Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Yes, there are green eggs!

Bear with me, I’m on a trip through memory lane. This is how I started my autobiography eight (yes that’s 8!) years ago. As you can see, I didn’t go beyond a couple of paragraphs!

August 2002:

By then I had been in the field for three years, first in various locales in Hungary, and, at the time of the picture of puzzlement so clearly kept in my memory, in Switzerland.

The image of puzzlement is as follows: I sit at a huge dark long wooden table. My legs are dangling from a dizzyingly tall bench. The room is huge, it’s really a hall, arrayed with several of those long tables. I am all alone. There are rays of sun filtering through the slats of the wooden shutters on the tall narrow windows. Yes, I'm all alone. I am looking at a circle of greenish white on the table in front of me. In the middle a filled round of green. The ensemble is at once translucid and opaque, there are mysterious ripples and shadows inside the white circle. I don’t have a clue as to the nature of the artifact or the purpose of my contemplation. Was my puzzlement due to an abrupt change of language, the classical failure of communication encountered in the field? Yet I can’t remember any inner dialogue in any language. I can only remember wordlessness....

It was only after earning my doctorate in anthropology that I was able to resolve that puzzle. I was starring at an egg, fried sunny side up. I deduce that I must have been left in the dining hall to make me eat it, though I also deduce that the thought, or image, of eating it never crossed my wordless mind...

Perhaps I should have put that in quotes because I’m probably no longer the same person as I was eight years ago. Actually, my sense of self is a bit fuzzy right now but my self always had pretty permeable boundaries anyway... Identity is still one hell of a mystery to me, the more I try to elucidate it the more mysterious it gets (cf. my post on strange loops: “Oh it’s you, no it’s me”).

So let me explain this fried egg memory: My mother made it to Switzerland in 1945 after waiting for weeks (six, I think) at the Austrian border –it seems we were pretty hungry and also got infected by lice. My head had to be shaved and that’s why I have very short hair in my early photographs in Switzerland.

My mother was going to import Hungarian stuff in partnership with her brother Zoltan. They had some money and the conditions of entry in Switzerland were that my mother put my brother and me in an expensive boarding school and she stays in an expensive hotel. The conditions changed one year later (or was it a year and an half?) after she met a civil servant in the visa department in the train going to visit her kids and she started to cry when telling the story of the enforced separation –and a few days later, oh miracle, it all changed and she was allowed to rent an apartment and bring her children to Zurich with her.

The boarding school was in Gstaad. It was called Tante Flora’s, and was frequented by the children of very wealthy people, as for instance the Shah of Iran...

I remember my brother crying his heart out when my mother first left us there. I didn’t cry, I don’t remember any feelings, but I remember my glasses falling off my nose –perhaps they were new? (At some point they thought I was autistic, but I’ve made up for it since! Though I obviously had been traumatized by our previous adventures. When we were underground, we had to move every few weeks and even spent some time in a Catholic boarding school where my mother thought my brother and I would be safe, but she found out otherwise as the nuns were getting suspicious, so she had to take us out... Lest this be misinterpreted against all nuns, there was a religious order whose members risked their lives saving Jews. When my mother worked with Raoul Wallenberg that nunnery was a place of refuge and hiding where she brought Jewish families in the middle of the night...).

I remember an egg hunt, and the eggs bore their recipients'names and a kid who was very clever couldn’t find his and eventually it turned out hidden underneath lose tiles in the empty swimming pool.

I remember having to take my afternoon nap in my bed and watching the patterns the sun made through the blinds. Once (or twice?) I got to take my nap with the bigger kids outside on the chaises longues in the veranda....

Tante Flora’s followed the latest hygienic strictures of the time. You couldn’t get another glass of water unless you ate a whole other plate of food –gasp! You also had to produce a turd in the toilet every morning. For some reason the ski instructor slept nearby and it was up to her to inspect the toilet and note (in writing!) that the subject indeed had pooped..

Now I was terrified of this ski instructor. She was very tall (from my three year old height ) and wore her hair in a bun and had a large red headband and I thought she was a man. I was also terrified of flushing, but less than I was of her. So I remember a couple of mornings when I wasn’t able to produce anything I flushed and then ran like hell before the toilet could swallow me. I told her I mistakenly flushed my poop before she could examine it and I remember her yelling at me... (Is this why I’m always attempting to write? You know, produce something?)

What else? One image that's still in my mind is hanging for dear life on the back of a sleigh with my brother up front and going very fast and winning something. My brother in that year learned to ski as well as he walked... and we both learned French, but in Zurich we had to learn the German dialect spoken in Switzerland.

