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When I called 123_box_348x490_originalmy parents earlier this month, there was a sense of jubilation and relief when they answered: “You’re the only one who calls us regularly without having to be reminded.” (Which wasn’t exactly true, since I called in response to an email my mother had sent, asking us, the children, what we wanted to do for my father’s 80th birthday. Shall we meet in Houston or Denver?  I wanted to vote, emphatically, for Denver; Houston, in July, was a non-starter.) “We haven’t heard back from your brother, but he might be working in Malaysia.” my mother said. “And, as for your sister, well, we never know where she is.”

My sister splits her time between Saigon and San Francisco, with the majority of the split in Saigon. She goes incommunicado for long periods of time, and the family’s only knowledge of her whereabouts are what we glean from Facebook posts. Of the siblings, she’s moved the farthest away, both physically and psychically.

It wasn’t always this way. My brother moved away first, after college, to work in Midland, Texas, never to return; I left next, fleeing to the East Coast for college, though I moved back to Colorado periodically, in between jobs. But my sister followed the path that had been set out for her: living at home, teaching for Denver Public Schools, being the obedient daughter. Maybe, in that way, she was like Little Edie. The one who stayed behind. The one who put her life on hold. The one who deferred her dreams until they had congealed into an amalgam of love, guilt and resentment.

At times, I can sometimes understand that resentment. My mother gets stuck on an endless loop of worry—When will the University offer you a full time job? Do you have health insurance? When was the last time you went to the dentist? Despite her best intentions, she can be smothering, oppressive, a presence that demands attention.

Little Edie only left Grey Gardens once her mother had died. She went to New York, had a cabaret act, and, at 60, became the star she had always wanted to be. She burst forth onto the stage of Reno Sweeney for eight shows, enrobed in a crimson gown with a swath of red-painted plastic leaves on draping her shoulder like fire.

My sister, too, escaped. First into her own apartment, then into her soon-to-be husband’s condo. She decided: she’d get her MBA and leave the teaching profession all together. But on the way, she found a second husband, all the way on the East Coast, and, finally, Vietnam, and a possible third husband in San Francisco. And I see her, living the life she thinks she was denied all those years ago: the endless parties, the clothes that exude glamour and youth, the carefully constructed of her make-up and hair. And I see her still: parading in circles for the camera, picking the best costume to wear for the day, trying to keep the line between the past and the present.

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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.

On the last day of our 2010 Belgian trip, my friend R___, whose last name can either mean “fisherman” or “sin,” depending on how you mispronounce it, took us in his Fiat for a tour of the Belgian countryside.  I had told him that we wanted to see places lesser-traveled by tourists, and he suggested the medieval cities of Huy, Dinant, and Namur.  Great, I said.  We can find some lunch along the way.

After Huy, along the Chaussée de Dinant, we stopped at a farmhouse restaurant beside a brook.  As we enjoyed the sunshine, sipping tea, nibbling Speculoos, and watching the chickens wandered the grounds, the waitress informed us that we had arrived at their nether-time:  too late for breakfast, too early for lunch.  We could wait around for another hour if we wanted, but we decided to push on.  R___ said he knew a place in Dinant.

We reached Dinant in the full force of the afternoon.  The sun glinting off the River Meuse competed with the Casino de Dinant for the title of Brightest, Gaudiest, the Most Neonic.  The restaurant R___ had chosen was in a prime location:  our backs to the cliffs, tower of Notre-Dame to our left, the river before us.  And, in keeping with Walloonian Catholic tradition, it was closed on Sundays.  Matthew bought a couque de Dinant in the shape of a pig, but R___ advised against biting into it.  “Not unless you want to break your teeth,” he said.

In Namur, R___ drove us to the Citadel, at the top of a hill.  Other tourists, mostly Belgians, had lined their chairs alongside the edge of the stone wall for a view over the city.  On the tables next to them, plates of food.  It was just after five, and the river cut through Namur like a sickle.  R___ flagged down our waiter came and had an animated conversation with him.  The waiter turned to us, apologetic, and shrugged.

“If you learn any French today,” R___ said, ruefully, “it will be the phrase, Desolée, la cuisine est fermée.”

The waiter brought a condolence plate of cheese and celery salt.  And a few packets of Speculoos.

Taking the E411 back towards our hotel, the countryside browning in the fading sunlight, we could have been the titular bourgeoisie from Buñuel’s film, hungry, following an endless highway towards an unknown destination.

