Archive for July, 2011

MY PRINCESS-MOTHER, AUNT JEAN

| July 21, 2011 | Comments (4)

 

When I lived in Southeast Asia I came to realize how being in paradise could be torture. Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma – the matchless cultures, the cloyless cuisine, the gentle people, the fascinating blend of ancient civilizations with an overlay of European manners and architecture, of high English tea served on the banks of the Irrawaddy River overlooking the immemorial monuments of Pagan…..I could go on and on with this bewitching inventory of why Southeast Asia is so seductive, why it is the place you never want to leave.

And yet…on moonlit nights at Angkor Wat or blissfully blinded by dancing sunset  colors on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok of an evening, I sometimes found myself on the verge of tears. For all its charm, more charm per square foot than anywhere else in the world, I’d venture to say, and no lack of bustling crowds of lovely people, Southeast Asia was a lonely place for me.

With my red hair and my long nose I stood out as a foreigner. I was different, a “farang”, a stranger. It took some time for this “strangeness” to get to me, to burrow into my very soul to the point where I began to hate myself. It was only then, living in this dream world of jasmine and smiles that I realized the sweet peace and acceptance that anonymity could bring; just being like everybody else was all I wanted, but it was impossible for me to achieve.

I could learn their languages, which I did, I could become proficient in local customs perfecting the “wai” greeting in Thailand with my hands raised and joined in just the right way below my chin, but I could never be accepted as “one of the family” because I stood six inches above most other people on the street and looked different.

It was not that I was treated badly; quite the contrary. Respect and deference were offered me in spades and a sort of friendly curiosity abounded when kids approached me and pulled the blonde hair on my arms. Sometimes it was fun to be the center of attention,  to be the star of the show, but I realized what I really craved was blending in,  the relaxed familiarity that can only come when people feel you are “their own kind.” The off-hand intimacy that borders on being ignored; not being stared at or pointed to by giggling children.

It was only when I moved to Burma and met Aunt Jean and her family that I began to feel at home in Southeast Asia.

Aunt Jean was my nickname for Sao Ohn Nyunt, a Shan princess whom I met in the second year of my five-year sojourn in Burma. Her son-in-law worked in our office in Rangoon and invited me  home  one day to meet his family and sample a Burmese dish of  spicey coconut noodles. When we arrived at his place we joked about their living on Highland Avenue because the Shans were a tribe of mountain people from Burma’s northeast plateau – highlanders.

My visit to Highland Avenue was pleasant and I found myself relaxed in a way I had seldom been before in Southeast Asian society where the local people always  received me,  sitting on the edge of their chairs  and treating me with cautious deference. That day,  as I recall, we were sitting on the floor  on finely woven reed mats.

I found myself totally at ease with the three generations of my friend’s extended family and was particularly taken by my friend’s Mother-in-law, a beautiful older lady named Sao Ohn Nyunt. Sao was the Shan title for princess, but soon I found myself calling her Aunt Jean, her English name. We got along famously and she later said she thought it was because we were both August-born.

There was something special, it seemed, between Shans and Europeans that made us feel like  family. Perhaps it was that Shans and ethnic Burmans, the majority race in Burma, had never really gotten on well and had been at war with each other for generations and that Shans considered Europeans to be their protectors. In fact, one of Aunt  Jean’s sons had been in the Shan rebel army at one point fighting for Shan freedom and independence from Burma.

That  get-acquainted call on the Highlanders became the first of many visits to their home to the extent that I became a regular and began to feel part of the family. Aunt Jean actually lived in the Shan State not far from the Chinese border in a town called Lashio with a cool climate and English gardens.  It was not easy for a foreigner at that time to gain permission from the security- obsesssed Burmese military government to travel to the Shan State, but somehow I managed to wangle a travel permit and, after a horrifically bumpy plane ride, found myself in the parlor of Aunt Jean’s cottage in Lashio before a roaring fire peering out at her beautifully trimmed rose bushes.

Hanging above the mantle of the fireplace was a  portrait of a young woman in Burmese court attire. She was sitting on a fine  Burmese mat, wearing a pink silk  ” thamein” or skirt and a delicate white blouse. Her hair was done up in an elaborate fashion and when loose must have fallen to her waist. This portrait had been painted in 1930  by Sir Gerald Kelly  when Aunt Jean was nineteen. She had accompanied her sister and brother-in-law to London where a constitutional conference  was being held between the British government and Burmese officials with an eye toward autonomy and eventual independence for the colony.

Their London visit involved lots of socializing with the smart set and at a lunch party one day Aunt Jean found herself sitting next to Sir Gerald Kelly, a well-known portrait painter who was immediately taken by her  demure beauty and unpretentious manner. He asked if she would allow him to paint her portrait, and after conferring with her brother-in-law, she agreed.

