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Of Flying Sandwiches and Sensory Life, part 2 (4-26-21)

Dreaming that my teeth started flying (which became my own body, flying) off a cliff like a thin piece of bread, manta-ray style, can’t be the end of it. Maybe for the bite-wings of a visit to the dentist.

But for the word lunch to bloom, into the specific taste of tuna-fish-and-Iceberg sandwich, for decades now?

Feels like a 3-D puzzle for my brain, or an anamorphosis, like Holbein (the Younger)’s “The Ambassadors.” (You have to stand at an unexpected distance and to the side, to see that the weird, sci-fi oval at the bottom, below, is a human skull.) Especially when my ear gets stuck on words like bite-wings and Iceberg.

I don't know what unusual perspective I need, to see that bloom, clearly.

Produce like "Iceberg" does lend itself to fun words: artichoke, rutabaga, chicory, tangelo, watercress.

Watercress! A strange word I learned from black-and-white TV reruns, where mothers wore belted dresses and did little housework. Sometimes an episode would let women take a break from calling their husbands at work to fix child-based concerns from the office. Then out at lunch, the home-making women would order what I heard as “Watercrest” sandwiches.

Groovy-sounding fish, I thought, nodding at the TV. I could picture the elusive Watercrest, sporting its little crest (maybe reddish-gold?) on its head, and burping around under the sea. I wondered if I would someday eat such a rerun sandwich on a Friday, when meat like bologna transubstantiated into sin, but fish stayed innocent (and edible).

At the medical campus salad bar where I work, outside a pandemic, there’s always a bin of fresh watercress, rich in vitamins A, C and K. There’s also kale, spinach, romaine, Iceberg and combo-bins of mixed leafy greens, plus radicchio.

Radicchio. I bought a small organic head just this week. That word carries a faint, vasovagal/stress response for me. The sound alone carries a sharp, magenta crunch, like a radish named Pinocchio. Playful. Yet also, somehow ominous?

When radicchio first appeared in a grocery near me, a peanut-farmer’s administration had transitioned to that of a Hollywood-cowboy. Nancy Reagan had picked out gold-rimmed china already, as if the recession and stag-flation hadn’t impacted anyone. Some of us were more nervous than others. First you’d see the word radicchio in the (paper) paper, an ad for a new, upscale grocery selling “whole” food. Until then, many (of few) organic groceries sold basic dry goods -- adzuki beans, dried apricots, almonds in bulk -- but lacked fresh vegetables and fruit.

In the mid-‘80s, you might taste radicchio at a friend’s house. Stunning, with a fascinating floral color, and a crisp twist on the plate and tongue. No Iceberg, this! Within a few years, around the time Tom Wolfe wrote about ‘Masters of the Universe,’ ever-more-rarefied versions like “chocolate radicchio” appeared.

Okay – right! It was “chocolate radicchio” that made me half-dizzy, not plain-fancy radicchio. I don’t know if the chocolate kind was ever grown or sold widely, but hearing those words from a dear friend who wanted to plant them in his garden? That pinged some buried worry. (Apart from the question of chocolate masking blood in milk cartons, if you were kind enough to read Part 1 of this.)

What was it? A signal of excess of excess? The physical sensation of the widening gap between haves and have-nots? When the charm of one’s first radicchio, an achievable treat, felt more like vertigo on a cliff edge, for my fight-flight structures? Hm. An economic helplessness.

I knew I was anything but alone, in this way, as the ‘80s barreled through. The culture of my abundant country was palpably shifting.

Working hard, full-time and with dedication and stamina, then working some other job or jobs at night and on weekends, that wasn’t enough. We still might not have health insurance. We might not have even one radicchio-free, basic grocery store within a mile, or several, of where we lived. And who didn’t work hard, who didn’t make some contribution to their communities, familiar and unknown? But. We weren’t all reaping the same basics, already.

In my day-job, a client like a pharmaceutical company might seek research with key-words like “monoclonal antibodies” or “recombinant antiretroviral” (for a new virus barely understood, I understood only later). Or research with key-words “serotonin re-uptake inhibitors” (for treatment of depression, it turned out). An environmental-protection think-tank might request full-text articles from journals like “Strawberries: and other berries” or “Worm Runner’s Digest” for purposes that also remained mysterious. (Enough to consider that there were people who made worms run.)

