27 August 2013


I still have the tapes, a shoebox filled with cassette tapes I was assigned to transcribe. Benjamin Fox recorded all of his talks, the group sitting on the floor in a circle, a few of us cross legged in the lotus position (the better to absorb his teachings), some lying on scattered mismatched cushions from local thrift stores or ‘borrowed’ from our parents’ homes. We’d give each other massages during these sessions, trying not to appear to enjoy the touch-fest too much, as Ben might suddenly pick on one of us, demanding an answer to a trick question related to his lesson. With Ben, you were either in his favor or out. And what each of us wanted most was his approval, to be in his light, his orbit, to be seen by him. The ones he chose to bed seemed to crackle with an electric current when he looked at them, the nipples on their small breasts stiffening, the downy hairs on the back of their necks raised like pin feathers. When he moved on, they folded in on themselves, baby birds, looking younger than they were at 14 or 15. 

You may’ve guessed that I was never one of them. Not in elementary school either, when Rick Rosner, the gym teacher, teased the girls and bought them Cokes from the machine, let them climb onto his lap and gave them rides in his yellow sports car. While I didn’t get spins in the MG, I did get close to Rosner. Discovering I had a talent for making myself indispensable, in later years I became wingman to the facilitator of the eating disorder group I joined (he preferred anorectics over binge eaters), foil to a notoriously narcissistic radio presenter addicted to the way I made him shine, and muse to a monstrously brilliant filmmaker I met while living in Rome. See, I knew things. I knew how to make myself useful. I knew what they liked, and how to get it for them. And I knew how to keep a secret. I was the Court Jew. Sensing I was too smart and not pretty enough, I earned Benjamin’s favor not by handling the group’s finances, as did Jewish bankers in the Middle Ages who wheeled and dealt on behalf of European nobility to gain social privileges, but by becoming necessary in other ways, like by volunteering to type up transcripts of Ben’s metaphysical lectures for a hoped-for book deal. Ben was big on archetypes; familiar with the writings of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), he educated us on Jungian concepts – archetypal figures, the collective unconscious, mythic storytelling, and how we embody and shift archetypes throughout our own stories. Within the group, Court Jew was one of my faces. 

I didn’t know I was in a Cult until I was extracted from it. Before that, I thought I was part of the Mind’s Eye Shakespeare Company, a group of brainy freaks with an interest in acting, bored by high school drama. We met at a workshop given by a local ‘professional’ theater company, and, when offered the chance to form a new, breakaway troupe performing Shakespeare, we jumped. Skipping a grade, being chosen for the school’s ‘Enrichment’ program, participating in plays and musicals, selling light bulbs and greeting cards after school, babysitting for the wife-swappers next door from the age of eleven – none of that was enough to distract me from the hell at home. I had been a fast baby, pushing through my mother’s clenched thighs before the doctor arrived, before my father had spread his check stubs on the waiting room table, hoping to balance his checkbook during labor. Fast babies want out, and Mind’s Eye was my ticket. 

We rehearsed in a rec room in Pilgrim State Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility on Long Island. When it opened in 1929, it was the biggest nuthouse in the world. Joseph Campbell might have posited, had he been able to observe our band of screwball players at work, that Mind’s Eye had found the perfect space in which to rehearse skewed versions of the Classics, from The Tempest to Ulysses, incorporating the unpredictable but always entertaining improvisations of the inmates. Helen sat in on our run-throughs, a long-term patient, lobotomized at a time when the procedure was considered of such therapeutic value, it garnered its originator António Egas Moniz a share in the 1949 Nobel prize for Physiology. Somehow, a frontal lobe crystal managed to evade the ice pick, because one day Helen sat down at the piano and began playing an endless medley: show tunes, Christmas songs, selections from the Great American Songbook and Tin Pan Alley ditties. She’d invariably end her recitals in the same way: by wrenching off her matted wig, and tossing it high into the air. There must’ve have been one, but I was always too exhilarated to notice a scar. 

Christian was never my boyfriend, though he did anoint my third eye with Tiger Balm, promising me a mystical experience, and showed me his cock, which got hard at a 30 degree angle, a leaning tower of penis. A printer’s son, he was a genius who balked at finishing high school and joining his father in the family business, choosing instead to become a clown. Mind’s Eye was his initiation – clowning was an important part of our training. We practiced juggling, mime, tumbling, and devised clown personae. I was the Court Jew Jester, keeping an eye on the change in the hat, ensuring Ben got the weekend’s face-painting takings. 

