Sunday, 26 July 2015

Cigarettes, Sugar, Chocolate, and Time

Many years ago I visited a friend in her hospital room.  She was dying from ovarian cancer, and she was dying too soon.  Her devastated family waited anxiously outside for what was to be my brief stay at her bedside to end.  But my visit went on longer than anyone expected, least of all me.  When she asked me to light a cigarette for her I hesitated.  I doubt if her family knew she had one, but Claire was a smoker, a chain one, and she wasn’t going to deprive herself of that comfort now.  I saw the sense in it, even then, but I hadn’t had a fag in my mouth for some 20 years and I admit that I was a little afraid that even one puff might kick off my habit again.  I took the cigarette, put it to my lips, struck the match and inhaled, and handed it over.  And stayed with her until she had finished it.

I’m not proud that I took up so much of the family’s precious time with Claire.  But I’m proud of that cigarette, and haven’t had another one since.

When she died, too young, Claire Burton was a well-known feminist sociologist.  The family set up a scholarship in her name, if only to make sense of her death.  To make her live on, to wrest some meaning from her tragedy.  It’s what we do, often.  We flounder, we rail.  We try to honour the dead.

Twenty-plus years down the line I visit my partner’s bedside.  He is much improved since experiencing what we must call a medically induced stroke, though I give thanks it was a relatively mild one and came about for the best of reasons, to shrink the tumours that had spread from his prostate, although they didn’t know then of the one lurking deep in his brain.  They hadn’t looked at his brain.  The belief has been that prostate cancer can’t spread there.  The truth is that we don’t know enough about prostate cancer.  Even the doctors are learning.

Since they figured out what had gone wrong, my partner has been put on a drug called dexamethazone, the aim of which is to reduce the swelling around the tumours without triggering more bleeding, as happened on the androgen inhibitor.  A side effect of dexamethazone is a ravenous hunger, which is good in a way since he’s lost so much weight.  He has been craving sugar.  Can’t get enough of it.  Four paper packets in his coffee (‘Black as night, hot as hell, sweet as sin’, he says, quoting Balzac), endless cookies (also in packets, two at a time), and chocolates.  I bring the chocolates.  He goes through a box of Cadbury miniatures in less than two days.  It took many days to persuade the hospital staff to let him have those four sugars in his coffee – ‘Sugar is bad for you,’ they say.  This doesn’t wash with him.  He is a former scientist, the body turns everything to sugar in the end, he says.  They are confused by this.  Informed as we are nowadays, we still resist science, and are bundled up endlessly in tangles of myth. 

When I’m not visiting him I’m making adjustments in preparation for his homecoming.  The occupational therapists are amazingly ingenious, and they agree that this is the place he should be.  In a beautiful old building, the flat has high ceilings and plenty of light.  Though this is not the easiest accommodation, not what might be prescribed for a patient whose mobility and stability are not what they should be.  There are stairs.  The flat is tiny, the floor uneven.  Something of a challenge for a walking frame.  We’ll be getting a small one, not the large one advised.  The rehab doctor, a nice man but with a perpetually worried look on his face, is confounded.  There are concerns for his safety, of course.

But life is not safe, entirely.  If it was, it wouldn’t be life. 

There are books about this.  One, by Atul Gawande, is recommended.  So much is now being written on the subject.  We are waking up, waking up to dying.  This isn’t an altogether pleasant awakening, especially for those of us fortunate enough to have lived in societies where the fact of death has tended to be ignored until, forced to confront it, we relentlessly combatted it.  For what a trick had been played on us!  To give us this wealth of experience, this miracle of consciousness, only in the end to have it snuffed out.   

 I have no answers for this.  None of us do, really.   

 All I know is I’m eating a lot of chocolate.  And sharing it with him.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

How I Became a Dual Citizen and Why I am Afraid

December 2, 1972 was the first election I voted in, and it was a thrill then to cast my vote for Gough Whitlam’s Australian Labor Party.  The conservative parties had ruled for 23 years, I had lived under 14 of them and, like most of my generation, found Menzies and his successors both tiresome and bumbling. On matters concerning women they were antediluvian.  In foreign affairs they were cringe worthy. They had got us into Vietnam, for one thing, and were conscripting guys to fight in that ill-advised, ill-starred Yankee adventure.  It felt liberating to be done with them.

phoning that other home
Yet the dark side of that moment was that I'd lost my US citizenship.  This was because I’d become a single mother and the best chance for steady employment in Canberra, Australia’s capital, was in the public service, but you had to be an Australian citizen to work there.  I had joined the Australian News and Information Bureau just before the Whitlam government took office, and had to take out Australian citizenship to do so.  As soon as I did the American consulate was alerted.  I received a letter from them asking me to explain if I’d been kidnapped or otherwise forced to work for a foreign country.  I wrote back that it was Nixon’s citizenship that should have been under question as he had just bombed Cambodia.  Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with the consulate, and a few days later I was asked to hand over my passport. 

