Sunday, July 13, 2014

Obsession is Relative

I have been obsessed with obsession lately.

Of course discussing it on social media and writing about online can be classified an obsession too!

There's a tendency towards an easy, willing and total immersion into obsession that permeates our culture. We are, as a society, obsessed with beauty, youth, sex, food, sports, politics, money, gratification – instant and otherwise.

The language of obsession makes it akin to passion (in its infancy) or to a mental disorder (in the troves of, well, obsession).

Strictly by dictionary standards, obsession is defined as a “fixation, ruling/consuming passion, mania, compulsion, preoccupation, infatuation, addiction, fetish, craze, neurosis...”

It depends on where you sit on the track of obsessive behavior. You can be a crazed fanatic, which means you are literally crazy, or be under the spell of World Cup fever (and this makes it a physical ailment that you surrender to and have absolutely no control over).

The difference, subtle in this case, is that the latter makes you an unwitting victim to the charms of the beautiful game, but the former makes you a willing conspirator in your own descent into the insane.

Norman Mailer had a practical take on it:
Obsession is the single most wasteful of human activity, because you keep coming back and back and back to the same question and never get an answer.”

Mailer had a practical but also had a cynical eye and by his philosophy obsession is useless. But is it really?

The question, I think, is whether each of these definitions we ascribe to obsession are actually synonymous? 

Most people would probably be offended at the idea that their passion is a fixation – but then, the person in question might be a stalker and, well, legally and morally, the rest of us would lean towards a more negative connotation.

And therein lies the real question, I suppose. Obsession is seen mostly as a negative, but is it always?

More often than not (and this is an opinion and not at all based on any scientific evidence), it seems to me that once you add emotion to the equation, obsession becomes a scary proposition.
My significant other right now is myself, which is what happens when you suffer from multiple personality disorder and self-obsession.” -Joaquin Phoenix
Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing. -Elie Wiesel

But an obsession with an idea is a passion that can lead to progress, to transcendence even!
I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent; curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas. -Albert Einstein
Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment. To such an extent indeed that one day, finding myself at the deathbed of a woman who had been and still was very dear to me, I caught myself in the act of focusing on her temples and automatically analyzing the succession of appropriately graded colors which death was imposing on her motionless face. -Claude Monet

Obsession builds worlds! And it also imagines the harshest of dystopiæ.
The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession. -George Sand

Perhaps what makes an obsession acceptable is moderation. Certainly, small obsessions (like stamp collecting) are considered harmless and worthy only of slight scorn, but all-consuming fixations – even on things that are pleasurable – are less understood and we condemn what we do not understand.

I've heard obsession called “the very thing that destroyed” someone, but in labeling obsession we change its significance and the nuance of what it means.

An obsession that takes someone out of reality and allows them to fantasize about a world that is not there is dangerous, right? Unless it's Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov or Eileen Collins...

Perhaps acceptance of the condition can be measured strictly on what it ultimately contributes to society.

Certainly there are obsessions that seem completely useless – like obsession with celebrities (whether fueled by our own low-self esteem or influenced by relentless fame-whoring). 

While it has led to reality television; it nevertheless keeps thousands of production assistants, makeup people, photographers, and network executives employed and generally away from the rest of the decent folks.

Fame-whoring has created a cottage industry, therefore fame-whoring is good for the economy even if it also contributes to dumb us down and brings us closer to complete and utter moral decay.

See? It's all relative.



Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Ruined by Plunger

We have been fortunate for almost three decades.

This apartment, in this house we’ve called our home since the mid-1980s, was not really supposed to happen. I came along with Mom for moral support, but at that point we were both looking for a place to live independently.

The fact is that she could not afford it on her own, and I would have never considered it on my own. But once we stood in the space, and I saw the look in her eye (yearning and heartbreak commingling in one sigh), I offered to pay half of everything and urged Mom to sign the lease.

We’d have two bedrooms, a huge living room, a dining room (something I am not willing to negotiate on). The kitchen was smallish, but workable. There were closets in each room plus a bigger closet in the hallway. Eventually, after our landlady’s father had passed, I took over his old room and made it my study, and the entire second floor became ours.

