Singapore

Singapore:  Would I want to live here?

I have already been traveling for six hours, with 38 hours to go.  I am flying out of Singapore’s Changi Airport, and am down to one piece of peppermint chewing gum, a staple of my carry-on supplies.  I search several shops; mint candies are everywhere, but no gum.  Then I remember, in Singapore gum is illegal!  I am a criminal for possessing the one small piece of gum in my bag.  In defiance, I pop it in my mouth and chew it openly until it loses flavor.  Nobody notices.  No police come for me.  Damn.

Singapore is a strange place.  Disneyland with the Death Penalty is how William Gibson described it.  Affluence, swaying palm trees, gracious brightly colored colonial shop house rows, some of the best food in the world, a downtown of glinting skyscrapers, Singapore resembles an urban Club Med resort more than a nation.  It’s the Switzerland of Asia – if Switzerland were a tropical dictatorship.

Singapore is famous for its harsh laws and regulations.  The Singaporean friend I was visiting on this trip had been jailed for a full week last January for taking Benadryl, an over-the-counter allergy medicine that sometimes tests positive as a methamphetamine.  Seven days in jail for allergies – no apologies.  Littering, minor vandalism, and even failure to flush a public toilet may be punishable by jail or violent corporal punishment, such as a bloody caning.  If you have a weak stomach, don’t search online for images of caning; it is much worse than you imagine.  Commonly accepted western freedoms such as political expression, the press, and public assembly are forbidden.  Yet these restrictions may be largely responsible for Singapore being one of the most racially, ethnically, and religiously tolerant nations in the world.  It is also one of the world’s most technologically advanced, best-educated, healthiest, wealthiest and fastest growing countries, making the U.S. by comparison, to borrow a presidentially endorsed description, look like a “shithole country.”

Hyper-modern, ultra-clean and efficient, and almost entirely free of poverty, homelessness, crime (especially violent crime), and the other social ills that blight other developed nations such as the U.S. (and nearly crush all of its neighbors such as Indonesia), this tiny tropical island of a city-state is seen by many as a sort of paradise.  Its position at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula positions it as the vital center of trade between the South China Sea, Java Sea, Bay of Bengal and Gulf of Thailand, and is today the world’s busiest transshipment port, even busier than Shanghai.  By contrast, the busiest such port in the U.S., Los Angeles, is number 17.

Singapore is the world’s third richest country, with 2017 GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity) exceeding $90,000.  The US is #12, with equivalent GDP of $59,000, less than two-thirds of Singapore’s.  Singapore’s many new skyscrapers climb swiftly toward the clouds even faster than the few remaining towering rainforest trees that used to cover the entire island; the burgeoning downtown and financial district skyline will be unrecognizable if you don’t visit often.  At certain vantage points, it already resembles something out of science fiction.  More than 90% of Singaporeans own their own homes, and if you can’t afford one, the government will make it affordable for you.  Trade and finance have made Singapore rich, but unlike the U.S., that wealth is not held almost exclusively by a small oligarchy of the super-wealthy.  Much is re-invested in the people: education, healthcare, infrastructure, social well-being, and the economy, while still maintaining the strongest and most technologically advanced national defense in the region.

As examples of infrastructure, I could start with the immaculately clean, modern and reliable Mass Rapid Transit system, or MRT, while perhaps second to Hong Kong’s, makes anything in the U.S. look downright Victorian, in the bleakest Dickensian sense.  The MRT train also connects the entire city, that is to say the entire country, to the airport.  No cars necessary.

That’s a good thing, because owning a car is outrageously expensive.  A Certificate of Entitlement (COE), which is essentially a license to own a car for 10 years, costs around $50,000 USD.  A driver’s license costs almost $3000 USD on top of that.  And all that’s before you even purchase a car, which will run you many times what it would cost in the U.S.  For example, a no-frills Toyota Corolla averages about $150,000, as compared to $18,000 in the U.S.  Don’t even think about a Volkswagen, much less a European luxury car.  All this is intentional government policy, to keep Singapore’s traffic and air pollution to a minimum.  But then, who needs a car?  Trains and buses go everywhere, nearly free bicycle and scooter rentals are on every corner, and if you really want to experience an authentic 20th century combustion engine*, there are plenty of taxis and Uber-like Grab cars.  *For now: they will all soon become self-driving electric vehicles.

Singapore’s Changi Airport has been consistently rated for many years as the world’s best airport.  In shocking juxtaposition to America’s squalid tumble-down cattle chute approach to airports, Changi is like a luxury resort.  It succeeds in being one of the world’s busiest airports while still making passengers feel pampered and unhurried, and with, believe it or not, has plenty of opportunities for fun.  Don’t believe it? Google “Jewel Changi” and take a look at what the airport will be by next year.

It is already impressive.  I had arrived in Changi that evening of the chewing gum from Thailand, obviously an international flight, and due to my own poor planning, I had to 1) go through Singapore entry immigration, 2) pick up my checked bags, 3) re-check them onto Singapore Airlines for my flight to New York, and then go through 4) Singapore exit immigration, and 5) security before I could proceed to my next gate.  All of the above took nine minutes (9 minutes!), plus some walking time.  Staff were professional, courteous and helpful.  I had enough time afterward to take a hot shower for a few dollars, have a drink and a snack at a bar, do some shopping in what must be one of Asia’s largest malls, and enjoy the lovely butterfly garden.

Every time I arrive from Asia at one of America’s grim, decaying international airports, such as LAX or JFK, I am immensely embarrassed.  I can see it in the eyes of my fellow passengers who are experiencing U.S. infrastructure for the first time.  I know what they are thinking: This filthy crowded claustrophobic warehouse with peeling paint and water-stained ceilings is a major port of entry to the richest country of the world?  I want to explain that the U.S. is a reluctant prisoner of its past;  we haven’t advanced much beyond systems and procedures – and most importantly the attitudes – developed in Ellis Island days 120 years ago.  The dilapidated buildings can also be forgiven.  However, it is impossible to defend the rude, arrogant and officious staff who treat their customers like criminals.  I never understand why someone who obviously dislikes and/or cannot interact well with people would accept a service position.  Or is it that these are good people who go home and are nice to their kids and neighbors, but at work are understaffed, under-trained, abused by management, or simply selected with “power-trip” listed as one of the job perquisites?  It is difficult to fathom.

When later entering JFK and asked if I had brought anything from overseas, I explained I had only some sealed, packaged dried fruits and nuts, which of course is permitted.  The clerk cum prison guard yelled angrily, “And what else!?” as if I were about to confess I had brought several decapitated human heads and a large vial of Ebola in my Travelpro bag.  Oh yes, I forgot to mention that.

Fortunately, I was well rested because I flew on the five-star Singapore Airlines, always rated among the world’s top airlines.  I don’t have to explain how that experience might differ from flying on one of America’s formerly proud carriers, none of which today is rated as better than three stars, and barely deserves that.  I would no more take United or American or Delta on a transpacific flight from New York than ride on a donkey cart from there to Buenos Aires.  U.S.-based cabin crews seem to be drawn from the same employment pool as the U.S. immigration staff.

I have often been berated by friends for complaining about U.S. infrastructure as whining about “first world problems”.  Yes, of course: that is the whole point.  If the U.S. wants to continue to be perceived as “first world”, then we have some serious problems.  At this rate, it will not be long before leaders of more advanced nations start referring to the U.S. as a shithole.  If all you know of the U.S. is its airports, airlines and other transportation systems, we have been a shithole for a long time.  Cambodia’s Phnom Penh airport is decades more advanced than anything in the U.S.  Pre-college education and affordable healthcare are already rapidly swirling down that hole too.

