Friday, May 28, 2010

Gathering Stones

I am comfortable in ruins. Standing on the rocky beach on the Greek island of Naxos, the Aegean laps at my ankles, and I'm not surprised by the remnants of a city beneath the waves. Paving stones tightly aligned form a road. The base of a wall visible one moment and then obscured by the sea. In the near distance is the gate to Apollo's Temple, begun in the 5th century B.C. and never finished.

After nearly two weeks in Greece I have run my hands across the rough cobble of walls, trod on pathways of ancient marble, regarded the countryside through narrow windows of ruined chapels. Eons of human experiences are held in the  pores of these stones. Rows of museum pots carefully puzzled back together, bright mosaics enduring their missing tiles--the world here is both wreckage and beauty, ruin and wonder.

"The settlement for your divorce is still going on?" a friend or a family member asks every few weeks. The affirmative answer I give with each inquiry never fails to agitate me.
"I just want this to be over!" I've wailed time and again.
But in this ruin of a marriage, myself carefully reassembled like a broken pot, maybe there is no "over."

In Greece, as elsewhere in the ancient world, the new is built upon the old. Church upon temple. Road upon road. Life teems above an ancient burial ground. A mini-market sells ice cream, vegetables, and bottled water where an aqueduct once flowed.  Bronze Age, Iron Age, Archaic Period, Classical Period stack up like layers in a slice of moussaka. Onslaught after onslaught of invaders--northern tribes, Persians, Franks, Turks, Venetians, Germans and Italians have all torn Greece down and reassembled it as their own. But still, modern Greeks fling open their arms to visitors--spoon sweets into our mouths, and music into our ears. Zeus himself is the guardian of hospitality, they proclaim.

Standing atop Mount Zas, the place it is said that Zeus was raised, I look into the infinity of the Aegean.
Clouds and islands, villages and olive groves, but the line of the horizon does not exist.  Blue into blue, there is no beginning and no end. All of my striving to close the door on the era of my life that contained my marriage and begin anew now seems to me an absurd notion. I am old and new, merged into one person. A kingdom undersea connected to a new town on its shore.

"Someone still has an awful lot of baggage," one of my Internet dates wrote to me in an email a couple of years ago. After several pleasant phone calls and online chats, I'd decided to share my blog. He read it and recoiled. "I'm over my divorce," he said.

On a hike in the countryside near Melanes, the kouros lying in a field with a broken leg is no less amazing. The Parthenon might as well be Disneyland if it were rebuilt stone by stone and buffed to perfection. My footfall in the cradle of a marble step worn away by the centuries is a connection to what has come before.

For almost three years I've tried to be like my date, Mr. Teflon Man--scrubbed free of sticky residue, gleaming and shiny new. I've attempted the opposite, too--embracing my broken-ness. "Everyone our age is broken," I told the lover I kissed on the cobbled street beneath the Acropolis under the full moon in the fall of 2008, the year Mr. Ex got remarried. Now I prefer to think of stones. Stones from a lost city under the sea, stones stacked and re-stacked in an ancient wall, stones fallen and restored to an ancient temple to Demeter or Dionysius or Apollo, and other old stones given over to something new.

In ancient times when leaving a burial ground, the Greeks tossed a stone over their shoulders. In the modern Greek language, there's an expression that references this practice. When someone leaves a place  for good, it's said that he throws a stone behind him.

On my trips to Greece, I find that I gather stones, put them in my pockets and carry them home.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sweet Harvest

Temple of Demeter on the Island of Naxos.

The writing portion of my trip to Greece is nearly finished. Tomorrow evening our group of eight writers will share our last pieces of writing with one another before our final dinner together in Athens.
What a sweet harvest.

Harvest Near the Temple

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What I Like

I prefer goat bells to church bells. Birdsong to hymn. The braying of donkey to a sermon.
And hiking boots to high heels.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Hey, did you know you could be buried with your shoes?
The Greeks did--or at least they had ceramic copies made to take them into their next life.

