Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The gray-haired lady sits alone

It's a middle-schooler's biggest fear: sitting alone in the cafeteria. And today I did it for the first time. It was a little sad, because it reminded me that I have virtually no friends at work. At the age of 60, I am one of the last survivors of a massive age cohort that has all but evaporated into retirement and other (better!) jobs. It reminded me of the wistfulness my parents express when they hear that yet another friend of theirs has died.

My daughter used to beg to stay home rather than face the humiliation of a solitary sitting after she and her best friend had a tiff. Humiliation wasn't in play for me today, and aside from the whiff of melancholy about the way the company has peeled away my work friends, I enjoyed the solitude—especially since I was armed with a really great egg-salad wrap and a free People magazine (I'm a sucker for hard-luck stories about Elizabeth Edwards). And then there was this delightful mention in a review of "The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag," by Alan Bradley: "Bradley, who made his debut as a novelist at 73, plans four more Flavia adventures. The first two are utterly beguiling." Hell, I've got a whole lifetime of achievement ahead of me!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The last Bowels movement

From my notes of July 25, 1980
Bowles told us he pays only $85 a month for his apartment, up from $35 a month when he first moved in 40-odd years ago. He told us about how a guy named PR stirred the waters of social Tangier by writing an article for Oui magazine several years ago in which he described how Bowles always instructed his driver to park the car with its wheels turned out for a quick getaway during parties at DH’s house. “It was true, of course, but you can’t go around saying such things,” said Bowles ... He has a beautiful apricot-colored canary he keeps in a cage in his study. It warbles constantly, no doubt helplessly incited by the musty fumes wafting in without cease from the living room, where in the course of a short half-hour Bowles has been known (M counted) to smoke seven and a half joints single-handedly. The canary was born in Bowles’ study, along with four siblings. Bowles’ consort, Mrabet, raises canaries in an apartment below, which he barters off for extortionate prices. …
From my notes of July 26, 1980
Two more Bowles stories:
1. Moroccans treat sex as an animal act [Bowles says]. They don’t romanticize it at all. There are no porn movies, even in Tangier, and until the last few years, there were not sexual graffiti—just airplanes, weapons and cars.
2. Sherifa, the witch [who was the Bowleses' maid], used to tell Bowles that she was a saint and a virgin (“Ana santa, ana bint”) and claimed she had papers to prove the latter. Bowles surmises that although her virginity paper was certainly not official, she may have obtained one to show the police in case they caught her outside after dark—any unaccompanied Muslim woman out at night is assumed to be a prostitute.
From my notes of July 28, 1980
Here’s what Bowles said today: The sand used in mixing concrete here has salt in it which accumulates moisture in damp weather and cause the concrete to crumble. It makes terrible houses, hot in summer, cool in winter … Once when he was in South America he got bitten by a spider. Two months later the bite was still there and very sore. So he went to a doctor in Guatemala who lanced a cone-shaped core from his ankle and showed it to him under the microscope. Inside were hundreds of tiny spiders … In the Yucatan the chickleteers (chicklet cutters) get bitten by a fly in the ear. I guess the fly lays its eggs in the ears. Because eventually the ears fall off, having been eaten away from inside the cartilage … In Msab, Algeria, the hand of Fatima is hung over the door whenever the husband is away from home. This is to protect the wife and children during his absence, but in effect it is a signal to the world that the husband is not home … Mrabet says that two hours after his mother gave birth she was back at work in the fields. No shilly shallying … Bowles once lived in the house Cortes built for Marija in Mexico. Some Americans had bought it and let out rooms … The people of Fez are disliked by the rest of Morocco. This is because at one point in the 17th century all the Jews in Fez were were forced to convert to Islam within 24 hours or lose their land. They kept their Jewish names but became Muslims. Now Fez is assumed by the rest of the country to be all Jewish, although in actuality the population is only about 5% Jewish. Muslim can’t forgive Jews for not being Muslims. They’ve lived side by side with the Muslims for so many years and still won’t see the light. Clearly they are devils. Anyway, Fezians are considered to be arrogant and snotty about their culture. A sidelight: Jew is the favorite imprecation to hurl at a donkey who won’t move … Bowles’ suggestions to me: Practice is everything. Try writing something you don’t like just to have the experience of exploring alternatives. Avoid first-person narratives …

