Saturday, June 26, 2004

Well, it was Top Hat, and Burmese take-out, and both the children, Lydia and Pete, were there. Lydia has just graduated Middle School, and she was fixing a photo album of photos of herself and her four best friends. At least three of them have been friends with her since kindergarten, and none of them are going to the same High School next year, so it is a landmark event for her.

Larry had wanted me to see his GP. He offered to speak to him about me, so that at least I would be able to sit down with someone and look over those MRIs and bone scans that were taken... more than two months ago, already. I said OK. He called me to say the Dr. was out that week, but would be back on Monday, and I was to call Greg on Monday after 10 a.m. to check for an appointment.

Monday, 10 a.m. came, I called and got the Dragon at the Gate. "What do you want with Greg?" she asked me, in a prickly tone. "I am a friend of Larry's and he told me it was agreed I should talk to Greg after 10 on Monday." Silence. Then the Dragon comes back: "Leave your name and phone number, Greg will get back to you."

The day wore on. In the evening, Larry wanted to know whether I had followed my instructions. When I told him I was waiting for a call back, he asked me whether I wanted him to call, to try and get an answer for me. "No," I said, "What's the point? This is the doctor's first day back in the office, there is really no point pushing for attention, it will get me nowhere fast. Let's just wait until Greg calls me back."

"What happens if he doesn't?" Larry asked.

"If after three days he does not, I shall call to ask whether I have fallen through the slats," I responded.

"All of a sudden, you are so patient," Larry says. Wadda you mean? I have been trying to get someone's attention for almost three months now.

Anyway, the next day, Larry called again to let me know that his doctor had called him to say he did not want to meet me, he thought I should be seeing someone else who was familiar with my case. I think Larry twisted his arm some (he is a very forceful lawyer), and the poor man told him to tell me to call Greg for an appointment.

So I called Greg again. Got the Dragon at the Gate again. This time, I did not ask for Greg, I merely recited that I was Larry's friend and had been told to call for an appointment. Silence. Then Greg came on, very business-like: "How about July 12?" So I finally have an appointment for July 12.

Last night, Larry wanted to know whether I had done as I was told and had called for an appointment. When I told him "July 12", his eyes fell out of his head and his jaw dropped to his knees.

"Would it help if I called and asked them whether they could see you earlier?" he asked.

"I don't think so," I answered, "It's quite clear he is less than enthusiastic at seeing me at all and is only doing it because you have twisted his arm."

"I could twist his arm some more..." Larry started.

That's when I lost it. I could feel my face crumpling up and my throat tightening and the tears coming up, and a feeling of utter desolate anguish flood through my entire being, and as the tears started flowing down my cheeks, I sort of croaked out: "Look, at this point, I am feeling absolutely dreadful, and the last thing I need is to be seeing someone who doesn't want to see me. I want someone to help me who actually wants to help me. I don't want to be seeing someone who effing doesn't care."

I managed to pull myself together before going any further. But I still feel bad about losing control because it certainly isn't Larry's fault if his doctor is comfortable and lazy with his top line insurance clients, having to take a few Medicare clients on the side so as to be listed, most of whom he has known, like Larry, for over twenty years.

No matter what the quality of medical care I have received in my entire life, it seems doctors and other people have talked to each other about me much more than ever they have spoken to me personally.

So, Gil can throw the book at me all she wants about my complaint that I am "invisible", or "transparent", the fact is that I have a better handle on the situation than most people could possibly imagine.

In 1994-95, I went ten months without treatment, through some eighteen fully trained MD's who didn't examine me properly, didn't examine me at all, ran the wrong tests, told me there was nothing wrong with me, told me I had a virus "like everyone else right now". Finally, I got to my surgeon, and was on my way to some sort of life extension. He shows me off to his students, nowadays: "Here is PF, I don't know why this woman is still alive!" Everybody laughs. Once day, I asked my gastroenterologist how come my case had been so difficult to diagnose, and his answer was: "It wasn't at all difficult to diagnose. You were a classic case, a first year medical student should have been able to diagnose you, based just on your medical history, never mind your symptoms."

The karmic retribution... Yup, that's it. It's written in all the texts. Search no more. Just change it.

Today, the pain is 1)intolerable; 2)relentless. I can hardly walk at all. Taking a shower and getting dressed was heroic, I thought I would never be able to get out of the tub.

"Talking of football..."

"Nobody was."

"Well, perhaps not but..."

One has to laugh at the idea that little Greece has wiped out mighty France, who clobbered England not so long ago. As some wag said, "Now we can watch some real football."

I spent some time yesterday afternoon on the BBC sports page, playing all those little animations they have loaded there. I also spent some time on another little simulation site which I clicked on somewhere--probably Douze Lunes, I can't remember. It had a URL of sport.gazeta.pf, but it didn't pan out when I tried to switch to it, I probably got it wrong.

Well, that's all for now. I think I shall be lucky if I manage to eat today, and get to and from my bed, to my desk, to my bathroom, to my altar, whatever.

I have no real idea what next, but I get the picture it ain't going to be much fun.

Friday, June 25, 2004

It's time to lighten up. I went blogsurfing. I figured I was in the water anyway, there was no point even trying to stay dry.