In the space of time we’ve been at this place, a baby girl was born (now our acting landlady). We’ve had two dogs. Our boy has gone on to college, left the house, married and has two gorgeous little girls of his own.

We bought a new bathroom pail and filled it with things a new home needs – a plunger, toilet brush, sponges, tile scrubbers, etc… The original pail got replaced about a decade ago. The toilet brush has been replaced several times over. But the little plunger, which got minor play, has been with us since we moved in 28 years ago. Finally, the rubber cracked – probably in disuse and caused by the extreme changes in temperatures and humidity in the room.

Mom went to replace it this week and because it was one of those hot as heck days under an unforgiving sun, she ducked into the new 99-cent store and asked if they had plungers.

The young man was trying to be helpful, a relatively new arrival from China, he told her he did not know the word – and I am sure he expected her to just explain in Mandarin, but we are not that kind of Chinese. No one has spoken the old language in our gene pool for well over 100 years. Sometimes this is a confusing and visible disappointment to our neighbors who could swear we are one of them (we are, just partly).

So there was my mother and this poor young man making what must have looked like disturbingly hilarious gestures as she tried to explain and he tried to gather her meaning… And I giggled as she told me of her misadventure, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in the back of my mind, and that ridiculous scene in “Hush” when Giles was making his presentation on The Gentlemen and then Buffy . . .


well, you know. (If you don't, it'll become clear around the :08 mark.)

The point is, we have a new plunger, and it is entirely possible that Mom may have now a reputation as well.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Graduations Galore


Graduation, according to Wikipedia is the action of receiving or conferring an academic degree or the ceremony that is sometimes associated, where students become graduates. Surely most of us have participated in at least one graduation or commencement in our times.

In my time, there seemed to be less pump and circumstance as there is for current students – when even pre-school tykes get a commencement ceremony these days!


At the end of kindergartner we had a little ceremony (though not officially a graduation). It was meant to assure us that we had accomplished so very much that year: learned our ABCs, numbers, all our colors, and a few songs, made new friends, and got into the most important routine of our lives.

But more than that, the point was to ensure us that even as things would change – new teacher, new classroom, perhaps even new classmates – we were headed to the big time, to the part of the school where the Big Kids were…

We were going to play in the regular playground!

We had a sixth grade graduation, marking our advancement to junior high school. Then we had ninth grade graduation, as we prepared to embrace our teenage years and the last phase of schooling before adulthood. Finally, high school graduation marked our most awaited moment when we were almost legal.

I hated my sixth grade graduation so much and experienced commencement fatigue by ninth grade to the point I declared I’d never do another goddamned graduation for as long as I lived! (I did. I screamed it in two languages to make sure I was fully understood.)


It took some doing to convince me that high school graduation would be enjoyable and I reluctantly acquiesced.

When I was conferred my Associate, I had the unenviable choice of picking graduation or the Aruba Jazz Festival – which included a performances by Ruben Blades and Celia Cruz. I do not regret shunning the cap and gown for a bikini and flimsy evening clothes. For the first time in my life, I spent half an hour dancing to “Pedro Navaja” in public and I had the time of my life.


That’s right, I graduated from my antipathy of dancing salsa near live males (a feat harder than passing macroeconomics).

Graduating from college – an achievement that took years, blood, sweat and tears – was a welcome end to a challenging but generally exciting part of my life. I felt like a bride. I walked at Radio City Music Hall and it was spectacular, dramatic, and fabulous.


Grad school gave me the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy (the arch behind me, jumping in the fountain afterwards), I had not shared that with many when I realized it was an impossible dream. I never expected to graduate, wear gold and purple, and walk on Washington Square Park. The fact that I beat the odds was priceless, but doing it was surreal and more satisfying than I can explain here.


I had another graduation last year when I completed my PC Tech training. I don’t dismiss the time and effort required nor the substantial intellectual, moral, and emotional assistance I had during this period to accomplish it. But the best part of graduation was going out for mofongo in the Bronx with my godfather and Mom.