Finding fault

My friends have an annoying habit of pointing out that I'm not the best advertisement for yoga, since I'm often nursing a back injury. And this criticism gets under my skin—it's like a big fat "I told you so"—but it worries me enough that I asked my wonderful Feldenkrais practitioner, D, whether I should give it up. He was incredulous that I would even suggest such a thing. "Yoga didn't do this to you," he said. "You did it." And the more I think about it, the more I realize he's right. Indeed, yoga not only didn't injure me, but it is intrinsically injury-preventive in its teachings. Yoga is all about detachment and staying in the present and examining the path rather than racing for the goal. It was my attachment to achievement and to leaping into the future and to attaining a goal that got me where I am now—in pain and in physical therapy. So I may not be the best advertisement for yoga, but that's not because yoga is at fault. I'm at fault.

Monday, March 15, 2010

More from my ancient journal

My notes from July 21, 1980

Bowles liked my story, said it was the best thing of mine he’d read so far—that’s the kind of compliment that’s so relative it’s difficult to decipher. Some gems from our discussion: “A complicated sentence often isn’t read completely because one goes on to escape it. Important things should not be put in complicated sentences therefore.” “Everything in a story should be justified on two points. Otherwise it shouldn’t be there. It’s important for things to have a definite reason for being included. No detail can be arbitrary.”

After he had gone over our stories and pointed out our typographical errors to us—he seems to have a moral principle against trying to influence us to do anything more substantive than use a dictionary—he told us stories about the past. He told us about his maid Sherifa who is reputed to have poisoned Jane. Jane had never had a health problem until she ran into Sherifa who gave her potions that induced a series of strokes. Bowles said her intention was to gain control of the Bowleses’ money so that she could help her sister who has 11 children. She thought of the Bowleses’ money and home as wasted because they were childless. Sherifa ended up talking Jane out of the house. Bowles showed us a picture of Sherifa—shrouded in black with a black veil and dark sunglasses, very sinister looking. But he told us that under her burnoose she wore Levis and she carried a switchblade in her pocket. When she worked for them she put a curse in the soil of their potted philodendron so that through the plant she could have power over them even when she wasn’t around. Bowles finally discovered the curse—a little bundle of hair, fingernails and blood wrapped up in a piece of cloth. He showed us an album of pictures of Jane, looking ripe and sexy early on, then later wearing a wig, emaciated, gripping her stomach.

More Bowlesiana

For Bowles fans, more Bowlesiana from my 30-year-old journal (these are verbatim, warts and all):

My notes from July 18, 1980

Class with Bowles yesterday: He said he loves birds and until last year has always had at least one parrot. The last one was called Hitler by his maid because it ran after people squawking and nipping their ankles. He told a story about crossing the Sahara in winter. He was the only person in his train car and snow drifted in the windows. Finally another car, filled with Moroccans, was attached. The Moroccans were bitterly cold, so naturally they built a fire on the wood floor of the train car—causing the whole car to go up in flames.

Bowles says that the reason Moroccans are so cold to foreigners is that they see non-Muslims as being insignificant because we have no souls. We have a nice life on earth but they have paradise for all eternity. To be curious about us would be as pointless as being curious about a fly.

Bowles is a delightful man. He has great anecdotes and tells them well. He understands Moroccans and has a boundless humorous appreciation of them but no desire to be one of them. He’s like an anthropologist, very professional about maintaining his distance and objectivity. I asked him if he were ever tempted to convert to Islam and he recoiled at the idea, said he was an atheist and it would be false to subscribe to any god. The only religion he finds attractive is Buddhism because it doesn’t postulate a deity.

He has long skinny legs and looks very athletic and young when he leaps up and bounds into the kitchen to make tea for us. He has a maid, but apparently he does all his own cooking because he has a morbid fear of being poisoned. Also boils every drop of water because he has had typhoid three times. Won’t fly in planes. Can’t drive a car. He’s a very sensible person. These phobias don’t fit in with other things I know of him.