I was one who drove to the National Library of Medicine, or Agriculture, or of Congress, there requesting hardback compendia or single issues from the stacks, then photocopied full-text results, then drove back to Arlington, VA so we could FedEx them out, that night.

(Online searching pulled only abstracts. Libraries were slowly converting from card-catalogs to automated ones. Fax machines were still in their infancy. Email, broadly used, was still several years away. I hear myself say all this like, “Back in the day, we had to roller-skate to school 20 miles, uphill, in the snow, and carve our own pencils out of charcoal …” Children today, Zooming into their classrooms under global pandemic, can hardly imagine what a fax-machine was.)

As our boss in Arlington, VA explained, “Who knows if one piece of research, that one article you find and retrieve, will cure a disease, invent a new source of energy, make the world a much better place?”

We happy few felt good about that world-bettering, even at $5/hour. We all had at least college degrees, and some had advanced ones -- before escaping from Afghanistan when the Russians invaded. The dean of a medical school, a mechanical engineer, a school psychologist. We all made $5/hour. They were more-underpaid than I was, only a few years past my English degree, working with disabled children, and singing in the subways of London and Paris. For context at the time, my college friends made 2-3 times that rate, much younger than my Afghani colleagues with advanced degrees.

Our boss would remind us how our benefits included a combination of sick and vacation days (totaling 5). “So play your cards right and don’t get sick, and that’s a whole week off with pay – every year!”

We felt less good about that.

What if we didn’t have the right cards to play, and did get sick? What if we had both a close-family funeral and a wedding in the same year, on opposite edges of the country?

“Well, you can always take unpaid leave, with approval.”

My colleague Carol and I weren’t paid for our time, driving up the Jersey Turnpike on Monday or back on Friday, to haul ourselves and our exhibit/sales booth and products. Only paid for our “time selling on the exhibit floor” in NYC. I was slowly going broke by working so hard. I would come back from a big meeting in NY, or SF or Chicago, unable to pay my share of rent, in a small apartment with 3 of us working hard, full-time.

And! To be clear. Our boss and his wife were very good people, trying hard, truly, to stay afloat and to keep us feeling valued. (And, I was so going broke, working for them, when my band signed with an agent who could book us around the Northeast U.S., I had to take that leap off a cliff. But that's a story for another post.)

We were a dozen people in Arlington, among millions of Americans working just like that during the Reagan administration. Productivity up, and up and up, but wages, in real and relative dollars, down, down, down. Working full-time still didn’t give everyone in America health insurance, or time to care for a sick loved one, or an income that would ever let them retire, or work only part-time, before the cost of dying, in their final year of life, could bankrupt everyone they loved. If it helps, I added a text-box to a BloombergOpinion graphic:

Yet, hear the blame, to this day. Common phrases like, “well they shouldn’t be so irresponsible with money,” to describe a family with lost income, or a health crisis, or both, or the long-term impacts of those, from earlier in life and before any financial control. How those impacts split one apart from the other line on a graph, over decades.

“Irresponsible” while earning (an unconscionably stagnant) Federal minimum wage -- for providing an essential service? With no means to set aside a safety net, or pay for aging parents’ care, much less the nightmare of family separation, even losing a home, shelter, altogether.

Millions of us without any family help for education, or a first used-car, or even a bicycle, or a replacement bicycle after that one gets stolen and trashed down by the creek. Without "connections" to step straight into stable income, and without school loans to repay. Much less without help with a first mortgage, or a family home to return to, even briefly.

Without any inheritance to ease their lives, or their children's, or provide some emergency cushion, at some point. Last summer I read these sobering numbers:

"When you break down average inheritance by the economic status of the household, the numbers look very different. According to analysis by Demos:

  • The least wealthy group of families have received, on average, $6,100 in inheritance.

  • The wealthiest 1 percent of families have received, on average, $2.7 million in inheritance." [1]

All true even before COVID closed down entire industries, and highlighted the value of others. And for some, there isn't even the $6,100.

The indignities. The unearned shame. Stemming from a whole raft of differences in starting points, that then compound -- but are dismissed as irresponsibility.

