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For Papa, whose birthday was October 30.

The time machine
Musings, memories and further esoteric rhapsodies

By Yasmine Rafii
November 16, 1998
The Iranian

Winters of the American northwest provide a wonderful backdrop for writing. Seated, cross-legged in my black leather armchair, staring out beyond the horizon and the Olympic Range, it's easy to fall prey to rumination, idle rambling and a host of other delightfully useless activities. The air is soft, the color a moist, grey green, the sound a damp echoless hush. A perfect, fungi-friendly environment for the mushrooming of thoughts.

Sitting back, I breathe in the rhythm of the skies, and let myself drift.

Celebrating birthdays is one of those terrifically human activities that distinguish us from the rest of the fauna on earth. I have always felt that maybe, if we looked the other way, they wouldn't happen. And then the whole aging bit, could just shuffle off somewhere else into the universe, and leave us be. I wouldn't miss birthdays, would you?

Ever since my aborted first birthday party on the 28th of Mordad (August 19), 1953, I have approached this, unavoidably annual event, with a certain degree of ambivalence and mistrust. The story of that night, told and retold, is now firmly ensconced in the Great Hall of Memories, along side all the other family myths.

My parents are young, newly working graduates of the University of Tehran Medical School. They live with my uncle on a street a few doors away from the home of our beloved Prime Minister. My actual birthday was a few days prior, but for some reason, my parents have scheduled the party for that night.

Alas, instead of a house full of guests eating the goose my mother has proudly prepared in honor of my first year of life, the house filled with the sound of gunfire and screams. I am taken to the basement, where stray bullets will not find their way to my crib. My father and uncle, also a physician, go out to tend the wounded. The night is long and disturbing. Early in the morning, the Honorable Prime Minister scurries through our yard, on his way to seek refuge. A sombre star shines. A great man falls. My welcome to the world.

Life, in its inimitable way, goes on unperturbed by such trivialities. Human dramas, propelled by greed, ambition and lust don't really amount to much more than space dust, really. A little noise in an obscure corner of the universe. And yet, that loss continues to echo through our hopes and dreams.

There is a pattern to life. I am sure of it. Every now and then, I think I get an inkling of what it looks like. It starts out with a tendril, as fine as a baby's hair. Then curling in on itself, over and over again, now left, now right, dovetails into another tendril and then another and then another. Like the carpet under my feet, a repetition so refined and purposeful that it lulls one into complacency. " Relax," it says, "life was designed by as true a master as there ever was." No winners, no losers, just the eternal dance. Spiraling up, spiraling down. Saddled with centuries of inept and vainglorious leadership, that curving tendril that is the Persian soul, cloaks itself in martyrdom's doleful mantle, and weeps. And yet, what glorious pattern makers we are! With art that perfectly celebrates the imperfection of creation. With a poet's instinct for geometry. Who else so consciously glorifies their own demise? The martyr's birthday is the day he enters his heaven.

Listen to me... I haven't even begun my story, and already, I am lost on a Sea of Useless Philosophizings. ( SOUP, we could call it. Goes good with the weather). My apologies to those devotees of linear thinking, without whom, the earth would not be paved with roads. I am an incorrigible profligate and have squandered your Time shamelessly. Then again, there is no such thing as Time, so I'll just keep rambling.

Of course, there have been a few other Birthdays since that dramatic first one. Some noteworthy, some not.

Not long ago, I had the occasion to celebrate my eighth birthday, in Manhattan. As I remember, it was a sweltering August day and my parents, little brothers and I had just arrived from Chicago, on our way to a great adventure. We were going back to our homeland, Iran. The journey would start on board a ship, the SS Liberte, which was due to sail in three days. In the meantime, we did the usual NeverBeenToNewYork routine and took in a few of the more prosaic sights. Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Macy's... I think that about covered it.

I was at the age when it was still possible to believe in parental omnipotence. They would undoubtedly know how important it was to make a fuss over me and divine my secret wishes. Without my having to say a word, they would present me with an assortment of delicate finery and colorful baubles. Afterall, I was their darling daughter and the center of my own, if not their, universe. I felt entitled to nothing less and yet, life had already provided me with enough disappointments, that I had developed a healthy, albeit premature, sense of doubt. Life was a joyous miracle, but one often filled with baffling frustrations.

My main birthday wish was to see, the now classic film based on the H.G. Wells novel, "The Time Machine". It had just opened in a very grand theater in Times Square. The Time Machine in Times Square. Profound, no? My dilemma, of course, was how to accomplish this with two baby brothers in tow. This was less profound.

I had had the extreme luxury of being an only child for my first five years of life. Adjusting to the presence of a couple of younger brothers brought out a less then perfect side of my personality. Let's be honest, I was an obnoxious brat. I had a falling out with God for having afflicted me with two of the most adorable baby brothers an older sister could have. Strangers on the street would stop us just so they could pet them. Believe me, it took a few years before sisterly pride kicked in. And then of course, it assumed obnoxious proportions of its own.

Sanguine but hopeful -- when my father announced that I was spending the afternoon with him at the theater -- I did not jump out of my chair and hop around clutching myself with glee. No, I just sat there and smiled demurely, while my heart flopped around in its cage. Just me and papa - this was special.