Later Aunt Jean returned to Burma and eventually married a Shan prince in a  storybook wedding that included a parade of caparisoned elephants and miles of turbaned  retainers paying obeisance to the newly married couple seated on their regal platform. I never tired of sitting next to Aunt Jean,  one of her brocade-covered photo albums spread across our laps, looking at faded photos  while she described, in her crisp British accent, her  life of privilege and splendor in those bygone days.

When I left Burma for another assignment – it was to be Indonesia – I said my goodbyes to the Highlanders and we promised to stay in touch which we did for some years. I remember once having a rendezvous in England with two of her sons who had not seen each other in 25 years. We met in a  picturesque village in Wales and it was a moving sight to see these two brothers re-unite after such a long absence. I remember, after a night of drinking and story telling, entering their bedroom in the morning to find these two manly siblings, both fathers and husbands, sleeping blissfully, wound tightly and lovingly  in each other’s arms.

Sadly as time went by, the Highlanders and I drifted apart. I heard that most of Aunt Jean’s clan had emigrated to Australia and were doing various things. One son had gone into the restaurant business in Sydney, another was an interpreter for Burmese refugees. They were all getting on with their lives and were glad to be out of Burma which had become a sinking ship of poverty and oppression. A holiday photo one year showed Aunt Jean, looking older but ever beautiful and animated, surrounded by her dozens of descendants. Not long after receiving that picture, I heard that she had passed away. A great lady and my surrogate Mother who had filled the gap of loneliness that had plagued me for so long in Southeast Asia.

Some years after I left Burma, I visited London and went “slumming” one night, bouncing from one working-class pub to another. At a certain point late in the evening I met an unemployed factory worker and we ended up back at his bed-sitter in the rather divey neighborhood near Vauxhall Bridge where the real cockney accent is said to have originated. His dimly-lit abode and my excessive alcoholic intake prevented me from noticing my surroundings, but in the morning as I was leaving, my jaw dropped when I  saw a picture on  his wall. Surrounded by a backdrop of peeling, grimy paint was a print of Aunt Jean’s portrait  – Sao Ohn Nyunt.

I asked my one-night-stand friend where he got the picture and he said that he had taken it from his Mother’s flat after she died. He added that the “Burmese Princess” picture had been the best-selling  print in Britain in the 1950s and 60s. I knew Aunt Jean was smiling down on us and would have been proud to hear that she had brought elegance and light to so many people in the UK ! It even lit up a grimy bed-sitter whose only illumination was a naked lightbulb.

Thank  you, Aunt Jean !

 

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SEXY MONEY, FOGGY GOGGLES AND FAST-CLOSING DOORS

| July 12, 2011 | Comments (2)

I can always tell if somebody has lived in the tropics by the way they close a door. Decades of living in Southeast Asia, and before that, in the sultry climes of Virginia and New Orleans, Louisiana, have taught me to close a door quickly when entering or leaving a house.

It just makes sense. Otherwise half the flying population – pesky mosquitoes and, ofcourse, flies and other winged things – would become part of the household. Ofcourse if you live in Southeast Asia, you might not need doors at all and  live like the Javanese or Balinese do which is to be outside. Their traditional houses are minimal and totally open, consisting for the most part of simple but elegant “pendopos” which are a collection of gazebos that take advantage of the natural elements, the breeze and rain showers for fresh coolness. Flying beasts are dealt with by using smokey mosquito coils that send up an incense odor and draped over beds are diaphanous mosquito nets that make every night’s sleep seem like  honeymoon slumber.

Even on mild, insect-free Autumn days in New York, you will see me closing  doors with dispatch. There are other habits that haunt  those of us who once roamed the Tropics. Shoes are left at the threshold, feet are pointed AWAY from others,  and under NO condition are  the lower extremities put up on desks or tables or elevated in any way.  “The cow forgets its feet” is a Thai expression describing vulgar parvenus who don’t know how to act.  Feet are dirty appendages ! Keep them down where they belong !

And items are always handed to another person with the RIGHT hand, the “tangan manis” or “sweet hand” as the Indonesians would describe it. Another dead give-away is when calling somebody with a hand gesture, the raised hand always points  fingers in a downward position. Think of Lord Buddha’s hand in the samutra position.

This clandestine club of old Asian hands  always recognizes one another by the simplest hint of body language, be it in an airport in Amsterdam where the slightest  gesture is discerned or on a crowded subway in New York City. We have our ways…let me warn you.

Which leads me to foggy goggles. I swim almost daily in a pool that is frequented by people of a certain age who perform their leisurely laps under the not-so-watchful eye of a sleepy life guard. I am just waiting for somebody to pull a “Pamela Harriman” (she had a heart attack and died swimming in the Ritz Hotel pool in Paris while serving as US Ambassador to France some years ago). I’m sure Rudy, the lifeguard, who is usually lost in the depths of his Ipod, wouldn’t notice if I sunk and never surfaced.

