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First mammogram.  The machine’s clear plates squeeze in on my right breast.  A sticker clings just above the nipple.  Extreme’s “More Than Words” plays in the radiologist’s office.  I laugh when I should be holding my breath.  We have to start over.  One, two, three, now don’t breathe, the technician says.  She’s not laughing, anyway.  And she didn’t laugh when I told her that the sticker she applied, at a glance, looked like a sound-effects splat in a comic book – kapow!  The sticker marks the place where my doctor, one week prior, found something under her rolling fingertips.

Right there?

Right there.

Congress is the 1 percent.

If I’m off here, I’m not off by much. Two-thirds of our senators, and over 40 percent of our congressional representatives are millionaires. The family of the average member of the House of (Non-) Representatives has about five-and-a-half times the wealth of the average American family. 

It is from that exalted perch that laws are handed down which tend to benefit. . . the 1 percent.

Surprise? Not really.

Politics has always been a rich man’s game. And I’m not being gender-neutral here, because for the most part what I’m writing about isn’t gender-neutral. Money as an access point to politics—and wealth as a consequence of wielding power—is nothing new or different: see Washington, George; real estate deals.

Nor should we reflexively smear anyone and everyone simply on the basis of income or origin:

Roosevelt in 2012!

But this severe economic skew in the makeup of our leadership class has serious consequences in terms of what our representatives think of as baseline normal. I am less concerned about the pernicious effects of “the Washington Bubble” and more concerned about the effects of “the Money Bubble.”

Congress decidedly does not feel our pain.

And they need to, if they are to properly diagnose and understand what ails us as a society.

We tinker with the Constitution at our peril. It has long been true that the Bill of Rights could not survive a popular vote: Americans are strongly in favor of free speech and freedom of religion, for example. . . except when people say things we don’t like, and excluding—you know—those weird UnAmerican religions. The Founders couldn’t possibly have really meant to permit them.

Having acknowledged the dangers, I would still propose three constitutional amendments to put the U.S. House and Senate back in touch with the day-to-day realities of “we the people.”

1. The mandatory medical plan for members of Congress and their families shall be Medicaid.

They think funding for Medicaid is adequate? Then they should get perfectly good care there.

2. Anyone serving in any public office—national, state, or local—shall have their children enrolled in public school.

We’re defunding kids? Fine. We’re defunding your kids, too.

3. There shall be created a Congressional Battalion, made up of the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of every person elected to Congress (no substitutions please; spouses or exes not accepted). In any American military action, the Congressional Battalion shall be the first unit put into service.

Congress seems indifferent to its constitutional responsibilities regarding declarations of war; presidents more or less get to do what they want.  One suspects that substituting their own for the children of other people would make them a little less blithe about the exercise of U.S. power abroad.

I don’t believe that everyone is entitled to a Cadillac and a vacation condo; I do believe everyone is entitled to healthcare and education. That’s not just soft altruism: you build a strong society, a strong economy, on the foundation of a healthy and well educated population.

While I am often skeptical about military action, I’m not a pacifist. But I am disturbed by how freely our politicians spend the lives of other people’s children on causes to which they would be loathe to sacrifice their own.

We get the word “society” from the Latin word socius, meaning “companion.” We get “companion” from the Latin com and panis, “with bread,” meaning people with whom we break bread.

And when our leaders eat cake and the people get crusts. . . ?

That bodes well neither for the fate of our society nor for the fate of our leaders. 

 

It’s three in the afternoon on Saturday. I’m on my second or third double espresso of the day, not because I need it, but because I love it. I got home this morning at six, after a night spent out and about town, went to bed and rose like black magic at noon to get going. Yesterday marked the end of a 60-hour week at a job I adore and now, I’m writing this piece. My energy levels are through the roof, but I promise you I’m not manic. This is the life and I’m still living it, even though I’m not 22 anymore. Far from it. Though I’m not quite Disco Sally, either.

I live hard. I work hard. I play hard. And I just can’t stop. Late nights, strong cocktails, out until dawn… you know how it goes.  The kind of life you told yourself had to end once you hit your mid-twenties, only I’ve never stopped. I fear if I stop, I’ll hit the wall, and when you’re going 100 MPH, you know the ending result will not be pretty.