Hand in hand we set off from the sumptuous lobby of the now defunct Edison Park Hotel. Times Square was plastered with billboards announcing the opening of the film and there was nothing I wanted more than to be sitting next to my father, in a velvet chair, gobbling popcorn with both hands, while being inducted into the obscure mysteries of time travel. This movie, its images and concepts, was the height of stimulation for my little psyche. I knew instinctively I would be altered, and I was. That day, my imagination got a dose of something from which it still has not recovered.

Back at the hotel, later that afternoon, my father gave me my birthday present. A navy blue umbrella. Adult size... probably a man's. I have to admit, as birthday presents go, this was an odd one. We all know that it's the thought that counts. But really, what could my father have been thinking?

Don't get me wrong, I adore my father. He is one of those people who's good intentions and kind-heartedness has endeared him to countless hordes of humans over the years. The quintessential family doctor, who has spent the better part of his career catering to the needs of the "undesirable" patients of Chicago's south side. Patients who's physiology, psychology and heredity has left them saddled with 500 pounds of excess, medically-challenged, baggage. Patients with names like Gussy Suggs.

Dinner table conversation, while we were growing up, included detailed and ecstatic rapturings on the miracle of childbirth. Bowel humor was "de rigueur" and usually got going well before dessert. My father's irrepressible good humor and mirth is coupled with a profound sentimentality. Mushy TV commercials with chubby, squeezably soft, diaper clad infants will leave him with moist eyes and a bad case of the sniffles. Even my mother's formidable and tireless ambition to straighten him out, has hardly made a dent. Like water, he finds his way around every obstacle and stays true to himself.

Disappointed as I was with my umbrella, that day, I look back now and see only a father, unfamiliar with the workings of a little girl's heart, proudly pouring his love into a gift of shelter and protection from the elements. But wait a minute. We were on our way to Shiraz, and rain is hardly an issue there. Oh well, I guess the Umbrella of Times Square will always be one of my life's "Unsolved Mysteries".

Later that evening, my parents, having fed and bathed us, entrusted me with the care of my two baby brothers, and went out for dinner. When they came back, Keyvan and I were on the bed, glued to the latest episode of Zorro. Of course, this was Zorro, pre Antonio Banderas, but it was engrossing, nonetheless. Unfortunately, more so than I intended... Cyrus was missing from the room.

Now, there is hysteria and then there is Hysteria and then there is a Persian Mother's !!! HYSTERIA !!! Well, we got a taste of all three that night. I cried, Keyvan cried, Mama and Papa cried. I had never known such anguish and guilt.

The front desk staff was marshalled into patrolling the halls, the police were called, I silently wished the earth would open up and swallow me. I was secretly horrified to think that maybe God had actually been listening all those times I complained about not being the center of the universe anymore.

What if I had caused this to happen?

About twenty minutes into the drama, a miracle occured. I leaned over the edge of the bed and pulling up the bedspread, uncovered my chubby little brother, puffing away contentedly, in a deep, deep sleep. Oblivious to the pandemonium his absence was causing, he had simply rolled under the bed on his way to lip-smacking dreams of mother's milk. Oh what a relief! What a drama ! What a birthday! I didn't cause my baby brother to disappear! I could live! (Cyrus' astounding ability to fall sleep anywhere, anytime, anyhow has pursued him into adulthood. Soporific Cy, we like to call him. Now a physician himself, he even manages to grab a few z's while taking particularly long and monotonous patient histories).

And so, my eighth birthday in Manhattan came to a close. Let the future come, I was prepared. Armed with my navy blue umbrella, the secrets of time travel, and a big lesson: Be careful what you ask for, somewhere out there in the universe, someone may be listening.

The next day, we set sail. Across the Atlantic to a new home, a new life and many more birthdays. Some noteworthy, some not.

As I look back, on this long line of accumulated birthdays, I wonder about the power of the universe to organize itself. The earth revolves around the sun, and every year returns to the same place in the sky it occupied on the day of our birth. Our bodies, despite all the tampering, are still very much in tune with this cycle. How is it? How is it that our cells know the earth has completed another revolution around the sun? Do they have calendars? Maybe there were classes somewhere back in prehistory called "How to be a Successful Cell" or "Cellular Self-Organizing Techniques" or "Regeneration vs Degeneration." Whatever training they got back then, I think it needs updating. Aging is really an anachronism and I predict, in the coming millenium, we will do away with it altogether. After all, it's only fitting, since we worship infinity, that we should have a go at it ourselves. It's probably over rated anyway.

In the meantime, we celebrate Birthdays. We eat Cake. We invent God. We invent Time. We create Good and Evil. We leave no Quark unturned. We are Envious. We are Lonely. We mark our life on earth by creating symbols to celebrate and worship. We attribute meaning to everything and understand almost nothing. We are a lovely Dream. We make Art.

It is now late in the afternoon and the skies are changing. The storm has come and gone and in its wake, three bold stripes of light, making their way through the parting clouds, anoint the tree tops near by. A perfect moment passes and in so doing, gives birth to another. My story ends here, but the dance continues. Take look around. You might want to celebrate.

Thank you, Papa.

Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form