I am one of Ihath's retarded aging students, who peer at the instructions and don't quite get it. So I am still unable to link inside the text. Yes, I know, there are clear instructions somewhere. Let me put it this way, they can never be too clear in my case.

I'm the kind of person who doesn't have any magnets on her refrigerator, but has quite a few on the filing cabinet, and one of them says: "Make it idiot proof and someone will make a better idiot". I am that better idiot.

So, I have dusted off my links. I am, after all, a talent scout.

I found out Douze Lunes, one of my favorites, is blogging again, so there he is. And thanks to him, I have added Captain Books and Paysan de Paris. Sorry for those of you curious to click on and find you don't speak French. But Paysan de Paris has a neat feature on the right, two radio blogs which require only the click of a mouse. You can either listen to the whole shebang or pick your way through them, item by item. I had myself a good time, volume UP.

I have also added Belmont Club, which I found through Bear, Major Pain's brother from Magic in the Baghdad Cafe.

That's about it for today. Tonight I go to Larry and Carol's for Friday night movie night. It gives me the illusion that everything is normal.

Monday, June 21, 2004

I woke up this morning feeling as if I could cry, and my first thought for the day was that maybe I should, it would remove some of the toxins flooding my body and I would just go and wash my face off with cool water from time to time, with that lovely lavender soap that smells of the hills outside Grasse.

The second thought was concerning what I would like to do today, but it was bait and switch onto what I am able to do at this point. The truth is: not much. I am about as lively as one of those funny Ronald Searle cats, reclining on a sofa like a Grand Horizontal with a large box of bonbons within reach, awaiting her beau with a bouquet of flowers.

Everything is a test: of my patience, my faith, my determination, my mood, my ability to put up with, my capacity to follow through or follow up. I am waiting for an important letter from Europe more than three weeks now, it was probably mailed out with insufficient postage. I am waiting for a referral to an orthopedist from my surgeon (not my idea, he wants me to see one). . . for more than two months now. And so on and so on.

My cat fur is all matted, my tub is leaking, the sails are shredded off the mast, I am stuck with not a breath of wind and without a paddle. I keep peering through the haze of summer for a glimpse of the albatross that will promise me a landfall.

Something inside of me tells me this feeling of being out to sea is not mine, personally: I am just experiencing exactly what the rest of the world is experiencing. It is the feeling of being on the brink of something, similar to the strange feeling of unease one might experience during the buildup of a summer thunderstorm. From the point of view of quantum consciousness, I am just picking up on feelings and anxieties that do not concern me. I am just eavesdropping, in a way, on the misery of the whole world, and I am registering all this distress in my own body and mind.

There is nothing I can do about it to affect anything except to chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. This much I can do, because it does not require being able to walk or stand, and it does not require help from anybody.

So, from a small feeling of my ego, my little personal horizon of pain and limitation, I was brought to take the step which should have been my first and would have been, had I been dealing with a full deck.

That is the mercy of the Buddha.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

What's to be said?

Daily life is diminishing somewhat. The leg is becoming more painful, maximal dosage of Ibuprofen is no longer enough. It is hard to get both legs into the tub to take a shower, it is hard to get both legs into my jeans, it is hard to take the fresh cup of coffee back to bed without spilling any.

The focus of my daily life is mainly doing my best to make other people comfortable with what is happening to me. Anything less is not acceptable to them, because actually it is they, not I, who are in denial. Is that even grammatical, is it really correct? I mean, is it true?

Well, thank heavens for strangers.

There is a Korean market at the corner of 54th and B'way. A year or so ago, I picked up a cup of coffee there at 6 a.m. every morning on my way to Temple for morning prayer. Two Korean men worked that particular shift, one very small, older man, and one very large, handsome young devil. We always found something to laugh about. Yesterday afternoon, I went there to pick up a small fruit salad, and the handsome young devil was behind the desk.

"Long time no see," he grinned at me.

Then: "What happened to the foot?"

"It's not the foot, it's the leg, it's broken," I grinned back.

"Hah?" he packs my fruit salad in a plastic bag, "Is it getting better?"

"No," I laugh, "It's getting worse."

"Hah?" he giggles, "So, what next?"

"I guess I just die."

We both break out in manic laughter.

"Take care of yourself," he pleads solicitously, as I hobble out the door.

Actually, it's incorrect to call this young man a stranger, even if we don't know each other's name.

* * * * *

Janna has gone into deep mourning for President Reagan. Janna is very much into appearances, and "he was soooooo warm", she loved him, and she always loved the way Nancy dressed. We can't talk about these things at all, at all.

Janna spends a lot of her time on the phone. She keeps in touch with dozens and dozens of people. For starters, the 25 odd women who attended kindergarten with her, way back when. She also keeps up with the various families and the surviving grown-up children of those friends of hers who have already died. She is the only one among them who is not a grandmother, and that is because her only son was born with a heart defect which could not be fixed in those days and he died of heart failure before he was nine.

Janna has one older sister, who lives somewhere in a country that once was a part of the Soviet Union (Lithuania, I think, maybe...). They talk regularly. Part of their ongoing relationship centers on telling each other jokes, which in the Russian parlance is referred to as "anecdotes".

It goes like this:

The sister: "Can I tell you an anecdote?"

Janna: "Please, go right ahead."

