Making Nice

My natural talent for being a wise-cracking asshole was tempered by my years working for the United Nations. After serious training, I learned how to avoid offending people from around the world – it was a job requirement.  On any given day, I spoke to 100 + people who came for a tour of the UN.  Leading my flock through halls and meeting rooms, I spouted the latest Security Council resolutions condemning either Israel or South Africa (this was the 80s) and hedging my way through questions posed by irate visitors about why the UN would not intervene in Tibet or Northern Ireland. Uncomfortably, I lectured Japanese tourists in my abysmal Japanese, about the importance of nuclear disarmament while surrounded by melted artifacts from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I learned to deliver the information – passionately, but without personal opinion.  This meant no smirks, frowns, glee or embarrassment – unless officially sanctioned by the international community.

It wasn’t easy. I’m pretty opinionated and used to delight in verbal sparring. Sometimes, still do. But to this day, I value the skills I picked up in those international rooms. One key to maintaining a mask of control and fending off potential conflict is to have a script — a few non-commital words expressing whatever the neutral party line is. This still comes in handy. Just the other day, someone cornered me at work wanting to know what I thought about the competition shutting down in the next town. “It’s always sad when a bookstore closes.” I said. And while this is true in theory, in reality, I think: better them than us — I sure hope that we get a bump in business comparable to the hit we took when they opened.

Often, being diplomatic can just mean keeping your mouth shut, and that really doesn’t come easily to me. I have only gotten fired once in my life – from a waitressing job when I was in college. Too many years have passed for me to recall the exact exchange, but a customer was rude to me and I dished it right back. In retrospect, I admire that gal but today, I need my day job.

Keeping my mouth shut was a skill I really got to practice in the war zones of former Yugoslavia. You don’t want to piss anyone off when Kalashnikovs are around.  A neutral smile, courtesy and a United Nations blue passport were all useful in getting through checkpoints manned by sometimes drunken Serbs, Croats or Bosnians. This discipline of not inflaming dicey situations still helps me today: I avoid road-rage incidents on Route 1 and can defuse the instinct to punch the lights out of unpleasant customers in the bookstore. I think a certain amount of public neutrality is common sense – who wants their window smashed by a right-winger offended by a ‘Planned Parenthood’ or ‘Support Our Soldiers: Bring them Home’ sticker?  The only bumper-sticker I have on my car says “READ”.  I think that’s safe.

 

Aftermath of a War

Last night I watched a movie I picked up from the library, and I can’t stop thinking about it.  ‘Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams’ is directed by Jasmila Zbanic and features two remarkable actresses not recognizable to most Americans – including me.  On August 30, I posted a blog (Remembering War) wondering about the lives of women after the war in Bosnia and this movie was almost like a poignant response to my musing. Set in Grbavica, a Sarajevo neighborhood held by the Serbs during the war – essentially creating a front line smack dab in the middle of what was once considered the most diverse and cosmopolitan of cities in Bosnia.

The movie takes place post-war. Esma is an impressive single mother of Sara, a lively 12 year old girl. Both actresses make these characters riveting. Sara has been raised with, what becomes clear, is the dubious tale that her father died a Bosnian war hero. As children always do, Sara knows she is not being told the truth and pushes her mother for answers. Finally, in a potent climax, Esma tells Sara how she was conceived as a result of countless rapes in a prisoner of war camp. The ugly violence of her beginning only makes the portrait of this mother-daughter relationship more incredible — not cloying, but like the gut punch only love can deliver.

My daughter became increasingly drawn into the story and finally, abandoned her computer-chat to watch with me. At the end of the movie, she said she was a little confused, perhaps because she came in to the story late, but I also imagine she could not fathom such places existed or of the hideousness of rape being used as a weapon of war. In a snapshot, to try to keep her usual short-lived interest in my war- stories, I told her a little bit more and pointed out the flash of yellow building in one of the last scenes in the movie, as the Holiday Inn where her Dad courted me so many years ago. Finally, we believe they will move beyond the ugliness of this terrible secret because their mother-daughter love trumps all.  I love that and know it to be true.

Living with Books

When I ride the train, the subway, walk on a beach – and see someone reading, I always want to know – what?  When people are photographed or interviewed on television in front of a bookcase, I try to make out what titles are on their shelves. Because I work in a bookstore? Maybe, but also because I am nosy – it is as if I’m sneaking a peek at who this person really is by checking out their books.

My own bookshelves are packed to capacity – including too many books I have yet to read. Will I ever? There are titles that I feel like I should read — a great example being a huge tome: Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia by Karl E. Meyer and Shari Blair Brysac.  Autographed by these local authors and scholars – I do want to read it for a better understanding of this volatile region we have been so mired in – and so it stays and I think: one day. The same ‘should’ keeps From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman on my shelf for years.  I cannot let go of these books nor my good intention to read them but other books always jump the reading queue.

Then there are the books I may want for reference – that get yanked from the shelf about once a year or so – Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide by Goldberg and The Art Book – a book published by Phaidon door-stop sized book I picked up once at a tag sale. It’s a fast-food kind of look at the history of art.  I have more cherished art and photography books I also found on sale and could not resist – the most recent find being Andy Goldsworthy’s Passage – this remarkable sculptor’s poetic works are created out of nature – powerful works of time and space – some of stone but many others of ice, leaves, the tides and now, only a photograph remains.  It sits on a table in my living room and I have looked at it maybe once but I am so glad it is there.

I have the powerful photography books by my friend Ron Haviv – his important documentation of wars including Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal – the war I knew. My Balkan titles can take up their own shelf and I have read them all, hungering to understand the madness that was my life for four years.  My collection began back in 1992 with Rebecca West’s classic Black Lamb, Grey Falcon and Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. Later on, I added David Rieff’s Slaughterhouse, Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. And perhaps the one most poignant for me, My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony Lloyd – a powerful memoir of addiction to war and to drugs.  