The Museum at the Greek Agora /Athens

There is a baby’s skull in an earthen jar and a little girl laid out flat in a tomb of rock.  After so many centuries the girl’s bones and the stones that hold her are bride and bridegroom, melded into one.  Who delivered her there with her bracelets and rings, her child-sized painted dishes and pitchers?  Who slipped the baby into the narrow mouth of the jar and guided it into the full-bellied chamber, a backwards birth into the nether world? Who bore these losses?

After so many centuries, loss still inhabits the room.  In this museum at the Greek Agora in Athens, a woman speaks in a voice too loud for the narrow space.  “It looks like a real person,” the woman says. She is staring at the little girl’s bones.  Is this how we protect ourselves from grief? Imagine the real into the unreal?

Does my husband imagine our daughters as beings who have crossed over into some other world?  Their living flesh and bone—do they only exist for him in a life he’s sealed himself away from?  Or does he startle himself in the night when he walks into M.’s room to lift a fussing baby boy from his crib?  Does he expect her blond ponytail on the pillow for a fleeting instant before he caresses his son’s dark curls? Does the silence from C.’s room frighten him? No pages turning, no pen scratching across paper as the dark house slips past midnight? Does he ever pace the halls as his new wife sleeps and think of the house when it was ours and visit the memories of our life together there entombed?

I stand in a room across an ocean in my new life starring at the bones of children.  The jar, the stone encased in glass pull me backwards. “It is a little girl,” I want to say to the woman.  “See the bracelet that circled the softest skin? See her ring? She was real flesh and blood once. These are her bones, and they are real, too.

All Night Long #2

I went to Greece with Mr. Ex once. We were twenty years old and stood in the moonlight below the Acropolis. We fed each other mousakka and vine leaves and brought a bottle of ouzo back to our cheap hotel. The kisses tasted like licorice all night long.
That door is closed.    


 ...look at all these doors.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I'll Teach You Greek All Night Long

Restaurant owners stand in the street to lure you into dinner in Athens. As you walk by, they guess your nationality and say, Bonsoir, or Good Evening or whatever. I like to answer back, Kalispera. They sometimes assume I speak Greek then, which I don't. So things usually get funny and complicated  as they press their business card into my hand. I told the guy giving my friend Meredith and me the hard sell tonight I was sorry but I couldn't understand what he was saying. "I don't speak Greek," I said.
"I teach you Greek all night long," he said, out and out flirting with me." And if you have dinner at our restaurant tonight--free wine!" Then he presented me to his father, and his father lifted my hand and kissed it. One helluva economic recovery program. But Meredith and I demurred and said we needed to walk--which we did.
Then we went back. The father himself waited on us. He brought us not just two glasses of wine, but an entire pitcher. Come to Greece everyone! The wine is freeeeeee! After our Greek salad, and briam (vegetable stew), and tsatziki we had no room for dessert. But the father brought us a plate of fruit anyway. Come to Greece! The fruit is freeeeeeee!
I'm having fun already. The day has been nicely padded with flirtatious men--really this could be the key to turning the economy around.
I have another theory about the flirting--it's intensified since I've gone gray, and I think it makes me seem safe. Go ahead and flatter the nice grandma. She wouldn't actually take you up on it. The man I love laughed when I told him this theory. I'm hot, he says. Which makes me laugh.  I'm old.  Maybe that restaurant owner tonight was looking for a girlfriend for his father.

Everything Will be Fine, I said.

