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Interview

Worst ruffs Best with Darin Elliott

After Darin Elliot (my collaborator on Elephant in the Living Room, whose bright new solo publication Elephant in the Shadows was featured in a recent posting), and I quarantined together for more than ten weeks, he moved on (to upstate New York, then to Boston) for a couple of months but returned in September for a few days before setting off again (for North Carolina). Luckily this short but productive visit coincided with a chance to calm my bookshelves (as only Darin can – color coding and all) and, by happy coincidence, it coincided with an invitation from a delightful podcast –

**http://www.bestorworstpod.com **

How fortunate is that!

Hosted by multi-talents Koji Steven Sakai and M. Martin Mapoma from Los Angeles, the format of the podcast is divided in two: First: easy-going, general discussion. Then, second: each invitee is asked to relate either a ‘best’ or a ‘worst’ moment from life, past or present. Thus, with my bookshelves neat as whistles, we treated ourselves to slices of satiny NY cheesecake with afternoon tea and began trolling our individual histories for high-, as well as, low-lights. Later we exchanged examples we’d each dredged up. My ‘best’ was simple, doleful; his ‘worst’ was nothing I could have imagined. Here’s what he told me:

A number of years ago my friend Darin took off for one of many trips to India. After spending some months in ancient, temple-strewn (World Heritage Site) Hampi visiting friends on the banks of the Tungabhadra River, he was ready to move on. He packed up his small French military canvas rucksack and stashed the lions-share of savings in a Ziploc bag for safekeeping. His fortune totaled $400, consisting of four $100 bills plus one blank check in case of emergency, more than enough for the final month of his stay. He would often tell new travelers that one could easily (in those days) get by on $100 a month in India. The Ziploc provided a flat, very light, waterproof repository that he would stash inside his shoe if he was to walk in an isolated area. Not that he was wary of getting mugged (since mugging is fairly rare in India) but because he was simply taking care, or perhaps harboring a lingering paranoia he brought with him from the West.
To reach the nearest  railway station in Hospet, he traveled along rocky hills riding on top of a ramshackle bus, sharing its luggage rack with locals and a few hippies. Once the bumpy ride ended it was necessary to make a long walk in the dark along a country road in order to reach the station. Instead of tucking the plastic-wrapped money in his shoe, as usual, he haphazardly slipped it down into his underpants, slips (much like speedos), where it would stay firmly in place and safe.
Arriving at the station he boarded the already crowded train with a Waiting List ticket and was successful in claiming his preference, an upper berth, where he could settle in with his small bag for an early rest, as was always his preference. He did feel a little shame-faced, though, having out-maneuvered a young Japanese couple who wanted it too. Disappointed, the couple settled instead for bottom beds in the same Second Class compartment.  The train then left on-time at 10 pm, not surprising as it originated in Hospet and had arrived empty.
Once they were chugging along, he thought it a good idea to brush his teeth and pee as soon as possible. Toothbrush and toothpaste in hand, he navigated his way to the end of the narrow corridor to the area where several toilets were on offer. As always, he chose to use the ‘Indian’ toilet rather than the ‘English’ toilet – though it was a stinky, dirty, grungy hole – as it felt a healthier position, and he liked that he could see the ground going by through the hole. And the ‘English’ toilet wasn’t any cleaner, forcing you to make contact and  sit on a filthy bowl.
He waited his turn, brushed his teeth (without using any water since Indian water can be undrinkable) spat, then for some reason at that moment he squatted down to pee rather than remain standing. Bladder relieved, he pulled up his underpants and linen trousers.
Now he could look forward to falling asleep to the steady chuff-chuff rumble of the moving train.

(Interlude: “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, 1971 –

Now I’ve been happy lately
Thinking about the good things to come
And I believe it could be
Something good has begun
Oh, I’ve been smiling lately
Dreaming about the world as one
And I believe it could be
Someday it’s going to come

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjUyM_xd6IA)

Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, all mellow thoughts disappeared and he was overcome with panic … he had forgotten that he had slipped all his money down his pants! Frantically he ripped pants and underpants back down but the plastic bag was not there! Alarmed, freaked out, he searched the floor around him, took off all his clothes in a mad dash, didn’t see the packet, then realized that it must have gone down the toilet unnoticed when he lowered his pants! Getting down on his knees, out of sheer desperation, he reached an arm’s length down into the shitty hole feeling for the plastic bag. It wasn’t there. In a frenzy now, he dashed to the compartment, and looked everywhere. The others in his compartment were staring at his flustered, frantic movements.
Just then the train came to a stop for no reason – as Indian trains often do. He rushed to the doorway and, in spite of a large gap from the lower step to the ground below, jumped off the train and peered beneath the carriage with his small flashlight, hoping the train’s movement had flung the falling bag against a pipe or protrusion as it fell. Weary that in the dark there he might be mistaken for a terrorist planting a bomb, and sick to his stomach now that he had done something so dumb, and having lost the money he needed for the rest of his journey, he clamored back up into the carriage just as the train began, unannounced, to lunge forward and onward.
All around him people were getting into their beds as he continued to search in panic though he was convinced now that more searching on the train was useless, as it had probably slipped out of his pants when he lowered them to pee, and was now down on the track somewhere … three miles back! He tied up his rucksack and told the Japanese couple he’d elbowed out of the top bunk that they were welcome to it since he was getting off at the next stop. They were thrilled.
Around 11 the train arrived at a station with a long name of five or six syllables. Darin got off, stood on the anonymous platform. Shortly the train chugged away. He watched the lights of the train until they were out of sight, then looked around. It was very dark, and seemed like he was in the middle of nowhere. There didn’t seem to be a village or any people in any direction except, close by, were silhouettes of smokestacks shooting angry flames high up into the sky. It felt to him at that moment that he had disembarked in some version of hell. Other than the ghastly flames and the quivering shadows they cast, it was pitch black.
Digging again for the rinky Indian flashlight from the rucksack, he shined it in every direction. Looking around, he realized there didn’t seem to be any way to get onto the tracks. He left the platform and scrambled down a steep hillside – the flashlight suddenly blinking on and off, as something had gone wrong with the otherwise trusty battery. He stumbled among some odd stone-and-stick protrusions, soon realizing that it was a homemade cemetery. Finally he managed to climb onto the tracks.
In the dim light he saw that the track ahead split apart in a V. He chose the one that seemed right and began walking along it in total darkness except when the faulty flashlight briefly illuminated the tracks. ‘Stupid mistake, then I get off in Hell, have to walk through dead bodies, and now my light won’t shine’, he kept repeating to himself. The symbolism did not elude him. ‘This has got to be some sort of a test!’ he added, and started walking in the direction from which the train had come.
Navigating on the rail-ties was awkward since the spaces between them were too short for proper steps. It was that or carefully balancing along the rails, so he alternated between the two, which became especially daunting at times when the tracks passed over a few rickety bridges. All the while he looked hard through the gloom down at the tracks, hoping against hope he’d spot the Ziploc bag or the cash in case it had fallen from the plastic.
In fact, he was disgusted with himself; that it had come to this. This is why he hated money, look how awful it had made him feel. At that moment he made a pact with the universe: if he found the money he’d give it away to his poor Indian friends back in Hampi. If not, he prayed that someone who really needed it would find it. And with that resolution, he walked for hours and hours through the night, always on the lookout, found nothing, nothing, nothing.
Finally arriving back at Hospet Station just as dawn was breaking, he was exhausted and ashamed with himself. Walking back along the barren dirt road into town, he  used what little cash he had left in his pocket to take an ‘ordinary’ (third class) bus with wooden slat seats the rest of the way to Bangalore, falling asleep amidst the ten-hour journey.
Oddly, looking back, of the fifteen times he’s gone to India for long stays in the last thirty years, that particular trip which provided just about the ‘worst’ experience of his life, was the only time he didn’t get pin worms. Though he kept waiting for the tickle-of-their-presence after he left the country he loved so well, and for months after kept an eye out for the telltale white threads to appear, they never did.

[Better yet, listen to Darin tell his story and discover what Alison remembered when they visit Koji and Martin in two episodes:

Episode I: available on Tuesday 10/13/2020,

Episode 2: available on Thursday, 10/15/2020]

 

No escaping politics

train-drawing

Window?

Please.

*I cozy into the window seat, close my eyes. Finally, I’ve gotten away from constant (corrosive) talk of politics for a few days. I’ve taken Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. Tomorrow morning, in Chicago, I’ll walk over to the Art Institute, have a look, have lunch, then catch the Southwest Chief for Los Angeles. I’m counting on spending three solitary nights and days on the train, reading and staring out at the changing landscape. After the first hours of traveling up along the Hudson River, I walk to  the overheated cafe car to read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star SafariI pour cranberry juice ( it’s all they have) over plastic cupfuls of ice. Between reading and sipping, I gaze in blank reverie out the window at the wintry beauty of the Hudson River. At one point I carry a tray for an eighty something woman with narrow shoulders and silvery hair cut in a pageboy that makes her look very much like a geriatric June Allyson. (Or, for those who don’t remember June Allyson, a geriatric Drew Barrymore.) On her tray is a Sanka and a cinnamon roll that she’s quartered. There’s a pillow tucked under her arm.

There are some people who have no sense that someone reading a book might be busy. She’s one of these people. She offers me a quarter of the sweet roll with a dry voice, plops down her pillow, and sits across from me on top of it. I’d been saving this book for just such a train ride, had just marked — aging can be startling too; the sapling grown into a great oak, the vast edifice made into a ruin — but I give in to the cinnamon  roll.

