Reinventing Thanksgiving

This Is Not What My Thanksgiving Will Look Like

In a way, the coronavirus seems to wreak the most damage on people who are intent on going on with their lives the way they were before. The big danger points come around the major holidays, when people risk everything for the appearance of normalcy.

But what if, like me, you don’t really give a hang about the holidays? No, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness: I just don’t like the idea of holiday-induced stress. Whenever I think of Christmas and Thanksgiving, in particular, I think of a custom among certain Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest of “an opulent ceremonial feast at which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige.”

Plus I don’t really like turkey. For the most part it is a dry bird that has to be well-greased before imbibing. For my Thanksgiving, Martine and I will have a more simple feast (though, in her heart of hearts, I know Martine would prefer the turkey): A good beef stew accompanied by a bottle of Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood of Eger, a pleasant Hungarian red wine.

Knowing how much I prefer to avoid poultry, Martine can understand that it wouldn’t help to have me cook something I don’t like—and I do all the cooking in the household.

We will probably do something similar for Christmas. Why not? We are not afraid of offending the Yuletide Police.

A Fragmented Life

Our Lives Are Not Quite an Uninterrupted Triumphal March

I have just finished reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, which she wrote in 1928. Actually, it is not the biography of a real character, but of a highly fictional one. Not only does Orlando live for upwards of 400 years, but the character physically changes gender at some point in the early 18th century. And he/she manages the change swimmingly.

As Woolf wrote about her Orlando:

For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.

Tilda Swinton as the Male Orlando in the 1992 Sally Potter Film

There was an excellent film version of Orlando released in 1992, with Tilda Swinton playing both the male and female lead.

Both the book and the film set me to thinking of my own fragmented life, which included the following scenes:

  • The 5-year-old sent home from kindergarten for not being able to speak in English (my native language is Hungarian).
  • The teenager who has turned sickly with punishing frontal headaches.
  • The high school valedictorian who has won a four-year scholarship to an Ivy League college.
  • The college graduate, within days of leaving for graduate study at UCLA, goes into a coma and subsequent brain surgery. My pituitary gland was destroyed by a tumor that was causing the headaches and making me, at 21, look like an 11-year old.
  • The young man in his 20s who feels as if he were from Mars, looks absurdly young, and can’t get girls interested in him.
  • The same young man in a few years learning that alienation is part of the human condition.
  • In his 40s, he finds love with a cute woman born in France, who doesn’t mind that he can’t father a child.

… and so on.

Tilda Swinton as the Female Orlando from the Film

I guess I managed all those years without once having to change my gender. Of course, there is little chance that I will reach the ripe old age of 400.

Breakfast

My Favorite Meal of the Day? Breakfast!

I have written in the past about my love of Indian black tea, hot and iced. Even in the heat of summer, I love to start the day with a pot of Darjeeling, Assam, or Ceylon—or my personal blend of same. In the picture above, you can see my cheap Japanese metal teapot, which has an insert for the loose tea leaves so they don’t end of floating in my cup.

Of late, I have drunk my breakfast tea with either mesquite or desert wildflower honey, and a squeeze of fresh lime.

Accompanying it is usually one of the following:

  • Quesadillas with pickled rajas de jalapeño chiles
  • Huevos à la Mexicana: Scrambled eggs with chopped onions, garlic, serrano chiles, and (when available) tomatillos
  • Toasted English muffin with melted cheddar cheese and Indian red chile powder
  • Slices of cheese with crackers, the type of cheese varying with the season
  • Jimmy Dean’s frozen biscuits with sausage
  • Steel-cut oatmeal with dried cranberries or cherries and a dash of maple syrup
  • Hominy grits cooked with a chicken bouillon cube with butter, sausage, and fresh ground pepper
  • Sourdough toast with butter and garlic (for when I have a sore throat)

I would love to have grapefruit, but, like many men of my age, I am on Lipitor (generic Atorvastatin) to reduce cholesterol. It doesn’t work when you eat grapefruit.

Accompanying breakfast is my home-delivered copy of the Los Angeles Times. I scan the national, international, and local news, but spend most of my time with the puzzles and comics page.

When I have a good breakfast—and I usually do—the rest of the day starts of on a good footing.

Sinking Your Teeth Into Florence

No, Not Florence, Italy: Florence, South Carolina

I was just having a conversation with a friend of mine about dentistry. Depending on where you are, dentistry can take your household finances and turn them into mulch.