Everything will be fine when I get to Greece, I said. I said it or thought it so many times yesterday that it was like a mantra.
I have finally made it to my hotel in Athens--or, well--the hotel my hotel sent me to because they had guests who extended their stay.
It was a trip in keeping the current vibe of my life.
Left LAX 1 hour and 10 minutes late.
Heard my name being paged as I raced to my connecting flight in Atlanta. "Please report to gate E5 immediately or your boarding pass will no longer be valid." I made it. 
Shortly thereafter sky marshals came onto the plane and removed a woman from the first class cabin. The other first class passengers applauded.
We taxied out. I dozed. Fell asleep in my tiny economy seat, actually. Quite soundly. I woke to, "Flight attendants, prepare for arrival and cross-check." Holy shit, I thought. I was unconscious the whole way? No. We were taxi-ing back to the gate. The hydraulic system went kaput. Mechanics came on. We passengers got off. Four and a half hours later, we re-boarded. But alas, the pilots had "timed-out." They went home to sleep while we waited for new pilots.
So I arrived 5 hours or so late in Athens. 
Then things turned around. The cleanest taxi I've ever seen. Fresh flowers in the cup holder and a sprig of bougainvillea laid across the dash just so.  Air-conditioned.
When I got to my hotel and was told I would be staying at another hotel across the street, the desk clerk and the taxi driver insisted on carrying all my things--which I could have quite easily managed myself. The taxi driver gave me a postcard with his number and a hand-drawn heart.    
 "Would I please call him for a ride back to the airport when I leave?" 
My tiny budget hotel room has fresh flowers, too. the face of the horrid economic strain the Greeks are under, they have apparently decided to turn the place into a garden.
The city looks good--clean, very little litter. Although it did look as though the grande dame of Athens hotels, the Hotel Bretagne was in the process of removing plywood panels from their front windows which face Syntagma Square. Workers were pulling the panels down and putting the finishing touches on metal rolling shutters (the same sort of thing I want for my windows on my patio.) Once the shutters were up, an elegant cornice of ironwork was placed over the top. No firebombs will be lobbed through their windows.
So things are tough here in many ways. But you wouldn't know it. It seems like the Greeks are just trying harder to bring beauty into the foreground.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pleasure Palace Perimeter Breached

I was tucked in my bed with the man who loves me when the ruckus started. There were voices. A rustling that was too raucous for squirrels. Maybe raccoons. They're eating my apricots, and I'm too sleepy and happy too care, I thought. The next morning I remarked on the noise and took note that there were still apricots on my tree. I forgot about the night's wild rumpus.
Then this morning I noticed that a large glass candle holder was missing from my patio. I was disturbed, but had plenty to do to distract me. Still there was an uneasiness.
"Hey," I said on the drive home from the airport with daughter #2,"Did you by any chance break or borrow or move one of the candleholders from the patio?"
"No," she said.
An hour later the she was peering over my patio wall while I mused and paced.
"The hillside has been tramped down," she said. "I can see where they came over the wall."
Someone now knows I have a large dog door.
I tried putting the dogs and their pink velvet bed outside for the night. I sealed up the dog door with its sturdy panel. The noisy neighbors from across the street came home, and the dogs barked. The sprinklers came on, and they wined. I worried about Layla and her stitched up mouth. She's been known to eat dirt. What if she has a little dirt banquet while she tries to figure out why she and Lola have been exiled to the patio? What if she gets an infection? The vet tech showed me the tooth. With the root and all,  it was about the size of my pinkie.
So now we're inside on the couch--the three of us, and the man who loves me is asleep alone in my bed. I have a glass of wine, and the dog door is sealed tight. Which will be fine until one of the dogs needs to poo.
Well laid dog-sitting plans gone awry because of a candle thief? It sounds absurd, and what is all this swirling hub-bub? Who wrote this fraught little novel of my life? Ha Jin? Chinua Achebe?
I want motion-detector lights, padlocks on my gate and my garage, wrought iron rising from my patio walls that's too tall to scale. I want an iron security door that renders my french doors impregnable, and a high tech dog door that only opens for you only if you have a chip implanted in your hide.
So when I come back from Greece, I may have a party. We'll break the bottles after we down our beverages. Blue ones, green ones, clear ones, and we'll cement the shards onto the tops of my patio walls. You're all invited.
And meanwhile instead of staying in their pleasure palace with people who love them, Lola and Layla will go to boarding so the dog door, in my absence, can be boarded up against the creeps who scaled my patio wall.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pleasure Palace and Pet Infirmary, Part II