Silence. Then the sister begins to laugh.

Janna: "What?"

The sister: "Sorry, I can't remember it. But it is very funny," followed by peals of laughter.

Janna: "Hahahahahahahahahahaha!"

Yesterday, Janna reported to me:

"I talked to my sister today." Laughter. Pause.

"She wanted to tell me an anecdote. I said, Go ahead. Then, there was a long, deep, really deep silence, you know... So, I encouraged her, Go ahead, I'm listening. So, she said: 'Please go on talking, I need to relax, I need to concentrate.' So, I kept on talking and my sister kept silent, concentrating. And then, after a while she said: 'It's no good, I can't remember what it was about, but it was really very good, you would have loved it'."

Janna and I crack up.

"I told her to ask her daughter when she comes home," Janna laughed, "And to make sure to write it down on a piece of paper and call again tomorrow and read it to me."

I myself can't wait to hear this super memorable joke.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Ah! Yesterday I had the best brunch of my life. A treat from my old boss Joe, from ten years ago, and his wife, Rachel. They took me out to the Water Club on the East River and I ate so well I was sure I would never, ever be able to eat another morsel. I would never, ever be hungry again.

I watched the BBC coverage of all the Normandy ceremonies. It was a masterpiece of preparation and execution. All those old codgers, now in their eighties, marching proudly like the young men they had been sixty years ago, with tears in their eyes still welling up for the friends who fell beside them and never were given the chance, to live our their lives, grow old, or even experience the satisfaction of their success. Their sacrifice is what made it possible for all of us to have a united Europe today, instead of a 1000-year Reich.

It was really too bad that the present leader of the United States, who should really be more respectable and respectful, should have been chewing gum on the podium besides all the other leaders of the free world of today.

It was also really too bad, at this particular historic moment of recognizing for the last time the sacrifices of the heroes of 1944, that this same leader of the United States should have broken rank to honor the recently deceased President Reagan, that Hollywood cowboy, who by no stretch of the imagination should have been mentioned in the same breath as the heroes, dead or alive, of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. For starters.

Reagan? You mean the man who won the presidency from Carter because he was able to delay the release of the Iranian hostages until after the elections? Who benefited from the Iran/Contra scandal? Gimme a break. What can I say? I am biased, maybe, I may be wrong, but I do not believe the end ever justifies the means. This was no hero, this was a master of deception.

Reagan, the man with missile envy who spent 3 Trillion Dollars on nuclear weapons during his eight years in office, more than any other U.S. president before or since? The man whose decisions on national security and foreign policy were based in large part on what he read in The Reader's Digest? You say: "Glasnost". Yup, sure, Glasnost. But all humanity is still held hostage to nuclear threat, bigger than ever, isn't it so? Nothing has really changed, except we are just a little more polite to each other.

My friend Gil in Canada was watching slightly different coverage up there. To her surprise, sitting on the podium alongside (well actually a little behind) the Queen of England, she spotted a man who had fought with her father.

We are the children of that war. It is what colored our entire childhoods and thereafter our lives. I still to this day shudder at the sight of a German shepherd: they are the only dogs that make me tremble. I can see no beauty there, at all, at all. It's visceral.

* * * * *

It is great to see Doug is walking his hills once more despite the sciatica.

In his honor, the other day, I looked for one of those lazy boy chairs when I swung through Crate & Barrel on my way home. That's the beauty of that particular store, they actually encourage visitors to try out all the seatings. It was easy to settle down into this particular item, and I had a wonderful time rocking gently for a while. It was another matter altogether to rise up out of it and there was a moment there when I thought I would have to call out for help!

Congratulations, Doug, on hitting the trails again!

* * * * *

I threatened the other day to tell you about the time I hocked just about everything I own.

I was living in Paris at the time in a small room which had a washbasin and a kitchen cupboard with a sink, so that I didn't have to wash my face and my dishes in the same recipient. There was a shower and a WC down the hall, which I shared with all the other people on my floor who had similar little rooms. It didn't cost very much, which is just as well because I didn't earn very much, on top of which I was often without a job or underemployed, or somehow or other short of cash.

I was also very young, like maybe 21, 22, tops.

I don't remember what the financial emergency was on this particular occasion. Maybe I just needed to buy food to tide me over until next pay day. I was just in a situation which I estimated required heroic measures, and I set out early one January morning to hock all my earthly belongings, which consisted of: an electric turntable (not top of the line), an electric, plug-in radio, a small portable Singer sewing machine in its case and an electric steam iron.

If you want to hock something in Paris, you go to the Credit Municipal. It is connected to the City of Paris, separate from the Town Hall, and it has been in existence for a long time. I don't know whether it goes back to the French Revolution, it may, or it may be part of Napoleon's reforms. In any event, it is commonly referred to as "Ma Tante", "My Aunt", because of some Napoleon descendant, some great nephew or other, who used these services regularly to cover his gambling debts, who was caught short one day, while visiting his parents and they noticed he was not wearing some item of jewelry they had given him (a ring, I believe), and who when he was challenged as to what had happened to the ring, answered, on the spur of the moment, "I left it behind at my Aunt's"...

The morning I went to my Aunt was a very cold, foggy morning, I didn't have an overcoat but I was steaming hot from carrying all my packages, held together with hairy white string that cut through my frozen ungloved hands.

