets into your blood, my mother’s friend said, it could be fatal. And so, my father took her to the hospital. He called to deliver the news, deadpan:  Happy New Year. Oh, I’m fine, but your mother is in urgent care.


In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag enumerates the ways in which people conceive as cancer as the Other: a mutant, an invader, a colonizer, “a cosmic disease, the emblem of all the destructive, alien powers to which the organism is host.” But sometimes I think the body itself is the Other, unknown and unknowable.  Despite the holistic promise of mind-body unity, who knows what’s really going in there? The medulla oblongata throws up its hands and takes a nap.


In the hospital, my mother wasn’t allowed to lie down and had to sleep reclining. She was forbidden to eat or drink and received nourishment through an IV. But despite the fluids, she complained of an aching thirst, a mouth-dryness that could not be quenched via the median cubital vein. My mother is eighty, and this is the first time she’s been hospitalized. She hadn’t fully read the admittance forms, so she didn’t know that she had to request painkillers. She suffered the discomfort until it became overwhelming. The nurse went straight to the hard stuff: morphine. But what if I get addicted to it? my mother asked, as if contemplating the ways in which her body could continue to work against her, as if it were separate from her conscious mind, now frightened, unsettled, disoriented.


Our bodies betray us constantly. They sabotage us at inopportune times: a sudden erection at a dinner party; a sphincter unwilling to hold its gas in a crowded elevator; a boil that speaks its mind and refuses to be placated. The corpus gives the middle finger to the consciousness: You think you’re in control? Just you wait. Our bodies, our subversives.


My mother is back at home now. She can only eat purees through a straw but seems in good spirits. The offending wisdom tooth will be extracted two days from now. If she wanted to, I imagine, she could confront her tooth: How could you do this to me? Did I not care for you? Did I not brush you with Sensodyne? It doesn’t matter, I suppose: soon enough, her tooth, a hard nugget of pulp and enamel, will be dead, extracted from its host. But maybe its dying wish will be to bite back, one last time.


119_withnail_originalYaldā:  the longest night of the year. On this night the Sun-God Mithra was born, he of the wide pastures, of the thousand ears, and of the myriad eyes. He emerged from the light from deep within the Alborz mountains and was equal to Ahura Mazda and Anahita. Our friend, Hamid, prepare a pot of fesenjan, serving it with crackling, saffroned tahdiq. We snack on green olives to protect against scorpions. A stainless-steel samovar puffs on the kitchen counter, offering water for bitter black tea. Hamid gives me an amber rock of sugar. Hold this in your cheek while you drink, he explains. It will sweeten the tea.  Our friend Jenn marvels at fresh quince. A pomegranate waits to be cracked open, the seeds as red as dawn. The last fruits of winter.

This year, Hamid’s boyfriend, Warren, invites friends with whom he used to live on a pagan commune on the outskirts of Philadelphia. They reminisce about midsummer bonfires and fertility rituals. Warren is now earning his Ph.D. in nursing; Scott and John are now a well-to-do gay power couple, an architect and schoolteacher, respectively. Everyone’s radical days seem far behind them; even the drugged and drunk Marwood, at the end of Withnail & I, cuts his hair and prepares to embark—seriously—on his career.

J___ proclaims himself the fire-tender for the evening. He has the build of a construction worker and keeps his hair pulled back into a ponytail, a spurt of plumage at the back of his head. Fueled by red wine, his voice grows larger as the evening wears on. What we need, J___ says, is a vertical fire. His big-hearted benevolence explodes. He stacks the logs into a pyramid teepee, and they’re soon blazing. The night is unseasonably warm—almost 50 degrees—and with the fire and the steam from the samovar and food, the room is a tub of embrocation.  How did the ancient Persians, gathering in the mountains to watch the miracle of dawn, vent their caves? J___ says, This reminds me of a sweat lodge, but I hope it isn’t the one in Arizona where three people died from heat stroke. The guru, James Arthur Ray, claimed that the dead “were having so much fun” in their out-of-body experiences that they didn’t want to return.

At the end of the evening, we gather in the living room. It’s a family tradition, Hamid explains, to make a wish for the new year and then to turn to a random poem by Hafez. The translations by Gertrude Bell—the woman who helped shape the borders of modern Iraq at the 1921 Cairo Conference—are prolix and convoluted, an remnant of Victorian imperialism; the translations by Daniel Ladinsky are cleaner and more sonorous. I throw pistachio shells onto the fire, where they spark and pop.

The subject tonight is love
And for tomorrow night too
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all