We stopped in Wavre, a suburb southeast of Brussels.  Outside a take-out shop, people congregated in line and around the picnic benches to the right of the shop.  “OK,” R___ said, “this place must be open.”  The other customers seemed bemused by our presence:  What are they doing here? people asked R___, as if their suburban lives were far removed from the tourist trade.  In a way, this was exactly what I had asked R___ for.  Almost everyone ordered frîtes; most of the menu board was devoted by the various frîtes sauces.  I chose one that seemed most unfamiliar—merguez—and as we settled into the warm evening with our paper boats of fries, we finally did something new and heretofore unexplored:  we began to eat.

Yesterday:  Rain, great torrents of it, the sky filled with clouds overwhelming the atmosphere.  How many shades of gray are there? — gunmetal, battleship, grease.  In the light spectrum, the combination of two complementary colors produces gray.  Daytime becomes indistinguishable from evening and evening from night.  Gray is the wide swath of the achromatic color scale between white and black, existing in a line, rather than on a wheel.  Gray has no opposite, and grey is its own opposite.  Rain flashes gray as it falls sideways, kamikazes exploding on your skin, in your hair, on your clothes.  Sidewalk and pavement alike seem to float away.  In the street, puddles take on secret, unplumbable depths.  Cars prowl, waiting to drench unsuspecting pedestrians.  Symbolically, gray is associated with reliability, modesty, dignity, conservatism, old age, and practicality.  The British prefer to spell it ‘grey,’  but that’s because the British themselves are reliable, dignified and conservative.  In other words, gray.

Today:  Sunshine, with a chill breeze easily warded off by a light jacket.  On the New Jersey Transit train to New York, a crowd of rowdy sports fans, walking up and down the aisle, looking for a large segment of open seats.  They wore baggy t-shirts, and as they moved, they produced a polyester shimmer:  blue, with red and white stripes.  On their backs, the last names of people who were not them.  When I emerged from Penn Station, I heard the chant:  “Let’s go, Rangers, let’s go!” in the cadence previously reserved for the Yankees.  The area around Madison Square Garden was paved with fans, all dressed in blue, with hints of red.  They call themselves “blueshirts,” after the Rangers earned the name “The Broadway Blueshirts” in the 1920s.  Ten years later in Ireland, the members of The National Guard (also known as the Blueshirts) began greeting each other with Roman straight-arm salutes and limited its membership only to the Irish who professed Christian faith.

Tomorrow:  The world will be seen through a color that brings to mind urine or jaundice, darker than yellow, not quite orange.  Lars Von Trier achieves his palette for The Element of Crime by using sodium lights, the same lights found in truck stop parking lots or supermarkets.  Occasionally, a burst of blue appears, but not of the skies or of sweet water:  the blue of broken machinery, of televised propaganda.  Filmed in ochre light, everything in the film appears sallow and craven, dreamlike and decayed.  In Color, Victoria Finlay traces ochre pigment to Australia, where, a decade ago, it was a heavily-traded commodity and even further back, 40,000 years back, to when the Aboriginals used it in their drawings.  British anthropogist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown identified a common character amongst many of the tribes spanning the continent:  the snake Kurreah, known elsewhere as Takkan, Wawi, Numereji, Yeutta, Borlung, Wanamangura, or Ngalyod — the serpent of a thousand names.  This snake, they believed, had shaped the land, given places names, and distributed water into gullies and channels.  This was the snake who moved through water and sky both, revealing itself as a rainbow — the serpent delivering color to the world.

Actual question from the 2008 All Souls College (Oxford) entrance exam: “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

I reply:  Yes, it does.  (Though, really, why are they wearing anything at all if it’s an orgy?)

Simply because a person is libertine in his sexuality does not mean that he exhibits moral turpitude in other aspects of his life.  This includes the ability to be offended by Nazi uniforms.  Let’s rephrase the question this way:  does the moral character of a “native and colonial” costume party change when Prince Harry shows up with a swastika armband?

Speaking strictly of the orgy, Nazi uniforms introduce an unsettling power structure.  The ‘conceit’ behind an orgy, if you will, is that everyone gets some.  Since the question overlooks the specifics of the orgy (round robin?  Roman free-for-all?  bukkake?  Wheel of Fortune?), one must assume that everyone approaches the orgy on equal footing.  Nazi uniforms introduce a master/submissive dynamic, which necessarily upsets this balance.

