“One only understands the things one tames,’ said the fox…’If you want a friend, tame me…remember, you become responsible forever for what you have tamed.’ The Little Prince, Antoine de St Exupery
“A month ago, Europe was a peaceful comity of nations; if an Englishman killed a German, he was hanged. Now…” Bertrand Russell 1914
“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
The saying ‘everything old is new again’ enables a perverse sort of pseudo-magic in that the worst old things get revitalized while the best old things remain beyond our grasp. A heinous, megalomaniacal 69 year old war criminal is attacking Ukraine and killing its citizens as I write these words and ask what can I do? Was it any wonder I dug a pair of ancient flower patterned jeans out of a drawer this morning? Okay, I did struggle (mightily) to zip up these tattered remnants from my youth. The sky outside my window was brooding, the coffee acrid, music jarring…Breakfast was tasteless so my hounds got a sloppy seconds meal.
Was it really 50+ years ago I sat at my best friend’s newspaper covered kitchen table and painted war posters? HELL NO, WE WON’T GO had a yellow background with fat black letters. Red flames shot upwards from the bottom of the poster. The paint was drying in the adjacent living room, which also served as her mom’s paisley pillowed and beaded curtain informal yoga studio. My artistically gifted friend had drawn a shadowy black silhouette of Abe Lincoln for the poster I’d just finished. Across his dark torso, I’d copied Abe’s words ‘You can fool some of the people, some of the time…’ She was half done painting a familiar hippie mantra in eclectic red and hot pink lettering with psychedelic garnishing. It said ‘Make Love, not War.’ In the background, a Beatles song ended. The record needle repositioned itself and we sang along with Dionne Warwick to Alfie. The crucial questions the song asked were lost on us then.
How naïve we were, 16 and full of loopy dreams and antsy aspirations. Still, we knew the Government was lying, blowing smoke up our…Back then I hadn’t read Sun Tze (the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting), Randolph Bourne (war is the health of the state), Barbara Ehrenreich (war lodges in souls as a kind of religion, a quick tonic for moral malaise), or von Clausewitz (war is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will). I had read a few war stories by Norman Mailer, H. G. Wells, and James Clavell, and half a dozen books about the Holocaust by various authors. I’d also participated in lively school debates regarding the mad illogicalness of war.
Though I’d jotted down I was to begin drafting the opening chapter, or at least the introduction to a book about the very friend mentioned above, I drew angry squiggles instead on the note pad to the right of my keyboard. Was the 1960’s the last time I vehemently protested a war? What did I do regarding the 1991 Persian Gulf War effort, the numerous south of the border skirmishes, wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Angola, Falklands, Rwanda, S Sudan, Syria, Uganda, Iraq, Minsk? How many other wars and genocides had I ignored or gave little mind to? What was the date of the Tien An Men Square massacre, 1989—April, June?
What might my friend have done had she lived? Would she make HEX PUTIN posters or body paint herself half blue, half gold, and Godiva’esque, march through the streets? I joked in the 70s she’d become a passive activist, raising money for the ASPCA and ACLU, rallying round lost causes—like returning a beat up old town to its former glory, making psychodrama theatre available to the masses.
Every time the Wizard of Oz was played as the midnight movie special, she’d watch it. I’d usually decline her invites; three viewings were enough. In 1973 or 74, she insisted we see the quirky movie Harold & Maude, playing at the crumbling turn of the century theatre off town square. We’d graduated high school, married, attended community college, and in my case, divorced. Both of us were struggling to find our way. The movie was a perfect, temporary antidote. Maude, a 79 year young woman who lived in a train car, befriended Harold, a rich young man with a meddling mom and a mind intrigued with death.
We left the matinee that soft, leaf strewn autumn day kid skipping our way to a Chinese hole in the wall restaurant a few blocks away. We sang to passersby Cat Steven’s hit song from Harold & Maude ‘If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out…’ Today I try to recall the lyrics, and mindlessly hum ‘and if you want to say no, say no; cause there’s a million ways to go, you know that there are…’
How do I capture the wacky, wondrous, tragic essence of a friend at war with herself or with her inability to make something right out of something wrong that happened before I met her? How to describe a person that won many battles but lost the ultimate war? I suspect it’s not much different than trying to understand why people ever wage wars or fail to comprehend the radioactive half-life of an act that destroys with impunity. Or it’s no more challenging than burrowing inside Razz-Putin’s head. If we could, we’d see a small, violent bully, constantly complaining, oppressing, and threatening. He should hurry to a bunker and do the right thing.
I spent the afternoon writing to various Government reps, signing online protest petitions, donating dollars, and directing thoughts/energy to 44M people engaged in a courageous fight to defend their country. Crackling balls of energy were directed to crippling and collapsing the Russian war machine and raining poisonous daggers upon the craven Russe war criminal and his henchfolk. I read about the R2P Doctrine created to help protect populations from crimes against humanity, and made a list of other things the world could do. I did lots of virtual spitting at words Rat Putin and his PM Mededev had said.