This was a first for me. I found myself in a huge inner courtyard, leading to an elevator the size of a small ballroom, with a white-gloved elevator operator operating one of those manual handles that look a little like a ship's steering device (sorry, I don't know what they are called). The elevator operator was old, skinny, professional and in uniform. We waited for a while in silence. I supposed he was waiting for the elevator to fill up some more before starting up.

After a while, an ancient of all ages joined us, flannel pants, a grey tweed jacket and a long scarf, no hat, no gloves, no overcoat, white hair, and two large shopping bags filled with mysterious bundles wrapped in old newspapers.

As soon as the old codger came in, the operator swung the ship into motion.

"Heavens!" I cried out, "We're running on empty! Shouldn't we fill her up a bit more?"

The operator shrugged and was silent.

"Does it ever get filled?"

The operator shrugged and was silent.

"Why bother to have such a vast elevator if it never fills up?"

By now, my tone had switched to the rhetorical.

The operator shrugged and was silent.

We chugged on, and after the appropriate time had passed, the elevator operator pronounced, in a quiet, matter of fact voice:

"Suppose someone wanted to hock their grand piano, Hey?"

Well, that sure made sense. The gates clanged open, and the ancient of all ages and I entered the sanctum sanctorum of my Aunt.

It was our first time for both of us. We had to take our "stuff" to a counter where it would be evaluated and someone in the back room would determine how much to lend us, according to all sorts of criteria, such as: would we bother to redeem the loan, could we ever redeem the loan, were we likely to live long enough to redeem the loan, etc., etc., you get the idea.

They took our stuff into the back room and gave us each a number and we sat down to wait.

It was not a busy day, we were alone, our numbers were called together.

My loan was approved. Seriously insufficient for my actual needs. The thought of sweating the whole load back home, sans a penny, was just too dreadful to contemplate, so I accepted, happy at the mere thought that I would be able to walk out emptyhanded and light.

I have great peripheral vision. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the old codger starting to rewrap his stuff, beautiful old fire irons of brass, elegant beyond description, into the old newspapers, into the paper bags. His whole body was shaking from head to toe.

I went over. "Did they refuse you the loan?"

"Yes." Barely a breath.


"They think I am too old and that I won't come back to pay it back."

"Hold on," I said cheerfully, "I got mine. Take your time packing, just wait for me, I need to wait to get my money."

Eventually, we were sitting side by side, me empty handed, him with his two repacked paper bags. Finally, my number was called out once more and I got my money.

"OK, let's go!" I took his arm and we were swallowed up by the huge elevator once more, back out into the courtyard, and into the street.

I gave him all my money. Every penny.

"I don't know your name, your address, how to repay you, when can I repay you," he was confused.

"This is not a loan, it's a gift."

He couldn't believe it. It turns out he needed the money because he needed to get a doctor for his sick wife.

It suddenly occurred to me to ask: "Are all these brass items precious to you?"

"Well----" He hesitated, "To be honest, not any more, not in relation to my present situation and my wife's condition."

"So, why hock them?" I asked, "Why not try to sell them? They are absolutely beautiful, I'm sure an antiquarian would give you a good price for them."

"Here, you can have them!" He wanted to press the two bags on me.

"No, no, no, I don't want them. Maybe you could sell them and get more money."

It was as if he had been parched out and someone had given him a drink of water. "But I happen to know an antiquarian," he said happily, "He's an old friend of mine, he has a store alongside the Seine, I can go there now."

"So, go see him!"

"Yes, yes!"

We walked down to the subway station together, arm in arm, he was no longer shaking, his step was eager and sure, and we hugged each other goodbye and each went our separate ways.

Months later, I got all my stuff back. It always has made me laugh to think that I thought I had gone to Ma Tante to solve one of my problems, and it turned out the only reason I went there was to help an old stranger and his sick wife.

You never know, really, do you, what your share is in the whole picture of things.

Wildfire Jo posted this recently:

She was talking about the death of Rachel Corrie, who was bulldozed by the Israeli in Rafah as she attempted to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home.

"I was in Iraq when she was killed and dedicated that day's dispatch to her. A friend in England was reading selected, non-political parts of my writing to the kids she taught in a secure unit for young people with severe emotional problems such as advanced eating disorders or repeated suicide attempts. One of the girls wrote her a letter a while later, having moved on into another place, saying that was what turned her around, realising that there was someone who had travelled miles from home and died for something really important, while she was trying to kill herself for nothing at all.

The point is that you never know: Rachel couldn't have known that her going to Palestine would inspire a young woman she'd never met to live; I didn't know when I wrote about it and my friend didn't guess when she read it out. You don't know the effects your actions and words are going to have and often you don't find out afterwards, so you just have to throw yourself in and do what you think is right without trying to add up the results and despair if they don't seem big enough. That's what I think anyway."

Sunday, June 06, 2004

After reading and listening to a whole lot of speeches commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings, I feel like saying the best of the lot was Jacques Chirac's speech:

"We hold up the example of Franco-German reconciliation to show the world that hatred has no future, that a path to peace is always possible.

To you, legendary heroes of that blood-red dawn of June 6, 1944.

