THE NEW SENSE

This was very long ago: Nature called the Gods together, regarded the new planet. Very pleased, after a few thousand hours, they chose shepherds, farmers, flyers, dreamers, dancers, painters, music-makers, and storytellers who would care for the land, charm each other and preserve the seas, glide the lakes, explore the woodlands, the mountains and jungles, the prairies, deserts, canyons, meadows, all lit and shadowed with seasons so no one would get bored.

It took far more time to agree that each inhabitant would have five senses. Five seemed a nice decent number with no harsh edges.

“Don’t give them too many skills,” Nature warned.

“Or too much time.” The Gods agreed Time was their own property. They would own Time: Forever—(whatever that means.)

The Gods understood Time was an unmanageable force. No point telling the youngsters Time hears no prayers.

Most of what we call “us” are usually fortunate to be born with these five senses: sight, touch, sound, smell, taste. So put down the cell phone: make a list of what each sense gathers. Right now. (The winner is…?)

This could be now. My back feels cold on the floor of a convention center. I hear a jam of sighs, sobs, coughs, cries. I see huddled strangers. I smell wet clothes, the sog of old blankets. I taste the dry old breath of my own imagination, and now the feel of a young girl’s rage. “Phone dead.” She hurls it into the deep vat below. Who can anyone call? Under water now, the city here has been hurled to the ground. The land outraged. Children lie broken under a crumbled steeple. How to: Your world is gone. There is no TV. NO empanadas, no pizzas. No games or screens. It is just us. Look at our hands. There is a tree. Still there. And standing still. Rev up those senses. Please God—and someone bring a guitar. Start some singing or will music unleash more grief?

I begin thinking of this in an Uber car on the way from my loft near the Veteran’s graveyards, to UCLA Medical Center, just north of Westwood Blvd. Here, in this Uber—I panic. I’ve left my cell phone at home!

Be still. The acres of white crosses remind me. They never imagined cell phones. Only the sound of a mother’s voice.

In 2008, when I moved back to L.A. from London, I felt as baffled by the cell phone as I had been by the computer. But then, as a young trainee at an ad agency in the Fifties, I had trouble learning to type. I had always written by hand. So, why now, suddenly, this panic over not having the cell phone? It seems we are committed to making our senses, if not irrelevant, almost archaic, rather like what once were called manners.

I realized I felt as uneasy as when I had eye surgery and had only one eye to see with or when I lost my memory and could not find words. Is memory, perhaps, filed wrong? Is memory, in truth, a sense? I recall when I could not name a flavor nor decide when the association was pleasant or not. How frustrated I was when the sound was off on the T.V. Maybe the cyber thing is no longer a kind of optional convenience, but I fear, for young people, as significant, as vital as the other senses.

It’s one thing to just look at the images of ruins and terror, in broken worlds of Mexico, of Puerto Rico, and the mellow islands we took for granted as colonies devoted to our holiday visits. Quite another to be a survivor, a reporter, a doctor, a Red Cross worker or “first responder” with young children who are accustomed to games, TV, and plugged in cyberspace tools. Are there squads from Lakeshore Stores bringing in games, drones to entertain and distract? What does a parent in Puerto Rico do if a child’s asthma inhaler runs out? CVS is under water. It is unique to be a parent today, unique as one’s own child, as profound as the dreams and hopes you feel as you hold that child. The great expectations turn grave these days as the gift of being able to see around the world shows us the latest variations of evil. Maybe the persistent reach for information to be “up to date” on disaster is evil itself, is this charged up state equivalent to the condition of military action.

Long ago, this was how my mornings used to be—I turned pencils by my bed into the little sharpener. I loved the smell of the filed bits of wood just as much as the scent of the jackets my Grandma crocheted to send orphaned baby refugees in England. She’d give me a lemon drop before I left her room to get ready for school, and I’d roll one of the candies around in my mouth as I wound up the music box in my room. Then with the pencil I’d sketch the ballerina on top of the music box trying to get the twirl right. So: Sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste—all the five senses, awake in action!

Now. I turn to the iphone: check the messages, and mail. Sometimes (not every day as I sometimes say I do) I tap into the list of Weapons of Mass Instruction: The meditations, the gifts of peace, consideration, and reflection which I’ve been given by wise founders of the last century (one which already—with some exceptions—seems rather enlightened—here and there).

We might consider this 21st Century as inspired by the nightmarish geniuses of 20th Century science fiction writers. Robots, yes. Everywhere. Unimaginable Monsters ruling what will be left of the Universe—after they complete the destruction of the planet. And, then, on a more modest level of arrogance, we have come up with that what out to be the Sixth Sense: the Cyber connection, the phone—the wifi—the instruments which feel as profoundly required and essential to any human as sight, sound, smell, touch, and flavour. (Maybe they mean more to some than other once essential elements of human experience.)