This was more disturbing than I’d thought it would be.  In a curious way it was like I’d just lopped off a limb.  For days I was in shock.  In one swift stroke I had cut off my past.  No one who has ever had that happen to them knows just what it’s like.  People assume that changing countries in that highly symbolic yet ultimately material way is a question of will, a matter of joy.  It is, and it isn’t.  It raises unanswerable questions about loyalty and allegiance.  It makes you think hard about patriotism, how often – too often it turns into ugly jingoism.  Having spent my childhood during the second world war, and Jewish to boot, I knew only too well how dangerous such notions can be.

Now I was a dinky-di Australian, if a strange sort of one with the wrong kind of accent, the wrong sort of English and an abiding love of Mexican food, sour dough bread and big fat chilli hot dogs.  When I began publishing books they had to be ‘Australian’, and I spent many futile hours trying to figure out whether a sentence I wrote gave away my background.  I say futile because today writing like an American is okay, even admired, but it was resented in the 1980s.  Faulkner and Twain were taken seriously, but to profess the influence of Fitzgerald or Dos Passos then was to mark you as a barbarian.  There was none so sniffy as our Australian literati, especially those who hadn’t even heard of some of the writers whose works had informed my sensibility, writers like Raymond Chandler or Ray Bradbury or John Fante or Nathaniel West, even Aldous Huxley, all of whom lived in and wrote about Los Angeles.  (Interesting, too, that these were all men, a fact needing investigation, perhaps in a future post.)

Then in the 1990s, the US changed its attitude towards dual citizenship.  It was the New International Order, the West was triumphant, it was the ‘end of history’, international borders were becoming more permeable, for capital at least.  The world was now ‘global’, after all.  When Clinton became president he passed an executive order the effect of which was to turn earlier Supreme Court decisions into law, thus enabling US citizens to take out citizenship in other countries.  At an embassy gathering for writers I was told that I could now apply to have my American citizenship restored, so on leaving Australia for a five-year spell in Canada I did.

It turned out to be not quite the native’s return I’d imagined.  In Vancouver I was handed, along with my US passport,  a notice demanding copies of my previous six Australian tax returns. Suffused with emotion, I hadn't previously twigged that this was behind Clinton’s generosity.  Nor aged 60 did I realise, having migrated to Australia as a minor, that from now on I would have to lodge an annual US tax return, in addition to the Australian and Canadian ones.  The US and Eritrea are the only two countries that tax their citizens on world income unless there is a treaty with the country of residence, but it still is immensely complicated.  The American tax return is deliberately complicated – every move to simplify it has been successfully resisted by organised accountants and the online company TurboTax that’s meant to simplify it but doesn’t, at least for someone who since the age of 19 has never lived or worked in America or who, like most writers, is self-employed.  Then there was the exchange rate.  My native land lay tantalisingly over the border but I could scarcely afford to enter it, as the Australian dollar was less than half the American one at the time and what income I had was Australian.  Nor was I eligible for Social Security, as I hadn’t worked in the US since I was in my teens.

Then came 9/11, and not long after, Bush’s Patriot Act.  This requires expatriate US citizens to file other quite onerous forms the point of which is to prove we aren’t terrorists.  The whole business is so time-consuming and expensive that I’ve been at the point of relinquishing my citizenship a second time, only to find that that too is so prohibitively expensive and mindbloggingly bureaucratic that I haven’t got on top of the process.

This is my personal story.  At 76, still filing tax returns, or trying to, in a country I haven’t resided in for coming on 57 years.   And now my adopted country, the one I affirmed my allegiance to in a ceremony in Canberra’s Albert Hall so long ago that the record of it isn’t even on the immigration department’s computerised database, is legislating to remove the citizenship of others like me who may, unless this is corrected, do nothing more than deface Australian government property.  So we’re back where we started in this piece, for if this is the case, what does citizenship actually mean?  The muscular, macho, jingoistic interpretation behind Abbott's ‘Team Australia’ doesn’t augur well for any of us, the dinky-di, born on Australian soil