To you, children of the world thrown so young into the fire of war.

To you, admirable symbols of courage and devotion, of honour and nobility, of duty and supreme selflessness.

To you on behalf of all French men and women, on behalf of all the heads of state and governments gathered here today and of all freedom-loving people, I express our gratitude, our pride and our admiration."

Today the world commemorates the Normandy landings, sixty years ago.

Some twenty plus years ago, I was cycletouring with my American boyfriend around Brittany and Normandy.

He had been in the American army for three years during the Vietnam war--but he was not a Vietnam veteran because he was posted during that time along the DMZ in North Korea. He learnt some Korean, he learnt to drive a large truck, and he never fired a gun.

I told him I wanted us to go see the landing beaches and visit the war graves.

"Why on earth should we do that?" he protested.

"Because," I said with finality. Question marks, all over his face.

"Because every American should learn firsthand what Americans did that day."

He could not see the point. It was all in the past, as far as he was concerned, it was irrelevant. I kept saying that unless the new generations learnt what happened in the past, it could also be in the future.

He didn't want to go, but I was the navigator, I was the one who could read the maps, and so, as you may imagine, we went.

It was a lovely summer. Utah, Omaha, Sword, the lot.

At Coleville, we saw the 10,000 impeccable white crosses, lined up neatly across a beautiful field of green grass, immaculately cropped. Eighteen, 19-year old kids, from Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, the heart of America, some died the very day they landed. You can bet a lot of them had very little notion of exactly where they were.

The one thing you can also say about these young heroes is that they for the most part had had no previous war experience, unlike the British, French and Canadians on the neighboring beaches who were already seasoned from fighting in Sicily and Africa, and who had also experienced war hardships, including regular bombings, back home in England.

These young boys, hardly more than high school students, were suddenly dumped into freezing, rough surf, loaded down with guns, ammunitions, K-rations, etc., and if they did not simply sink and drown first, they had to make their way into the beaches and across wet sands truffled with landmines, facing German blockhauses where the German gunners could just pick them off without so much as stepping out.

Rommel had also sent in the panzer divisions.

Apart from the American cemeteries, you can also visit the "commonwealth" cemeteries, where the British and Canadian boys are buried. Those graves are covered with great white daisies and poppies.

If you search your map carefully, you can then locate the German war graves. Those cemeteries give you the goosebumps, there is something primeval and threatening about them: it's the dark stone crosses, the dark iron crosses, the crosses of the Teutonic Knights. If you pluck up enough courage to approach these spooky monuments, you can see for yourself that those Germans who died on those same fields as "our boys" were either over the age of 60 or below the age of 16.

Grandfathers guiding little boys, helping little boys kill and be killed. Steadying their aim and calming their fears.

Rommel's son was drafted into the German army straight out of school, age 15-16. This is not a fantasy of fiction.

At the Pointe du Hoc, the whole mess is an open-air war museum. Everything was just left as is, which includes, probably, some unrecovered bodies and unexploded ordnance. There are warning signs everywhere: "Don't touch a thing, it could still blow up!" and also: "Keep to the indicated pathways and keep your children within reach."

Looking down the slots through which the gun barrels pointed at the boys who climbed up those little rope ladders that myth says were on loan from the London fire department, if you have the least bit of imagination, your run the risk of losing it, as the saying goes, at the thought of what it might have been like to be one of those boys, climbing up out of the mists into the maw of almost certain death. It affected me so hard that for a while I thought I might have had a stroke, I had to sit under a shade tree in complete silence for a time, until I could step back into my everyday life and breathe normally again.

My stepmother, Paulette, comes from that part of the country.

Her grandmother had a fishing fleet at Grandcamp-Maisy. Some two dozen fishing boats. The owner of a fishing fleet in those days was responsible for all her fishermen and their families. It meant that if one were to be lost at sea, the fleet owner was responsible for the widow and orphans. This was a matter of honor and tradition.

On June 6, Paulette's grandmother's entire fleet was fishing at sea. They had left with the tide the night before. Not one ship ever returned.

If don't know about maritime insurance anywhere else, but in France, if you want to collect insurance, you must prove the loss of your boat. A dinghy, a lifebelt, a plank with its name or the ID number of the boat, a part of the registered engine, there are any number of things which can serve as proof of loss. You can't collect a cent otherwise.

The old lady couldn't prove the loss of a single boat. Not a single body of her fishermen was ever recovered. There never was anyone who came back or any witness who came forward to tell what happened to this little French fishing fleet on D-day. Paulette's grandmother had to sell off all her goods to divvy up the proceeds as best she could among the surviving families. She never went back into business and died soon after.

We should all of us ponder the significance of what was happening in 1944. We should, however, not forget that Hitler did not get his power from some God, handed to him on a silver platter, but from wealthy human beings whose plan it was to use him for their own purposes.

One should not forget to examine such details of post-war Europe, where on the one hand you had the vanquished enemy standing trial at Nuremberg for war crimes and crimes against humanity, at the same time that a select group of Hitler's henchmen were smuggled out of Germany straight to America (yes, I'm talking about Warner van Braun and his cronies, who gave us the race to the moon, after he had already given the other half of us the V1's and the V2's, his earnest money of services to be rendered. We also got that wunderkind Henry Kissinger--dirty little old war criminal!).