That’s me in all my green skin glory, about a month ago. It was taken around midnight in a bar with a camera phone, that is, no bells nor whistles, no filters nor airbrushing involved. It’s definitely not the best picture of me, but I think it captures how I look on any given night (rather than, say, my TNB photo which was professionally shot for a magazine). I still get carded and challenged that my driver’s license is actually my own, granted the lighting in most bars is pretty forgiving. Don’t for a second think that I actually believe I look under 21, but I could easily lie about my age by 10 years. My mom does. Lies about my age, that is. But, I think lying is silly. On the other hand, avoiding the full reveal = awesome! It seems that when most women hit their thirties, especially if we look good, we start to conveniently not mention our age. We do have this mystique to maintain, right? Just call me ageless.

I went to a new doctor recently and when she came in the room after the nurse took my stats, she demanded, “OK, what’s your secret?!”

Secret? I started to freak out thinking she somehow knew I had lied about how many drinks I actually consume in a week on the new patient form.

“We were all just marveling over your age!” she continued. “And we don’t believe it.” Relieved, though a bit shaken, I shrugged and said what has become my throwaway answer: “good genes.” But I come from a family that is prone to just as many maladies as any other.

Look, I’m not here to rub anything in your face (except for a good face serum, maybe). There’s nothing to envy. After all, the past ten years haven’t been easy by any stretch and sometimes I’m shocked and extremely grateful that a pre-plastic surgery Joan Rivers isn’t staring back at me when I look into a mirror. Let’s see, there was the excruciating task of opening and running a business that eventually went south and made me financially and emotionally drained, not to mention the end of relationships, falling in and out of love a couple times. You know… grown-up stuff. Who really has it “easy” anyway?

Consider for a moment what I do “right” and I promise not to lecture. It’s not all that impressive: I avoid the sun (easy for night lovers), get plenty of sleep (I don’t get less than 7 hours a night, on average), eat well (vegetarian, non-processed foods, though that’s undoubtedly its own separate subject), exercise like there’s no tomorrow– while forcing myself to enjoy it (I do, really, I do. Perhaps I’m even a bit addicted. Hey, better than crystal meth right?) and I take care of myself, especially my skin, which I don’t take for granted for a second. It may be kinda green, but it’s smooth and other than a few fine lines, wrinkle-free.

Surely, you’ve heard all that before, so what else? What’s my secret? It could be that I treat myself well, because I feel I deserve it. I love to spend money on clothing, shoes, quality beauty products and services. I also love to spend money on good food, books, travel and entertainment. All of this keeps me stimulated, inspired and healthy. Could it also be that I refuse to “settle down”? More like I refuse to settle. Once you settle, then you become complacent and then you might as well die as far as I’m concerned. Call it extreme, but this philosophy works for me.

Let’s get back to the topic of work, though. It’s what keeps me in Fluevogs and good bedding (a sound sleep is crucial to a divine daily existence, so go ahead and splurge on those 700-thread count sheets and luxury mattress), not to mention, earning a paycheck allows me to be able to afford those things I can’t live without. But it’s more than that. I was raised with a really strong work ethic, which sucked at 16 when I wanted to fuck off and just go to the beach on weekends, but now I appreciate that ethic. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a workaholic, if you allow for the other aforementioned good stuff. I don’t sacrifice my own happiness for work and won’t do so ever again after owning my own business and having to make constant compromises with a partner who did not share the same outlook as me. Ever since that ended, I have followed my own rules, worked many jobs, often two or three at a time, and other than a brief hiatus in employment due to a life-changing move to the Midwest, I now have the career of my dreams. I think that once you get there, you should want to devote yourself to overachievement.

I have this thing called a writing habit, too. My recently completed novel may be on the back burner, but it’s warming up quite nicely. Slow cooking means the most enjoyable eating, I’ve found. And I have some hobbies, too.