For their dental care, my Mother and Father actually ripped off the Peoples’ Republic of Hungary (that’s Magyar Népköztársaság for you fellow Hunkies) by having the Communists pay for their false teeth. I doubt they flashed their American passports, but they got thousands of dollars worth of dental care for bupkis.

One could cross the border into Mexico for inexpensive dental work, but there is no good way of holding the dentist accountable if something happens.

My Aunt Margit moved to Florence SC in the 1970s. When she died in 1977, my parents were in Budapest and couldn’t get back in time for the funeral; so my brother and I went instead. One of the things I discovered while there is that Florence was a major dental center, with some clinics doing dental procedures 24/7.

I don’t know if that’s still the case, but there are scads of dental clinics still in operation—many of which have no problem with giving you a price list in advance of need. I suspect that since dentistry is so competitive in Florence, there must be some good dentists to be found there. Even if they voted for Trump and Lindsey Graham.

Family Plot

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

In my family, there was a plot to marry me off to a nice Hungarian girl who would think nothing of giving up her life with me to take care of my aging parents. They had even settled on a distant cousin of mine, one Ilona Vörös (Helen Red in English), a resident of Újpest who worked for MAV, the Hungarian State Railways.

This all happened in the mid-1970s, when my parents brought Ilona to the U.S. to introduce her to me. Mind you, I had nothing against marriage per se; but something about this whole arrangement set all my warning lights blinking and alarms sounding off.

Me in Hungary 1977 on the Shores of Lake Balatón

Why would any self-respecting young woman want to enter into a kind of weird marriage in which would become a slavey to my Mom and Dad, whom I thought were being incredibly naive about the whole thing? When I backed out of the arrangement, my father was furious with me. Why? I had not made any promises to marry Ilona, and then send her to Cleveland to serve as a housekeeper for my parents. I was just going to meet her and see what came of things. (Which was naive on my part, I now see.)

I suspect that what my parents really wanted was for all four of us to live in one household. I had been in Los Angeles for ten years. This was a plot to bring us all together. But I didn’t want to live with my Mom and Dad, as much as I loved them. I rather liked living in California on my own. As for marriage, I preferred to find someone who was not hedged about with all kinds of weird expectations.

Then it came about that Ilona and one of her MAV co-workers had been carrying on a long relationship in Budapest. Then my Mom had words with Ilona’s mother, and within a year or two, Ilona and her family were persona non grata.

Probably just as well.

10 Years Ago…

Sarah Silverman at the L.A. Festival of Books April 2010

One of the events I miss the most during this grey endless quarantine is the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, particularly when it was held at the nearby UCLA Campus. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind going again to the USC Campus, where it’s always considerably warmer than Westwood.

I always liked Sarah Silverman’s comedy. I even thought she was pretty sexy—as well as uproariously funny.

Of course, now we all have to stay away from one another because of this ghastly coronavirus outbreak, which seems to be getting worse all the time. With luck, I will survive a couple of years of a monastic existence; but in going back over old photographs, I deeply miss events like the Festival of Books.

I even miss going to the library and walking through the stacks looking for books to read.

Eventually, the world will open up again. But I will have wasted two whole years in disgruntled loneliness.

Happy Halloween!

In this truly ghastly year of 2020, I sincerely wish all of you a happy—and safe—Halloween. It happens to be one of the more meaningful holidays on my own calendar. Unlike Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, or even Christmas. I mean all of us are on a journey, and the holiday commemorates the destination of that journey, for all of us, even for “billionaires” like Trump.

It’s followed on November 1 by All Saints Day and on November 2 All Souls Day, known in Mexico as the Dia de los Muertos.

Mexican Folk Art with Skeleton

Although no kids have come Trick or Treating at my place for over thirty years, I’ve always liked Halloween. (Kids don’t like to climb stairs, even though I’m only on the second floor.)

Alexandria on the Pacific

The Port of Alexandria As It Is Today

Every once in a while, I re-read a book that has meant a lot to me in the past, in the hopes of somehow rediscovering myself as I was when I first encountered it. Around 1967-1968, I first delved into Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, the first volume of his Alexandria Quartet.

I had just reached the age of puberty in my early twenties thanks to regular injections of depo-testosterone. In September 1966, I had a pituitary tumor (chromophobe adenoma) removed by slicing through my forehead and hinging my brain upward. As a result, I was a strange sort of late-blooming virgin who was mightily puzzled by and preoccupied with sex.

