Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Humid on several continents

Humidity is all I think about sometimes.

In The Seven False Departures, it is November 1942 and my grandfather is flying, via Ferry Command, from Accra, Nigeria past Lagos and on toward Kano. After months of false starts, he is really and truly on his way back to Cairo. He has been traveling for a week now, having flown from New York to Miami to San Juan to British Guyana, to Natal, Brazil to Fisherman Lake, Liberia to Accra. As he flies he describes the climate of Lagos and alludes to the odd trope of calling it an ‘Earthy Paradise’, when in fact it is painfully humid and a malarial mecca. “The heat is overwhelming all year long and the humidity attains extremities unsuspected by us.” Aerial view of Lagos, 1929.
In the current time and place, I have determined that our dehumidifying situation is unacceptable. Our ‘unfinished’ basement, with its stone walls and cobblestone floors, sweats. It sweats like an armor-clad Spanish explorer in the Amazon. It sweats like a Finn in a sauna. I have always enjoyed the term: “finished basement”. Our basement is not finished. Not a single room in the house is finished. I am not finished.
Today it is 90˚ and 99% humidity. I cannot type because my fingers slither across the keyboard and I get distracted by the droplets of sweat that wend their way from my clavicle, down my chest, through my cleavage and into the DMZ of my midsection.
We now have two dehumidifiers in the basement. One is in the marginally more habitable part of the basement with the large hearth, where once, not so long ago in geologic time, the meals were cooked. Now, I am sorry to say, it is stacked full of extra honey frames. The other is in the far back of the basement, where I never venture without shoes because not only do the cobblestones get quite slimy this time of year, but the chance of encountering large insects is excellent. I like to see large insects before I step on them, if I must step on them.
It turns out that these two dehumidifiers are not enough. Maybe two other dehumidifiers would be enough, if they were other, better, more efficient humidifiers. But these do not suffice. The basement is still very very humid. Everything I touch is damp and clammy.
So this morning I go to Home Depot to acquire yet another dehumidifier. Home Depot is enormous and full of useful things, useful and in many cases enigmatic. I ask the first fellow I see in a bright orange apron, emblazoned with the Home Depot logo, where are the dehumidifiers. He tells me to go all the way to the left, then take a right and go all the way to the back. I follow his instructions and find myself surrounded by long planks of wood, planks of woods in many sizes, all of them long. There are no dehumidifiers. My shopping cart and I start our way back towards the front of the store. En route is a woman also wearing the signature orange apron of helpful Home Depot employees, and I ask her where I might find a dehumidifier. She says, authoritatively, “Aisle 26. In the back bay. Up high.” The aisle numbers, I now discover, start at the store entrance with #1 and then go from right to left, Hebrew-style, to the far left end of the store; then they make a U-turn and continue from left to right for the back aisles, starting with 16 and going on up, presumably to 30, but I never got that far. In writing this is called a boustrophedon, from the ancient Greek for ox-turning. But this is not an ancient text, just aisles in Home Depot. I finally arrive at Aisle 26 and proceed to walk up and down. There are many household objects, and at the far end of the aisle there are air purifiers. This seems like a good sign, but there are absolutely no dehumidifiers. I ask a nice young man wearing an orange polo shirt with the Home Depot logo if he knows where I might find a dehumidifier, and he says that it would make sense for them to be up front with the air-conditioners. But he cautions me that he doesn’t work at the store, so he could be wrong. I nod quizzically towards his Home Depot orange polo shirt, because I can’t help myself, and he just shrugs. “It was a free shirt.”
Should I now return all the way to the front, where the air conditioners are, or at least where this non-employee of Home Depot assumes they should be?
Then I notice the woman from yesterday’s altercation at the post office, looking at the very complete array of grab bars. I don’t know her, and she probably doesn’t even recognize me, since I was behind her in line when the man behind me in line started interjecting himself into her transaction with the post office clerk. It is a well-known, if depressing, fact, that our local post office can be very slow, that it will take longer to post a package to Aunt Milly than it took to embroider the cushions and write the letter telling her all the news and why this embroidered cushion is several years later in arriving than you had intended. I say that not to excuse the rudeness of the man behind me in line, but to give a little context. The woman now surveying the daunting selection of grab bars at Home Depot was in the post office yesterday mailing a cardboard box to some foreign destination. She had filed out the required customs form but omitted to assign a value to the items inside the box.