So, maybe the gourmet freight, or the spirit of disparity in “chocolate radicchio,” that pinged my oldest brain. A friend talks about buying a car at age 16 “because all you had to do was get a JOB, which anyone could do!”

Speechless, from the cold mountain of differences. Sure, anyone could do that, if she’d had teenage jobs and did not need to use any of those earnings to:

Save for her future college tuition, housing, books, food, ‘fun’; drive around to banks with a letter from Student Financial Aid explaining that, although she did not qualify for DSL loans at 3% (parent's income too high at that time, but without any savings), she really did need personal loans at 7% with her university's faith in collateral that she would manage to pay off early due to obsessive frugality; to buy her own clothes since age 12 when she started babysitting; to buy the bike that let her get to her teenage jobs; then to buy a replacement bike out of her earnings when that first bike got stolen and trashed down at the creek; to buy a basic sound system to play music she bought with her babysitting/lifeguarding money in her bedroom while she did homework; then, when a parent (in a psychotic rage) threw that receiver-and-turntable out of her 2nd-story bedroom window onto the front lawn, shattering it along with the soundtrack to “A Chorus Line” into pieces, then need to buy herself a replacement record/cassette-tape player; and after using her future tuition, housing, books money to buy junior-high and high-school-clothes, bikes, record-players, maybe a concert ticket, and the first year's tuition and the rest, need to work yet more and possibly overnight hours as a dishwasher to replace the savings for future college; then

pay rent for summer-sublet apartments in her college town out-of-state; also continue to pay out-of-state tuition even though she lived independently year-round, declining to take her parents to court for still claiming her a dependent, as urged by her college financial-aid officers in Miller Hall (“We’ll testify for you, please, this is wrong!”) but she just couldn’t also shoulder suing her parents among the other stresses;

then she may not have been able to buy her first used car until age 28.

And I know, and appreciate, that my friend can’t imagine how it might not have been easy, with a minimum-wage job, to buy a car at 16. She truly thinks it would have been easy for everyone, if they just got a job in high-school. I don't blame her.

She lacked those other demands, chronic and acute, on her income or savings. So they were impossible to imagine being true for some of her peers. Not even need to consider the difference between her, and others. I get it!

The other demands for others didn’t, and maybe still can’t, register because of their absence. Those absences didn’t feel like advantage because they weren’t there -- as absences -- they weren’t anywhere within her ‘normal’ world.

Much like how, with my white skin, I lacked and still lack enduring suspicion – or violence, even deadly -- of everyone from store-owners to police to strangers. A decision on-sight that I’m a threat, a danger to them. That my talking on my cell-phone out in my yard could be perceived as my brandishing a gun, and getting shot dead. Just for showing up darker, and only for that ‘difference.’

As sensitive as I thought I was about my racial advantages, having family-members, boyfriends, friends and neighbors of a whole spectrum of skin colors? Nope. I’m sure I still haven’t appreciated those advantages. I haven’t experienced the chronic and acute suspicions, unjust assumptions, within a perceived ‘otherness,’ like any American with darker skin must. Or anyone practicing (or seeming to practice) a non-Judeo-Christian faith, or lack of English-fluency. No FICO-score can save our neighbors, our own American folk, from those real dangers.

Many people grew up with what felt like not-enough, of course, and all along that spectrum of skin colors. We're Americans! Born in an American Century! Acculturated to want to buy more, buy bigger, eat more, eat bigger, pump up the square-footage, get a second, even third home. Whatever we have is so much more than most citizens of the world. If chocolate-radicchio in the '80s sent my psyche chunking off from a glacier of wealth, imagine how the rest of the world must have felt for the past 100 years or so, against our national abundance.

Grateful to be born American, truly, how my deepest molecules light up with the fireworks on July 4th, understanding better my skin's superficial privilege, and the recent awakenings of how privilege works, much more deeply, and much longer-lasting.

How those gaps compound, over years and years. And, within our differences of ‘starting points’ … We do make choices. And way leads on to way. Connections, ideas, openness and awareness approach and recede however they do or don’t, in any life. Good fortune, unearned comfort, the most beautiful and generous friends. Or a life-changing accident, exposure to a devastating disease, how a split-second can change the path of a life. All this, all of it, how way leads on to way.