What is it that really distinguishes a human being from an animal?

It is, quite simply the feeling of gratitude.

The first of these gratitudes is the gratitude to one's parents. Animals don't have that. Maybe the fact that it takes so long to raise a human child to maturity is just to enable this sense of gratitude to develop naturally.

If you think about it, a calf, a colt, a kid, a lamb, stand up and take their first step immediately after birth and even though they need to be suckled by their mothers in order to survive, they are able to move about very early, and are able to come bucking at their mother whenever they are hungry, whereas a human infant must give voice and get her willing attention. I remember watching at London's Whipsnade Zoo as a little baby rhinoceros was trying to suckle his mother, and he kept going under her and bump, bump, bump into her with his horn, trying to get some milk, and she didn't like it one bit, maybe he was hurting her, and she would just impatiently take a few steps forward, and the poor little fellow would follow and try again, making a very strange sound.

The fact of the matter is that without both our parents, we none of us would have life in the first place. I figured out one day that even if my parents had not been married, if they had met in some bar just one time, gotten drunk, fallen into bed, made love just the once, never seen each other again, and my mother had found herself pregnant, decided to keep the child, and on seeing me come out a girl had decided I was not worth keeping, and she had dumped me in a dumpster and walked away without giving me another thought, and some other woman had come along and found me crying, and had thought I was cute and had saved me from certain death, no matter what, still my parents were my parents and I owed them the debt of gratitude of my life.

But, of course, my parents gave me much, much more than life.

The next debt of gratitude we owe is to our countries, our nations, because it is our social organizations that determine our overall wellbeing as a race.

The final debt of gratitude is to all humanity and all life, because all life is interdependent and there is virtually nothing we can do entirely on our own.

It is a scientific fact that a single human being, even if set down in a physically perfect earthly paradise, with clement weather, plentiful food and water and adequate shelter, such an isolated human being at best would be able to survive one short year.

We all of us like to think we know who we are. My father always used to say: Think of it this way, you have four grandparents, and each of them had four grandparents, who each had four grandparents. Within a few generations, you have more forefathers than ever lived in Felixstowe (the place where the family "comes from").

I used all my fingers and toes (I don't have a calculator), and I may have made a mistake here and there, carrying forward. But I figured it out on a piece of paper. Based on my father's formula, and calculating there are four generations per century (25 years per generation, I would think, is about average), when I look back 700 years, I have...

72,232,471,936,678,656 ancestors.

So do you, and you, and you.

But we only have 6 Billion people on earth now, the most ever.

"Here, Coz, Coz, Over here, Over here! Let's have a cuppa tea one of these days!"

Saturday, June 05, 2004

It's all mixed up, but it's all connected, somehow.

It's fifteen years since Tiananmen Square.

The year before, I was in charge of a Chinese exchange student who was sponsored by the law firm I worked for. It was organized by Columbia Law School, six months of exposure to the U.S. legal system, plus six months as a trainee in a New York law firm.

Peter said "Let's take the girl, she must be smarter than the boy." Wan worked for an official Chinese organization, therefore she was automatically treated as a "communist party member" by the American immigration authorities, consequently it took forever to obtain her routine student visa and she arrived after all the other Chinese trainees had already settled in. This meant that she had last dibs for a room in the apartment set aside for the students by Columbia, and since a wild card from Shanghai had invited a bunch of Chinese squatters to join them ("not allowed" was not a part of her vocabulary), my Wan was left with a tiny little storage room with hardly enough space to walk around the single bed.

I wanted her to feel at home. I bought special teas for her in Chinatown, and bath goodies, and snacks, and flowers. And I went to meet her at the airport: "I shall be wearing a white dress," I let her know.

Making polite sounds in the cab into Manhattan, I found out that Wan was married and had left her husband behind (hostage?). I must have said something bland like "I didn't know you were married, I guess you will miss your husband while you are here."

The complete stranger, the "Inscrutable East", puckered up and burst into sobs, tears running freely down her cheeks. "Oh, yes," she snuffled, "I had no idea how I would feel until I kissed him goodbye at the airport, and then I suddenly realized how long it would be."

I was so ashamed to have made her cry, but there was an immediate rapport established between us, she was immediately adopted in my heart as one of my daughters.

Wan and I became quite close. Through her, I met all the other Chinese students, they would invite me over and cook for me, and we would all of us traipse up to the roof of their building and party al fresco.

After a while, Wan asked me whether I could get her husband a visitor's visa, and I agreed to try. Mysteriously there was a window of opportunity, and her husband was allowed out of China. If I had not done it right away, we would have failed because just a few weeks later, the departure of husbands and wives were turned down inexorably by the Chinese authorities.

Wan's husband was extremely charismatic, but he didn't speak a word of English. You were stuck with body language. Still, they had a good time, they were even able to visit Washington, where I was able to arrange a special visit of the White House for them, and they also went to Niagara Falls in freezing weather, to satisfy a lifetime dream of theirs. Disney World in Florida was as far as their tourism reached because the husband was pulled back before plans could be made for the Grand Canyon.

