Saturday, September 30, 2017

I Suck at Poetry: the Pomegranate Edition

Yesterday was National Poetry Day, and today was National Coffee Day. I was caught in a deadline deluge yesterday, so I could not produce any half-assed free verse within the span of the fake holiday. However, tonight, liquored up on that addictive substance known as the Starbuck's seasonal coffee (tonight's weapon of choice: the maple pecan latte), I scribbled out a few lines inspired by a memory of an afternoon in Armenia, a million years ago, eating a difficult fruit for the first time. 

I have no idea why this tiny memory came back to me. I was walking upstairs to my apartment, and, BOOM, I was on a side street in Yerevan a lifetime away from now. After I scribbled down a few lines, I thought about what the pomegranate means in Armenia — good fortune, fertility, hope. An old tradition in Western Armenia sees brides throwing and breaking a pomegranate, scattering the seeds to ensure the birth of healthy children.

Without meaning to, I think I wrote something about people other than myself and my friend eating sweet seeds for the first time. I think I wrote about people longing for something they do not have.

But hey, it's just broken lines of bad verse. It can mean anything you want.


It was cold in in Yerevan
that day when you bought
a pomegranate for us
to share.

You cut it open
with a pocket knife
splitting the dull rind
exposing the richness inside.

Purple-red beads
heavy with juice.

I plucked one out
and placed it on my tongue
crushing it against my teeth.

“Looks like caviar,” you said
turning an aril between
thumb and forefinger.

Sweet caviar.

and sweet
and glistening.

“It means good fortune here.
Fertility,” I said.

We sat on a swingset
in an empty playground
eating gems from a shell.

Fingers stained and wet
no napkins in my pocket
to sop the harvest blood.

I held my hands out before me
the color of garnets
drying in the breeze.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

August, Cherries, and the Pizza Man

August, despite the miserable heat it usually brings, is one of my favorite months in Washington. Reason? People are vacating, and the commuting is easy. Well, easier. Easy-ish. Also, the cicadas are in full voice, and my local grocery store has $1.99 specials on a pound of cherries.

I should make a sugar-free clafoutis while the cherries are plentiful, in honor of my friend Sam who shuffled off this mortal coil last year, dammit. I never met Sam, other than through the ether. We became acquainted via the forum on Thomas Dolby's website. Sam was a roadie and crew member for Blue Öyster Cult for years and years. He had great stories, a fantastic sense of humor, and he always beamed with so much love for his wife and daughters. One of his daughters is a Russia specialist, so we talked All Things Russian now and then.

Sam liked to cook, and we discovered we both had a love of the fab French peasant dessert (or, hell, breakfast!) clafoutis. Sam had mastered a sugar-free version, and I had sent him a message last year asking for his recipe. I got caught up in the regular flow of mental traffic that makes up life, and didn't notice that he hadn't responded for a while. Then I noticed he hadn't posted to Facebook for a while, and then I found out he was gone.

I felt like a crappy friend. I really did. How did I miss him leaving this life? Although "knowing" Sam from his warmth and wicked humor online, I doubt he would have minded. We all get busy, we all have our own circles of life and calamity and obligation. We all fall down holes that suck up our time and our thoughts, and we have to forgive ourselves. And we have to forgive others when they are consumed with the minutiae of their lives. Friends circle back. Good friends? The old chestnut is usually true: it's as if you're just picking up the same thread of conversation, just with some more strands to weave into the tapestry of your story.

Sam's probably tuning a guitar in Heaven for one of the many musicians we lost last year, too, so his dance card is full. And I'll have to find a good sugar-free clafoutis recipe on my own.

I'm not a very good cook. Wait  that's too kind. I'm an awful cook, unless it's avocado dip, hamburgers, or something that can be mixed easily in a pan or pot bachelor-style. My skills at baking are limited, too. I can make clafoutis, sour cream chocolate chip coffee cake, my mom's chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, and these amazing, impossible-to-screw-up lemon blueberry muffins from the New York Cookbook. (Buy the book - SO worth it! Get a used copy on Amazon for a buck!) I can watch cooking shows 'til I'm blue in the face, and it's not going to make me Gordon Ramsay. (Although I can swear like him, no problem.)

I have been known to make biscuit bricks, a rice pilaf that deserves its own level in Hell, and once, a brownie so sickeningly sweet, my guests were all on the verge of diabetic coma. Let's face it: it's not my forte, but I try. My current lack of balance and strength makes any cooking (or doing dishes or laundry or dusting) a real pain in the ass. So, my less than admirable kitchen skills are even less admirable these days. Freezer bags of "steamer" veggies get the nod, along with odd combinations off the shelf that don't require much imagination or time in Julia Child's sensible shoes.

Hopefully, someday, this will pass. Not the bad cooking — I think I'm a lifer in that camp — but the balance and strength. Fingers crossed it returns. I'm too young to be this old.

