Monday, November 22, 2010

The Elixir (1/4)

Do you ever feel like you’re going to have an emotional breakdown? Do you have a heavy heart and don’t know how you’ll carry yourself through to the end of the day? Do you see this life as a cruel mistress or evil taskmaster?  Do you ever have one of those days that even an Oprah marathon couldn't remedy?  Does it seem like you’re just existing, waiting for death, and not really living? Perhaps you’re dying a slow death every day and nobody’s aware of it? Well, not me.

To the contrary, I’m feeling exuberant these days, and I owe this euphoric state to the elixir—I purposely say the elixir, not an elixir. Were it not for this mysterious, green-and-then-black-and-back-to-green carbonated liquid, moderately viscous, sweet to the palate, silky smooth down the gullet, I don’t know how I could cope. Admittedly, I can get rather melancholy and even melodramatic. I had of late lost all my mirth until—Gott sei dank!—I chanced upon this medicine in a bottle, unexpected solace for my woes.

I bought the elixir for the equivalent of $3 in Turkish lira from an Armenian shopkeeper in the run-down part of Istanbul while on a visit to the venerable city two years ago. The guy must have been one hundred frickin’ years old and had some hard living behind him besides. (Was he alive in 1915 during those evil days? I wondered.) I didn’t think much of the purchase at the time. Although the strange writing on the label aroused my curiosity sufficiently to seek out a translator, I had eventually forgotten the bottle with the cool-looking label for nearly two years thereafter; it sat forlorn in the back of a kitchen cupboard until I found it while cleaning the other day.

I was about to catch a flight to Frankfurt—my ultimate destination of course being the good old USA—when I realized I would be going home empty-handed, without souvenirs for the kids. I was in a cab heading down Kennedy Cadessi toward Ataturk Airport, the gleaming Sea of Marmara full of ships and boats as far as the eye could see out the left window, when I spotted a shop that struck my fancy and on a whim told the driver to pull over for a few minutes.

While an Armenian extended family looked on with a modicum of alarm in their expressions, I hastily went through their little store in a mad dash to find trinkets, nervously looking at my watch every 15 seconds. Those crazy Americans! I settled upon a paper weight in the shape of the Blue Mosque, a buttload of evil eye beads, a box of pistachio lokum, an Ataturk mug, a banner picturing some Armenian saint from the sixth century, a souvenir spoon for my daughter’s collection, and of course that precious bottle of elixir. A solitary bottle sitting quietly on a shelf between keychains and ceramic coasters.  I didn’t know it was precious when I bought it, but the other day in the kitchen I learned to appreciate its qualities.

What possessed me to buy this bottle? Firstly, it has a weird shape, like an hourglass but wider and taller. Most of all, though, the label intrigued me. It’s written in Armenian, I presume, and it pictures the same saint that appears on the banner I purchased for my middle daughter. He sports a long beard and has a mischievous face. Heck, if I drank this stuff I’d be a saint too, walking around all happy and shit! When you open the cap and look inside, you’ll be amazed. The liquid seems to turn—even ooze—from black to green, and back again, repeatedly, like a dichromatic kaleidoscope. I realize that my description doesn’t do it justice; it sounds gross, right? I’m telling you, though, once you see it move and especially taste it, well, it’s like…feeling like a child again, cradled in your mother’s arms, or basking in the warm embrace of your lover’s arms. It’s like feeling a gentle ocean breeze wafting up to the crag upon which you’ve perched yourself to take in the sunshine above and the azure carpet below.

The colorization of the liquid, I’ve theorized, has something to do with the way it makes you feel. The black perhaps symbolizes melancholy, which is just a Greek word for “black bile.” The green brings to mind life and vibrancy. Arguably, the magical juice cleanses you of your sadness and rejuvenates you, making you forget the dark thoughts that had once haunted you so. I'm just speculating, mind you.  I really don't have a clue as to why this liquids looks the way it does and how it can have such an effect on my emotional state.

You probably don’t believe me about all of this.  That’s the thing. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried! The taste, I mentioned, is sweet, but not sugary or syrupy; actually, I can’t discern the source of the sweetness. Sugar? Honey? I don’t know. The only flavor I can make out is that of raki, the famed Turkish liquor, and only because I enjoyed a bottle with friends while in Istanbul. Then again, what I’m tasting might just be the aniseed which gives the beverage its distinctive taste.

Whatever the ingredients, I’m a different person after drinking the stuff. Until the elixir, I wasn’t great for parties.

“Hey, Der. What up?”

“What up, you say? Well,” I would respond, “certainly not the six million plus victims of the Holocaust.”

“Chill, brotha. Have a beer!”

“Have a beer, huh? Isn’t that what Anna Marie Hahn said to one of her victims before she poisoned him?”

I remember Chuck, a former boss with whom I've stayed in contact as a friend, taking me aside at his dinner party.  "Der, look, you're disturbing some of my guests.  I enjoy your company.  I really do.  But sometimes people don't want to hear about awful things repeatedly, over and over, nonstop, you know?"

I remember responding to Chuck in utter confusion.  "You're talking about my urine and vomit anecdotes?"

"Well, yes, certainly those....but the other comments too...about murder, genocide, terrorism, and the like.  It's about moderation.  Those topics are fine, but not all the time.  That's all I'm saying."


"I'm just saying.  People....well, specifically, my friends want to have an escape, at least once in a while, from such suffering and evil in the world."

"Oh.  I apologize."  I was indeed sorry.  Yet I couldn't help but think that Chuck's new glassesa self-proclaimed attempt to emulate John Lennonactually made him look more like Heinrich Himmler.