Wan was very smart. Before her husband went back, we made her an offer to remain in the U.S.A., if she should so desire, we would facilitate everything for her. She discussed it with her husband and turned us down: "My husband and I are most grateful and appreciative," she said, "But we are Chinese, and our country is on the brink of many changes, and we want to be a part of all this."

Eventually, Wan's time was up and I invited her to spend ten days in Paris on her way home.

"America is not the only thing of interest in the world outside China," I told her, "There is a whole 'nuther world out there with a very different flavor. You will probably never come out of Beijing again, I would like you to have a glimpse of Europe, please be my guest in Paris."

She was overjoyed. I had an old friend in Paris, and I asked him to find us a small hotel in the center of Paris, somewhere in the very heart of the historic foundation walls. He lived in a small studio on the Ile St. Louis, and he offered it to me since he was going to be gone during the time of our visit.

This made me very happy, it meant my money would go further, and it also set us in the most exquisitely perfect spot to enjoy Paris.

At the very last minute, the old boyfriend reneged on his offer, and the day before our flight, I was frantically calling around for substitute lodgings. But those were the days when I laughingly could assert that no matter what I needed, or needed to know, it would be just two phone calls away. By the time Wan and I flew off to Paris, I had two apartments available to us, one off the Champs Elysees, near the Arc de Triomphe, and the other one--on the Ile St. Louis!

"We can sleep wherever we want," I laughed, "We can bivouac just like Napoleon!"

That was the good news. The bad news struck when we landed in Paris and were greeted by an impromptu general strike. This meant there were absolutely no public transports and we had to walk everywhere.

The stay was a great success. The apartment on the Ile St. Louis was stocked with wines and champagne, and the owner had generously said "Help yourselves! Make sure Wan has a great time!"

A very good friend of mine was in from Iceland with a boyfriend, and we joined forces and had a zany wild time. The Louvre, Versailles, home-cooked meals, here, there and everywhere, midnight mass for the tourists at Notre Dame, lunch at one of the most famous bars in Paris, surrounded by journalists from French radio and TV stations and the models of Dior, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower.

"Please go to the bathroom," I ordered Wan when we reached the top platform.

"I don't need to go," Wan protested.

"You must go," I insisted.


"Because when you go home, every time you see a photo of the Eiffel Tower you will laugh to think your pee somehow made its way all the way down all those iron girders," I said.

Wan laughed. She saw my point and went to the bathroom.

We walked everywhere, there was no choice. The avenues were filled with soldiers patrolling up and down, in full riot gear, shields, truncheons, submachine guns, helmets, leg webbings filled with gobs of hand grenades, the works. Young conscripts, 18-19 years old, they had never had their hair cut so short before in their lives. When you met their eyes, you could see fear, anxiety, stress, nervousness.

On the park side of the Champs Elysees, we crossed a small group of these young recruits walking in silence. Wan burst out laughing.

"What's the joke?" I asked. I had no idea.

"Those young boys," she was choking from laughter, "The way they are dressed."

"What's so funny?" I continued, "Don't you see how scared they are? Don't you see they are out here, dressed like this, because the whole city is in a state of siege, they are expecting bombs to explode all about them at any moment?"

"Oh, yes," she said, "That's what's so funny."

"It isn't funny at all," I said coldly.

"It is to me," Wan said with finality and without a hint of remorse, "It's funny to me because I don't have to live here."

I have to admit I found it hard to be friendly with Wan for the rest of that day. I remembered this incident most vividly a year later, when Tiananmen took place. I thought: "Of course. 'They' did this because 'they' think we don't care because it's not happening over here."

During our many discussions on this, that and the other over the months with Wan, she had told me certain things that I had not focused on before.

Foreign newspapers and magazines: unavailable in Beijing. Why ever not? Because of the advertising. So what? Well for instance, if you were to advertise--let's say Coca Cola, everybody would want to try it. That's no big deal, but the big deal is ice. Nobody drinks Coca Cola hot, so you need ice, so you need refrigerators, so you need more electricity.

She didn't say: Of course, you also need water. Ask any Coca Cola man, Coca Cola is mainly marketed in the form of a syrup, and you bottle it where you consume it. At the time of Wan's visit to New York, Beijing, the capital of China, did not have public drinking water, you had to boil every drop, even to clean your teeth. I don't know whether this is still the case today

Another matter: dissidence and dissidents. What's the big deal? Well, said Wan, if you have 1% of dissidents among the population, that may look like a very small percentage, but in China this translates into blah millions, a small army. "We cannot afford to have any dissidence if we are to live peacefully."

* * * * *

Sixty years ago, a quarter of a million men died liberating Europe from Hitler. That's just through the Normand invasion, and it doesn't include the civilian victims.

In less than three months at Monte Cassino in Italy, almost half a million men died in uniform. That does not include civilian victims there either.

I don't know what the grand total of World War II victims might be, armed forces and civilians counted together.

One fact lurks beneath this horror: there were a few wealthy men who had helped bring Hitler to power, out of their self-interest, or personal ideological bent (for instance, capitalists scared shitless of the possible spread of communism, who loved Hitler because he hated communists), among whom we may count Prescott Bush, grandfather of our present President George W. Bush.