From the perspective of 2013’s self aware, self help culture, it’s hard to remember how threatening emerging New Age thinking was in 1975. I credit Mind’s Eye with instilling in me certain beliefs I still live by: you create your own reality, you can heal your own life, and, no matter how fucked up they are, you choose your own parents. Nothing happens by chance; there seems no end to personal responsibility. I became intolerant of illness in others: choose health, choose a cold, choose cancer! The thing about groupthink is how powerful a sway it has – given a choice between in or out, we choose in every time. When my mother, suspicious of how much time I was spending with the group and away from high school, at the mental hospital and Ben’s bungalow instead, she set out to uncover what was really going on, meeting with some of the other kids’ parents, calling on a few local political honchos to look into Mind’s Eye’s residency at Pilgrim State. Ben called an emergency meeting, and I went from Court Jew to Judas, with Ben playing Christ. I was out: thorn, side, extracted. 

The urge to belong, to someone or something, feels primal. Separation anxiety turns to independence to an almost insatiable hunger to merge. When I buy stuff from Cult Beauty, an online mail order house marketing A-list secrets and expert recommendations for the best women’s beauty products, I feel part of a tribe of sisters sipping from the same Grail. From the coffee I drink to the Facebook pages I follow and ‘like’, I am daily renewing my subscription to any number of cults. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said, “Society has provided [children] no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind.” 

I didn’t take to Scientology, even after I recognized myself in the list of personality defects detected by their initial survey. I enjoy reading Zen koans more than I respond to the plaintive davening of Rabbinical Kohens, but I am choosy about my cults. I joined the cult of Marriage in 1992; in An Open Life, Joseph Campbell says, “Marriage is an ordeal.  It means yielding time and again.  That’s why it’s a sacrament.” When my best friend joined The Children of the Divine Light, I went to a few meetings to see if I’d radiate with them. I didn’t, and stood by helplessly when, years later, she refused treatment for very treatable breast cancer and died, waiting for the Aliens to come for her, as The Children had promised they would. 

Benjamin is still out there, with or without a book deal, probably following his bliss as Joseph Campbell advised us to. “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” I may not be a Philatelist, but I know what I lick. If being a follower of the work of the late Joseph Campbell, American mythologist, writer and lecturer is considered cultist, well, count me in. 

13 August 2013

Model Home

I want to fall in love again. I want to feel crazy, nutso, red-hot steamy in love again. I want to feel the beat that my heart skipped. I want food and bills and current affairs to take a back seat to my current passion. I want to feel renewed, like when you leave the waxing salon knowing your beauty therapist has stripped you of every last hair, and for a moment, just this moment, you are a clean slate, a white wall, a tightly wound roll of film, a pack of twenty, a chilled magnum, a hotel room.

When you have an affair, don’t automatically assume it’s HIS fault. It may just be you’re deeply bored with your window treatments, wretchedly unhappy with your skirting, inconsolably despondent over the state of your soft furnishings. You long to see surfaces again. You pine over walnut. You can’t sleep, choosing instead to trawl blogs, scrolling through perfectly designed interiors you crave a hook-up with: the floor-to-ceiling glass of the Ellsworth Residence in Phoenix, leering at lush desert vegetation; the modern vernacular of a San Francisco high rise loft, so clean it’s dirty; the pleasing manner of an intimate conversation area in an El Segundo Retreat, a pleasure quarter as impeccably presented as an 18th century geisha. 

For my tired floors, I want a rich brown stain to tame the vibrancy of a red throw. My walls crave a complex khaki, not just any khaki, but a color that transcends itself to coordinate with a plethora of different colors yet still retains its warmth! In the boudoir, I’d risk anything for the right bone black to pair with deep gray Daydream wallpaper. But I draw the line at replacing the kitchen cabinets. When we bought this cottage, it needed work; my Northern Irish stepdaughter was horrified at the state of the place, crayoned walls, peeling vinyl tiles, stained sanitary ware. “Daddy, we can’t live here. It’s a disgrace.” Wallpaper was lovingly stripped by in-laws and aunties, bathtub and toilet replaced, and a new oak kitchen installed. For a while, I was happy here. We struggled. We thrived. We struggled to thrive. We struggled to survive. We threatened to leave, together and separately. If not here, where? If not you, who? 

When I wailed “I hate it here”, I meant “I hate me here.”  My fixtures and fittings weren’t getting any younger. I grew up on Long Island in a model home. In 1968, my parents bought their dream home in an estate in a suburban New York community populated by couples like themselves, more or less – more wealthy, less wealthy, more educated, less educated, more Jewish, less Jewish. Both worked, entertained, attended the local synagogue once a year, joined a book club (my mother), played the Stock Market (my father), and fought. What set us apart from the rest of the development was that we lived in the Model Home. It came with wallpaper and furniture and sconces. It had wall-to-wall carpeting and bay windows with bay curtains. It had Formica – Formica bathroom units, Formica counter tops, even a Formica chest of drawers. Formica outlasted my parents’ marriage. When my mother and father bought the Model, they knew exactly what they were getting. When they got married, they had no idea. 