More importantly, there is a strong correlation between how societies treat their first world problems and how well they do in their second and third world problems.  What motivation does an average American have for investing in society, when he or she knows it is going into the pockets of billionaires, to de-fund their education and healthcare, and building border walls (nearly worthless even if you are anti-immigrant when 40% of illegals arrive by airplane).  A different kind of society, one that cares enough about its people to build and maintain top-notch schools and universities, world-class affordable healthcare, traffic-free litter-less streets, efficient subways, crime-free neighborhoods, and even airlines and airports that don’t feel like a gulag: this is a society with citizens of all socio-economic strata who are much more likely interested in contributing toward its continued success.

Regarding immigration, unlike the U.S., Singapore is actively encouraging people from other countries to take up residence there.  Singapore has the world’s lowest fertility rate, a rate so low that it cannot maintain its population or its economic growth.  Instead of loathing the decline of Singapore’s traditional Chinese majority (their version of our Caucasian majority; the native Malays are a small minority, though form a larger percentage than the U.S.’ native population), and instead of building walls and building up hate groups against foreigners, Singaporean society is heartily welcoming an influx of immigrants.  While some come from developed countries, most immigrants come from much poorer countries.  They come from rural China, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand – essentially Singapore’s version of our Latin America.  Although these workers have many different languages, traditions, and religions, including many Muslims, horrifically vilified in America, there is virtually no ethnic or religious conflict, almost zero crime or terrorism, almost no illegal drugs, and the economy continues to grow rapidly.

Despite all the growth, development and massive urban revitalization efforts, Singapore is not an artificial city such as Dubai or Doha.  Even with all the central planning, it has a vibrant and unique culture all its own that has grown organically as a major regional capital for more than a thousand years.  It is like the U.S. in one way, in that its culture is an intermingling of many ethnic traditions, primarily Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian and other Southeast Asian.  Being the epicenter of an important trading route for centuries, there are influences from Africa, Arabia, and all over Asia.  And being a colony of first the Portuguese and Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries and then more influentially by the English in the 19th and early 20th century, Europe, especially in its architecture, governing philosophies, urban planning concepts, and of course its language, plays a prominent role.  English is the most commonly spoken of the four official languages, followed by Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.

The greatest expression of Singaporean culture is its food, literally a melting pot.  Just like America, Singaporean food mostly comes from somewhere else, and you can find almost every type of cuisine, but they find ways to make it their own.  Hainanese chicken rice, nasi lemak, roti prata, laksa and many other wonderful noodle dishes such as mee rebus or siam, chili crab and black pepper crab, nasi goreng, and satay are a few examples.  It is mostly boldly flavored, but not as spicy as Thai or some Indonesian food, and most often offers a balance of spice, sweet, sour and savory.  Chili, shallot, peanut, lime, fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, spring onion, fresh and dried fish and seafood, and every kind of fresh tropical fruit imaginable are what come to mind for me.  Every country in the world seems to make fried chicken exactly the same way and claim it as a unique national dish, and this is true of Singapore as well.  This is why KFC outsells McDonald’s in Asia, but why eat either when the local food is vastly better, much fresher, and less expensive.  Traditional Singaporean Chinese, known as Peranakan, food is quite good and usually far less greasy and heavy than much Chinese food.

Of course you can also get a perfectly cooked medium rare rack of lamb with foie gras paired with a wonderful French wine.  Italian and Japanese food are especially popular.  Western food tends to be expensive, largely because many of the ingredients (most notably western chefs) need to be imported, but more traditional Singaporean food is unbelievably cheap.

In some Southeast Asian countries, lack of hygiene is part of why food is so low-cost.  Not true in Singapore, where there are very strict health and safety requirements.  The kinds of freshly prepared and delicious “street food” that you find in places like Bangkok and Saigon are all collected into government-inspected “hawkers’ stalls” centrally collected into a series of malls throughout the city.  It is easy to know which stalls are best: look for the longest lines (or to speak locally, queues) of locals.

Regarding local dialect, if you’re describing something that has one term in British English and a different one in American English, almost always use the former in Singapore.  Lift, not elevator; boot, not trunk; nappy, not diaper; jumper, not sweater; queue, not line.

It takes a while to get used to the accent, which is similar to the English, but more expressive, Chinese-tonally variable, yet clipped, and percussive.  “Card” is pronounced “Cot”.  It is also spoken rapid-fire, the way many Indians speak English.  To me, it sounds almost like hip hop.  Singaporean English doesn’t have the elegance or graciousness of British English, or Thai, but those are luxuries most Singaporeans don’t have time for.

Singapore is becoming internationally known as a gambling center due to the relatively recent construction of two massive casino resorts, Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands, the latter of which is probably now Singapore’s most iconic skyscraper: that building with the giant boat-shaped infinity pool that connects its three towers at the top.  Singaporeans must pay $100 SGD ($75 USD) to enter, which is meant to keep local gambling problems to a minimum while still reaping the lost fortunes of unfortunate visitors, most of whom try and fail at their luck.

The old joke used to be, Question: What do Singaporeans do for fun?  Answer: Get on a plane.  But now there is more to do, and more is being planned, if you have the money for it, which most Singaporeans do.  Still, many Singaporeans travel for fun.  Imagine living in a place where it’s possible easily to take weekend trips to Bali, Bangkok, Hong Kong, the Maldives, Phuket, Borneo, Kuala Lumpur, Siem Riep (Angkor), Penang or one of the thousands of other beautiful tropical islands and interesting historic cities or sites, mostly all within a couple hours’ (inexpensive) flight.

A paradise?  An extraordinary social experiment success?  In many admirable ways, yes.  It’s a wonderful place to visit, especially as a respite from the chaos of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia.  But would I want to live there?  No way!  Or Perhaps I would.

 

John, Paul, Ringo and Me: Appreciating Being Alive through The Beatles

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Yep, that’s me! (a few years ago)

My father was an avid Beatles devotee, and I am absolutely certain that a Beatles song was among the first pieces of music, perhaps among the first sounds of any kind, that I ever heard as a newborn infant.  The Beatles are deeply imprinted in my brain.  Their music is part of my DNA.

My first moving experience of The Beatles that I remember was when I first saw the film Yellow Submarine on television.  It was 1970 or 71, and I was only four years old, and even after all these years and even though I was such a young child, I still remember it vividly.  Back then, there was no internet, no Netflix, no satellite television, and no cable TV.  There were no DVDs or VHS tapes.  None of that existed then.  It was very difficult and expensive to order a film, even a popular one, and I don’t think we had the right kind of movie projector anyway.  Living in rural Vermont, we received only one television station, the local CBS affiliate, and we needed a fifty-foot metal tower with an antenna on top for us to get only that one channel.  I now get thousands of channels from a satellite dish the size of a garbage can lid, so it is strange to remember how much infrastructure it took to get so little in return.

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I thought Yellow Submarine was the most amazing and beautiful thing I had ever seen or heard, and when it was over, I asked my father to play it again.  He laughed and explained that television stations have schedules and we cannot simply play it again.  So I said, why not call the station and ask them?  And he did.  And they did.  They played it again.  Not that same night, but within a short time.  It had not been scheduled, but they found a way to do it anyway.  I don’t think that would happen in many places or maybe anywhere anymore, but in a small Vermont community at that time, businesses tended to respond to their neighbors as people, and not only as revenue sources.  It probably helped that the station owner was a client of my father’s law practice and a family friend.  I watched it a second time and was even more enthralled than the first.

My father had the original single of Yellow Submarine with Eleanor Rigby, also one of my favorite songs, on the flip-side.  I completely wore that little 45 rpm bare listening to both sides over and over.  I accidentally left it by the window in the hot sun one day, and it melted just enough to be unplayable.  I almost cried.

Today I own the Yellow Submarine DVD and have watched it many times.  It is a silly story, but it is beautifully done, and is still among my favorite movies.  I have an original film promotional poster hanging on my wall, and of course I have the CD of the music.  Yellow Submarine is my favorite Beatles album, not because I think it is their best (it isn’t), but because of the place in my personal history that it occupies.  It reminds me of my father and my brother.