He really is dependent on drugs and started at an early age. His mother used to take him, when he was a boy, to a bar in Harlem where the shoeshine boys sold reefers the size of cigars for 25 cents apiece. Smoking pot had no stigma then, he says. Now he cannot write unless he’s stoned. His apartment is thoroughly saturated with the ancient fumes of joints past—almost unpleasantly musty.

A list of odds and ends Bowles said about Morocco yesterday:

1. The Koran is the law of the land. Local police are autonomous and basically write their own justice. Many are sadistic. Beatings are common, as well as hangings of various sorts and mutilations. Described the practice of beating the soles of the feet until they crack open. Twenty years after receiving such a beating, people cannot walk comfortably.

2. Slavery still exists in the Moroccan deep south. Even though it has been officially outlawed there is no one to enforce it so it continues. Slaves, for the most part, like being slaves. They have cushy jobs—usually as guards—and have all their needs attended to. Sounds like Morocco has some really wild, ungoverned areas.

3. Moroccans have no respect for privacy. They cannot fathom why anyone would want to read or write and can only deduce that when someone is engaged in one of these activities he is desperately bored and should, in all kindness, be diverted. [TW, my Islamic history teacher, elaborated on this. He said when he was working on his dissertation he very badly needed time to himself to work on his notes, etc. Whenever his hosts saw him withdrawing to do this, they assumed that their hospitality had been inadequate and that he was bored, so they would go out and bring in he neighbors to keep him entertained.]

Sunday, March 7, 2010

For AB

My 24-year-old roommate at yoga camp was reading Paul Bowles, and since she seemed interested, after I got home I dug up my journal for 1980, when I took a six-week fiction-writing workshop in Tangiers with Bowles. I started transcribing excerpts of that journal for her.

Here’s a description from July 1 of my first class in Morocco: [Bowles] is a tiny frail-looking man who wears darkest-dark sunglasses and seems utterly helpless. He turns 70 this year but looks more fragile than that number of years could account for. Actually he looks a lot like William Boroughs, just a little gentler. But just as dissipated--extremely pale blue eyes when he removes his glasses, looks like he's been stoned forever ... Bowles seemed to expect the class to conduct itself ... Finally, after numerous agonizingly embarrassing silences he said that he was in terrible need of a cigarette. Someone handed him one, which he placed in a cigarette holder. Shortly after lighting it, he dropped an ash into his pocket, which proceeded to ignite his jacket. B [one of my fellow students], who was sitting next to him, noticed it first and started slapping at it. As she said, a dozen thoughts raced through her mind, including: "Oh my god! It's cashmere!," "I'm touching Paul Bowles, my idol!," "He's so fragile," and "I hope I'm not hurting him." Bowles survived the incident but seemed visibly weakened and left shortly thereafter."

And this from July 2: The second Bowles workshop yesterday was as agonizing as the first. He is known by some of the Americans here as "Bowels," by the way ... He doesn't have a hell of a lot to say [about our short stories], although toward the end of yesterday's class he waxed a little catty. He said Truman Capote would never take you to a party unless he knew beforehand that he could introduce you to somebody famous. "It's pretty sad when someone feels the need to surround himself with celebrities." Of Tennessee Williams, he said, "His autobiography sounds like it was tape recorded and that he never read it after it was transcribed—and that's giving him the benefit of the doubt. It's too bad because in general he's pretty good." Then he said he didn't particularly like Gore Vidal's introduction to the Collected Stories: "He wrote about me, not about the stories." He "softened" that a bit by adding that Vidal was a "good critic but a lousy fiction writer." He also said that politically Vidal "doesn't like anyone but himself." This class may not be teaching me anything about fiction writing, but maybe I can learn to be a gossip columnist.