From where I sit today on a Sunday – literally -- again I count my blessings. In a kitchen in a little cottage with gardens outside! Checking myself whenever I dream about a dishwasher (meaning the means to renovate a 1949 kitchen to make room for one). How many people would give anything for my dishwasher-less cottage – not just around the world, but around my own metropolitan area?

I took a phone-pic of one of the bunny-rabbits who chill and graze in my yard of grass and clover. They go forth and multiply underneath my shed, although I don’t think they realize I know their zip-code, or how no one cares about the shade of their fur.

Rabbit mothers, facing environmental conditions unsupportive of ‘reproductive success,’ will re-absorb their fetuses, until they are better able to support their own children. One of many reasons why I need to reread “Watership Down” by Richard Adams.

But I think I digress, right? Produce, right. Fun, or worrisome, evocative and sensory?

I bought a head of radicchio the other day in my local organic market, of which I have several, within a few miles. This morning I chopped it up with some shallots and yellow tomatoes to saute into an omelette. Totally new and only partially inspired combo (trash pickup in the morning determines much, of a Sunday). The parmesan cheese I added at the last minute; it had been shredded into a tub for me, before I bought it.

Then I halved a ripe avocado onto the plate, with a dash of salt. Even if this combination of flavors and textures only appeals to me, how fortunate am I to have such options. And all this, simply around the experience of one meal, the sensory life of tongue and taste and warm belly on a chilly morning. Among so much else in a sensual human life.

My mother will arrive for a stayover this week. We have not seen (outside of Zoom) or hugged each other since December of 2019, when I hosted Christmas. I’m beyond grateful words to express. Not just to have had the mother I have, but that she’s still here, in relatively fine health and cognition, soon here to hug. Many of my friends don’t have that privilege. I don’t have to remind myself of the great gift of her physical presence, the sound of her voice in real time.

Since posting part 1 of this “Flying Sandwiches,” my dim memory of the word “lunch” has taken flight around my quieter moments. What my mother managed to do, with so little; what she must have had to figure out, or plead for, without our even knowing.

A curious day at St. Edmund’s in Oak Park, 5th or 6th grade: my whole class working quietly on an assignment for one of the scariest nuns, (her favorite phrase, “I am IRATE!”) when she loomed over my desk and tapped its wood with a crusty knuckle, motioned me to get up.

Oh, lord, as my grandmother would say, 800 miles away.

Sister led me around the half-wall divider into the cloakroom. Our coats still damp from the morning’s snow. Brown-paper bags spotted from drips, in various stages of evaporation. I was a student so afraid of doing something wrong, I wasn’t used to being in trouble.

“Am I in trouble?” I asked.

“Oh no no no, honey,” she said. (Honey? What in the world.)

Sister bent down to look into my face. “Are you hungry?”

You could have knocked me over with a spoon. “Not really.” It wasn’t lunchtime yet.

She stood up straight with a sense of purpose. “Wait right here. Don’t go back to your seat. I’m going next door to the convent for a minute.”

Before I could question or protest, she stepped around the cloakroom divider. She hauled Mike K. up out of his seat and told him, “Keep an eye on everyone for me. Be right back.”

Mike and I leaned around from our respective sides of the wall. We both shrugged, palms up.

Soon enough, Sister returned to the cloakroom with a sandwich in her hand and peanut-butter on her breath. “Go ahead, Mary. I know you must be hungry.”

My mother had packed my lunch into the paper bag on the floor by my boots. She’d mixed up a can of tuna with pickle-relish and mayo, parsed it into 5 kids' school sandwiches, each with a leaf of Iceberg on Wonder bread.

Yet I felt obliged to take one bite of that peanut-butter-and-jelly, while Sister watched me.

Oh my god, I thought. We’re poor.

Like, especially poor. Sister somehow knew my crazy-smart father hadn’t worked in almost two years. Maybe we weren’t even paying for school right now – we were charity cases? Probably she didn’t know how the night before’s trauma had played out inside our house. But likely I had circles under my eyes, betraying how little sleep any of the 7 or 8 of us had had.