(Of Hungary, only one image remains. My brother and I were on a farm with Etel Neni. Auntie Etel –the subject of yet another even more amazing story. She was not a real aunt but Hungarian kids called adults their families were close to “aunt” and “uncle.” There was a wooden platform and huge pigs below (well huge compared to my tiny size). I was on the ground having left the safety of the platform and the pigs suddenly came in my direction. I started to howl, and Etel Neni picked me up and brought me to safety.... that’s all.)

Well here's a real trip through memory lane, from one ear to the other in this case....It's funny, at least in parts, so give it a chance...

Tinnitus in A sharp

There’s a racket in my ear
a ruckus a fracas
a grind a growl a gasp
knocking and knocking and knocking
in between
the rattle of small bones

there there
says the ear
it’s just your ear

This ear
a canal a passage
through the middle
an orchestra forever
tuning its violins
then through the drum’s misbeats
to the inner vertigo where
I plummet
to a forest darkness
muted flashes softly zap
and zip peregrinating
along knotted ramifications
twisty grey branches
Welcome to Memory’s Mist Road
says the ear

First in water I dwell
hands seeing blue softness
the Danube where my mother swam
while I swam in her
But noise pushes me out
crawling eyes opened
into fear’s archives

The war is still here
hidden at a farm from the hunters
killers (I must have done something?)
I so small
on uncertain legs
myopic crossed eyes
farm beasts chasing me –I think
sueeeeeeeeeeeeeee sueeeeeeeeeeeee
till auntie picks me up
there there

And next I find –what!
Shame --but I got rid of it so long ago?
Why is it still lurking
its strangling permeating
tentacles regrowing
as they’re cut
weed killer doused
draino burnt
reason graveled
common sense smothered

In fear’s archives
waking dreams of nameless
eight legged gigantic
dark creatures
rustle and scrunch
on terror road

But I escape again
right next door
to the fornication sector
zzzips and zzzaps speed up
into viscous electronics of body parts
toes elbows cunts pricks
and and
almost despair? --till black ink floods my brain
into silence into forgetting
there there

Midpoint is the earth
spinning sparkling on the dark road
a blue and green marble
I played as a child
here a corn multitude dances
back and forth with indefinite grace
to the blue trees’ wind music
here fountains slurp
watermelon juice
chocolate cream
and inside out swirling rainbows
I too spin my dervish dance

Train train of memory
across my brain tonight I gather
all the faces and bodies to keep safe
--I must have entered love’s archives--
life itself? –till words fail me
there there

Sui sibi se se sui sibi se se sui sibi se se
the Latin I flunked
three times in the tenth grade
pursues the train
in my tired counting
languages penetrate
one and other
egy kettő három vier fünf sechs sept huit neuf –Ten!
sui subi se se sui subi se se sui subi se se
one two three four cinq six sept eight nine
and and

I wake to the train whistling
through the multitude
in concert for the earth
fields of hands dancing back and forth
with indefinite grace
to the planet’s silent music
till the volume turns up
the sound of a single piccolo
arabesquing in between
pings of a silver triangle

there there
says the other ear
It was just your ear

Poem copyright 2008 by Catherine Tihanyi
Photo: Kati 1945


  1. Kati says, "Is this why I’m always attempting to write? You know, produce something?"

    Well, Kati, the ski instructor may have been an early motivator, a signal to your brain to "produce", but, please know that, just like then (at least on those days you flushed nothing and ran), you are definitely NOT producing any turds. As always, this is a wonderful collection and I sincerely thank you for sharing.

    I have Tinnitus in my right ear. It was caused in 1990 by Danny Rollings. I'll let you figure out his true nature, if you'd like (it's not a pretty story), but he actually *is* the cause. See, because of his actions, and because I wasn't going to be convinced of my safety by something as fleeting as statistics, I went out for some target practice to ensure that my old, trusty .38 pistol was in good shape, that my old ammo was still working, and, too, so that I could make some noise and feel safer through its production. What I did not do was wear hearing protection. To this day, I hear the same note, constantly. In my right ear. I don't know what note it is. A would be fine with me, but C or D would be okay, too. I have to use the phone in my left ear, and I always walk to a companion's right so as to hear them. It was a stupid, youthful mistake, compounded by arrogance. But, such life. It continues with or without us, or our hearing, I'm afraid.

    At any rate, my apologies for my own bit of biography there. I just wanted to compliment yours. It is wonderfully done, Kati. As always. Thank you.