I heard a knock at my door as I was writing that last sentence. I answered with healthy trepidation, not expecting anyone. It was one of the Georgian pizza guys. There is a group of Georgian men (as in Tbilisi, not Atlanta) who deliver for a handful of pizza and sub joints in my area. When any of them delivered to the trio of bachelors across the hall, they'd knock on my door for a little chat in Russian and just check and see how I was doing. This started after one of them saw me hobbling on my two sticks one afternoon at a strip mall on the Pike, and the Great Georgian Pizza Team grew concerned.

The man who stopped today usually has twinkling eyes and a load of charming compliments. Not today. He looked tired and thin, and every one of his sixty-some-odd years. For once, I asked him if he was okay before he could do the same for me. "Tired," he told me. "Old." Then I remembered something 
— the bachelors moved out last week. He explained he had a delivery in the next building, and he wanted to see if I was okay. Then he said, "My wife died three weeks ago. Everything is empty now. The house, my life..." 

He told me how he and his wife had been friends for many years in Georgia before they finally married. "It took too long for me to realize. For her, too. We should be together. But we were happy. Finally."

"Hаконец-то. Hаконец-то...."

"Then... she got sick. Cancer. Other things. It was fast. Now... the house is just walls and a roof. I get up, I take a shower, I put on this shirt, I eat breakfast, I go to work... I am still here, but I am not here. You understand, yes?"

He reached out and took my hand. "Do you have love in your life?"

"No." I had no idea why I felt compelled to express such simple honesty to him. "I don't."

"I hope you find it. I hope you do. We found it so late. Too late. Not much time. I hope you find it."

And then, the pizza man cried.

"Go out into the sun. I know you are a good person, a kind and beautiful person. I hope you find some love. I wish you love like we had." I felt bad. This grieving man was sharing profoundly generous thoughts, and I looked like a greeting card hag with my unbrushed hair in a banana clip, dressed in leopard-print leggings, slippers, and a t-shirt with holes in it. I was awkwardly gracious, fumbling in Russian for the right words of sympathy and embarrassed gratitude.

Then the pizza man let go of my hand. He walked downstairs, his shoulders shaking as he cried. My heart broke for him. 

I honestly don't think I'm a particularly good person, a kind person, or, most certainly, a beautiful person. I am just a person. I am a deeply, profoundly flawed person, invisible —  or laughable — to most other humans. But, just like most other humans, I do want love. And forgiveness. And kindness. And sometimes to just be left the hell alone —  and every other damn thing we all want.

And time moves faster now. Harder to catch dreams on the wind and hold on to them.

Still, we try to hold on, even when the wind wants to knock us off our feet.

As for me? I still have to find my balance first.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

I Suck at Poetry: the Moscow 1989 Edition

I know.

The five people who still come here (prompted by Facebook or Twitter) are pretty sure I've forgotten how to put more than 140 characters together anymore.

Not true! However, most of the writing I do now is focused on the requesting and gathering of cash for a nonprofit, and the expression of gratitude for said cash. In my non-work hours, my life has been focused on the difficult tasks of falling down a lot, sleeping, and watching awful documentaries on Netflix when my insomnia kicks in. (Seriously  there's a "documentary" out there about Atlantis that features clips from Gerry Anderson puppet shows. Puppet shows, people. Puppet Poseidon is not real. Well, for that matter, "real" Poseidon isn't real. Oh — and while I'm ranting — there's another documentary about ancient Egypt that includes — nope, nope, saving that for another post.)

As usual, I digress.

The other day, I was chatting with someone about life in Moscow back in the day. Back in the day being the late 80s, early 90s, when it was my home. Pretty sure I wouldn't recognize much of the city now — nor could I afford it. Honestly, that's okay. I'm never going back. My time there is over. And goodness (she writes, her fingers dripping with sarcasm), if I want a little Russia now in our time of brazen, ugly engagement with the Kremlin, I can listen to the Russian "news" that now plays on local DC radio where bluegrass music used to live.

The bitterness and distaste I feel for official Russia today has led me to divest myself of some once-prized items that have been in my home for many years. My folk art and fairy tale lithographs of another age altogether will remain. Ivan Bilibin didn't hack the election, after all. Neither did the wonderful artists I met over the years. It makes me sad sometimes. I invested many years of my life in that part of the world, but now I joke darkly that at least I speak the language of our future overlords.

I wouldn't trade the time I had living in Moscow for most things, although my memories are plagued by 20/20 hindsight  the curse of mental time travelers, always hoping to change the path already taken. A quarter of a century after dragging my baggage — literal and figurative — through the terminal at Sheremetyevo, I'm done. A European acquaintance took me to the airport when I moved home to the 'States. At one point, I would have called him a friend, but that designation had died under the weight of his lies and the crushing number of times he took strange advantage of me and my dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks-itude.

Some years later, he reached out to me via email in the hopes of a green card marriage. The email came through late at night while I was in the business center of a hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia, trying to get messages back to my office in DC. It had been a wretched day from the start, and this email was the bird poop icing on the cake. As I coughed through the tire fire haze that filled the hotel (part of a days-long protest over Russian energy blockades), I laughed at the message.