The addiction self-help books have mostly been purged – in the hopes that the problem is also gone out of my life, I have passed them on to others who might find them useful.  But I have kept the memoirs – Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, Mary Karr’s Lit.

Over the years I have amassed a collection of signed titles that are impossible to part with – I see them as a legacy for my daughter. J. K. Rowling – the second Harry Potter title signed at an event at the store early on in her success.  Still, it was like hosting a rock star but she was lovely, signing well over a thousand books and looking every child in the eye and sharing a chat while signing with her arm in a brace.  My inscribed copies of Angela’s Ashes and Teacher Man will always have a revered place on my shelf with warm memories of my encounters with Frank McCourt.

There are books I can and should cull: novels I have read and never will again. Outdated travel guides – to Bali, Martha’s Vineyard (I have not been since high school), the Florida Keys (I have never been) parenting guides, cookbooks I never open – but as my eye scans the dusty spines, I think of a reason why I want each one to stay – a memory, the possibility I might one day need to check on the correct Serbo-Croatian word or refer to that book The Brain. I won’t though — the internet is too easy.  At least, I will dust them.

Remembering Life in a War

Washing potatoes for tonight’s meal, I left the tap open, luxuriating in the flow of water until flashing-back to my life during the war in Bosnia and Croatia. Faucets were always dry and water was eked out for cooking, drinking and personal hygiene.  As a UN staff member, my hardship was only temporary since I was able to cross checkpoints and borders for a hot bath and cappuccino. Unlike the thousands trapped by the insane war, I could leave.

On this late-summer evening, I imagine a woman somewhere in Sarajevo, also standing by her sink and wonder how often she thinks of those days of dry taps, dark nights and fear? For me, these moments are only occasional, after all, it wasn’t my embattled land. Yet for a few years, it was a war I lived in and was almost addicted to. I wonder what it’s like there, more than a decade later? I want to sit in my imagined woman’s kitchen, and hear her tale of recovery.  Will it be like my own? I know something of processing pain and losses on a personal level – perhaps that is the only way one does.  But war on one’s own street, neighborhood, country certainly widens the net of tragedy.

One day, I would like to return to Knin, Vukovar, to Sarajevo, and share a coffee, a glass of wine with my sisters, to listen to their stories.  Meanwhile, I will try better to remember the preciousness of washing and cooking my food, taking a shower, cleaning clothes and having a light to read by.

Crazy winds. We got off easy losing power for just over 24 hours.  Driving around yesterday to survey the damage we took many detours because of downed trees and hanging wires. At home, we were cozy enough with candles and the fireplace – and the bonus of wonderful neighbor/friends still with power who shared their food, wine and couch with us.

It was an interesting reminder for me – the pleasure of simply flicking a switch to light up a room. In Croatia and Bosnia, there were months at a time  during the war, when I had neither water nor electricity and I somehow, got (uncomfortably) used to it.  And for a long, long time afterwards –  a hot shower was pure bliss, boiling water on the stove – a joy and what luxury to have heat and electricity! That theme again: how sweet the light becomes because of darkness.

Sleep, perchance to… sleep? And a rambling about books.

Sometimes I wake in the dark, early hours wanting to write about something. Go on, get up and write, I urge myself.  The bed is so warm and the air so frigid, I never do. In the light of morning, I have no recollection of what inspired me in the dark. Not surprising really, since these days, I never remember so much as a flash of a dream. Nights are delicious, nourishing voids.

Not that I don’t miss crazy escapades of the remembered subconscious, waking with a sense of  having had adventures -but only a little. In years past, I suffered so many sleepless nights worrying, that I savour this gift of solid sleep, these nights, slumped on the couch by 9:00 PM.

Most nights, I try and read before conking out completely, curled up under the quilt – what luxury.  The stacks of books-to-be-read continue to grow into teetering towers around the house.  Advanced Readers Copies picked up from work are on every table and stacked on shelves of already full bookcases.  Currently, I am hooked on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – a best seller that many friends and readers I share tastes with, have raved about.  I am half-way through and while crime thrillers are not my  usual reading taste, and the violence makes me wince, I  know I’ll need to read his next one too. Not exactly bedtime reading but I can’t put it down.  And still, no dreams (or nightmares!).

Borrowed from the store (a great benefit of my job) is Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD – a refreshingly, rare from an MD, holistic take on proactively dealing with this sucky disease. War of the cells and what we can do to stack the odds in our favor. Things we know, but I for one, need reminding of –  like layoff the white stuff – sugar, flour. Exercise. And drink red wine! Being positive and having friends – recently this attitude has taken a beating (by Barbara Ehrenreich of Nickled and Dimed fame for example)but I know what kind of person I prefer to be around and unless you’re really funny in your bleakness, I’ll choose the positive attitude any day.  Back to this book -it is interesting because the author is in this battle himself, and has survived past ‘the odds’ – something he poignantly addresses. This is the book I dip into between driving my teenager to and fro.

I even checked a book out of the library the other day – Pretty Birds a novel by NPR’s weekend edition, Scott Simon published in 2005, is my downstairs book.  I don’t know how I missed reading this since it is about Sarajevo during the war and I compulsively read anything on that time and place – whether fiction or non-fiction. The first few chapters of my memoir are set in Bosnia during the war so I can’t help reading other people’s work with a comparative eye. Of course, my story is more about the war of addiction and Sarajevo is the fitting (and true backdrop) for launching my story. I’ve only read a chapter but it’s already compelling.

Recent temperatures have been arctic and I long for spring – but I realize that when it comes, my reading time will shrink with the demand and draw of the garden and sun.  Maybe winter is not so terrible after all.