  2. Oh Smaggie, that tinitus must be hard on a musician like you. But I can see how it could happen for I too couldn't imagine this sort of nasty consequences in my younger days --particularly when having to deal with the likes of Danny Rollins!

    Mine seems more ecclectic than yours, and includes at time a pulsating beat. They did a CT scan of my head and I asked them if they had found the miniature orchestra playing out of tune inside my head. They didn't, but they did find a brain! Wonder never ceases!

    My partner Rich had a more interesting condition. When we were first courting he tried to impress me by having the smoke of his cigarette come out of his ears. I was not only impressed but horrified. I pointed out that his ear drums must be injured. It came from directing planes on a carrier way before the navy thought of equipping its men with ear protectors... Luckily, his ear drums eventually healed by themselves --so no more smoke coming out of them ... but, luckily, he's had other ways to impress me!

    He remains hard of hearing but by now all our age mates are as well. It makes conversations quite entertaining!

  3. Something in this post, I forget what, made me chuckle. The naptime memory reminded me of my own toddlerhood and the abusive daycare I was in. My mother, when told of some of the abuses years later, asked why I'd never told her about it at the time. I said, they were the adults, and I'd always been taught to obey the adults.

  4. Kati, I love the picture of you. I just want to give her the biggest hug.

    Since we're sharing ear horror stories, I'll tell mine.

    When I was probably 8 or 9, I got very sick with some sort of flu that settled in my ears and they became infected. My mother had agoraphobia and wouldn't leave the house to take me to a doctor, so she tried to cure me herself.

    First she put warm oil into my ear. I think it was plain old Wesson because that's all we used. Then she blew cigarette smoke into them. Nothing helped and I was in tremendous pain and running a very high fever from the infection. I remember I ate absolutely nothing during this time. Even drinking water hurt. I couldn't even lift my head up. Then one morning I woke up and the pillow was soaked in blood and pus ~ apparently my eardrums had burst during the night. My mother took the pillows away to wash them. I remember how much it hurt my neck to have to lay there without a pillow to prop my head, and my mom put a towel down and admonished me to "try not to bleed on the mattres."

    My stepdad had been working the graveyard shift and was off work during the daytime one day, about a month after I first got sick. He asked my mother where I was and she told him I was in my room, sick with the flu. He came in to see me and then left the room in a hurry. I heard him yelling at her (and he NEVER yelled), asking her how long I'd been like that. Very shortly after that, my stepdad came in and wrapped the bedspread around me and carried me to the front seat of the car, where my mother was waiting. He laid me down between them, and I put my head in her lap.

    They drove me to the doctor and I remember being very embarrassed because I hadn't brushed my teeth or had a bath in the entire time, and I was afraid I smelled awful. Plus I'd been throwing up a lot, which added to the piquancy.

    They gave me a shot at the doctor's and sent me home with antibiotics and I recovered. I remember the first night after I started taking the antibiotics, I asked my mother for an English muffin with apricot pineapple preserves. My hunger was back. My mom told me if I was feeling better I should take a shower first. I did, and I was so weak I fainted in the tub. I don't know how long I lay there, but when I came out, my mom asked me if I was all right. I told her I'd fainted and she said, "I THOUGHT I heard something!"

    The punchline to this is that, years later, in my early 20s, I was seeing a doctor about my seasonal allergies and he used the dealie to look into my ears and I'll never forget how he recoiled in surprise and asked me, in all seriousness, if I could hear at all. I said, "Of course I can." I told him about my ear infection and he said he didn't see how it was possible that I could hear since I don't have eardrums any more, they were completely blown out.

    I don't know what he meant ~ I can hear perfectly well, in fact, I think I actually have very acute hearing, always have, which I always thought was given to me to compensate for my acute myopia. So that's another thing we have in common, Kati.

    Anyway, enough about me, and more about you. Thank you, as always, for sharing this with us. It's beautiful and evocative, just like you. I look forward to your finished autobiography.

  5. CoolOne, how sad to be in an abusive day care.... little kids don't really have any defense against this. It's pretty impossible to put it into words at that age....

  6. Mermaid, what a horror story about your ears! I feel like yelling at your mother who's probably no longer around to hear it... It must have hurt so much, and why did your mother send you to take a shower before feeding you....

    I'm so amazed at you that you recovered to be the sensitive and caring person you are (that goes for CoolOne too, I'm glad she managed to grow up to be Cool, how cool is that!)

    I had a friend with untreated ear infections (there was an excuse --it was wartime!) and he ended up with scarred ear drums and ended up deaf. Obviously you've miraculous ears! Yeah!