The clerk asked for the value and the woman said, “I don’t know. They’re just old clothes.”
The clerk said, “Well what are they worth?”
The woman said, “I can’t say, because they are used.”
The clerk then said, “Can you just give any value, because we need it for the form?” Under the woman’s tee shirt were the bright blue straps of what I guessed was a bathing suit. I wondered if she was on her way to the town pool, or perhaps she had already been there. I thought about how much I would like to dive into the lake and swim for a very long time away from the shore.
The woman said, “They don’t really have a value. Other than sentimental.”
“Just say $10.00. It’s not that hard,” said the man behind me in line.
The woman at the counter, with bright blue straps peeking out from under her tee shirt, turned and said, “You are a very rude person. And listening to private conversations.”
The man in line said, “I was just trying to move things along.”
She said, “I waited in line, just like you. Please keep your thoughts to yourself.”
The man said, “It wasn’t my intention to be rude.”
She said, “Well you are.”
Naturally, the rest of us waiting in line were completely enthralled by this interaction. But that was the end. The woman told the postal employee that the clothes were worth $20 and she didn’t want to pay for insurance. The postal employee explained that the insurance came with the postage, and did not cost extra.
And this very morning she is in Home Depot looking at grab bars. It is much hotter and more humid than it was yesterday, but today she is not wearing a bathing suit under her shirt. Or if she is, it is well hidden. It feels odd to not acknowledge her in some way, but I don’t, figuring that even if she recognizes me from yesterday in the post office, she would rather forget the whole incident.
I am still unsure about which direction to take when I see another man in the emblematic bright orange Home Depot apron. I ask him about dehumidifiers. He points me to the far end of Aisle 26. I explain that I have already asked three different people and have not yet found a single dehumidifier, so I am a leery about returning to that particular spot.
“Don’t worry. This is my department,” he says, and now I am noticing that he is tall and handsome, and has rather long braids. I have mixed feelings about long hair on men, but he is young, and on him the long braids look damn good. We walk together to the end of the aisle and he sees that there are in fact no dehumidifiers. He asks a fellow employee, “Did anyone move my dehumidifiers?”
“No, man.”
“Stay right here,” he tells me. “I know there are some on the palette out back.”
I have no intention of going anywhere. Just like that, I trust this guy. I feel like we are in this quest together. Minutes pass and I don’t worry. I note that all the signage in the store is in both English and Spanish, so that a language student could come to Home Depot and learn all the vocabulary necessary for construction, and home decoration. I learn that Vanities are called Tocadores in Spanish (not Vanidades, which is what I would have guessed.) Parts for Faucets is Repuestos para Grifos. Wonder Board is, however, Wonder Board in Spanish. Not Tablero de Maravilla.
More minutes pass and I remember that I also need to buy citronella candles because whenever we eat out on the porch my dear friend Gill is bitten by mosquitoes. I do not get bitten by mosquitoes, at least not here in New York, and never when Gill is around. Just last night we were dining on the porch and she asked if we had citronella candles, and I was sad to say that I had none. Citronella is an essential oil extracted from lemongrass. Like ‘finished’ in ‘a finished basement’, ‘essential’ in ‘essential oil’ is a redolent word. According to the EPA, citronella is a non-toxic biopesticide, but in Europe they don’t think citronella works to keep away mosquitoes at all.
My braided friend returns with a dehumidifier in a box. He gently places it in my shopping cart. I thank him sincerely, and within minutes, I am the owner of a new dehumidifier and three tubs of citronella candles.
In Les Sept Faux Departs, as they fly east from Lagos, my grandfather, Bon Papa, waxes eloquent about the Jukun kingdom of Nigeria, whose religion resembled that of the ancient Egyptians.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