After that second meeting, Bowles arranged to meet with us in smaller groups at his apartment. My notes from July 8: Had our first smaller meeting with Bowles yesterday. He is such a dear old man. I think this new method will work out well. The only problem, I realized with a pang last night, is that since we are breaking down into three groups, each group is going to meet with him only once a week, instead of going in a larger group three times a week. This means we have only four more sessions with the master. Yesterday B, C, R and I walked to his house for the class. He lives only a few blocks from the school in a hideous gray cinderblock building with faded green shutters. His apartment is on the fourth and top floor. It's small and shabby and dark and, since he kept the windows closed while we were there, unbearably stuffy. It's furnished entirely with hassocks and mattresses and low tables. Nothing rises more than six inches off the floor. Outside his living room is a porch but that room receives no light because the porch is choked with what look like giant philodendrons. He invited us all to be comfortable and then went to prepare us tea, listing about ten varieties and offering us lemon. After he joined us he went over each of our stories individually with us, correcting only what he calls solecisms. My pride was somewhat ruffled when he pointed out two bad ones on mine that were quite embarrassing. I had used the word prone to mean supine and beckoned instead of beckoned to. After painstakingly pointing out each of our grammatical errors in the kindest fashion, he concluded the class. B asked him if he ever intended to give us more general kinds of response and he said that it would take him a long time to get to know us and our writing well enough to feel qualified to make general statements. He said that often something that seems weak or crude in one piece of work will emerge in the larger body of work as a writer's greatest strength. He also pointed out that, for example, Henry Miller has never written a single great book, yet the whole of his work is brilliant. Then his boyfriend, Mohammed Mrabet arrived with a box of cakes and some funny cigarettes for us. We all indulged and sat around listening to Mrabet tell stories ... Mrabet has smutty eyes and a wheezing ingratiating laugh and his tales of his exploits portray him as a petty scoundrel. I can kind of see why Bowles loves him. He is utterly fascinating in his repulsiveness ... He's much younger than Bowles and B pointed out that for Bowles, who is childless, Mrabet must be like a son. Part of Mrabet's stomach was removed to arrest a duodenal ulcer. Bowles said with great tenderness that the ulcerated part of the stomach looked just like a volcano crater. Mrabet claims that they brought it home from the hospital with them and fried it up with potatoes to eat. I feel pretty sure Mrabet is Pumpkin in that sleazeball novel Tangier, and Bowles is the hopelessly whupped painter who endures Pumpkin's sadism.

There's more, lots more, similar stuff, but perhaps, dear reader, you're tired—or are you feeling a touch of nausea?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Happily unmarried, but ...

I am a happily unmarried monogamous slut: I’ve lived in sin for 38 years with the same man. We’ve been together longer than we’ve been apart. For nearly four decades we’ve complemented each other’s vagaries. He’s a neatnik, I’m a slattern. He cooks, I eat. He’s smart, I’ve got chemo brain (had it forever, even before I had chemo). Mostly our partnership works out. He gets to be right, I get to be wrong with the comfort of knowing I’ve got backup. But there are times when he goes off—to visit his mother, say, at her Florida nursing home—and I am left to my own vices, er, devices, and I feel a huge sense of slob’s relief. I wallow in every wanton impulse. I leave unwashed dishes on the counter—overnight! I forget to put my clothes away—for days on end! I do the laundry—but leave it unfolded! I don’t answer phone messages—ever! And there’s nobody to criticize or complain. Of course, I’m stuck with a diet of fairly unappetizing leftovers (tonight’s menu was burnt pizza and cold, week-old boiled cabbage), and I have to manage the catbox entirely on my own or picking the litter out from between my toes becomes a full-time job. But that’s a small price to pay for five days of complete freedom from perfection.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shot to hell

How quickly our resolve melts away! Already I have tasted sugar, swallowed coffee, let daily yoga lapse, failed to recite my mantra, removed my mala from my neck, thrown down the Yoga Sutras in boredom, eaten the flesh of animals—in just four days! God knows what I'll be up to by the end of the week.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Back to the unreal

I am back to real life—or what the yogis consider the UNreal life. In less than 24 hours, I have already submitted my e-signature for my e-filed taxes, drunk two cups of coffee, eaten spicy food, quarreled with Other. But all last night as I slept, or tried to sleep, the refrain "Jaya Ganesha Jaya Ganesha/ Jaya Ganesha Paahimaam/ Sri Ganesha Sri Ganesha/ Sri Ganesha Rakshamaam" (I have no idea what it means, but it sounds both rousing and sweet, like a yogic version of a Sousa march) wafted through my brain. Leaving yoga camp is like stepping off a boat. It takes a while to get your land legs back.

Asato ma sad gamaya

Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya

Mrtyor ma amrtam gamaya.

Lead me from the unreal to the Real.

Lead me from darkness to Light.

Lead me from death to Immortality.

Above: Om by Uma