But the secret, what’s the secret to looking and feeling young? I think it’s the grand sum of these things. For example, without the exercise, I have to wonder if I could sleep as well as I do. Without eating healthily, would the drink make me a lazy lush? Without sleeping a full night, would I still have endless energy and not get sick? If I didn’t sleep, eat well and drink a few quarts of water a day would my skin look this good? Who knows? It’s a life in progress. I do take breaks from the hard living. There may be a week or two of staying in at night, too. Too much of anything can get boring. I guess I just fell into good habits somewhere along the way, to counterbalance the not so good ones. Listen, not trying these days isn’t an option anymore.

The first paragraph of this piece could have easily started differently. I could have listed all that I do “right,” and I do plenty right but wouldn’t you rather have the fact that I do plenty wrong as a frame of reference? I am not perfect. I drink. A lot. I love caffeine. I love late nights and “sleeping in.”  A lot of this I can attribute to two decades of practice. I started going out when I was underage and living in Greenwich Village. I cut my teeth on New York nightlife as soon as I could.

I do it all, all that I want to do, and I’ll stop when I’m dead. But I will try my best to look and feel fabulous all along the way.  Who knows, some day I may even achieve Zelda Kaplan status.

The living hard part? It’s not crucial, nor is it advisable for everyone, but why not gradually make a go of it? You may find yourself feeling better, having more energy and you may just want to pull an all-nighter or two.


 

I got naked while writing this essay. It was not sexy. Or it might have been, in a desperate, drunk kindof way. From waist to hips, from bust to thighs, I poured myself an obscene serving of sake and went to town with a measuring tape.

 

I love China, I really do. But I get the feeling that I might just die here. And I don’t mean, “I love it so much I’ll stay here until I’m so old I keel over.” No, I mean that in spite of China’s awesomeness, it’s basically a big death trap.

For the past two or three weeks I have been unable to stop coughing. I feel that my lungs are filled with junk. Maybe it’s the pollution. Hefei is phenomenally polluted. The only city I’ve visited that was worse was Beijing. Even Korea and Taiwan didn’t seem this bad. I read in a textbook (and I’ve no idea how accurate it was) that nearly 700,000 people a year die from pollution in China.

Much of the pollution comes from cars and buses, which seem to have absolutely no restrictions placed upon them. The buses are the worst. They pump out thick black plumes, and sometimes, if you’re inside the bus, there is a hole in the floor through which the smoke comes. I’ve seen people keel over and I’m never sure if they’re sleeping or dying from the toxins.

Nigeria’s 50th birthday was a fortnight ago. On October 1, 1960, the British officially turned over sovereignty of the country to the Speaker of the newly independent Nigerian Parliament, Jaja Wachuku, in the form of the Freedom Charter. The new nation nearly convulsed apart within ten years, and in many ways, it’s amazing such an entity has survived intact, an agglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups (and indigenous languages), many of which were so recently colonized by Britannia that they were not very warm to the idea of sharing political commonwealth with a bunch of circumstantial peers.

The holiday got me thinking of what it means to me to be a Nigerian, born in Nigeria, educated in Nigeria and abroad, living (and naturalized) in the USA, but with a very strong sense of rootedness off the Bight of Bonny. Nigeria is enormous. I’ve read estimates that a quarter of all black people in the world are of recent Nigerian origin. Among such multitudes there is so much to say that I’ve just begged off to a series of vignettes in a number that suits the occasion, and I’ve broken the expansive result into three parts. Please do join me in this sampler from our enormous platter.

Gwenn and Shawn Decker. Photo by Jeffrey Pillow

Two years ago, I walked into Shenandoah Joe’s on Preston Ave. in Charlottesville. Postured on a tall-legged, wooden barstool, a young man in his early 30′s busily dashed off letters on the keys of his laptop. White steam swayed side to side from the rim of his coffee mug, and then cut capers skyward. The vapors vanished but the rich, warm aroma of the roasting coffee beans lingered.

The windows around the front door look like aliens. I seem to be the only one who recognizes it, but it’s so obvious. They are tall, skinny aliens with arms that reach down to their knees. Their bug-eyed heads are elongated just like the aliens on TV, except that the top comes to a little point like a dollop of whipped cream. As a kid, I ran up the stairs feeling their noodle arms reaching out to grab me and pull me out of my world and into theirs. I always felt them just an inch behind me.