(One could argue, of course, that Nazi uniforms are role-playing, akin to ‘stern professor/naughty student’ or ‘football coach/star quarterback’ scenarios.  But Nazism is acknowledged to be beyond the pale.  Case in point:  many years ago, I rented a — oh, how shall I put this? — a ‘romantic comedy’ called Honorable Discharge.  In one scene, two men cycled through various military uniforms.  “Sailors suck,” the costume aficionado says to the other.  “Soldiers fuck.”  After their encounter, the costumier asks the jejune Lejeune [played by Chuck Barron], “Which would you like to be next?  The Nazi or the Jew?”  Barron, the viewer’s stand-in, gapes in disbelief.)

Which brings us to The Night Porter.  (Corollary question:  does watching the Night Porter the day after Yom Kippur make one a bad Jew? Answer:  Don’t ask me.  I’m not Jewish.)  While I can’t say that I enjoyed the film — the way one does not ‘enjoy’ Salò; or the 120 Days of Sodom — I will say that it’s provocative in examining not only the psychology of Nazi perpetrators, but of its victims too.  I do wonder the film errs in placing too much emphasis on Dirk Bogarde’s suave, murderous SS officer Max and not enough on Charlotte Rampling’s suffering Lucia.  Her psychosexual journey — concentration camp victim to survivor, respected citizen to masochistic prisoner — is the moral heart of the film.

(Here, I’d like to point out my fondness for ‘Naziploitation’ films [Love Camp 7, the Ilsa series], though I haven’t yet had a chance to read any Israeli Stalags.)

Does the moral character of The Night Porter change when Lucia takes charge of her sexuality while performing topless, in Nazi regalia, for a group of SS officers?  Or when she reclaims that sexuality when voluntarily chained in Max’s apartment?  Director Liliana Cavani doesn’t offer answers.  In this way, she’s like the Oxford test-givers, showing how there’s no easy entrance into this world.

To me, fishing is one of those all-American activities in which I’ve never taken much interest.  (See also:  hunting, tent-pitching, fire building.)  Men who fish, in my mind, are Raymond Carver archetypes:  stoic, beaten-down, hard-drinking.  Men who chill six-packs of beer in the river.  Men who don’t stop fishing even when they find a corpse in the water.

And although the idea of fishing appeals to me — patience; sitting out in the sun; yummy, yummy fish — I can’t imagine yanking at something with a hook in its mouth.  I prefer to imagine, instead, that fish, of their own accord, jump out of water, filet themselves and swim into a pan full of butter.

If anything, Fishing with John highlights the homosocial component to fishing:  John Lurie asking Jim Jarmusch, “Do you want to see my penis?”; Tom Waits sticking a red snapper in his shorts; Willem Dafoe suggesting that he and John zip their sleeping bags together; the narrator announcing, “Both fishermen are covered with sores and boners.”  No gay subtext here.  Whatsoever.

Fishing as male bonding:  on the wall of our garage (the repository for the detritus of the Dinh family) was a pegboard, and lying across the top pegs — the way one would display a samurai sword — was a red fishing rod.  Whenever I got out of the car, I saw it above my head.  It was something that was always there, something that would always be there, like air.

Maybe my father intended to fish more than he did, but I remember us specifically going fishing only once.  I would never be a fisherman myself — my attempts at casting brought the hook perilously close to my own face — but I could at least help my father with the bait.  We had jar of green-neon garlic-flavored marshmallows, a jar of cherry-red salmon eggs.  I threaded them on the hook as if preparing a shish-kebob.  Afterwards, my fingers smelled like a poisoner’s lunch, but I loved pulling the lead teardrop weighing the line.  The whole contraption bounced like it was waving hello.

As I rinsed off the odor, minnows darted in the shallows.  I tried scooping them up, but they were too quick.  I splashed around until my hands turned numb in the sun-dappled water.  I hopped from rock to rock, venturing as far into the river as I could without getting wet.  Occasionally, the current would catch one of the pebbles at the bottom of the riverbed and send it tumbling downstream.

I decided:  it wasn’t necessary to fish to enjoy the peacefulness of fishing.

In any case, my father only caught three six-inch brown trout that day.  Not a rainbow among them.  Nonetheless, he brought them home proudly — as any man would after providing a meal.  He had prepared a whole cooler of ice for them.  They lay on top like bottles of Coke.

My mother brought down the hammer on future fishing expeditions.  After all, she was the one who got the privilege of gutting, cleaning and preparing them.

“It’s easier,” she said, “just to buy the fish at the supermarket.”

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