For the last couple of weeks and for the next week or so, I will spy kids of all ages sporting caps and gowns; some happier than others about the celebrations; and I wonder if I have another graduation in me. Do I struggle for another tassel?

Of course, it’s not the tassel or even the diploma but the journey that counts. Still, I wonder, how many graduations does one need? For that matter, shouldn’t people who really appreciate them be the ones we confer the ceremonies upon?

“Congratulations for working 80 hours this without a psychotic break or a massacre! You’ve graduated to the weekend. Well deserved. Here: have a tassel.” 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Grand Motherly Words


Mom introduced me to Maya Angelou's writing. It was essential to my Mother that I was not only literate but cultured in a multitude of ways. To that end, it was imperative to include writers of color, of different nationalities and ethnicities, and also as many women writers as possible.

Tonight, we spent a little time discussing Dr. Angelou and we both agreed that while we may not have absolutely loved every word she put forth, her facility with language and her passion for sharing it was infectious.

Rocked by a variety of vicissitudes, including inhumane violence, she was even temperate and wise. There was an old crone within that spoke eternal truths that resonated and vibrated beauty.

This does not mean she was a square or a stiff, she was very modern in her thinking. She also had a conservative side that dictated part of her demeanor – a Southern thing perhaps. Perhaps it's simpler to say she carried herself with both dignity and gentility.

I just loved to hear her speak. And the thing that always struck me was that, if they'd been given the opportunity to sit, have a cup of coffee and communicate, she and my great grandmother would have had a lovely visit. They'd be friends and neighbors and collaborators.

Having said just this, my Mother smiled and nodded in appreciation. It was perfect! And it brought up Mom's favorite quote:
When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
That blew Mom away because it reminded her of Abuelita (her grandmother). And this is a lesson that she has tried to instill in me as well. Being a Mother, of course, she is always right.

Being more than a little obstinate, I don't always listen because I do have this pathological need to do things the hard way first. It's a competitive thing, it challenges me to overcome. It's not always necessary and it is often unwarranted.

When Oprah had the conversation in which Mom heard this quote, she put it in simpler terms, “...when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you. Live your life in truth. Don't pretend to be someone you are not. You will survive anything if you live your life from the point of view of truth.”

People change and some even grow. People sometimes make mistakes. Don't expect apologies or explanations because you are owed nothing, even if it makes for a lovely way to begin a dialogue about it. Forgiveness is divine when you encounter these things. Blah, blah, blah...
People rarely err on the side of compromising their integrity, not at any price. Always remember that.
Mom and I discussed the meaning of these words and what Abuelita had to say about it too. No names were mentioned but it became clear to me that my Mother is that same kind of woman, universal and eternal and wise beyond the mere mortal.

Maya Angelou did not speak until she was six and in all that time her grandmother spoke to her constantly and instilled in her all her wisdom. Not speaking gave her the distinct expertise in doing what most of us do half-assed most days: she listened.

If you really listen, no matter how many years you are separated, the voices of the wise women in your life stay deep within you and inform your path. 


Monday, May 19, 2014

Monday Morning Platitudes


This year is killing me! As a fantasy/sci-fi fan, I see death more as a transformation than the Death of nightmares, its bony fingers poking at you...



But I digress.  I have been contemplating change for months. Change was stalking me and I pretended it couldn't touch me. It stared me in the face and I laughed at it.

You can’t touch me, fool!” (Then I laughed like a villain in an old Japanese epic film because I am a nerd.)

I saw it coming and I felt its cold claws grab at my ankles. I fought it, and I should know better. Change is inevitable.

One must accept change, embrace it, become one with it, and move on. Change happens for a reason – often nature’s way to balance itself out.


Sometimes it is hard to get to that realization without speaking platitudes to oneself. Today I spent the whole day doing this and, dear lord is that tiresome! So, as therapy, I offer you a load of platitudes which you should feel free to cut and paste and use during your next crises as need be...