Please don’t ask me my favorite Beatles album.  I would be unreliable.  I would change my answer every time you asked.  Abbey Road one day, Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band another.  Then there’s Revolver (I have a giant reproduction of the album cover on my wall that is almost as tall as I am), Let it Be, The Beatles (White Album), Rubber Soul, Hard Days Night.  I also love all the earlier Beatles when they were more of a regular old blues-influenced pop rock band.

My identical twin brother also loved The Beatles.  When we walked home from school, we used to sing Two of Us.

On our way back home

We’re on our way home

We’re on our way home

We’re going home.

The list of pointless activities in which the “two of us” engaged in that song was also descriptive of my brother’s and my random doings, at least in spirit: riding nowhere, not arriving, sending postcards, writing letters, burning matches, lifting latches, wearing raincoats in the sun, chasing paper, getting nowhere, on our way back home.  I love that song, but it is difficult for me to listen to it, because my brother committed suicide at seventeen.

When we were thirteen, my brother had the idea to form a rock band with a couple friends and me, and his vision for our “sound” was “The Beatles if they had lived through the punk rock era.”  I don’t think we came anywhere near achieving that vision, but that was the idea.  We played more covers of The Beatles than by any other band, by far, although we mostly played our own music we had written.  We did fairly well and when we were sixteen got hired to play the Saturday night show at a bar in Boston.  We had to enter through the back and play behind a chain-link fence, because we were under-age.  It was like playing in a cage, but we got used to it, and the fence became a part of our “image”.  People thought we did it on purpose as some sort of symbolic artistic or political statement.  It was our own insignificant version of how some critics interpreted Yellow Submarine: the band cut off from the world.  After getting a good review in the Boston Herald, we packed the place every Saturday, but it didn’t last long.  When my brother died, the band did too.  We did not want to continue.

Our other two band members, Eric and Tommy, played and sang Blackbird at my brother’s funeral, but I don’t remember it at all.  I remember looking out my bedroom window the day my brother died as the body was placed into the local ambulance.  It was owned by the funeral home and also served as the hearse.  I don’t remember anything after that for many days, including anything of the funeral.  People said I was there.  Eric and Tommy had wanted to play Two of Us with a montage of photographs of my brother and me together as a backdrop, but I begged them not to.  I would have had a complete meltdown.

I recently ordered satellite radio for my car for the sole reason that they have a Beatles channel.  There are hundreds of other channels, but I don’t even know what they are.  At home, I listen to many kinds of music, but when I’m driving, I listen to nothing but the Beatles channel.

Recently when driving I was overcome with how song after song was almost perfect.  I consider myself a decent musician, and I like to write music too.  I thought, if I could write just one song that was as half as good as any of the hundreds they wrote, I would die happy, knowing I had made the world more beautiful.  How could so much creativity come from just four minds?

I know The Beatles’ impact extends beyond the human world too.  When I was in my forties, I had a Scottish Terrier named Kirby, and (no offense to all the other wonderful dogs I have had) Kirby was the absolute best dog ever.  I used to say that if people could be more like Kirby, the world would be a much better place.  Some people don’t understand what an important and meaningful bond can exist between a person and an animal, but I fully believe Paul McCartney when he said, “You can judge a man’s true character by the way he treats his fellow animals.”

Kirby was extremely intelligent, and also had an astounding intuition.  He was not usually affectionate and hated being held.  He liked to be always near me, but at a slight distance, and he sometimes didn’t even like to be petted.  On rare occasion he would jump in my lap and let me pet him for a short time, but he seemed to think those infrequent situations were intended to be an honor and privilege.  However, he had an uncanny ability to sense when I was having a hard day, and at those times, he would cuddle up next to me and lick me as if he knew I had an inner wound.  John Lennon said, “One thing you can’t hide – is when you’re crippled inside.”

When Kirby was still a puppy, I was sitting listening to the Let it Be album with Kirby dozing by the fireplace woodstove.  When Across the Universe came on, he perked up, ran across the room, jumped in my lap and nuzzled up next to me.  It was the first time he had done that.  I picked him up and put his head on my shoulder like a baby.  For the first time, he didn’t try to get away.  I stood up and gently rocked him and slowly danced around the room with him.  When the song was over, he began squirming and wanted down.  I played Across the Universe again, and Kirby let me pick him up and dance with him until the end of the song and then wanted down.  The great George Harrison song, I Me Mine, is next on the album, but Kirby obviously preferred John Lennon.  This was not a random fluke, because I repeated this hundreds of times over Kirby’s ten years of life, and it was always the same.  He did not like to be held unless Across the Universe was playing.  My dog had a favorite Beatles song.

Is that possible?  I concur with John Lennon when he said, “I believe in everything until it’s disproved.  So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons.  It all exists, even if it’s in your mind.  Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”  There are dreams I had decades ago that I remember better, and are far more important to me, than what happened yesterday.

When Kirby was ten, he developed terminal cancer and was given only a few weeks to live, at most.  The veterinarian gave me two syringes of morphine (my partner at the time was a physician, or I doubt he would he would have done that), and said when Kirby got to the point that he was in obvious pain to inject him with the morphine and call his cell phone.  The vet made house calls, so he would come over then to end Kirby’s misery.

Kirby was getting slower, losing energy, and eventually barely ate anything, but he didn’t seem to be in any pain.  I danced with him to Across the Universe many times.  Then one day he rebounded and seemed almost like his old self.  He ate a big meal, played fetch with his beloved red rubber ball, and ran the half mile up the dirt road to play with the neighbors’ dogs.  I hoped that perhaps he might recover, but he didn’t.  It was only a temporary rally.  I think he went to visit the neighbor dogs to say goodbye.  The next day he did nothing but sleep all day and would not eat or drink.  Then around noon he lifted his head and let out a horrific howl of pain unlike any sound I have ever heard.  It was heartbreaking.  I injected him with the morphine and called the vet.  He still had appointments, but would come over to the house as soon as possible.  It was a cool October afternoon, and I had built a fire in the woodstove, so I placed Kirby on his dog bed underneath.  He always liked being near the fire.

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I had planned to play Across the Universe in Kirby’s final moments, but he had done so well the day before that I did not expect him to crash so soon, and I was not prepared.  I went to my collection of Beatles CDs, which is considerable, and looked for Let it Be.  It was not there.  Every other Beatles CD was there in its place except Let it Be.  I knew it had to be in the house, because I had not taken it anywhere, and I had just listened to it recently.  I looked everywhere I could think of, throwing sofa cushions around the room and looking in ridiculous places such as inside the refrigerator and washing machine.  I checked online, but at least at that time, it was not to be found.  It was not available anywhere for download, and I could not even find a YouTube version of it.  I found cover versions, and I could have played the guitar and sang it to him myself, but I wanted the original.  I was frantic.  I was angry at myself for not having uploaded it onto my laptop or phone.  I could not imagine Kirby’s final moments without him hearing Across the Universe.  I was just about to call my friend, Sandy, whom I knew would have a copy of Let it Be when I thought to check behind the stereo cabinet one more time.  There it was.  I had checked it before, but did not see it.   I don’t know how I could have missed it.

I advanced the CD to track three and put Across the Universe on repeat so that it would play over and over.  The very moment the first notes on the guitar played out, I heard “Hello!” from down the hall.  The vet had arrived and let himself in the front door.  I wondered whether it was meant to be that I could not find the CD at first, so that it would begin playing at that very moment when the vet arrived.  When I told the vet the above story, he looked at me like I was insane.  No really, my dog had a favorite song!  When the vet injected the medicine, poison really, Kirby went limp and was dead immediately.  I was comforted that Across the Universe played on.  At least that part of Kirby would stay with me, and it still does every time I hear Across the Universe.