“LOL” at the bottom of a three letter “msg” is about as affectionate as it gets.

But—then—there is the matter of Time. And we cannot assume there is more than this very moment.

 

TRICK OR TWEET

October drapes gauzy cobwebs, witches’ broomsticks through well-groomed trees. Pumpkin lanterns bob along fencetops. Children in “go go” boots prance in costumes, gleaming “tattoo” stickers pasted on arms. Gargoyles, ghosts, and scarecrows are out of closets longing to be the scariest, wildest one of all. 

That role is filled. I need no eerie celebration of suspense. I tap the nightmare apps, go to sleep. Last night’s opener had a chilly voice saying, “There won’t be Thanksgiving this year.” The voice of a school monitor: “Thanksgiving is over.” October used to be the quiet month, the time to stay inside and read by the fireplace. Thanksgiving was the savory, gentle non-denominational holiday, where the East Coast family would come to celebrate Harvest, the idea of gratitude for the land. However, this November guarantees no visions of peace and gathering together.

Haunted now by the No on Thanksgiving proposition, the next nightmare sent me shopping for flowers to bring my son’s family. Of course, they would still have Thanksgiving. I’d bring burgundy sienna and gold chrysanthemums. The dream’s barren unsteady street was made of curious tracks. The flower shop at the end, next to a shuttered bookshop, had no branches of autumn leaves, no chrysanthemums, no golden lilies. But there were hampers of long-stemmed sweet peas. “These are spring flowers,” I tell the longhaired blonde girl in the shop. “They won’t do for Thanksgiving.”

“Thanksgiving’s dust,” she says with a smile. 

“The flowers don’t smell sweet—or at all!” 

“No. They don’t need to. Smell is so last year.”

I turned away. The bookstore was being pulled out by its roots on an iron hoist. I woke up. 

Like the ghosts drifting above suburban front yards (does anyone see front yards behind the security gates?) there’s been a pall throughout the Land—we have created a Monster to take the stage—as the Kardashians and so forth have taken over the TV. Is this some mode the Networks have created? A ratings war, a circus, a floor show, a bullring? The Hard Right declares it wants America back as it was. Really? Then get rid of the techno-robots which have taken away the jobs. That is what no one talks about. There could be lots of jobs. But everyone wants the big jobs. The Lives of TV families: funny, wild scenes with okay endings every night. And the house you live in is always there. 

But now the sun is rising. It has been Halloween forever. The Hoaxster promises treats, bagsful of jobs. The tricks will come. You’ll see; he dangles whimsies and promises of jobs—but we need no more hotels and casinos. The clever billionaires have designed a program of extinction, just as the auto industry and oil companies created the End of the World for the Horses, who once held proud positions on the planet. As did the elephant (which was why the Republicans chose it.) Now, in Thailand, where elephants, thousands of them, worked the deforestation program, the elephants are out of work. Instead of going with a where-do-we-go-from-here depression like some horses I’ve seen, the elephants, I learned, from a brilliant documentary, have gone mad; they’re violent, raging, raging “against the dying of the light.” Every kid learned to care for these family animals once. 

However, the Technopolies will not inherit the Earth. They are killing it, even as they design the space pods where they’ll exist in their rabid disconnection. Like the Americans who believe in this creature who defines their rage with every expression. He is the face of terror, the face of the bitter victim, the feudal mode of a Fifties brute, the garish bully stamping on the cafeteria tables. He clenches the empty clamshells of his hands. Offers plenty—but cannot give us chowder. 

Fear drapes me in ghost cloak. I am powerless over the media’s grim show. No measured voices. As archaic bullies watched boxers, so I watch CNN’s dreadful little blonde Trumpette, to raise my indignation to the perfect level of confidence required to slice and tailor her costume of fearless hostility dumbed up with just a frill of lissom insecurity. Exactly the look. 

Tonight will be a feast of terror. I hunger for the balance of our once-honored system. I heard it in Hillary’s speech at the end of the Al Smith Dinner and every word the Obamas say. Let’s pretend Halloween’s over. Yeah. And agree to have a real Thanksgiving: Let’s say this was all a sort of Game of Thrones and we’re giving Barak and Michelle a third term with an open-minded Congress. And Hillary will be on the Supreme Court. Yeah. I knew it was only a Nightmare. 

SUNDAY MORNING DIVE

This is a Sunday morning. I have heard the New York Times has a new column called Sunday Routine. People send in reports of how their own Sunday mornings go. I can do that in L.A. 

I try to edit my week’s pages on Sunday mornings. I don’t like walking on the streets where I live. Couples are out with each other, dogs, or small children. Only the dogs acknowledge each other. Children learn fast you do not talk to other people. When walking, you keep your eyes on your cell phone, and raise your hand as you cross the street.  