Everybody likes to scare themselves with the scarecrow of communism. The ones who agitate the scarecrow most are the capitalists, because the first thing a socialist state does is nationalize the industries, the mineral wealth, the infrastructure, so-called for the benefit of all the people, based on the promise that everyone should share in the wealth. What actually happens, however, is that in such socialist states the bureaucrats end up becoming the plutocrats, and the people become enslaved just exactly in the same way as they do in capitalist states.

In Nazi Germany, the first victims of the concentration camps were the communist refugees, survivors of the Spanish Civil War. Then came the homegrown German communists, and thereafter all the many other categories of victims, but basically nobody had spoken up from the beginning because capitalism was only too pleased to get rid of the Reds.

Why anyone should be scared shitless by the Reds beats me: they only want every single human being to get a fair deal. Is that so very threatening?

Of course, humanity being characterized by greed, anger and stupidity, it also means that every communist or socialist state ends up with a huge gap between the haves and the have nots, just like in capitalist states, it's just not based on the same criteria.

The constancy between both systems is: "Them that have, Get".

Power, money, supplies, freedom, education, whatever.

My parents met working for a capitalist. He had gone bankrupt three times (dishonest partners, apparently, according to him, what a recidivist, hey?). When he died in the late 50's, it took more than ten years to settle his estate, he died so rich.

He had wrangled for himself a sweet oil deal which means that he collected a percentage of the price of every single gallon of oil bought and used in North Africa during World War II, whether used by the Allies or the Germans.

On the matter of oil, while we are about it, I don't mind betting that if you were to superimpose three world maps indicating: 1) Oil resources, whether exploited or merely proven; 2) Poverty and lack of public services such as infrastructure, education, health services and human rights; and 3) War, civil war, civil unrest, insecurity, these three maps would fit together pretty well.

A few facts are in evidence about oil:

1. Exploitation started a bare 150 years ago, in the 1850's, and already the existing deposits have all, or in great part, peaked. Nobody is sure how much is left, exactly.

2. Oil is non-renewable: it was created originally over a period of thousands and thousands of years, it can't be done again. Not in the lifetime of our civilizations.

3. All our modern industries, technologies, comforts, methods of transportation, etc., are dependent largely on oil and the development of possible alternative sources of energy have been neglected except for the odd "succes d'estime" prototype (chicken gizzards, wind power, solar power, hydro electric power, etc.)

4. Those who control the oil today do not want to lose out on the headstart they have on cornering the wealth. They don't care. Their attitude is "Apres moi le deluge", "after me, let the rains come". Whether they are in position in a capitalist state or a socialist or communist state, their declaration might be: "What's yours is mine, and what's mine is my own."

So, for instance, from an American point of view, the Cato Institute is correct in saying America does not need Iraqi oil. No, it doesn't. But someone who does not have access to the oil resources of America does need Iraqi oil. Maybe the Chinese do, so as to be able to drink ice-cold Coca Cola... Can you blame them, should they ever have a slogan like "A refrigerator for every family"? So, maybe if we control the oil, we can also control how much Coca Cola they can get from us.

* * * * *

As I was saying. Sixty years ago the world order had to be wrested from Hitler's grasping hands. It could be said that at that historic moment, even the German people themselves needed to be liberated from Hitler.

To compare the war on Iraq to this European liberation is a total shame: there is absolutely no comparison.

All the young men who died in 1944 sacrificed themselves for something that had honor, from the ground up.

The young coalition soldiers who have selflessly sacrificed their precious lives this time for their countries have done it for the dishonorable intentions of the leaders who sent them to their death.

Their deaths are honorable. Their leaders are dishonorable. We should not allow this to happen. Period.

The notion of honor, of course, varies from country to country, and from time to time.

An English politician or newsman resigns as a matter of honor.

An American never does. But sometimes, he is instructed on the Q.T. to resign, and he does so, "for personal reasons".

The notion of honor is something that one breathes in with one's education. It's a cultural bias, it isn't improvised like courage on the spur of the moment.

Looking through the material that has appeared on the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings, I came across the testimony of a 19-year old German soldier who was moved from Brittany to Omaha Beach by Rommel just before D-Day. I fantasized that he might have been the very same young man who lay in wait for me in the hedges around where we lived, to give me half of his loaf of bread. He is an old man now, and he concluded wistfully that even though we commemorated the event, nobody appeared to be remembering the horror of the reality of the fact of war.

Some of the British veterans said something similar: "Seeing the state of the world today, was it worth it?"

I shall end by quoting from one man's account: Able Seaman Ken Oakley who was on Sword Beach on D-Day.

"The night before we landed the senior army officer gave us a talk. He told us that many of us in the first wave would not survive, but that we were not to worry because they would send a second wave and if that did not succeed they would send a third.

We couldn't say or think much then. It was bedtime and we got what sleep we could on those not very comforting words, before being woken at 0330.

To be told most of us would be wiped out was a very sickening thought.

* * *

At around 0830 I heard the sound of bagpipes. I looked over my shoulder and there was the piper walking up the beach in his kilt and beret. I couldn't believe my eyes. He was playing as if he was on Horseguards Parade.

It was fantastic. I thought it was an indication of how in control we were at that moment. We all felt ten feet tall after hearing that."

That was Lord Lovat's piper.

We should all of us be standing ten feet tall. We should all of us remember the sacrifice these men and women made, and stop trashing our beautiful world.

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