I still keep Kirby’s ashes in a wooden box on the fireplace mantle, next to a picture of him as a puppy and his beloved red rubber ball.  My partner, who is also a talented visual artist, painted a semi-abstract portrait of Kirby with the red rubber ball where his heart would be.  I suggested he entitle it Rubber Soul.

The Beatles continue to be the soundtrack of my life.  When I had a shattering breakup last year, For No One kept repeating in my head for weeks and months.  There are not many emotionally painful experiences than when you are deeply in love with someone, and he used to be deeply in love with you, and then you feel him gradually pull away and sense his love slowly dissolving into nothing.

And in her eyes you see nothing

No sign of love behind the tears

Cried for no one

A love that should have lasted years

I had listened to that song for decades, but the lyrics were abstract.  I had never been on the losing side of unrequited love.  Before, the song was about some other pitiful jilted soul; it was about someone else.  Not anymore.  With For No One, I didn’t feel quite as alone in that experience.  So the song was in fact for someone.

Also at that time, I remember John Lennon’s saying, “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love.  When we are afraid, we pull back from life.  When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.”  I decided not to pull back from life, and opened myself to love, despite the pain.  And I am so glad that I did, because I now have a wonderful new partner who also is not afraid to love.

While I’m hoping I won’t have so many sad occasions in the future where The Beatles provide comfort, I have no doubt that their music will continue to be a major influence on my life, as it has been and will be for many people.  I was trained as a classical musician, and I love Beethoven and Chopin and guiltier pleasures such as Scriabin and Rachmaninov, among many other composers.  However, no music touches my heart as much as The Beatles.

There is a famous quote by the great novelist, Kurt Vonnegut: “I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did’.”  I agree.

 

Fortune 500 Heir

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I wonder if many people remember what punch cards were.  I happen to know someone who has no idea what they were, and yet lives off of them.

My job these days is to raise money for Cornell University, Laboratory of Ornithology.  We have 110,000 donors every year, but my job is to pay very special attention to about 100 of them.  My friend, Alex, is one.

Alex is a 19-year-old young man who is the client of a good friend, who is one of the best attorneys in New York City.  Alex became my friend’s client, because he wanted to disown his parents.  Alex is sometimes sweet, considerate and soft-spoken.  At other times, probably when he is off his meds, he is a bizarre bipolar mess.  I think I may be Alex’s only good friend, but it is a challenge some days not to punch him in the head.

My job now is Major Gifts Officer.  That means I make friends with wealthy patrons of the Lab and try to get them to give money, and more money every year.  The key to being a successful Major Gifts Officer is to have empathy for many different kinds of people, and to build relationships.  I am a very  good major gifts officer.

There is a price to success in this career.  I have donors who call me at 3 AM asking for a copy of the Financial Times from last February.  I had a donor, now dead, who was so desperate to smoke a pipe at a hospital that he funded the construction of an entire ventilated room built for that purpose, and I had to figure our how that could be done.  I now have Alex, who comes to most of our meetings drunk or stoned or both.  But then he always apologizes a day or two later and says I am an angel for putting up with him.  He is like a stray (billionaire) dog that I can’t seem to get to run away.  Having no children myself, I also can’t seem to turn away from his warmth and weirdness.

My attorney friend introduced me to Alex by email, and I received a manic reply from him about his love of nature.  I decided a good setting for our first meeting would be a hike in a state forest about halfway between his home and mine.  He never showed up, but later apologized, asking for another meeting.

We met at a cafe, where he was a perfect gentleman who sipped a hot cocoa and bought me a bag of coffee beans that I had mentioned I liked.  He talked about his brother, who was an Army officer, and showed me a tattoo he had gotten on his arm in my honor.  It was something about freedom and had tiny images of birds flying up toward his shoulder.  It was touching in a way, but it was also a little strange that he had gotten a tattoo for someone (me) he had never met.

However, he knew me well.  He had researched me online and found more detail than I knew existed.  He knew I preferred red over white wine and didn’t like beer, so he brought me a bottle of Cabernet Franc.  He knew I had lived for a time in Turkey and greeted me with “Merhaba!”  There is something both flattering and creepy about being so thoroughly researched.

The third meeting was at a shopping mall.

After not hearing from Alex for a couple months, I received a flurry of texts one morning culminating in “I really need to talk to you today – IN PERSON!”  The original plan was to meet at a café for lunch, then he changed it to a hike in a state forest, as I had originally suggested for our first meeting.  After I waited there 20 minutes, he texted me, “Where are you?”  He was at the mall, and had completely forgotten our plans set just an hour before at the forest.  He was wearing a blue t-shirt that said “THINK” with a big X hand-drawn over it in black marker.  He also wore red plaid flannel pajama bottoms rolled up to his knees and moccasin slippers.

We sat on a bench in the mall hallway and talked for a while.  When I suggested lunch, he said, “Yes! Wait here!” and bolted down the hall at a full run.  He returned with two slices of cold pizza and a large bottle of warm Gatorade to share, which he said were from the night before and still in his car.  The Gatorade turned out to be half vodka, so I politely declined after the first sip, because I needed to drive an hour back to the office and work in the afternoon.  He insisted on one toast, assuring me he wouldn’t send me to jail for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor”.  When I asked him how he gets his alcohol at age 19, he said, “Oh please, the only thing easier to get than alcohol as a teenager is weed.  And meth.  But I don’t do meth.  I’m not that much of a loser.”  He decided while we were there that he wants to get a job at American Eagle.  I can’t even imagine how that would work, unless they keep him locked in a back office somewhere.

I have encouraged him many times to visit the Lab of Ornithology, but he doesn’t want to meet anyone here.  He’s too shy.  I invited him to come after hours when nobody is here, maybe an evening hike, and he seemed somewhat interested in that.  “Can we look for birds with night vision goggles?”  He now calls me “the bird man”.

I always enjoy meeting him, but he sometimes gets too uncomfortably personal.  He’s extremely introverted, and is guarded about talking about himself or his family, but always has endless manically delivered personal questions about me.  I did learn he has a new orange cat named Sir Jiggles about which he wrote a funny poem that he wants to set to music.  He wanted to see all ~1000 of my cats’ photos on my phone, and made up a little fairy tale-like story about them and their secret lives as we scrolled through the pictures.

“This one wears too much lipstick,” he said.

“He’s a boy.  A boy cat.”

“He’s a drag queen!  I love drag queens!  Do you watch RuPaul?  Oh my god, that’s this cat’s favorite show, I can tell.  Make sure you record it for him.  Take him to a drag show at the cat drag bar.  There must be several in Ithaca.  What is your drag cat’s name?”

“Casper.”

“That’s no good.  That’s for ghosts.  He must be fabulous.  His name is Zsa Zsa Minogue!”

He was intrigued and even incredulous that I have a happy stable relationship with a “real-life normal person”, immediately asked to meet my partner, and invited himself over to our house for lunch Wednesday.  I was noncommittal.  When we said goodbye, he gave me a long hug and said, “Will you adopt me?”

He is not coming to my house for lunch.

 

 

Rabbit Stew

My brother, Kalfi, was in the hospital recuperating from his latest descent into the Black Hole, a.k.a. depression, and with our father dead and our mother gone, I was alone in the house for the first extended period in my sixteen years.  It was a windy night, and the copper weather vane in the shape of a whale was clanging on the rooftop, and the house was creaking like an old wooden ship, which was in fact what it had been originally designed to resemble.  I was alone and felt lost, so I wandered up and down the stairs from room to room aimlessly hoping for something to take my mind off missing Kalfi.  There was a knock on the door, and a man in denim overalls was holding a large dead rabbit by the ears.

“Figgered I’d give yer dad a lil’ somethin’,” he said and lowered the animal to the front porch.  I didn’t bother to tell him that my father had been dead for months, or that our father was a strict vegetarian when he was alive.