When the Universe closes a path in your journey, as much as it’ll hurt to take the reins and shut off the autopilot, all it means is that the road is closed. It doesn’t mean your journey is over. Simply traveling on another plane can bring untold joy to our lives, but we must stop bellyaching about changing lanes in order to notice. And if you should lose a passenger or two, then live with it because even this does not mean death.

Everything in life is temporary, all things shall pass.

Yeah, existential angst just ain't funny... it's a bitter little pill!

Sometimes things don’t work out the way you thought they might.

You can fight it or you can mourn it. That’s your choice, but it is also futile. Acknowledge that the moment has ended, be thankful for having had the experience, and then remember what it brought to your life and what it taught you.

Let the rest of it go. It’s the only way you’ll know peace.

Everything in life is temporary. You cannot force anything or anyone to remain.

Don’t resist change. It’s like fighting an invisible army – it’ll be exhausting and you can never win.


Sometimes part of your journey comes with a mate; some parts of your journey are for you alone. Should you lose a partner in the race and not know why, let it go too. If there was an important lesson there, you would have gotten it. Perhaps getting nothing back is the very lesson in it—because then you’d gotten back exactly what it was worth.

In the whirlwind of change, sometimes it is also necessary to forgive. Forgive when no apology is coming or offered, simply accept what is and forgive. Don't forget the lesson, but forgive any offense (if one was given).


Forgive because bitterness is a rusting agent for your soul. Forgive because it will bring you peace. Forgive because it is the only way to move forward happily.

Most importantly, take ownership of whatever may have been your fault and forgive yourself. The same principles apply for you as they do for others, but it is far more important because you have to live with yourself to the end.

If you invested in it more than you thought you had to give, know that broken hearts mend and no one in the history of the world has ever died of disillusionment. Write a bad poem and get the hell over it!


If all else fails, I hear whiskey is a cure-all. Have a cry, have a drink, promise to not be such a sap next time, move on. And if nothing else, you would have had a glass of whiskey.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Reality is Too Real


At my part time gig, I found myself in a room putting the finishing touches to the day's work. My part was done; nevertheless, we all sat around waiting for two piles of paperwork to make their way back from the main room where the serious bureaucratic shuffling takes place so another piece of paper can be added to each.

We remain until the supervisor is done with the day's paperwork and then we are dismissed.

I am one of eight, captive in this room. At least two have their faces deeply engrossed on their smart phone screens. There is one woman who is hyperactive and she all but jumps and skips from one side of the room to the other for a good 10 minutes, until she tires of the routine and takes a seat.

I looked wistfully down at Brooklyn Heights from the giant windows some 100 feet up. When I bore of the dark clouds dancing across my scope of vision, I refocus on my Angry Birds game.

Everybody in this room has been together long enough that they know each others' names. I am the new kid on the block.

It is not a particularly friendly group but I have a theory
The first two days I worked there, I noticed a tendency for most of them to keep to themselves, like POWs. I attributed it to Monday Blues. When it happened again on Tuesday, I took it as possibly the modus operandi for the group.
By the second week, there were some extra folks that had not been there my first week, but known to the others, so they'd just been absent. They nod politely but few engage each other.

My theory is that because we are all aware that this is not a career but more a temporary necessity, some of them find it unnecessary to get too attached. It's a defense mechanism, not that they are unfriendly as such. This is a pit stop in survival for all of us.

The work doesn't require brain surgery skills, we are literally shuffling paper and collating it. It is relaxing inasmuch as you are able to switch off to get it done. And obviously you do not completely shut off, you need to be accurate, I mean you can rely on very basic skills that are almost instinctual.

One of the supervisors began a conversation about the "Real Housewives of Atlanta." I don't have cable and am not as enamored by reality-yet-semi-scripted TV (though I admit to watching multiple episodes of “Bridezillas” on occasion just to boost my confidence and feel slightly superior because I am not insane).

It started as a halfhearted attempt to attack the downward spiral of Western civilization and television arts. Though the very person who expressed these feelings also admitted something to the effect of them having had three reunions but also watching them all.