Standing in the laundry room, if I tapped unexpectedly on the metal surface of the washer or dryer, the noise might be startling, and suddenly I was thinking, “What if that’s the signal?” The signal for ghosts or aliens or whatever might be waiting in the ether for its moment, its chance to come abduct me or just to show itself, thereby ruining the reality on which I had an already tenuous grasp. I would do it again to disrupt the signal — rap on the washer once quickly, try to make the exact same noise — was it once for yes and two for no? I don’t remember. Do it again just in case. What if I have said something I don’t even understand in their alien language? Tap out a complicated rhythm to indicate a scratching out of what has inadvertently been written on the paper of time-space continuum. If all else fails, run out of the room and all is forgotten.

I experienced life in fast forward and slow motion at the same time, a contortion that threatened to tear the flimsy tape of continuity. It starts with the combination of silence and the ever-present humming in my ears. No one is speaking, no power is running, yet there is a subtle ringing in the upper reaches of my inner ear. Careful about tuning in to that. It’s not an imagined noise. It’s the sound of the ear existing. Catching air or whatever.

Listen too hard, and things get twisty. Internally, things are faster. Externally, I am surprised by the slow sound of my own voice. It comes out syrupy. I try to talk faster to catch up. I try and think slower. Things are out of sync.

I had dizzy spells for no reason. When I was still very young, they were fun. I would lay on the soft carpeted floor of my bedroom and let the experience envelop me. I didn’t have a word for it, yet. It had not occurred to me to ask if this is normal. The room shook. My heart raced. I just lay there and enjoy the natural high of overactive nerves.In high school, it would become a problem when I had to grip the sides of my desk to keep from falling out.

I have trouble wearing nail polish. I can’t keep it on. The minute there is a crack, I have to peel it all back. I chip it off, bite and scrape, leaving little flakes on my desk, clinging to my skirt, and stuck with sweat to my palms. I’m bent on deconstruction. When the nail polish is gone, I start on my cuticles. You would think I could outgrow this. You would think I’d eventually figure out there is nothing but blood under there, but I don’t. I keep digging. If not cuticles, then scabs or zits or dry skin — have you ever soaked your feet in a warm bath until you could just run your fingernails along your heel and come up with an inch long strip of skin? It’s not really skin anymore.

I learned my triggers, and then I felt funny about using this word, “triggers.” It’s got to be some kind of AA jargon, but I’ve never been in AA, so I must have picked it up from one of my friends who went to AA or NA, and I feel like a phony for using their lingo. I mean, they’re the ones with the real problems, right? Who am I? What right do I have to sit here and feel sorry for myself? But anyway, phony or not, I know my triggers: Alcohol, laziness, Sunday evenings, those things make it harder. Coffee, sex and exercise make it better.

I like to read about philosophies and religions that point us toward making peace with ourselves. I like Buddhism, but I don’t like to sit still for meditation. I don’t like to go to church or listen to preachers. I want a teacher, but I wouldn’t listen. I’m all I’ve got, then. But I do like the idea of oneness. I appreciate the fantasy of melting into a larger identity, not just for the delight of finally getting out of my skin but for the escape from being a person who must get dressed every day, and go to work, and pay bills, and be nice to people. Briefly, I can imagine that if I melt into the larger whole, I would be something much larger, much more magnificent than my little self with my little job and my chipped nail polish.

Sometimes I practice so-called magic, making creative use of salt water and a handful of herbs, knowing intellectually that it does nothing, and yet the ritual gives me comfort. I direct my unruly energy toward a cup of salt water on my desk and feel better about things without knowing why, exactly. The logic of the anxious is a bit more flexible. Solutions don’t need to make sense if the problems don’t make sense. I was sitting at my desk thinking the world was going to end, and a cup of saltwater made me feel better.

If I write down everything that makes me anxious, somehow, this makes it better, too. I apply words like a salve to this mysterious wound. I practice these home remedies until it stops hurting, and then I live like a normal person until it starts hurting again.