“Thank you kindly,” I said, picking up the dead rabbit as he had held it, by the ears.

“Yer wanna me cut off the head?” he asked.  Without waiting for my reply, he produced a large serrated hunting knife from a leather holster under his arm, and sliced off the lifeless head with one clean motion.  The body fell to the porch, and he grabbed the head from my hand and deposited it into his coat pocket, still bleeding.  “Most folks dun like the brains.”  It was then that I recognized him, Darri Hudolfsson, Doug Darrisson’s father, the closest thing we had to a town drunk, but he was a nice guy.

“Say hi to Doug,” I yelled out into the snowstorm, and he waved a bloody glove as he walked away.

Pontius Pilot the Peacock yelled, “Help!  Help!” into the night, and I for once agreed with him.  I was also a vegetarian and had no idea what to do with a dead headless rabbit.  Our grandmother had always taken care of such matters, before she died.

One thing Taft had taught me in Buddha Academy, as my brother and I called our meditation class, is that one should not refuse a gift of food, no matter what it is.  In fact, the Buddha had once eaten the fingers of a leper that had fallen into his bowl of rice.  Compared that that, this headless rabbit didn’t seem like much to bear.

Our mother had once met Julia Child on a transatlantic cruise, and we had an old autographed copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the kitchen, even though vegetarians couldn’t eat most of the dishes described:  “Bonjour et bon appetit!  JC”.  The only thing our mother could “cook” was a Tanqueray martini.

I don’t now remember whether I couldn’t find a rabbit recipe, or whether I didn’t like the sound of the ones I found, but I decided instead to follow the instructions for  boeuf Bourguignon replacing the beef with rabbit.  I had no idea how to skin and clean an animal, and it was a complete mess by the time it made it into the pot.  My grandmother’s white apron was stained crimson brown, and the kitchen counter was sticky with little pools of half-dried blood.  I was a pretty good cook, even as a teenager, and it was delicious.  But I threw it up a few minutes after dinner, over and over.  I felt bad for the rabbit, who had died in vain and ended up in a stream of vomit on the dining room floor.  I did manage to eat the liver and keep it down later, spread over some toasted baguette, and it was not too bad.  It was the first time I had ever eaten an animal, unless you count eggs.  I felt disgusted with myself.fryer1Game-Stew-Fotolia_44755894_web

It was late at night, but after cleaning up my vomit, I sparked up the little yellow Beetle and drove it down to the hospital where Kalfi was held.  I couldn’t bear being away from him.  I fell asleep on the sofa in the waiting room nearest his room, and he woke me up the next morning.

“Hey Prince Tarfi!” he said, waving me through the lobby as if nothing were amiss.

“Hey,” I said.  “So you’re out.”  I followed him out to the little yellow Beetle and drove him home as we played 20 Questions.

“Can you make me an apple pie?  I’m in the mood for apple pie.  With cheddar cheese,” he said.

“I will make you whatever you want,” I said.  “Whatever you want.”

 

Our Father who art in Heaven

Viggo navyIf anyone deserves to be in Heaven, if it existed, it is our father.  Other than the fact that he didn’t believe in God, he could be a saint.

Think Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (not the racist one in Go Set a Watchman).  I first read Mockingbird when I was fifteen.  It was an old well-worn first edition paperback that had belonged to our grandmother, the one with the black cover and the arrows pointing into the mockingbird.  I pulled it off a shelf and started reading, having little idea what a life-changing book it would be for me.  At some point in the story, I realized that Harper Lee must have known our father.  He was a country lawyer and an old-fashioned gentleman who always did the right thing and always knew the right thing to say at the right time.  We were in Vermont instead of Alabama, and we weren’t as poor as the Finch family (who had a full-time maid and we didn’t have one at all!), but Atticus could have been a very realistic portrait of our father.

There is a scene early in the book where a poor farmer pays Atticus for legal services with a sack of hickory nuts, a scene was repeated at our house often.  Our father made his living from wealthy clients but never denied service to someone who couldn’t pay.  We had regular deliveries of baskets of fruit or vegetables, homemade beer or wine, hand-knitted blankets, and recently shot venison, which we gave to the neighbors since our father was a vegetarian.  We also got hundreds of eggs and even sometimes live chickens, neither of which we needed, as we had a couple dozen chickens already.  One gift that Kalfi and I appreciated was a baby peacock chick whom we named Pontius Pilot and kept as a pet for years.

Our father’s wealthier clients paid their bills in full, and some also gave expensive gifts too.  Our father had one very important client who was so secretive and anonymous that we never learned his name, so we called him Mr. Flush.  That was in part because Flush was flush, and in part because he once gave us a French antique toilet that resembled a medieval throne and had a real gold pull-chain handle.  Other lavish gifts included, among many other things, a new Mercedes-Benz roadster, paintings by Verrochio, Picasso, Cassat and Chagal, and a marble nude by Cellini that scandalized our grandmother.  Our father had little appreciation of art, but our mother and Mary did.  Most of it was donated to a museum when our father died, but I still have the Mercedes.  It gets about 75 miles added to it a year these days, because it gets about 8 miles per gallon of gas, and costs a fortune to maintain.  I keep it because our father loved that car, not because he cared much about cars or material things generally, but because it was a symbol of his success.

As I have mentioned, our father was a man of regular, predictable habits and became annoyed if anything interfered with his routine.  Six days a week, he woke up at 6:30 AM, left for work at 7:30, came home at 6 PM, had dinner with us at 6:30, and worked in his study until he went to bed at 10.  Sundays, however, were for my brother and me.  Except once a month or so when Kalfi and I went to church with our grandmother and Mary in the morning, we spent every Sunday entirely with our father.

He always had some sort of project or agenda for the day.  Unfortunately, many of those projects were things at which he was terrible, namely anything mechanical or that required manual skill.  He once bought a Volkswagen Beetle engine and took it apart in the garage.  The idea was that we would put it back together like a puzzle and learn about how engines worked.  We spent many days trying, but the garage floor was scattered with mysterious engine parts for nearly a year before our grandmother made him throw it all out so that we could put the cars in there for a change.  One time he decided we would build birdhouses from scratch and donate them to the local non-profit adoption agency’s thrift store to sell a fundraiser.  He had been the agency’s board chair for years.  Those birdhouses were so sad-looking that nobody bought a single one, and they also were tossed away or perhaps used as kindling for someone’s wood stove.  We kept what was to be the masterpiece, a large Victorian-style birdhouse in which no bird ever dared take up residence, probably because it looked more like a dilapidated haunted house than anything fit for a living creature.

The adoption agency was how our father came to be our father.  His second cousin (or something like that), Mentor, knew our father well, as they had both served on the American Bar Association board and knew of his involvement with the agency.  Mentor’s son and daughter-in-law were expecting a baby, but were too young and not ready to be parents.  However, they wanted to maintain permanent contact with the baby as it grew and have a lifelong relationship.  In those days, what is now called an “open adoption” was rare.  When Mentor told our father of the situation, our father said he had always wanted a child, had tried with our mother unsuccessfully for years, and offered to take the baby himself.  What he didn’t know at first was that he was going to get two babies, for we turned out to be identical twins.

Viggo Rudolph Mathíasson was born in 1926.  His father, grandfather, great grandfather and so on had all been officers in the Navy and lawyers, so it was pretty clear what he was going to do with his life. He entered the U.S. Navy during World War II, eventually becoming an aviator in the Pacific Theater and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.  He graduated from Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, and then went to work for Cravath, Swaine & Moore.  He met our mother and soon moved back to Vermont, where they were both from, to start his own law firm with his best friend, Mike Fingalsson.

I never met any of my paternal grandparents; they were all deceased when I was born.  I will call our father Vig (rhymes with “league”) from now own, which is what our mother, grandmother and Aunt Mary called him.  It’s easier to type over and over than “our father”, but we never called him by name, only Father.