In any case, death is always on my mind as I stroke the lengths of my lane ending up after 30 minutes, a shrivelled,  chlorine-soaked,but de-stressed prune. They say that swimming relaxes and I agree; thoughts of death bring  calm resignation; checking-out is the ultimate stress-reliever, isn’t it? In the meantime, I cope with such inconveniences as fogged-up goggles. But I must say, blurred vision can bring benefits.

 One of my swimming buddies is 85 year-old Gloria who is tough as nails and also weighs about 85 pounds. Last year on a package tour to Italy she was accosted by a pickpocket as she was cranning  her neck at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Mr. Pickpocket should have picked somebody else. As he tried to rummage in her knock-off  Louis Vuitton bag, Gloria gave him a sound thrashing with her cane and sent him running. So we give Gloria a wide berth at the pool and let her call the shots. Which is why I was amazed when I saw her up close the other day, but through the mist of foggy goggles. I suddenly realized how this leathery octagenarian must have looked 60 years ago when she was a young woman. How beautiful she was, or had been…or I suppose you could say still is. That fleeting glimpse through “rose-colored” goggles was somehow a powerful lesson to me – everybody is beautiful if you look at them in the right way.  But does it mean we have to always be wearing misty spectacles?

Now to what everybody has been waiting for – the Sexy Money part of the title is what really interests you, isn’t it ! Confess ! Who gives a damn about goggles or doors. Well, here we go !

There must be a word for it but it doesn’t exist in English. Perhaps German  language can accomodate. After all, the Teutonic tongue has those long words like schadenfreude and weltanschaung that encapsulate  complex, hard-to-describe emotions.  What would be the english word for ” thrill at splurging money on somebody who besots you and probably doesn’t really give a damn for you” ? Well, maybe the term would be “stupid old fool”, but I refuse to be placed in that demeaning category.

In any case, I love spending money on people. It gives me great pleasure to treat friends for lunch at classy restaurants, to invite them to the theater, to offer them champagne. But there are a select number of people – actually two right now – on whom spending money actually creates a thrill.

First there is Indra. A petite South Asian woman who chain-smokes, has a British accent and looks like Angelina Jolie. I LOVE buying things for her and she knows it. When we are hanging out she will casually say to me, “‘ You know that bracelet in the jewelry story window we just passed…..? I have my eye on it.” That is a not-so-subtle hint that she wants me to buy it for her.  We have code words. The next time we meet and I offer it to her, gift-wrapped, she smiles, touches my arm, murmurs ” Thanks” and I quiver and break out in little beads of sweat. It’s like that. I am not rich but if I were……just think  what I could buy Indra! A small corporate jet  ? Her very own little island ?

My other besotted money turn-on is Poncho, a 21 year-old neighbor who left school eight years ago and just hangs out on our street in the Bronx and is movie star-charming. Not a week goes by when he doesn’t hit me up for $100 for this or $150 for that. Parking tickets, hair-do braids ($60 a pop), new sneakers. Then there were the fire crackers for the 4th of July. He needed $200; it was his son’s birthday too. How could I refuse? He asks, I pay. I know by now my readers are disgusted. What kind of twisted largesse is this ? Why not give those dollars to OxFam or Save Dafur? You’re right, but we all have our  little secrets, our special weaknesses, don’t we? Call me what you will, but I AM transparent.  I don’t hide my festishes. I’m living my life. I’m paying my taxes! As Rose Kennedy famously said, “It’s our money and we’ll spend it like we want to!” So there !

Have I given you too much information today ?

 

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TROUSER TROUBLE AND FEAR OF PEDDLING…How Shall I Age? Gracefully or Fearfully?

| July 7, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

Time has blurred  my memories of childhood. What it was like growing up the son of two eccentric, mis-matched but loving parents is moving to fade-out; the decades  – there have been seven of them, or is it eight ? – have swallowed most details,  leaving me  only with fleeting, hazy recollections. There are, however, two things that stand out vividly, two pronouncements, one uttered by my Mother, the other by my Father that are crystal clear. These two edicts have profoundly influenced my life these past 72 years.

“Turn out the light before you leave the room!” ” Did you switch off the light before you went out?” “Do I see a light in the bathroom?” These variations on a question that was  couched more as  a warning were constant reminders uttered by my Mother throughout the day and constitute one of the most indelible recollections  of my early childhood. To be sure, there were other fiats from her that sailed through the air as she careened about the house;  the advice not to use more than one square of toilet paper, the reminder to screw the toothpaste cap back on the tube, but the one about turning lights off was carved in stone and seared into my brain in a Manchurian Candidate manner that causes me to this day to snap at people who leave lights on when they exit a room.