My husband is a do-or-DIY kind of guy. He wants me to love it here again. He’s volunteered to paint, to hang wallpaper, to refinish floors, to vacuum under furniture. He’s even feigned interest in paint chips, lugging buckets of color home, which I return, then rebuy. He has agreed to paint perfectly good solid oak kitchen cabinets, in any color I like: Sherwin Williams Emotional, a vibrant brick orange? Or Dorian Gray, soft and subtle, like mist – it’ll never get old. How about Milkshake, a warm taupe, the color chocolate goes when you stir in the whipped cream, reminiscent of drive-in movies and baseball games. I decide on Benjamin Moore’s Cheating Heart, a deep charcoal with a steely cast. But for the inside of the cupboards, I choose Going to the Chapel in a washable, easy care finish. The color? A comfortable, livable light gray, with just a hint of blue.

18 July 2013

Not Him

The first thing to go is his scent. I know it was clean, soapy. Green soap towel-dried sun cream three showers a day clean. And metallic. Boxes of screws. Hessian bags of feed, seed. Creosote fence posts. And sweet: balsamic, pomegranate, pineapple. Eyes closed, I could pick him out of a police lineup of all my ex-lovers, but I can’t actually remember it.

Childless Gepetto longed for a son, so he carved one. Pine, nails, glue, chisel, hammer, saw, paint, hinges, screws…what rough magic transfigures scrap into a real live boy? I set a table: seashells, a woolen sweater, a sod of turf, whitebait, a worn leather belt, wild mushrooms, a ramekin of olive oil, a cork, cherry tomatoes on the vine, honeysuckle, bicycle grease. Blindfolded, I forage, layer, discard. Not him. Not him. Not him.

16 July 2013


During the design process for a series of sculptural tables (think chain saw plunging into a length of silky smooth, oiled walnut), I came across a glossary of geologic terms.  What to call a piece whose hand-planed surface is a broken crust, fissured, a dip-slip fault fragmented by centrifugal forces? Techtonic table? Too cutesy.

Geosyncline, glacial striation, granitization - the G’s have weight, consequence, gravitas. The D’s get me thinking about the brutal majesty of nature: debris avalanche, dendritic drainage, diatom ooze, diagenesis! F-ing hell, it’s a wonder our creamy bodies managed to survive at all between falling rocks, folds, flumes, fault block mountains, friction breccia. The E-words are almost encouraging: epoch (longer than an age but shorter than a period), eon, era (longer than a period but shorter than an eon)… yet I, almost half a century old, a mote, a fleck, a particulate, engage with the effects of earthflow, ebb tides, ephemeral streams and evapotranspiration, parrying with a tube of Strivectin. An aged land mass just sitting there crumbling is elegantly described as angular unconformity in repose, but when we get old, we’re sediment.

A differentiated planet like ours ages gracefully: a metal-rich core, surrounded by a rocky mantle, discreetly cloaked in a pashmina of low-density minerals. We wrinkle, scar, pit, shrivel, in an accelerating decline no serum, superfood or surgery can counter. Decay is not a good look on flesh and blood, while Disintegration is the Earth’s new black! Give me an Ice Age, I’ll give you fjords, lakes, great glacial valleys, Bjork! Too much sun, too little factor 50 and I’m a dream deferred (literary reference, see Harlem by Langston Hughes). Erosion, in the geological sense, feels almost tender: a wearing away of matter by gravity, wind, water and ice. Rock of Ages, hear my plea! Be kind to my alluvial fan. Help me embrace my continental shelf as my convergent boundaries, well, converge. And should I be lucky enough to sail through my Quaternary period with negligible subsidence, don’t hate me for my isostasy. Blame it on my Mohorovicic Discontinuity – yeah, blame it on my Moho.

The Back Yard (after William Carlos Williams)

so much depends

a broken
kiddie pool

caved in,
puddled blue

beaten senseless
by our dad.

15 July 2013

This Is Just To Say (after William Carlos Williams)

I bit your arse
as you stood
naked at the sink

wiping the mirror
with a yellow sponge
and Cif

Forgive me
your butt was too tempting
your mind elsewhere
as you cleaned

9 June 2013

We can't get used to this

4 day forecast, Ireland: the fine weather has gone to our heads. Every dish tastes like bar-b-q. Bags of charcoal are scarce. Sunscreen has replaced Deep Heat on the shopping list. Beachwear is de rigeur in villages from Dunmewrong to Ballyfanny. At Dublin Airport's departure lounge, grieving families weep, not at the bitter sendoff of a loved one, but for the package holiday they foolishly booked one dark morning in February. When, if ever, wil we get back to normal, to life beneath Tupperware skies, to the comfortable refrain complaining about the weather? We don't have the vocabulary for this kind of prolonged meteorological fineness. We don't know ourselves.