Soon the conversation turned into a lament on the death of unity (in feminist terms) and the increase of “bitches” in life in general (not my words, I did not take part in this conversation). And then, the conversation turned heated and everyone put in their two cents on how “bitches” shouldn't be doing other “bitches” that way and showing them up in front of everybody, and how they themselves would have to slap “bitches” around if they opened their mouths to talk to them like that, but as role models “bitches” shouldn't act that way on TV.

There were very specific attacks on some of the women on the show and things they've said, done, Twitted -- but since I don't know who they are, the insults and accusations went right over my head. I just sat back and watched the animated conversation take a turn towards the stormy.

Feminist unity and bitches: the irony of it escaped those in the midst of the discussion. It made me so sad that they used the word so casually, though in context it was probably correct...

While the conversation remained relatively civil, they were all screeching over each other to be heard and one conversation turned into some four-way intricate network of cattiness.

Ultimately, I suppose sometimes reality gets a little too real and reality TV is the Information Age's answer to Shakespearean drama. Somewhere in the back of my head I imagine my great grandmother tsk-tsking, “It sounds like a hen house in here!”



Sunday, April 27, 2014

Surviving in Challenging Times

It has been a challenging few days.

Mom had a little accident and hurt herself (not as badly as she could have, under the circumstances, and I am grateful for that). 


Any time somebody in this house says the words, “We need to go to the emergency room,” you know you've moved down a DEFCON level...

I generally don't even walk on the same side of the street as hospitals and have even been known to cross the street when I see a doctor or a nun coming my way (it's the association with pain).

Yesterday we spent about four hours at Lutheran Medical Center in Sunset Park and it wasn't as bad as you'd imagine. The hardest thing for me was to walk through the emergency treatment area and pass patients and orderlies, nurses, doctors, contraptions on the hallway. It made me anxious and jittery.


After we reached the waiting room until the doctor got her X-ray results, I said, “I need either a bowl of lo mein or to pass out.”

That made her laugh and I knew she was relatively okay if she could find humor.

Listening to the old lady a few rooms away realizing she was in the hospital and panicking, crying out “I don't wanna be here. I wanna go home. I wanna go home!” Her panic would then turn into desperation and she would sob. It was heartbreaking.

The nurse tried to reassure her that she'd be home in no time, but a less than charitable woman who apparently had grown tired of the old woman's pleas and tears, told the nurse, “She ain't gotta stay here if she don't want!” and then addressed the old lady, “You can refuse treatment and they have to let you go.”

An argument ensued and I distinctly heard the words, “Security to nurse's station...”

By then my only concern was that nobody start a riot in there while I had my mother in a relatively fragile condition. She will be sporting one of these for a while:


I should mention that when we checked in (and our family doctor had called ahead and ordered the X-ray because he is on staff), the front desk admissions guy was talking a lady out of going in the back, “Until Security takes care the situation. Just wait another minute.”

Additionally, my grandmother's younger sister passed away and we will not be able to go pay our respects. This makes Mami, my maternal grandmother, the sole survivor of her generation and we can't be there for her.

There have been other things that contribute to a great sadness and I try not to let it knock me down. It may take some effort to remember to count your blessings, but this is not a futile exercise because it keeps your soul free of the gunk that collects when bad things happen.

I surrender. That's right: I am folding! (My honorary French citizenship shall be official shortly... What? Too soon?!)


I have to let go of the things I can do nothing about. What I am left with, deeply rooted on tangible reality, has a beauty of its own – even when it turns a little dark.

I can work with that, because at the edge of every dark cloud there is a silver lining and the one thing I have learned in life is that, sometimes it may take a little digging, a little cleaning up, a little purging, or a little diligence, but if you look with your mind open there will always be a silver lining there to be found!
Always start your day with the idea that you have everything you need to be happy. 

The rest is figuring out how to allocate your resources and reacting to changes that life throws at you. And in the end, this is all temporary. It is just a matter of time.