Only now, thanks to the elixir, do I have the strength and resolve to set aside the serial killers, rapists, génocidaires, and other vermin that have plagued my mind for so long. I have a zest for living! My family has noticed a marked change in my outlook. I used to be lugubrious, but not anymore. I don’t even know what the frickin’ word means, to be honest! Good thing too, because it’s a dark word and doesn’t characterize the new me.

Take yesterday for example.  I found myself giving group hugs to complete strangers at Walmart, patting them on the back, engaging in chitchat.  I used to think that small talk was a waste of time, mere pleasantries to while away the time, but not anymore.  When you feel like I do after drinking the elixir, you just want to reach out to people and tell them how much you appreciate them and life in general.

The “life juice,” as I call the elixir these days, normally lasts for days, almost an entire week, from one moderate gulp. To be sure, the contents of the bottle decreased over the months, but I honestly didn’t notice, or worry, for I was just too euphoric.

Before I inadvertently discarded the elixir in a kitchen cupboard a couple of years ago, I wanted to find out what the label said. So I called an old high school buddy, Vince, the only Armenian-American I’ve ever known personally, and incidentally the only Armenian I’ve known whose last name doesn’t end in “ian.” He lives in Los Angeles.

“Vince? How’s it going, bro!”

“Who is this?”


“Der Viator?”

“Yeah, dude. How goes it?”

“Alright, I guess…..Why are you calling?”

“On my cell phone, bro.”

“No, not how are you calling, but why are you calling?”

“Oh, gotchya. Bad reception. Um, to chew the fat.”

“Oh?  Um….uh...”

“Hey, listen. I was wondering if you’d do me a favor and translate some words from Armenian?”

“Dude, what the hell are you talking about?”

“Well, you’re Armenian and I thought you’d be interested in your people’s history…”

“Okay, first of all, I don’t know any Armenian, other than some of my grandmother’s curse words. Secondly, my people? What the hell? Dude, my people are those UCLA babes that live in the next apartment over, the dudes I go surfing with on weekends, and—shit!—the drag queen down the hall.  Now there's a sicko for ya, but I digress.  My people! What’s this about?  I'm just part of an ethnic category in your mind?  You should see people as individuals, bro.  That's kind of racist, don't you think?”

“No...I....  Anyway, the thing is, I found this bottle in Turkey…”

“Why did you go there?”


“No, Timbutku.  Yes!  Turkey!”


"Is that a question?"


A large pause followed.  “I’m not a big fan of Turkey.”

“I figured….”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing. Look, I….”

“What do you mean?”

“I just mean that I don’t blame you for not liking….”

“Who said I didn’t like Turks?”

“Well, I didn’t exactly say that…I just….Look, we’re getting off topic a bit….”

“Who says there’s a topic? A prescribed topic?  I thought you just wanted to ‘chew the fat’?  Didn't you say that?  Or am I wrong?  You want to chew the fat?”

"I do...."

"What!  Are you a topic-Nazi?  It's your way or the highway?"


"I can't bring up a topic if I wanted to?"

"No, I mean, yes, I mean, I don't know....just...."

"You haven't called me in years and you want me to be the translator for 'my people'!  Is that it?  You want me to dress up in a traditional costume or something?"

“I shouldn’t have asked you...”

“Damn straight!”

I knew that Vince was still smarting over something that happened years ago. He thought I spit in his Coke during a party when he went to the bathroom. He claimed that I was getting back at him for supposedly stealing my girlfriend.  I assured him that he’s mistaken, but he’s never believed me—nor forgiven me.

“Vince, why do you have to be this way?”

“What?   What are you talking about?”

“You always get psycho on people.”

"That's what you said years ago!  Get some new material, man.  Psycho, my ass.  Frankly, you're just jealous of me, always have been."

"Okay, this is getting weird....and I don't even want to know what you think I'm jealous of...."

“Fuck you, man!”

"Is this about the alleged spit?"  By this time I realized I wasn't going to get any help on the elixir bottle.

"Fuck you!"

"That's really mature.  Does your mom know you cuss like this, dude?"  I thought I'd try a different tact: the guilt trip.  Vince's mom was the church organist at the church we both went to in our high school years.

"I don't live with my parents anymore!"

I was tempted to say, Yeah, your mom kicked you out of the house at the 'young' age of 37 when she found your pot stash.  I didn't say this.  Thought about it, but didn't say it.

"Screw you, man.  You shouldn't have called."

“Okay!  You know what?  Fuck you!  Are you done now?”

"No.  Fuck you, asshole!"


“Hello? Vince?  You there?……Shit.”

The conversation didn’t go well.  That is to say, it didn't quite turn out  as I had hoped it would. So I gave up on having the label translated.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter what the label says.  The elixir has transformed me, set me back on my feet, and given me a new perspective.   I can appreciate the world around me, especially the goodness and beauty that abound.  I'm not completely oblivious to suffering in the world, but I don't dwell on it.  I embrace the vicissitudes of life with a grin and a smile.  Let the black ooze into green.  Let me savor the sweetness of our earthly existence.  As the elixir soothes my throat, I gain much comfort in a future unearthly existence as well.  I stand here with open hands.

I’ve tried to search out the origins of the elixir. Oddly enough, my search led me to—of all places—Japan.  Please do not think, dear reader, that this shift in mise-en-scène to Japan has anything to do with the fact that, apart from Turkey, it’s one of the few non-Western countries I’ve experienced and know something about. I’m merely recounting my experience and trying to be as honest and forthright as I can.