“Where are you going?”she inquires.

“California.”

“My. That’s quite a trip. What do you do?”

“I write books.”

Her Windex-blue eyes narrow. “What are you writing about?”

“Suffice to say I’m writing about the heart.”

“Perhaps you know about this. They’ve discovered a new, uh, device. It’s for the human heart that’s enlarged or may be sagging. It’s like a pair of support hose.”

“Support hose?”

“You know, panty hose. Support hose for the heart. It wraps around the heart and holds it together, supports it.”

“I’m not writing about medical issues related to the human heart.”

“Then what? You look like a doctor.”

“I do? I’m writing about middle-aged people and love.”

“How sad.”

She now has my full attention.

“Sad?”

She doesn’t answer directly. Instead, she explains that she’d been visiting her daughter Gwendolyn in Albany. It seems that Gwendolyn divorced her first husband when she was middle-aged but has remarried.

“Great.”

“ls it?”

“What’s wrong with the new husband ?”

In a flat voice she says, “He’s a Democrat!”

At this point I close my book entirely and ask, “Beside being a Democrat, what’s wrong with the new husband?”

I hope I’ve kept any tone of irony out of my voice.

“Don’t let me get started. She’s turned things inside out. She used to be so normal — a Republican like her father and me, sang in the church choir. Until she met him. She calls him Snoopy. They believe they were personages in the Old Testament in a past life. A psychic told them that they originally met in Babylon long before Christ. But if that isn’t enough, they collect teddy bears and stuffed animals.”

I’m rapt.

“I counted seventy-five stuffed animals. If that isn’t bad enough they dress them up and talk to them. They brought one to the dinner table and sat it on a chair. I moved it — it was a gray wolf — so I could sit down, and my son-in-law said in a little voice that pretended to be a wolf ‘s voice, ‘Hey, Grandma, be gentle with me,’ and my daughter chimed in, in a little-girl voice, ‘Sorry, Ecclesiastes!’ Then in a normal voice she said, ‘Mother, that’s Ecclesiastes’ chair.’ Then Snoopy went into the kitchen and brought a kitchen chair out into the dining room for me, and the wolf remained in the good dining room chair that should have been mine for the entire meal.”

I ask, “Do you think she’s happy having a new life that’s so different from her earlier life?”

“If bringing handfuls of autumn leaves into the living room and throwing them all around, and playing jacks and tops on the floor with a man who has arthritis is happiness, then l guess they are. Her effort to explain was to say, ‘Mother, Jesus said we can’t get into the Kingdom of Heaven until we are like children.’ “

I empty my plastic cup of juice, ask if she’d like another cup of Sanka.

“One’s my limit. But this train doesn’t go to California!”

“In Chicago I change trains.”

“I get off in Chicago.”

It has gotten absolutely black outside; the cafe car is closing for an hour to give the barman a break. l hear the train whistling urgently as it speeds past clanging barriers while red lights flash. l offer to walk her to her compartment. She holds on to my sleeve. She jokes that, like the song says, we’ll be having our ham and eggs in Carolina but she substitutes Chicago for Carolina. When I’m back in my own seat, head tilted toward the window, another song about trains washes through my mind as I doze off.**

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**[If you miss the train I’m on,

you will know that I have gone –

500 Miles

sung by Josué Teodoro – Music by Peter Paul and Mary]

^^^

*[[excerpt from

Love in the Second Act:

True Stories of Romance,

Midlife and Beyond]]

Worms eye view

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He/she is pulpy, moist, long and slender, an earthy shade of red, with no limbs. He/she is early to arrive for our interview, I’ve barely finished composing a few questions. I comment on this:

ALG: You’re early.

He/she burrows around to face me, replies:

W: I’m usually early. I can’t help it, though it can be dangerous.

ALG: Dangerous?

W: I’m sure you know what they say about the early bird getting the worm?

ALG: Indeed.

W: It often doesn’t end well.

ALG: I’m sorry if that’s so. I’ve never thought about it from a worm’s … your … uh, view of things. I’m so glad you’ve made the time for this interview. Already you’re opening up new prospectives…

W: Good. That’s the point isn’t it? I think it was F.D.R. who said, ‘We consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm.’

ALG: Food for thought…uh…no pun intended.

Did F.D.R. really say that? I don’t dare ask but suddenly remember the buffet.

ALG: There are nibbles, if you’re so inclined.

I point out the display of attractively presented swabs of decaying leaves au jus, horse manure tartar, fungi in red soil, decomposing scrambled eggs coated with coffee grounds. All prepared with great care, garnished with acorns and ant hills. He/she heads right for the horse manure. I sit down to wait.