You might have noticed that our parents and I all have different last names.  In fact, in our little family of six, we had five different last names among us, only Kalfi and I had the same last name of Viggosson.  That’s because in Icelandic tradition you don’t take your father’s last name as yours.  You take your father’s first name as your last name, and add -sson onto it if you’re a boy and -sdóttir onto it if you’re a girl (the first S is possessive).  So our mother was Jana-Anika Kristvensdóttir and her mother was Mímósa Mía Michaelsdóttir.  Yes, mimosa like the drink, which is funny, because she was the only person in the family who never touched a drop of alcohol.  We used to make mimosas for her using sparkling grape juice.  Then there was Aunt Mary Michelin, like the tires and the restaurant review, but she wasn’t related to us by blood.  She was French-American.  All our animals, and there were many on our little farm, had names too, but the animals and their names weren’t Icelandic, except for some of the horses.

Many of the projects Vig had for our Sundays were not failures, and some grew to be an important part of my life ever since, and Kalfi’s until he died.  Vig was an avid outdoorsman and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world.  Although he spent most of his waking life in business suits, he was much more at home in his Sunday khakis and flannel shirts.  He knew every tree, wildflower and animal, and had a special fondness for birds, butterflies and dragon/damselflies.  We hiked, camped, canoed, kayaked, snow-shoed, skied and ice skated, or just sat and looked up at the sky while he told us all about the different types of clouds or the constellations of stars in the night.  He had grown up in this same small town, so he knew everything about it.  He inspired a love of nature that is very much with me today.

I remember one June evening after sundown we heard Vig shouting down from his bedroom, “Prince Tarfi and Kalfi, come quick!”  We ran upstairs, and he was hopping up and down with excitement.  There outside on the window screen was an enormous celadon-green luna moth, the biggest any of us had ever seen.  “Isn’t it magnificent!” he shouted with tears in his eyes.  We sat there for a long time watching it until it flew off into the night and disappeared.

Soon after I re-purchased Darling Hill Farm decades later in 2003, also in late June, I spotted a nearly identical giant luna moth on the same window screen in the bedroom.  I thought of our father, and this time I had tears in my eyes.  I have never seen another luna moth at any of the windows in this house since then.

Music may be Vig’s most meaningful legacy for me.  Vig had no musical ability whatsoever, but he loved to listen to it.  He started us on piano lessons through the Suzuki Method when we were three, and Kalfi went on to learn the violin starting when he was five.  I tried violin, but I never liked it and stuck to piano.  Kalfi became a real violin prodigy, however, and we loved playing piano-violin duets together. He recorded Bach’s violin sonatas and he and I recorded Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano, both with Decca, but they kindly honored my request not to release them after Kalfi’s suicide.  I listen to the tapes sometimes, which I transferred to digital format on my computer, but it is difficult.  We also enjoyed writing music, and in high school we started a rock band that had some success for a short while.  I enjoy playing piano now, but had a long lapse in my twenties and thirties, so I am not nearly as good.  I get frustrated with it easily, so I perversely don’t play as much as I should and thus don’t get any better.

Mike Fingalsson was also a Navy pilot, and his son, Tom, was a flight instructor and today is an airline pilot.  When  Kalfi and I were five, Vig cajoled Tom into giving us free flying lessons.  We were too small to reach the rudder pedals, so Tom rigged up some wooden extensions so we could turn the plane properly.  We took to it right away, and I have been flying ever since.  I don’t fly much, because it is an expensive hobby.

Then, years later, Vig by accident converted us to Buddhism.  There was a Buddhist meditation retreat center in our town where people mostly from Boston or New York came for a weekend or a week, rented a little cottage, and meditated, did yoga, ate vegetarian food, and learned about Buddhism.  The center also offered classes to the local community, and our father signed us up when we were thirteen for a “meditation for youth” class taught by the center’s director, a former monk known as Taft.  We were the only two students.  Taft was an eccentric and entertaining character and loved to hold court telling stories of his world travels and all the famous people he had met and known.  Although he was a monk, he drank Scotch like water and chain-smoked cigars.  He had an impressive knowledge of classical music and collection of vinyl albums.  He gave us a recording of Rachmaninov piano concertos autographed on the album cover by the pianist on the record, Vladimir Horowitz, who was our favorite pianist.  We had a great deal to talk about with Taft, especially because he inspired in us an interest in eastern philosophy and enjoyed the meditation class greatly.  Taft was a wonderful teacher, mentor and friend.  I still consider myself a Buddhist, but not in a religious sense (I never know what box to check on forms that ask for my religion).  I find that Buddhist philosophy and way of thinking and living, however, make complete common sense.

Vig was our anchor in our childhood and early adolescence.   He was completely solid, dependable, unflappable and unchangeable.  So it was stunning when he suddenly died at a young age.  In January of 1983, when he was only fifty-six, he went to the doctor complaining of abdominal pains, was diagnosed with end-stage colon cancer, and died within four months.  I’m sure he was in great pain, but he never once complained.  We had lost our anchor.  Our mother left home the day after the funeral, our grandmother had died the year before, and Mary was living in Minnesota.  Kalfi and I were on our own.

In our little town, Vig was the unofficial raja.  If anyone needed anything important done, he was the one who was tapped to help.  He was the town Moderator for years (I think that may be a uniquely Vermont public office) and was on every important board in the region at some time or other.  He was involved with politics behind the scenes, and no Republican in Vermont would have dared run for office without consulting with Vig and getting his endorsement first.  He was a socially liberal Republican and would have been horrified with how mean-spirited the party has become today.  In his last presidential election, when the Republicans were starting to become captive under Ronald Reagan to religious fundamentalists and the interests of corporations and the mega-wealthy, he voted for Jimmy Carter.

His social status was why our mother’s parties were so big.  On Vig’s end, it was a sort of noblesse oblige, and on the guests’ end, attending was a way to show respect.  By today’s standards, we lived comfortably but fairly simply.  Our house was 2800 square feet, with a small cottage out back for our grandmother and Mary and a modest barn and chicken coop for the animals.  We grew most of our own food.  We rarely traveled, and had no expensive hobbies other than the big parties and maintaining the farm itself.  When Vig died, we discovered his estate was worth $26 million.  Nobody had known he had been that wealthy except for Mike Fingalsson.  We could have lived fabulously, but that would not have been in Vig’s nature.  In his will, he donated nearly all of his estate to charity.  I have almost always worked for non-profits and am solidly middle class and no more, so I admit I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have inherited that kind of money.  However, I have never questioned or resented Vig’s decision to give his money away.  I am very proud of him for the causes he helped, as I am for everything he did, and I love him all the more for it.  I think of him and miss him every day.

 

Moonstone and Amethyst

Darling Hill

When my brother died, I asked my family’s attorney and then my legal guardian, Mike Fingalsson to sell our house.  I had a happy childhood there, but had too many recent bad memories, and I didn’t want to live there anymore.  Besides, I was going to college soon and had no use for it.  I sold it contents and all, and took only some clothes and very few personal items.

I bought the house back in 2003.

Above is the house a few years ago, with my two dogs at the time, Kip and Lily.  Below is Kip at the very cold mountain stream that flowed through our property.  As kids, we called it Bread Brook; not sure why, because the name on the maps is Back Brook.  Unseen on the right of that photo is a steep cliff that leads up to my brother’s and my favorite place to go, a little plateau that we called Moon Landing, because we liked to go there at night and look at the moon.  I don’t have any photos of Moon Landing, because that’s where Kalfi committed suicide and where his ashes are now buried.  It would feel disrespectful to take a picture.  However, it is very beautiful, overlooking the eastern foothills of the Green Mountains and Mount Cube of New Hampshire’s White Mountains in the distance.  I loved the smell and the sound of the place, with the brook cascading over the glacial rocks below mixing with the rustle of the wind in the trees.