My Father’s advice, equally clear though delivered in a less high-key manner was that “marriage is a contract and a promise and should never be broken.” Coming from a man who was an atheist and whose battles with my Mother  often descended into physical brawls where he invariably emerged the loser, she being stronger and bigger physically, seeemed strange to me, but the enduring  impact of his message  was guaranteed by the sincerity of its delivery.

In truth, the parenting of these two people who brought me into the world was minimal and inconsistent, marred, when it was exercised, by ego, insecurity and pre-occupation with other matters. So I can say, when I left the familial fold that I was equipped with only  two weapons to deal with the challenges of life that I would encounter: TURN OFF THE LIGHTS  and  NEVER DIVORCE !

Though my parents’ position, and hence my own opinion, on lights and divorce  was always with me, until  recently I never  had the opportunity to put into practice these deeply held convictions on conserving electricity and the sanctity of marriage. For one thing, most of my life was spent in neo-colonial ease living in the Tropical East where servants hovered and gin and tonics were constantly served. In those clove-scented precincts every movement, every act had its own meaning and assigned actor and who was I to interfere by turning off a light as I sat inebriated under a slow moving ceiling fan, a crooked half-smile on my face. Lights were switched on and off  by bare-footed, silent  people who were supposed to do those things, just as lawn chairs were moved to the protection of screened porches promptly at 5 PM  before high tea, leaving the marauding moquitoes outside to their own buzzing devices.

So never having to lift a finger to do anything – aah! those sweet days are now gone as I sit here in the South Bronx fending for myself with such undignified pursuits as doing laundry and washing dishes! – my experience with the functioning of light switches is near- non-existent.

As to putting into practice my firm belief  inherited from Papa regarding the enduring value of undisturbed matrimony, I am hobbled by law and sexual orientation from putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak. I am queer and live in a country where gay marriage is not allowed. To be sure, there are flurries below the radar in several states – New York is the latest – that declare same sex marriage legal, but the real prize that seems light years away is having gay marriage recognized at the national level.  Not in my  lifetime I fear. So here I sit unable to practice what I would preach if I could. Actually I am getting quite good at turning lights out and have put off  several recent  house guests, by curtly lecturing  them to ” Turn off the bloody lights! ” Hopefully these free-loaders will not darken our portals again…..

All by way of saying, these boring edicts from my parents, as annoying and unoriginal as they were, somehow became  symbols for me that I must live a responsible life, that I must do things right, that promises made should be kept, not flung aside even when seemingly insurmontable difficulties arise. People receive “the word” in different ways. I guess light bulbs and marriage vows somehow spoke to me in  an unaccountably powerful manner. I have been with the same partner for over 30 years. Whatever you call what we have, it seems to be stronger than the house of cards which marriage is these days. Thank you, light bulbs !

I have indeed digressed. Now I must return to the original purpose of this essay which was to discuss trouser trouble and the fear of peddling.I hasten to clarify:  peddling a bicycle, not peddling eggs or watermelons.  I’m afraid it’s all related to aging, so kindly bear with me as I whine about the challenges of getting old.

Before he unceremoniously kicked me out of his hacienda in Talpa de Allende, Mexico several years ago – one minute you’re invited, one minute you’re not! –  saying only that the chemistry between us was wrong, my friend, Lon, confided one morning before the tequila started to flow, that he could no longer stand un-assisted and put on his trousers. At that time I was in my late 60s and he was somewhere over the hump into his 70s. I thought his admission a bit pathetic, but wouldn’t you know, one morning not long after my abrupt expulsion from his abode, I found myself in the same dilemma as Lon. Luckily I fell over on the bed behind me as my foot missed the trouser leg slot. The second time I tried, I collapsed again only achieving success a third time as I leaned against the wall. My cream-colored wall now has a “lean on” spot smudged with the sweat of my hand groping for mural support which I am ashamed to use but compelled to rely on.

In the weeks since this humiliating collapse, I have worked hard to regain my old upright, stand alone put on my pants like I was still in the Army and it was reveille stance and I can report that 50% of the time I have succeeded. I guess it is all a matter of balance. Unfortunately I cannot get into Tai Chi, so I must find other ways to improve my equilibirium. I’ve discovered that a glass of red wine seems to steady my legs. Thus each morning brings the challenge and reward of  trouser legs well-entered. Standing on one leg is a thrilling experience! Simple pleasures, how sweet you are !

In the meantime I must work on other things, my drooping posture and my old person shuffle when I walk. And there is that bicycle in the basement. I haven’t been on it for over ten years. Dare I try to ride a bike again ? When I told my friend Kyra who works in Starbucks that I was going to the beach and maybe I would ride my bike along the dunes, she cautioned, “Be careful ! You might fall over and break your hip !” Don’t know if  she was being kind or cruel.

But, no question about it – we have to keep on truckin’  –  or in my case peddlin’ – and try to do what we always did when we were younger. To be continued ! Hopefully not from the hospital !

 

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