School had been a refuge for me, in every way, but this. This scary nun felt sorry for me. Thought our mother must not even feed us anymore.

She stared hard and nodded. I took another small bite of one half, bit off the corner wing.

Like a glacier that warms even 1 degree, I could feel part of myself calving away from the mass of my classmates, even though! I imagined some were also poor, poorer than others, including me. Part of my psyche had just toppled into frigid waters, yet still melted away. And filling that empty space?


A new shame, among wet wool and vinyl boots. A kind gesture, meant to convey compassion, from a bride of Jesus, had just sliced me away from my best friends, my peers, everyone I’d ever met, somehow, in any time-zone. And I was maybe 11, then.

I couldn’t possibly finish the sandwich, so I asked if I could give my untouched half to Mike K., who was still standing in front of our main classroom. Sister told me I should save it in my coat pocket for later, “or for dinner.”

I couldn’t even look at the one brown bag on the floor, full of my mother’s love.

Any raw sensations of hunger during those years felt, gratefully, masked by anxiety, uncertainty, what would happen that night so incomprehensibly, so unpredictably? Any night, for forever? Our stomachs were the least of it. Our mother somehow managed, in spite of all that. She even came up with milk-money every month.

From an early age, I ate my entire apple at lunch – seeds, core and all, only leaving the stem from its tree of origin. Partly as a way of tidying up, partly because I did not believe I would grow an apple tree in my stomach, as some had warned me.

But the core, the seeds, the shame of poverty, they can take root. So even if a parent’s unemployment and unsupported health crises, come and go and come again, in a cascade of stresses -- spiritual, psychosocial, physiological – shame can establish itself as a personal orchard.

When you’re a child, you don’t know you’re allowed to set all that free, someday. When you’re no longer a child, you may not know how to -- outside of the hard, essential work of therapy, along with memorable dreams, with teeth leaping out, flying, and circling back, after a celebratory pagan night of eye-liner and gold and the sensation of flight from supporting humans speaking in various tongues.

Part of my psyche through this COVID-19 pandemic parasails toward the future adults, the children right now, shouldering some cloak of shame. Some household trauma, inside their isolation. More than once, I’ve thanked my ‘lucky stars’ that this shutdown did not happen during my own childhood. I don’t know where I’d be, or if I would be, today, if I hadn’t been able to leave that house, go out to school to be with my friends, and even the nuns, by day.

I won’t be alive when today’s schoolkids are my age now. Yet I already want to find them, to hug them, their future selves. How much they might carry, beyond our hopeful herd immunity, and beyond the beyond. Like a dark-secret cloak I carried all through college, working doggedly during the Reagan years, through a pair of Bushes with a Clinton in-between, an Obama, then a bad dream and into this very Sunday. I want to hug them and release them from whatever "irresponsibility" they were not responsible for.

I am none-the-wiser about how bodies and souls work after death, but if I can commend my spirit to find any such children, whether still young or grown up, after I die, I’m sending those hugs out right now. With all the loving pressure, and the slack and lack of integrity of my aging arms.

Tonight, when I haul my weekly trash out to the curb, I know I’ll have produce that spoiled before I could eat it (and wonder why I still don’t compost). We won’t even talk about the shelf (or two) of books I’ve bought but haven’t yet read. Or the ancient floppy disks with Master’s degrees trapped inside them forever, but which I’ve told myself I might be able to convert someday. Won’t even talk about the fabric I have yet to turn into anything wearable or decorative, the art supplies likely hardening before I can express something out of them.

All the variety and abundance, the kinds of apples, dogs, bath-rugs, gadgets, entertainments, car accessories, cameras in our pockets and above our doorways and built right into our laptops, as if we could have imagined a thing like a laptop. And actual calving from glaciers, into ever-warming polar waters, that can’t even care about minimum wage or sick leave.

If you’re still with me, thanks for hanging in there, here. A wordy painting with a weird shape, like Holbein's. Had to stand at an unexpected distance, and off to the side, to see the bones of the taste of lunch.

Further off to the side, I’ll share an article about a guy I read about who’s living in a new (very old) way. Maybe unrealistic, maybe aspirational, maybe no trick of the eye, but only a shift in perspective:

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