Kip at Back Brook

Our mother, Jana-Anika Kristvensdottir, was born in 1936.  Her father was a small business owner who sold architectural instruments, some of which I still have: fancy protractors and other mysterious gadgets nobody uses anymore, because architects do everything on computers.  He was gone most of the time, traveling door-to-door across the country, but he and his wife, our maternal grandmother who later lived with us when my brother and I were young, managed to have a baby son, Friedrich or Freddy.  Three years later, our grandmother was pregnant with a second child, our mother.

Our mother and grandmother never talked about this, but our father told us that on the way to the hospital to deliver our mother, the family was in a car accident.  Our grandfather and the little boy, Freddy, were killed, and our grandmother was seriously injured.  Our mother was born while our grandmother was still unconscious.

It took our grandmother a long time to recover with months of rehabilitation, so she hired a woman named Mary Michelin to take care of her.  This is the Aunt Mary I mentioned in earlier posts.  She wasn’t really our aunt, but that’s what we called her.  She stayed with the family and helped raise my brother and me too a generation later.  By the time our grandmother was able to take care of our mother, she and Mary had already bonded strongly, and our grandmother pretty much let Mary be the caretaker and mother figure for little Jana-Anika.

I of course wasn’t around at the time, so the psychology of what happened between our mother and grandmother during those years is only educated guesswork based on what we picked up indirectly or from our father, as nobody wanted to talk much about it.  I believe our mother resented her mother for abandoning her to Mary’s care, and thought of Mary as her real mother.  On the other hand, I think our grandmother subconsciously blamed our mother for the death of her husband and son, as it happened on the way to her birth.  Neither one of them ever would have said that to each other or to us, but our mother said something after our grandmother’s funeral that made me think that.  I remember thinking at the time that it was strange that our mother resented her mother for abandoning her to Mary’s care when that’s what she did by abandoning my brother and me to Mary’s and our grandmother’s care, though for other reasons.

The other problem between our mother and grandmother, which was openly and regularly acknowledged, was how our mother hated that she was required to study piano and forced into a musical career.  Our grandmother was an accomplished pianist herself.  Some of my earliest memories were of her sitting next to my brother and me on the piano bench teaching us how to pick out simple tunes one finger at a time.  Our grandmother came from a generation when married women simply didn’t work, and female professional musicians and performers in general were considered one small step above prostitutes.  She often spoke wistfully of “what might have been”, and it was obvious that she tried to live out her dreams of a musical career through our mother.

I wish I could have heard our mother play piano in a concert hall.  It seems so far-fetched that I cannot even imagine it.  The only time we heard our mother play the piano was when we had a gas leak at school and were sent home early.  We walked to and from school, and as we approached the house that day, we could hear her.  At first we thought it was our grandmother, but we realized whoever was playing was far more accomplished.  She was playing Chopin Etudes.  We stood outside for a long time and listened.  She played brilliantly.  We didn’t go inside until the music stopped and we were sure she was back in her sewing room.  She would have been mortified if she knew we heard her.  We never told her.

One day when we were very young, our mother presented Kalfi and me each with a ring.  Mine had a black moonstone, and Kalfi’s had a purple amethyst.  We loved the rings and wore them always.  She had previously always called us Twins, as if that were both of our actual names.  “Twins, go help your father,” I can still hear her saying.  Our father needed help often.  He was a brilliant man intellectually, and he fancied himself very handy around the house, but in fact, he was an absolute disaster.  I am certain that our home value diminished in direct proportion to the amount of time and effort he put into home “improvement” projects.  Soon after she gave us the rings, our mother started calling me Moonstone and my brother Amethyst.

Yet another in our list of nicknames.  Moonstone and Amethyst to our mother, Little Princes to our father (which we eventually trained our father to change to Prince Tarfi and Kalfi, because “princes” sounds too much like “princess”), and The Elves at school.  The latter was because we were small, and our first grade teacher read us an illustrated storybook once called The Forest Elves, about two mischievous little twin blond elves.  Someone quipped they looked just like my brother and me, and Elf Tarfi and Elf Kalfi became permanent.  Even our teachers took to calling us The Elves sometimes.  We didn’t mind.  There were worse things.

One nickname we hated was from Doug Darrisson after the class watched a film about Adoph Hitler and Doug took to calling us The Nazi Youth.  Other than each other, our best friend was Sandy, and he was Jewish.  So we started calling Doug Darrisson by his real name, Dugfús, which he hated, even though he was proud that it means “dark strength”.  It was an appropriate name, because, even though he was Icelandic like most of us, he had olive skin and black hair and eyes.  And he was large and very strong.  Our school didn’t have a football team, but if it did, he would have been the star player.

Sandy’s full legal name was Sandalwood Incense.  His younger sister’s name was Peppermint Popcorn, or Poppy.  Anyone could probably imagine the variety of drugs their parents might have been using when they selected those names.  People sometimes assumed that because our mother called my brother and me Moonstone and Amethyst that she was some sort of cracked hippie, but far from it.  However, Sandy’s and Poppy’s parents were indeed cracked hippies.  They were one of the few families that hadn’t lived in town for generations.  They were from Long Island, and were of a species everyone called Trust Fund Hippies.  They took their family’s ill-gotten wealth and moved to the wilderness of Vermont and lived off the land, made their own soap, and sold little useless crafty things off their front porch.  They didn’t practice their religion, but talked often about being “New York Jews”, perhaps to seem exotic among all us Nordic types.  Sandy’s dad had a long gray ponytail, wore round blue-lens John Lennon glasses, and walked around bent backwards as if he were carrying something very heavy on his chest.  His favorite word was “man”, which he pronounced with three syllables: “How’s it hangin’, ma-uh-an?”  Sandy’s mom had long straight black hair and looked like Cher, but fancied herself more like Janice Joplin.  She drove an old 1965 Porsche painted in psychedelic colors to look just like Joplin’s car.

Doug Darrisson was the closest thing we had to a class bully, but he wasn’t really a bad person.  He was just stupid.  He had been in the class before us, but was held back a year.  Kalfi and I were the youngest in our class, so Doug was almost two years older than us, and he was big for his age to begin with.  At first, he picked on us.  It wasn’t anything serious, but was annoying.  Then one day, Kalfi was uncharacteristically off doing something on his own, and Doug threw me to the ground and pinned me there, rubbing snow into my face.  I couldn’t move and was totally helpless.  Kalfi ran up, threw Doug off me like he weighed nothing, and beat him until he cried for mercy, to the glee of the entire class.  Kalfi broke one of Doug’s arms and was suspended from school for two weeks.  Doug never picked on us again, nor did anyone else.

Kalfi could be fierce.  He also was very strong, much stronger than me.  I emerged from the womb first, and Kalfi arrived fourteen minutes later.  Our grandmother used to say he had more time to cook in the oven.  We rarely played games that required physical competition, because there wasn’t any suspense.  He always won.  He never got sick either.  I had colds and ear aches and the usual childhood illnesses just like everyone else, but he never did.

When we were five, I contracted meningitis, which is very serious, sometimes fatal, and also contagious.  So I was quarantined in our room, and Kalfi was moved to a guest room.  We had always slept in the same bed together, and although I was probably too sick to notice, it greatly upset him.  Once everyone was asleep, he crawled out the second-floor window of the guest room and climbed back up into the second-floor window of our bedroom, all without a ladder, rope or anything.  “Like Spiderman,” our father said.  Our grandmother found us asleep in bed together the next morning, and the doctor said we might as well stay together, because it was too late by then.  But he never got sick, not then, not ever.