I dropped the dogs off for a teeth cleaning today. Then things got complicated.
Thorough teeth-cleaning for dogs is done under general anesthesia, and tests are done to determine whether or not this is a good idea. Lola couldn't be put under because the vet discovered a heart problem. Lola's completely asymptomatic.  Full of energy. Full of mischief and spunk. The vet says don't worry. Take my vacation & think about a doggy cardiologist when I get back from Greece.
Layla has a Hollywood smile now--minus an upper canine. She had to have a tooth pulled. Now in addition to her thyroid meds, she needs other drugs to recover from the tooth pulling--an anti-inflammatory, and an antibiotic--and she has to be on soft food for a few weeks. And my pet sitter will have to take her for a follow-up visit. Go down Fair Oaks. South--opposite from how you'd go to Sierra Madre--away from the mountains. Turn Right on Huntington. Prepare to turn right almost immediately into TLC Pet Medical Center. It's probably less than a mile from here. When you make the appointment, you want to ask for Dr. Wallace.
Meanwhile the man who loves me isn't feeling well either. I think I'll sleep on the sofa tonight and put up a gate so the dogs have to stay on the first floor. Layla is woozy from the general anesthesia, and with her untrustworthy back legs, it's better if she doesn't climb stairs.
I've put the pink velvet dog bed in the living room, and Layla is sound asleep. Maybe it will be a peaceful night.

Welcome to Denise's Pleasure Palace and Pet Infirmary

I love my townhouse. It's the only place I've ever lived alone, and it felt good to downsize my big fat life after Mr. Ex left me. No pool man, no pond guy, no Mr. sump-pump, no tree-trimmers, no awning maintenance, no contract with a pest control company to keep the roving band of neighborhood rats out of the attic. I did, however, end up with all four of our pets. Using the current veterinary charts, the ages of  my four-legged roommates add up to 264 years. My cats are are just a year younger than my mother, and she and they seem to share a similar level of frailty. My dogs are middle-aged, and they and I seem to be suffering similar aches and pains. Layla the dog and Snowflake the cat have to really watch the tartar build-up. Me too. Lola is getting hard of hearing. What? Did somebody call my name?
I might live with humans again someday, but for right now and I'm grateful for the company I've got.
Soon I'll be leaving on vacation, and I will entrust a young couple with the care of four pets who all have health issues.
Layla takes thyroid meds twice per day--after the morning and evening walks. Put the pills in a Jerky Treat, please. Be careful--she snaps and won't take it nicely from your hand. Don't panic if she stumbles on the walks. She has muscle & nerve degeneration. When you hear her toenails scrape on the pavement, turn back.
Lola coughs and wheezes. She has allergies. Give her a pill. It's too big for a Jerky Treat. Stuff it into a Pill Pocket. Kudos to the genius who invented these.
If Layla coughs, give her one of Lola's pills. Remember, she snaps.
Piper has allergies (could she be allergic to dogs?) I'll give her an injection before I leave. She'll probably be fine. If she licks all the hair off her stomach and legs, call C. She'll explain how to give the shot.
Snowflake meows a lot. Sometimes she lets loose with a bloodcurdling yowl. This seems to be normal for her. But it can drive a normal human crazy. Give her a treat. Bathroom drawer. Kitchen pantry. Try a tiny scoop of catnip in her bed--the one on my desk. If it's making you crazy, and you feel the urge to lick all the hair off your legs, put her in the garage with a little food and water. She has a bed there already. The wine on the kitchen counter is for you. Get wild and crazy with the liquor in the pantry. Check the freezer. If you like gin at all, try the Hendricks. There's Tonic somewhere.
Piper doesn't meow at all. You may think she's run away. Look under the bathroom sink. She likes it there.
Snowflake will run away if you leave the door ajar for even a second. Don't please. Then you'll have to jog through the neighborhood shaking a can of kitty treats. She's amazingly athletic for an old woman. She can jump over a fence like a cat on a pogo-stick.
Feed the cats a can of cat food 3 times a day--that's a new extra feeding that's been added. They have both been losing weight. (Me too). Be sure there is dry food in their dishes (laundry room and bathroom) at all times. Ditto on their water. The cat food is stored in the front closet on the top shelf next to the hats (mine--not the cat's).
Remember to shut the dog gate in the bathroom doorway or the dogs will eat all the cat's food. It gives them diarrhea. Don't forget to admire the nifty little alteration I made to the cat door portion of the gate.