"Dearest M,

My friends are opening a restaurant in NYC. They would like me to manage it for them. It would be so wonderful if you would consider a marriage with me. Wouldn't it be fun for us?" 


I howled. And coughed.

And I answered:

"Are you fucking joking? I'm in a tire fire in Tbilisi. No."

I have to wonder if he thought "a tire fire in Tbilisi" was some sort of Americanism for "bad shit" that he didn't understand. Truth is, I didn't care (although I like the thought of him in Paris saying to people, "Mon ami, zis day has been like ze tire fire in Tbilisi.")

I never heard from him again, and, like leaving Moscow behind, I'm really, really good with that.

If I ever get hitched (about as likely now as flying pigs falling from the sky like Egyptian plague frogs), it will be to a relatively sane straight man. My track record for sane, straight, available men has been miserable. Can it be tracked in negative figures? In Moscow, it was just as bad as at home. Worse, possibly. Probably.

There was someone on whom I had a little crush my first few months in Moscow. He was erudite, funny, smarter than me by a mile, a Midwesterner (bonus points!) and a good ten years older than me. And my awkwardly crushy swoon was not returned. At all. I'm pretty sure I could have been a talking dog for all he cared. (I'm still waiting for my naiveté merit badge, you know.) Still, I liked him. Go figure.
Clue phone! Ring ring!

I took a car trip with him once from Moscow to Leningrad to meet up with his parents. We could not travel solo, so he needed another warm body in his car. He had to file travel plans with The Authorities for a road trip, which meant the police in every podunk town we passed through knew we were coming and wanted to check out his car. This made for a long trip, but the cops were thrilled to look under the hood at an Audi engine.

When we reached Leningrad, his parents hated me from the moment they set eyes on my schlubby self. I mean they HATED me. Screaming purple passion hate. It was almost funny how palpable their dislike for me was. It oozed from them like some liquid cancer anytime I walked into a room, and my mere appearance had enough gravity to pull Mom's mouth down into a disdainful frown.

I did see relief on their faces once that weekend, when it was explained to them that I was only a requisite traveling companion and coworker — not a girlfriend.

Whew, Mom and Dad. Whew.  Bullet. Dodged.

Don't worry, Mom and Dad, I'm just his coworker. 
I'll just take my glowing skull and be off, then!

These were uptight humans, plain and simple, and God knows, I fully admit to being an acquired taste. I'm weird, I'm fat. It was 1989, so I still owned stirrup pants, for the sake of all that's holy!

I tried my best to be invisible during our three days of shared captivity, nodding to the trio at breakfast in our swanky hotel, taking my kasha and tea at a separate table, and then setting out on my own (except when they wanted a spare interpreter), walking the avenues and side streets of Leningrad as a solo act. The ride from Leningrad back to Moscow was quiet on my part, even when the parents tried to pry information from me about my family. The initial "Ahhh, I see. You're a Catholic..." from Disapproving Dad was enough for me. Still, it was a free trip to Leningrad and back. I had a Walkman (A WALKMAN, PEOPLE!!) with fresh batteries, and I just watched the countryside roll by with ABBA in my ears.

Find the good in  everything, right?

After that trip, our friendship — if it ever was that — failed. I was ashamed that I had been judged in a split second by people — people of God yet, big, big G, ministers of God people — and that my assumed friend didn't have my back. (I can hear Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride saying, "Get used to disappointment." I should get that on a t-shirt.)

It was awkward and sad for a while, and I missed lunches with the one-time crush, discussing the ridiculous, hilarious, and sometimes wonderful aspects of life in Russia, switching with ease between English and Russian as we talked. Eventually, I got a new job in a different building. The potential for hallway hellos all but vanished, and when he left Moscow, I didn't even know he was gone for weeks.

Life goes on, right?

Still, memories are like tattoos on our brains. Good or bad, some last forever, while others fade in time. Here's a little brain tattoo from 1989. And remember, I really do suck at poetry.

Moscow 1989

When the ruble crashed?

We lived like kings
For a week
Or two

Gold and gems
And books 
And clocks 

And thick amber slices
Hiding insects caught
In honeyed time.

Breathless millionaires!

I snatched

Plane tickets
Samovars and china sets
Antique carpets
By the yard

(Then gave most of it away)

But the truth is
What I enjoyed
The most that year
Was simply

Lunch with you
In the dusty garden
Out behind
The filing room
At work

Smoked and dried and sliced
Wrapped up
With market herbs
So fragrant and so fresh
All crushed

Hunks of cheese
Sticky with jam
And lick-your-fingers honey
Melting on
Steaming wheels of
Hot lavash

We washed it down
With cheapest 
Georgian red
In cracked plastic cups
Bleeding on cement

While we talked
While we laughed
While we watched the city

Cost a kopek

Always priceless.