On Friday night this week, the writer Romey Keys came for dinner. (See DESERT HOUSE chapters on Wimpole Street Gazette.) The night before he’d been to a reading by Don DeLillo of his new book ZERO K. Romey had brought me a signed copy. I had read some of the novel Saturday night. I wanted to rewrite a piece I was working on. DeLillo’s pages would inspire me. I could read some on Sunday morning. But I’m supposed to walk every day for fifteen minutes. Three times a day. I would rather read. 

ZERO K is set in a place which feels “futuristic” in the style of old science fiction movies where Michael Rennie was dressed up in smooth silver robot costumes. There were no ornamental touches anywhere. No “Early American” with antique mechanical toys and masses of books, like the house I grew up in. Some people in Hollywood were wary of futurist houses. (Lean style was possibly subversive.) Don DeLillo deals with this issue—the eerie feel of the unadorned. 

Sunday, I sorted out my eyedrops (another story, coming soon.) I listened to Brahms on cellphone. And remembered other Sunday mornings. If you’ve been around this long, there are many Sundays to refer to.

I live in West Los Angeles on land that was once part of the Japanese American citizens’ internment camps. Now it belongs to the Veterans’ Administration. There’s a park where wild nasturtium grow. Then, a couple of blocks west of that, there’s the 405 freeway. Homeless people settle under the bridge. During warm days, they visit the park and lie under the trees looking up at the sky. It’s reassuring after the heavy dark of the 405 ceiling. The 405 has had several mentions for being the worst freeway. Before I walk, I take Friday’s mail out from the post box. (I say post box so you recall I lived in England for 30 years.) Sometimes, in the mail, there’s a dressy catalogue to go with campaign requests. Today there’s a copy of Ralph Lauren’s latest “zine.” I am sent copies of this sleek zine because my son gave me a Ralph Lauren watch which I love. Made of hefty silver, the watch gives me a strong-arm look and it has a stirrup-shaped frame around the face. The watch reminds me of the time when L.A. was a Western town, the Valley was all orange and lemon groves. You got there by driving Sepulveda, a graceful highway which sidles by the 405. It used to be bordered by acres of poinsettias. Those acres became graveyards for young soldiers after World War II. No one would have imagined the 405. That was part of the uneasy future, a conception designed by science fiction writers. “Ralphie” is what we called Ralph Lauren in the decades when we could just about afford his clothes. The gutsy style was worth it. Now, the magazine is a touch of Town & Country and features stables of adorable young men, including his son Andrew, wearing clothes that cost as much as major surgery. Elective: Would I rather have those trousers than surgery? They’d likely last me longer.  

I haven’t seen the Times Sunday column. My Sunday morning began with the clinical depression. (Yes: one of my several doctors said that I will be depressed for some time after this triple bypass surgery I’ve mentioned somewhere else.) If I were truly depressed would I have noticed that, in all the photos in Ralph’s zine, the trousers are now wide as skirts, whisking around like Kate Hepburn’s “pajamas”?

I’d like to mention here that the first time I heard the word “zine” was downtown at a zine expo, featuring my young writer Suemi Guerra and her zine, “Suicidal Goldfish.” A zine, I learned, is a little magazine you print out on a Sunday morning in a friend’s filing cabinet room. Everyone who comes downtown to celebrate this independent printing process carries a plastic vessel with foggy water in which are floating the lemons you saw last week, a few leaves of kale, and maybe remains of goldfish, just a sentimental touch. They bring these vessels to my writers’ group which makes me feel cool.

And how depressed can I be if I jump out of bed to see if I still have my wide old linen trousers? They aren’t exactly as elite as the new silk Ralph ones—but they’ll do in case I go to a place where what I have on matters. This, I tell myself, is how I’m moving into my Sunday morning dive. I’m standing at the edge of the diving board—do I jump?—and wind up in one of God’s cool new drinking vessels? The issue of death is big in DeLillo’s ZERO K. What if there was a place where I could die and then be brought back? But where? I stand on the well-meaning diving board of my Sunday cliff (soon I’ll have to sit down.) What to relive? Not entire decades—but moments like “short subjects.”

I take tea and one shortbread biscuit to my writing table—the one by the easel. I have several writing tables in this loft to remind me this is who I am. Perhaps if I could return to a time in my life it would be when my first child was born. I would return to the Sixties and the years of my son and daughter’s childhoods, I would do those differently. I would take many pictures and draw them at all ages. I would set aside everything else—this is because my son asked me again if I have pictures of him during his boyhood. I have pictures when he was little. I don’t—now I’m going into a long, slow dive—I don’t have pictures of that time. Here’s a new Sunday morning tradition, going through the decades of pages, of scrapbooks, of envelopes and albums, and seeing the impact of my generation’s self-driven passions made on their children’s futures—and on their grandparents’ lives. 