The Edition I Read

Imagine me as I lie in the sand on Santa Monica Beach by lifeguard station 12 reading the following:

Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them. The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would never mistake it for a happy place. The symbolic lovers of the free Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body—for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying—I think he was quoting—that Alexandria was the great winepress of love, those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets—I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.

So there I was on the hot sands of Santa Monica, surrounded by women in bikinis, indulged in morose delectation.

Actually, Justine is pretty good, though it is quite arch at times. I am no longer the same unhappy young man on the beach. I read all four volumes of the Alexandria Quartet that one summer, and I loved it—however disturbing I found it.

Fanatical About Libraries

The LA Central Library Flower Street Entrance

I have always depended on public libraries for much of my reading material. When I lived on the East Side of Cleveland, I went to the Cleveland Public Library branch on Lee Road, where a fellow Hungarian, Mr. Matyi, was the librarian. He also played the oboe for the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra.

They had a summer reading program in which I participated for so many years that they had to invent a participation certificate at my advanced level. (I wish I still had them.)

Even then, I also visited the main library on Superior Avenue in downtown Cleveland:

It was really quite beautiful, being funded by Andrew Carnegie’s vast fortune. (Can you imagine a modern billionaire doing something like that?)

When I came out West, I started by going to the main library in Santa Monica at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and 6th Street:

Although it was fairly large with two stories full of books, I actually outgrew it. I found that they got rid of too many of their classical titles, replacing them with more recent … well … dreck.

I was elated with the Expo Line connecting Santa Monica to Downtown LA opened in May 2016. At once, I signed up for a senior pass which enabled me to go from the Bundy Station (about a mile south of I lived) to the 7th Street Metro Center, which was three blocks south of the Los Angeles Central Library—for a mere 50¢.

Even with the library building being closed due to the coronavirus, the LA Library has started a “Library to Go” program which enabled me to put a hold on the books I want to read. Within a few days, I get an e-mail saying they are holding them for me, and I just take the train downtown to pick them up.

Over the last week I have been busy reading these three books:

  • Kōbō Abe’s Inter Ice Age 4, a 1958 sci-fi novel about global warming
  • Ivan Klíma’s Waiting for the Darkness, Waiting for the Light, about Czechoslovakia’s rocky path from Communism to Capitalism
  • Tim Butcher’s Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, about an English writer who re-traces Henry M. Stanley’s journey along the length of the Congo River in the 1870s.

Cleveland 28, Ohio

The ’Burbs 1951-1962 (The Red Arrow Was Our Home)

In 1951, we moved to the Harvard-Lee area of Cleveland, the extreme southeast corner of the city. Buckeye Road was only a few miles north and west of us and easily reachable by way of the Shaker Rapid light rail line. The next stage of my life was to consist of seven years attending Saint Henry School (which is no more) and the next four attending Chanel High School (which was just demolished this summer).

Several things were different in the suburbs. For one thing, there were a lot of bullies around, including our neighbors Jimmy and Joey Fordosi and Jack Rulison, three doors south of us. I guess that was because I reached the age when bullies magically appear; and it didn’t help that I was very young-looking for my age. Could it be that my pituitary tumor had already begun, stunting my growth? Throughout my years at Saint Henry, I was either the shortest or second shortest kid in class, including both boys and girls.

Chanel High School as It Was 1958-1962

When I “graduated” from eighth grade (there was no real ceremony), I was surprised to find that I had won a scholarship to Chanel High School in nearby Bedford, Ohio. In fact, my parents never had to pay a penny for tuition, because in each of my four years at Chanel, I received the highest grades in the elite, or “A” section. I had outgrown my slowness in the English language and in fact proceeded to make the language my own.

I was helped in this by four successive English teachers who were so good that I decided, when I graduated, to work at becoming an English professor. There was Father Gerard Hageman SM (Society of Mary “Marist”) in 9th grade; Father Raymond Healey SM in 10th grade; Father William Parker SM in 11th grade; and Father James Murray SM in 12th grade. These four priests provided an incredible education in literature and language—one for which I will be eternally grateful.

My graduation from Chanel was a much more formal event. Not only was I the class valedictorian, but I had won the Mr. Chanel award for all-around academic and extracurricular achievement. And I was going to an Ivy League college with a full scholarship. Those were my glory days.