Once I was better, we were summoned to our mother’s sewing room for inspection.  It was rare that we were allowed to enter.  The silence of the sound-proofed sewing room was how I thought outer space might sound.  “Hold out your hands,” she said.  “Did you wash them well?  I don’t want you getting sick again.”  Kalfi and I eventually noticed that our mother would find excuses to see our hands, because she wanted to see the rings and be able to tell us apart.  From then on, we always made sure our rings were visible when we encountered her.

Nobody else had trouble telling Kalfi and me apart, because we had different eye colors.  We were both born with blue eyes, but his gradually turned green and then brown, while mine remained blue.  I am told that it is unusual for identical twins to have two different eye colors, but we were proof that it wasn’t impossible.  However, this didn’t help our mother, because she did not like to look people directly in the eye.

We weren’t the only ones she had trouble telling apart.  She had difficulty recognizing faces.  Before every of her parties, she laid out hundreds of snapshots of her friends, repeating and re-repeating their names like a giant game of Memory.  At dinner parties, she usually glued a cut-out photo of each of the guests’ faces on the place cards.  Everyone thought that was a nice personal touch, but in fact it was because she wanted to remember what they looked like.  At one especially creative dinner party, she drew caricature faces on white helium balloons and tied them to the backs of the dining room chairs.

She was a talented visual artist, though she had no training and rarely exercised it.  Every once in a while, she would pull out a large portfolio of drawings of dresses she had made for an unrealized fashion collection she had once designed.  We wondered if that is what she someday imagined as the ultimate purpose of her “sewing room.”

When I bought the house back in 2003, the sewing room had been turned into a cedar-lined sauna and an adjacent closet.  It was one of the few things that had changed.  I was told that the people who bought the house from me were an older couple who wanted to retire there, but the man died soon after.  His ashes are somewhere on the property too.  The woman lived years longer and had an affair with the town’s road foreman, eventually getting the town to agree to maintain as a public road most of what had been our half-mile-long driveway.  When she died, the kids kept it for a few years as a vacation home, but eventually decided to sell it.

The name of the house is Darling Hill Farm, because it’s on a hill named after a man named Darling, a Captain Zephaniah Darling who moved there from New London, Connecticut, cut down all the trees to start a sheep farm, and built a house.  The story is that the house and farm were a gift to his wife, who always wanted to move to the country, but was stuck for decades in the big city of New London due to her husband’s occupation as a whaler.  The new house promptly burned to the ground and killed Mrs. Darling, so in his grief Captain Darling left the charred remains and built another house down the hill in the shape of a whaling ship.  After Captain Darling’s death, that house fell into decay.  The foundation of that house formed the foundation of our house, Darling Hill Farm.  We used to play in the burned out ruins of the original house.  Someone built another very pretty white farmhouse on top of it.

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Once I decided to buy a house in the area in 2003, I did an internet search, and Darling Hill Farm was the first house that popped up, for sale by owner.  I called the phone number, and the owner said he had just posted it and didn’t know it was even actively online yet.  I drove there the next morning.  I had not been back in 19 years.  I was nervous about how it might make me feel, but as soon as I heard the familiar front door creak and smelled the front hall’s scent of grass clippings and gasoline (it was adjacent to the garage where the lawn mower was kept), I knew I was home.  The one sensation that was most poignant was how the kitchen cabinets made a little drumming sound when they bounced shut.  It made me think of our grandmother and Mary, who spent hours in that kitchen every evening.  It made me miss them very much.

The previous owners had changed very little.  They hadn’t renovated at all except for the sauna, and most of the furniture and wall hangings were the same as they were when I was a child.  Strangely, they even kept up some of our family photos.  It felt like I was in a dream, like I had been transported back into the past and was walking around in it.

Once I moved in, I had the difficult decision of whether to take what had been my parents’ bedroom, or the one that Kalfi and I shared.  I decided on the former, because it faced east and had a much better view, but it took me months before I didn’t turn the wrong direction down the hall toward my old bedroom.IMG_0838

The day after I moved in, I woke up on my side facing the window.  Facing east in late June, the sun was very bright coming through the windows and woke me up early.  I was happy to be back, but I felt a strange sensation, like somebody was watching me from behind me, as if he or she were waiting for me to wake up.  I turned over, and in the corner was an antique chair that had always been in that corner for as long as I could remember.  And sitting in the chair was a shadow person.  Shadow people were life-size three-dimensional shadows that my brother and I occasionally saw when we were younger, and this was the first time I had seen one in nineteen years.

I know I said that since my brother’s death I haven’t had any symptoms of schizophrenia (again, if that’s what it really was), but there are two exceptions, and this was one of them.  It was darker in the corner, but I could see that the shadow person was a woman.

She stood up and walked slowly toward me, which was the first time that a shadow person had ever seemed to notice I existed.  She came to the bedside and stood over me, looking down, and I had a very strong intuition and feeling that I knew who this was.  It was our mother.  As with other shadow people, when she approached I could sense what she was feeling emotionally, and it was similar to what I had sensed from other shadow people: shame, sadness, loss, grief, and a very strong feeling of guilt.

I said aloud, “You have no reason to feel this way.  We knew you loved us, and we loved you.  You did the best you could.”  I went on in this way for some time, and as I spoke, I could feel some of her negative emotions begin to fade away, all except the guilt, which seemed to grow even stronger.  “You have nothing to feel guilty about,” I said.  “You did what you thought was right when you left.”  I could tell that the guilt was not about that.  There was something else.

Then it struck me.  This was exactly how I felt for years about Kalfi.  The guilt that I should have done something, that maybe I even somehow contributed the death of someone who was almost literally my soulmate, was overwhelming at times.  She felt this same emotion.

“Nobody ever told me you had a twin sister,” I said.  “You must know it was not your fault.  It was not anyone’s fault.  You weren’t even born yet when the accident happened.  Nobody could possibly blame you.  If there is one thing I have learned since Kalfi died, it is that terrible things happen all the time, and there is little we can do about it.  Please go wherever you need to go.  Everything is just fine here.  I will be here to take care of Darling Hill.”

Then she leaned down, and kissed me on the forehead.  It felt like a cool soft breeze.  It was the first time our mother had ever kissed me.  She stood there staring down at me for a long time and then walked away down the hall into the darkness, and I never saw her again.

 

My Ex in Prison

I found out where Jeffrey was the last week.  It was here:

Prison

He was locked in this prison in Singapore for drug use.  Singapore takes an extreme hard-line position on drugs.  He was released today on bail, but he has to go through a series of drug tests and won’t know if he’s completely cleared of the charges until January 25.

Jeffrey was my partner for 3.5 years up until September, 2016 when we broke up.  We are still close friends, and he lives with me in a sort of in-law apartment at my house, as does my current partner, Seth.  It’s an unusual set-up, but it has worked well so far with only a few minor problems.

Jeffrey is Singaporean and went home to visit family for the holidays right before Christmas.  His national ID card was stolen, and later left along with some illegal drugs in a taxi.  When that was reported to the police, Jeffrey was arrested and held for 7 days.

He claims that he was in a single cell with 10 other detainees, all of whom were hard-core addicts, mostly to heroine, serving 7-10-year sentences.  Every day he was stripped naked to search him, and fed only 2 slices of bread.  He was given nothing to drink, and there was no toilet in the cell.  They drank from the shower head and also used the shower as a toilet.  He said he contemplated suicide.

I have never seen Jeffrey take anything stronger than an occasional sleeping pill, and he rarely smokes marijuana, the last time being in October.  He is nervous that some trace of that will show up in the drug tests, but since he smokes it so infrequently, it should have been out of his system within days.  Even so, he is very scared.

If he tests positive for anything, he has to go to rehab for 6 months and be under house arrest for another 6 months after that.  I doubt that will happen, but it seems silly that all this is for a substance that he consumed in tiny quantities where it is legal, and is legal in some form in all but 4 U.S. states unless Jeff Sessions gets his way.  He gives Elves a bad name.