For Papa, whose birthday was October 30.
The time machine
Musings, memories and further esoteric rhapsodies
By Yasmine Rafii
November 16, 1998
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
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
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
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
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.