Perhaps what I could do for my friend right now was create a working title and decide if this paean, this tribute would be creative non-fiction or fiction, or a memoir. I scribbled and dismissed half a dozen titles. Is it ethical to use my voice to pen a story about a too soon departed gal pal that may not want her story to be told? What say you? Her parents are dead; she had no sibling or offspring. I have only a smattering of information about her, an ancestry tree my brilliant bro created, a few dozen newspaper articles, pictures, sketches, and so many questions.
Her favorite scent was Jungle Gardenias, though there was often a hovering whiff of the turpentine she used to clean her brushes, and Sea Breeze, a facial astringent she used daily. Her favorite foods were toll house and peanut butter cookies and buffalo wings with extra hot sauce with crudité and blue cheese dressing. Her favorite grown up drink was a pitcher of whisky sours, made with cans of frozen OJ, lemonade, ice, and whisky. Its secret ingredients included a bottle of beer, slices of lime, a jar of maraschino cherries, and more whisky.
Should I ask the universe for a sign, insist it send a mystical green light signal? Last year I read a truly terrible memoir about a sick child. The author said she ‘spoke for the dead,’ however the entire book was all about her real and imagined pain, not the child’s; her supreme indignation, feigned righteousness, and wrongly recalled conversations. That’s not how to honor someone. This story must not be about who I was when I knew her. It must be about who she was when she knew me. Could that be a possible title?
The late, under/overrated, always candid Joan Didion wrote in White Album ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ Can we also tell stories to make someone else live—if only figuratively for an instant in time? Or should I have said ‘may we?’ My high school art teacher said ‘use can to denote if you have the ability; use may to ask permission.’ Should the telling of a crazy quilt tragic life begin ominously or lead with a whimsical scent—not unlike her signature floral perfume—with green base notes of linseed oil and incense aromas wafting from her mother’s living room, and a top note of cynical hope that I can get it right.
What does war smell like today? In Apocalypse Now, Kilgore said he ‘loved the smell of napalm in the morning. It was like nothing else.’ To a pilot, it may smell like aviation fuel. To those firing guns—the odor may be sulfur, cordite, fear sweat, death? In 1999, a book written by two China People’s Liberation Army colonels called Unrestricted Warfare was published. Few people read it. They predicted future wars would be different. Soldiers would include computer hackers, bankers, drug smugglers, and corporation elites. Weapons would run the gamut from airplanes/drones, bombs, and poison gas to computer viruses, media and finance tools, and WMDs. War itself would transcend all boundaries and not just destroy; it will annihilate everything. Rules of engagement, conventions, and international laws will be ignored. If the literal smells of war were piped into the Kremlin and other places decision makers occupied, would they pause—stop?
The world is responding, particularly Europe. This is happening in Europe’s back yard. Russians have tramped through contaminated, off limit areas in and around Chernobyl. Ukrainian nuclear waste sites have been targeted and hit by Russian missiles. Countries are shutting down their air space, closing waterways, freezing assets, stopping trade—taking risks. I watch people responding and fighting back at this lousy excuse for a human, would be autocrat and I want to sing out and skip down the street with my dear friend. It’s tonic for the soul, these steps being taken. Will it be enough? Billy Kwan passionately asked in A Year of Living Dangerously, ‘what can, what must we do?’
But like Marley (and his ghost) my friend’s been dead for more than seven years. A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas were the books she liked me to whisper to her when she had a migraine, regardless what time of year it was. Luckily, I knew pages of both stories by heart, for the curtains in her room were drawn, and the sole light on the nightstand by her bed was draped with a scarf. I would improvise, add info about Scrooge being Marley’s only friend, sole executor and beneficiary of his will, about the parallels between Scrooge and the Grinch. I read her other books too; only one became a favorite, The Little Prince. There were parallels there too; perhaps that’s why she liked it.
There was one other thing I could do that day, in lieu of finishing a chapter outline or fleshing out an introduction. I could tell you her name. It was Jinn. Actually, the name on her birth certificate was Yogin. It means one who practices Yoga. It was the name her mother, a lover of all things Indian, Vedic, and anything to do with Yoga, gave her. Her birth dad didn’t object apparently.
My friend had other ideas. Kids at the grade schools she attended called her Ginny. So did her mother, eventually. In high school, she began signing her name as Ginn or Ginna. I wondered if it had something to do with Glinda, the Wizard of Oz’ good witch. When we first met, in 10th grade, I accidently spelled her name Jinn for a school project—I wrote the report, she illustrated it. She liked it immediately, and always wrote the letter J with a gothic flourish. The name would prove prophetic. ###
Biblio: CIA World Fact Book 2020
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Anne Applebaum
Belarus: The Last EU Dictatorship, A. Wilson
Various history books, 11th C, Yaroslav the Wise, Kievan Russian; 1918 creation of Ukraine State by Lenin (per Russe sources); Report from Holodomor (Stalin’s starving of 3M Ukrainians); WWII articles RE Bandera/Nationalists collaboration with Nazis; 1990 US Sec State Baker/Gorbachev NATO discussion post reunification; 2013 Newsweek, Nuland admits US spent $5B on ‘democracy promotions’ in Ukraine. Victoria Nulands phone call as US Asst Sec of State, organizing post coup Ukrainian Gov’t with US Amb to Ukraine G. R. Pyatt; reports of sniper fire in Maidan Square 2014 and Ukraine vote to strip Yanukovych of title; recent NATO military exercises…