In-flight Movies with Mom

It is not the kind of thing she forgets. She forgets where she has been, and who lived in Courtrai, but not that he was a lecher who fondled her legs. She forgets where we were yesterday, but she still knows she was born in Belgium and she still knows she never lived in Belgium. She still knows phrases in kitchen Arabic.
Every day requires a redrawing of the mental map of what is recalled and what forgotten, what dimly seen, what achingly looking for.

For those accustomed to large seats and warm towels, it is – I am guessing here - a muscle memory. But in her 60 plus years of traveling the globe with my father, trading cotton waste on 5 continents, she never flew in first class. It would not have occurred to either of them. So she could not forget how it worked because she never knew: the magic seat controls, the hot towels handed over with barbecue tongs, the menu choices, the complimentary headphones and movies on demand.
But last week when we took Mom to Belgium, we took her first class, thanks to a cousin with a multitude of miles.

It turned out she loved first class. As we settled into our pods, she was in awe of the room, the magical seat controls, the food, and the attention. The steward was excessively attentive.
It was getting late, and the next day would be long, and in the long list of available movies, I had noticed they offered this Russian movie called Leviathan. I’d seen posters featuring the carcass of a large whale washed up on a bleak arctic landscape – the sort of thing that instantly appeals to me. Mom was finished with her meal and seemed ready to settle in. I was looking forward to dozing over Siberian melodrama.
I booted up the movie, donned my earphones, and started to watch.
Mom tapped on my arm and asked me what I was doing. I explained about the Russian film. She said she would like to watch a movie also. Would I find her one? I stopped Leviathan, took off my headphones and semi-climbed, semi-kneeled on my seat and leaned awkwardly over into hers so that I could actually see her screen. (The airplane TV screens are rather brilliantly designed to look black from any oblique angle; thus you have to be looking straight at it in order to see what is there, and operate the controls.) I pressed the button for WATCH, which led us to the long list of movies, and I scrolled through them, looking for something that would appeal to my mother. I settled on The Theory of Everything. I told her it was about Stephen Hawking, and she seemed to recognize the name. So I selected that movie and helped her put on the head phones, and adjusted the volume. First it was too low: “I can’t hear anything.” Then it was too loud: “Basta!” Then it was okay. She started watching.
I settled back into my seat, put my headphones back on and restarted Leviathan. The Siberian landscape was indeed bleak, and everyone smoked cigarettes more or less constantly. My mother tapped my arm, and started talking. I stopped Leviathan and took off my headphones.
“Is that Hawking in the big glasses?”
“Yes,” I said, without actually looking. “Are you enjoying it?”
“I’ve seen it before,” she said.
“Really? When?” I said. This was foolish, and if I had thought about it, if I had followed the guidelines for “Habilitation” instead of “Reality Orientation”, as explained in Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s, I would never have asked that question.
“A few years ago,” she said.
“But it only came out last year,” I said. (See above comments.)
“Well I saw it a few years ago, and I don’t want to watch it now.”
“Do you want to see something else?”
So I turned myself around and leaned over into her seat, again, and took hold of her TV remote control, and we returned to the list of available movies and scrolled through the possibilities. At least 80% I had never heard of; and of those at least 80% looked inappropriate on the grounds of violence or violence or potential violence. I suggested something called Love, Rosie because it appeared to be a romantic comedy. I clicked on it, and helped Mom put the headphones back on. We adjusted the volume as the movie began.
I settled back down in my seat and figured out how to go back to my place in Leviathan, and then I returned to the tundra.
Glancing over at Mom, and she didn’t look happy. Romantic comedies were supposed to be funny, or at any rate, not miserable. She tapped my arm. I removed my headphones and stopped Leviathan.
“I’ve seen this before,” she said. “And I didn’t like it then.”
This time I managed not to contradict her, thus proving that I am still capable of learning.
“What are you watching?” she asked.
“A Russian movie.”
“I like Russian movies,” Mom said and I could almost see Omar Sharif and his balalaika wafting through her brain.
“This one has subtitles, and it’s set in Siberia. It’s kind of depressing,” I said.
“I would like to see it,” she said.
So hoisted myself up and over her seat again, and returned to the movie menu on the screen and picked Leviathan from the list and started it up for her. She put on her headphones and I fiddled again with the volume. I slid back into my seat, and restarted my own Leviathan. The characters were still sitting around a table talking in Russian about something that was making them all unhappy. And they were smoking. Then they went outside, where there was a lot of snow or maybe that was just very pale tundra.
Mom tapped my arm. I took off my headphones. “This make no sense,” she said. “I don’t want to watch a movie.”
“Good idea,” I said.
She slept. I returned to Siberia, and slept too. When we woke up we were almost in Brussels.