W: Not to worry, I can eat and talk…

ALG: Oh.

W: Just ask away.

ALG: Fine.

I glance at my notes.

ALG: Perhaps you can give me some insight into the experience of regeneration. Have you ever lost or had a segment cut in two?

W: Constantly.

ALG: Is it traumatic?

W: Not at all. It’s … how can I put it … invigorating. You might find this surprising, but it’s a great way to make friends with ones self.

ALG: That makes sense.

W: Or selves….depending on how many segments, or slices have occurred … often there are more than two. One cure for loneliness, ha ha. My compliments to the chef.

ALG:  I’ll pass that on. Did you try the fungi?

W: I’m fungi intolerant. I love it but have to be wary. Fungi can go right through me. Where were we?

ALG: Regeneration.

W:  Ah yes. Imagine how renewing it can be! How restorative! How reviving!

ALG: I can’t.

W: Trust me, it’s holistic.

ALG: Do you mean that your overall well-being improves?

He/she begins to  creep away from the buffet, away from the microphone, a fresh mucusy sheen on his/her squishy furrowed surface.

W: Not exactly. I have no idea why, but, in my case, the tip of my tail has never regenerated. Not that I’m complaining. I’m been guilty of stepping on the same rake again and again, but I pride myself on never whinging. It’s difficult enough to be a worm – no limbs, no eyes – but to be a kvetch too …. heaven forbid!

Most of the buffet has been left untouched, he/she explains that he/she has therapy, and must be early as usual, to stay in character. I’m disappointed, but what can I do or say.

W: To be continued. Okay?

ALG: Okay. Let me know when you’re available again.

W: Will do. I swear. And leave the buffet as is. It’ll taste even better next time.

Should I, I wonder, noticing the covered metal can on the other side of Ovid’s pool. Foregoing a decision my eye is drawn to the solitary chirping bluebird splashing in the pool of clear water.

Bluebird: ‘The early bird might get the worm, but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.’*

IMG_2702

[*Jeremy Paxman]

Elephant redux

A welcome reunion with my Elephant in the Living Room collaborator, Darin Elliott, in Greece. He’s passing through after spending four months in India, his 13th trip there.

A: Where were you in India?

D: In the South, then up in the Himalayas.

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A: I’m jealous. Was this after the publication of our book?

D: After the book was published I went to the Scottish Highlands for three weeks. A gift to myself.

A: Had you any intention of writing a sequel at that point?

D: No. It wasn’t until I was up in the Himalayas that it occurred to me. One day I thought, what if the lost dog in the book ended up with another family? What if he witnessed another issue?

A: What came to mind?

D: Bullying. Also the protagonist in our book is a girl and I thought I might like writing a boy’s character.

A: Why bullying?

D: In our book, as the child of an alcoholic, I could write from experience. I also had a bit of an experience of being bullied when I was a child, so I thought I might have something to say there too. I hadn’t planned on writing anything…that’s the kind of writer I am…spontaneous… After being in the south of India for two months, I traveled to the Himalayas. One day I thought I’ll just write a prologue. The next day I thought, I’ll just write a chapter. The book was done in three weeks. I wrote every day. Again, not my style. It seems like it wrote itself.

A: Did you change the dog’s name?

D: Yeah, Beckett becomes Cassandra, an homage to my niece’s kid.

A: Does the book have a title?

D: Elephant in the Classroom. I’d brought ten pages from a legal pad with me. I used them up in two days. I searched the house – it’s owned by absent Austrian friends who raised four sons there – and found some old school copybooks belonging to the boys. When I used these up, I had to walk an hour down the mountain to the nearest village to buy a notebook in order to finish the draft.

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A: Describe the setting in which you did the writing.

D: I sat on a veranda, part of a British Raj house, looking down at a valley. I had six dogs belonging to the Austrian owners keeping me company. The dogs ranged in size from a tiny Tibetan terrier to several huge German shepherds who were the size of bears. All the dogs wore eight inch collars to protect them from Leopard attacks. You see, leopards go for the neck, and the family had already lost so many dogs that way.

[For atmosphere: Music of the Himalayas]

A: Was anyone else in the house?

D: Yes, a maid, Stasha, a Hindu woman who was about my age, but looks older.

A: Could you speak with each other?

D: Yeah, in broken Hindi and English. She’d raised the four Austrian boys.

A: Where are you with the book? I can’t wait to read it.

D: The draft is done. Right now I’ve got five young readers from four countries reading it to give me feedback.

A: Do you think you’ll work on it here, on Hydra?

D: No. In late May I go to Los Angeles for six weeks. I’ll work on it then. That is …if I’m in the mood. Remember, I’m not a writer in the sense of discipline. I just let it come.

[Photos: Darin yesterday; also the day before; Darin and I at the port]

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