Lola used to squeeze her 45 pound body through that tiny hole. Anything for cat food. Oh, don't put the empty cat food cans in the bathroom wastebasket--take them to to garage waste basket. If Lola does per chance starve herself to a new svelteness just to squeeze through the cat door, she will lick the cat food can lids and cut her tongue.
There are 2 litter boxes. One in the laundry room and one under Piper's sink. There are scoops next to them and litter deodorizer. I pretty much have air freshener everywhere. Desk. Bathroom. Laundry room. Sorry. I've heard that the olfactory system of a man is less sensitive than that of a woman. It's very important to keep the dogs out of the litter boxes. Layla is fond of Poo Poo Roca. Close the gate to the bathroom. As a double precaution, the side of the cabinet that holds the litter box is taped shut. It keeps dogs out and litter granules in. And keep the laundry room door that is in front of the litter box closed, and put the big rock with the cat painted on it in front of it.
If you're gone for hours, turn on the TV for the dogs. Chanel 67.
There's a broom and dustpan in the garage. The vacuum is there too. How much you clean is up to you. You might be a big Star Wars fan and find yourself quite attractive as a wookie.
If the cats throw up on the dining room chairs and you find it before the dogs eat it, don't worry. I think the better living through chemistry folks made that fabric. I just wipe it off with plain water. Cleans up real nice.  It doesn't happen all that often. Ditto the couch. It's leather. Treat it like a cheap pair of shoes.
All the dog-walking stuff is in the dresser by the french doors. Poo bags. Flashlight. Extra keys. Rain coat....The dogs are trained to walk on the left side by side. They can only make it a block or so. The park might be too far, but you can try. The pooper scooper is by the back gate. Scoop the patio at least twice a day. They have been known to step in their own poo and then come sit by you while you're watching TV.
The envelope taped to the pantry door is for you. Enjoy.
And enjoy the love of the creatures who invented unconditional love.
And enjoy my place. It's lovely here. Flocks of song birds and wild parrots. Cable TV. Help yourself to pay per view. Call long distance on my phone. Wireless Internet. There's a pool, jacuzzi & sauna in the community area. Have at that espresso-maker. Eat whatever I've got. I love you for being here.
Gosh I sure am glad Mr. Ex and the Little Missus have a nanny to change their baby's diapers. Otherwise that would be a lot of work for them.

Monday, May 10, 2010


"Oh, Heaven, it is mysterious, it is awful to consider that we not only carry a future Ghost within us; but are, in very deed, Ghosts! ~Thomas Carlyle."

Someone left the above quote as a comment on my prior blog post about the play, Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo. 
It says a lot about how I feel about Mr. Ex and what it's like to carry the fallout of a 32-year relationship around with me. He's gone. As good as dead, really. Except he keeps zombie-ing through my life slamming doors and rattling the tea-cups.
I spent a couple of hours today working on the  most recent bit of creepiness. Mr. Ex and I, almost 3 years since we split, are still the co-owners of at least 3 credit card accounts. I used those credit cards for everything from bread and booze to a brand new caramel colored leather sofa in the first 15 months after he left. I had no income of my own, and he was doing some really impressive foot-dragging over the alimony. I didn't go crazy--though with our credit limit I suppose I could have charged a beach house in Belize. But I didn't. When the alimony started, I opened my own checking account, applied for my own credit card, and threw my former plastic lifelines in the red heart-shaped leather box where I also store my postage stamps. He'll take my name off those accounts, pronto, I thought. 
He didn't.
So, legally, I am still liable for the impressive amount of debt he has been racking up and unable to pay off every month. That's a fucking hell of a lot of baby Polo and Christian What's His Name shoes for the little missus. I mean did her feet grow a couple of sizes after the baby or what?
Now he hasn't tried to stick me with said debt or anything. But I worry. What if he becomes a real ghost? What if he's been charging cameras, computers and cashmere with abandon while refusing to sign off on our financial settlement just so he can, with some talented flick of his lawyer wrist, makes me go halfsies on these joint accounts?
My calls to the credit card companies did not go especially well.
Company #1 requires a form which we both must sign. They insisted they must sent the form to the address of record--his address where it will languish in the towering stack of mail I no longer attend to. No, it couldn't be sent to my address, the woman said. Finally, I got her to fax it to my attorney.
Company # 2 requires that the account be closed and a new account in  his name only be applied for. It would have been glorious to pull the plug right then and there, but daughter #2 is in Mexico with that card in her jeans pocket. I will cancel it on the way home from the airport after picking her up.
Company # 3 has a room full of overly suspicious customer service agents who toil at phones made from soup cans situated in a rock quarry in India. Trucks full of gravel rattle by incessantly, and I think the gentleman I spoke to didn't believe a word I said and told me he was sending someone to arrest me. Or a form to attest to what I do. Or a swan from the zoo.
So here I am. Still the joint owner of three slices of shiny plastic--with a ghost.
I could go charge stuff I suppose. Yards and yards of heavy chain that I will wind around his house while he sleeps. When he wakes, he'll have to charge a bolt-cutters, have it delivered through a window, and cut through the heavy links that hold him prisoner. There he'll be in new silk monogrammed pajamas dragging those heavy chains behind him, round and round as he unwinds his house.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Theater Tonight

Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo is a play populated by ghosts. Fraught with the tensions of war, the first
killing occurs within moments of the play's opening. Kev kills the tiger he and his fellow soldier
Tommy have been charged with guarding when the tiger (played by a human actor wearing tattered
clothes) bites off Tommy's hand. Tommy lies in a pool of blood, and the Tiger dies center stage but continues to speak as a human, and lets us know that though dead, he is still here. Welcome to the spirit world created by playwright Rajiv Joseph--and a stage where the unseen becomes seen and the dead still suffer in a place that--to a former Catholic--seems like purgatory.

Nearly every scene produces a ghost. Kev is haunted by the tiger and the war, and kills himself by trying
to saw off his own hand. He comes back to haunt Tommy who has returned to Bagdad with a Robo-cop
prosthetic hand, pissed off that he didn't even get a purple heart. The translator with Tommy and Kev's unit is haunted too. Once a talented gardener who specialized in topiary, he created a fantastical garden at the palace of the Hussein boys. He is visited by two ghosts--his young sister who was tortured and killed by Uday Hussein--and by Uday himself. Uday appears carrying the head of his brother in a plastic bag--a sort of double haunting. Already dead himself, he looked for the body of his brother everywhere, he tells us, but all that turned up was the head. Now he is a ghost carting around the head of a dead man.

In this realm of death  and war the tiger is the play's philosopher, and he ponders all the big questions. Where is God? Why do so many horrific things happen? How can a tiger be expected to rise above his murderous nature when God created him as a tiger in the first place? There's nothing new in the questioning, but the very presence of a  talking tiger from Bengal out of his element in  wartime Bagdad, dead but still sentient, puts a fresh context around the questions. 

Pretty much everyone suffers from a sense of dislocation in the play. The soldiers are in a foreign land longing for pussy and cheeseburgers. The translator can no longer practice his art. The tiger's camouflaging stripes meant for the jungle are worthless in the desert. The Iraqi characters we meet are lost too. Their once familiar world has been rendered unrecognizable. Even the beautiful beasts sculpted by the gardner at the behest of Uday don't belong. Green vines left untended in a desert are certain to perish.

The gardener/translator, who survives the various doses of Bagdad mayhem that unfold in the course of this play, seemed to me to be the character I cared about the most. Practically everyone hurts someone in this play (whether the hurting was intentional or not) and is haunted because of it. Even in peacetime, it's impossible to get through this life without wreaking some havoc, but when we hurt someone we love, the suffering can be worse than death. It was the gardener himself who brought his dear sister into the Uday's sadist realm and lost her although her brutal demise was never his intention. He is so tortured that he can't see his way clear to pulling the trigger on Uday's looted golden revolver that has passed from Tommy's hands, to Kev's, and finally to his own. 

The idea that fascinated me most in this play is that death need not halt our personal development. The tiger strives to be less violent and even dabbles in vegetarianism. Boneheaded Kev learns to appreciate the depth of Middle Eastern culture and becomes fluent in its languages. Tommy clutches his golden spoils of war as he lays dying, but sees they won't do him much good after he's dead. It's only the evil Uday who doesn't change. With his brother's bloody head in his hands, he seems forever destined to walk the afterlife as the most heinous of villains.

The play did not have a satisfying ending in my opinion, nor did its various dynamic scenes hang together as a whole, but there was plenty of good writing nonetheless.