I couldn’t pay the rent in those days, but I managed to buy myself a Ralph Lauren shirt now and then—he was giving us rustic Western style, clothes for posh cowboys. I bought the children clothes so the parents of other kids would think I was doing well, and, being divorced, I kept my eye out for the next guy, how he’d see me and my adorable family. I don’t remember many of us taking pictures then. You did not have a cell phone. My first husband was gone. Maybe to Long Beach which seemed as far away as Arkansas where he wound up. I saw him last year with my son, who flew his father out to see his grandchildren. I heard they were having breakfast together at Nate ‘n’ Al’s. I called my son and asked if I could come. His father and I happened to be wearing similar Navy and white checked shirts. Gap. Not Ralphie. We laughed over old moments. He knew he was going home to die. His heart was truly broken—they were trying one more surgery. The adornments of familiarity were present: The corned beef sandwiches and the rugelach, and his laugh. Sunday morning. I’m looking for a picture. Why didn’t we take one? 

And why are there no pictures of the Sunday morning trips to Nate ‘n’ Al’s with my father driving his wooden station wagon? We’d pick up the stuff for Sunday dinner, bring it home, windows open, singing Western songs and looking forward to when it would always be as good as now. 

Sunday mornings then were about what we loved. We were looking forward to what was coming. Not what was gone. 

ABOUT EIGHTY

On the inside, 80 does not feel like I fear it appears. But there are things I don’t feel like doing. And things I’d love to do. I don’t want to travel. I sense a monitor somewhere on my energy and I make careful choices. I would like to dance somewhere with a quiet, thoughtful person. I’ve learned that I will survive awhile—enough to finish the story Blue Coyote for my grandchildren. I remember great moments in America’s life more than I remember my own. I remember hearing Obama’s first speech. I remember FDR’s voice. I remember the great news reporters. The authority and strength of their words. You trusted this was true. News was not a show. We listened to the solemn reports from the front. And felt grateful for all the bravery it took to join up. I remember when I could see snow on the Arrowhead mountains on a clear morning in our house set high on a hill in Brentwood, about a mile or so from the loft where I live now. I remember the sound of Air Raid Alarms in World War II. And the Atom Bomb Raid practices, huddled under desks. No one believed that would help. I remember the astonishment that America would have three major assassinations. I remember the interludes of safety and the belief for a moment in the Sixties that war was over. And I remember. I do remember. 

I am looking at my father’s student lamp now on the table in my bedroom. The emerald green glass shade. Also on the table, a paperweight my daughter Johanna made for me when she was small. Even as you measured children or took them to buy new shoes, you didn’t really expect them to grow up. To be away. 

I have finally outgrown the longing for romance which made me a terrible mother. Or, at best, an odd mother. 

Do I think of myself first as an alcoholic? I did for many years. You must make the steps you are taking the first priority of every day, if you are to succeed in changing how you think. I think of myself as a writer, a grandmother who makes art for the grandchildren. As a woman, a Jew? Depends—not always any of these, but a jazz band perhaps, each part of myself knowing its own score, and where to come in, and when. 

Soon Mercury will end its retrograde. I might sense momentum again—a feeling of possibility. (Is this possible?) I am a collection, a controversy, an impatient client of many doctors. 

UCLA was modern, very 21st Century; the set was placid and well-ordered. You needed to be slight here (slightly alive). “You do not ask questions,” I was told. “We need to implant a tube in your neck. To receive anaesthetic.” I would have preferred to have been unconscious. I heard an older man’s voice (doctorly assurance), explain the moves to a young trainee. Her hands felt apprehensive as my body. “You won’t feel much,” the doctor said. 

“I’m feeling more than much.” I got my grit together. “I’m a real writer. I teach because I’ve been writing all my life. I’m not a tryout!” 

“This is a teaching hospital,” the doctor said. 

“Then give them a fresh new carcass to work on.” I had seen enough Law and Order SVU to know how this goes. “Get a strong person who does dead victim stunts. I’m too aware to play dead.” 

I was somewhere in the mix of consciousness, terror, and absence—a yearning for absence. For months, nothing in my body had been working right. And drilling a channel into my neck, I wanted to tell them, would not help. But the time for talking was over. All I could see was a perplexing mix of modern Asian architecture, polished steel construction assemblies of needles, the taffeta rustle of crisp medical smocks. An orchestration of needles, tubes, wires, and silence. Maybe this was coming upon death. I’m in, enough already. 

Somehow I am still here, but not in the sense of where I want to be. When will I be able to be home. To attempt drawing and writing, favored activities after swimming, driving, and dancing which have been forbidden. I can listen to great music on my iphone. Insulting to the orchestra. 

I feel like a child. “You can’t go home until...” But there’s no until. There is only this. This step. This now.