Thursday, September 14, 2017

Night Manager

In the 1970's, New York City was a very different place.  It was dangerous and sleazy; anything could happen.  You'd walk down a side-street at night with a sense of shadows, with your heart beating.  Muggings were common; crime was woven into the fabric and you expected to be threatened.  In a way it was like the dare of the city-- are you tough enough, are your dreams compelling enough to lie down with rabid dogs, spar with the urban devil himself?  There was a certain underlying surf we had to ride out-- a dark fire we were expected to navigate.  The noir permeated our art-- our music and poetry-- our clothes, our choices.

On the other hand, there was a wild freedom in our private sex lives.  We were walking an edge-- trying out things.  There was no internet or linked-in.  You'd meet someone and take a risk.  There were no personal phones-- only a door or a window to crawl out if you found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I was young and all-connected.  I was straddling worlds-- downtown, uptown-- the art world and the music underground.  It was thrilling and new.  Every day I'd get introduced into someone's world that rocked my own.  I'd walk into a club at night and hear something new-- see someone trying to change things.  Sometimes you'd exchange ideas; sometimes you exchanged bodies.

One afternoon I was studying at the Figaro on Bleecker Street, and this actor sat down at my table… he wasn't super famous but I recognized him.  He was slightly older… and he was smart; we spoke about theatre and Proust.  We made a date to meet the next night at a west-side bar.  I went to the library that evening and looked him up; he'd written a couple of books, and his publisher was well-known.  Everything in those days ended up in bed, and we had a few nights of passion.  I was dating a guitar player at the same time who came back to town and I wasn't home much to answer calls.  I don't think I even had an answering machine.  Anyway, one day I was getting into a car with the guitar player and the actor passed me… I looked the other way.   He called me a few nights later, sounded drunk and insecure about his sexual performance… it was a stupid conversation and I was 22 or 23 and didn't feel like getting into a whole psychological tunnel…

Two days later, someone broke into my little apartment on the first floor.  It was a vulnerable place and I probably never even drew the curtains when I stayed out all night… but they took everything.  In those days everything fit into a couple of suitcases-- but it was all I had, and when I came home on a Sunday evening to find my window smashed, the mattress stripped and the place ransacked, I was spooked.  The cops assured me it was no Kojak episode but most likely a desperate junkie looking for cash and things to sell for dope.  My guitar player was going on the road; I stayed with a friend at the Chelsea Hotel for a few days while they put in a new window and locks on the door.

At the Chelsea I inhaled the quintessence of 1970's New York.  Sid and Nancy were there; Viva and I shared a cigarette on the stairs.  My friend was working with John Cale; he'd been robbed too and he processed the dare of the city with a certain bitter mistrust.  It was a cool hang, but I needed to face my independence without a support system.  I moved back to my little place, bought new sheets and a cheap little TV, was at last drifting off to sleep with Johnny Carson on the black and white 12-inch… when the phone rang.  I'd been gone for a week and thought it was my guitar player-- whispering… but then I heard the actor's voice, indisputably, asking me if I knew what he was doing… I jumped out of bed in a cold sweat, and ran up the stairwell to the next floor-- banged on a random door.  Some guy answered-- I begged him to let me in… I'm sure he thought I was crazy; thinking back, he had no pants on--  I stuttered something about someone stalking me…  anyway, he went into his bedroom and I curled up on his dirty carpet.  He had a small dog and it had new puppies… I lay there like a dog myself until the sun came up and I had the nerve to go downstairs.

I hadn't thought about this for so many years, but it was maybe the first coming-of-age reality check of the city.  In a way I'd been lucky; no one had really hurt me… and thinking back, it was undoubtedly a total coincidence that the actor phoned at that moment.  I'm sure he had no knowledge that I'd been robbed, that I'd been away… or did he?  It was the first time I felt genuinely unsafe-- a little terrified-- and had thoughts about finding a more secure apartment, about making wiser and less random choices, about becoming part of a couple as opposed to being the wild and free girl.  In a way I changed my vision that night; in a way I accepted there would be a kind of dependence on men in my life.  The end of innocence, which for girls is so often some threat or unmanageable fear which changes us and forces us to make a slightly desperate choice.  It's not 'live free or die', but  'live'.  It's a form of terrorism, but that's another discussion.

Like most things in life, we give up one thing for another; nothing stays the same, no one retains their innocence unless someone else arranges this for us.  Of course life in the city today feels much safer; people have phones for emergencies, everyone's marital and employment status is pretty much general knowledge, as is their age and address, their political affiliations and criminal record-- their net worth.  People sort through hundreds of prospects on dating sites-- they hook up, they regroup, they text and sext and move on.  I seldom walk into a club these days and encounter something that changes my world.  I no longer fall in love and rarely walk the dark streets with a sense of danger and excitement.  I miss those times; I've had a good and a rich life here, but I do miss myself when I was still brave enough or maybe dumb enough to take a nightly walk on the wild side.  When there was a viable and findable wild side.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Grave Thoughts

Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me…over and over in my head the last week,  the over-used Emily Dickinson couplet like an annoying nag, a childhood haunting-- because I never loved that poem… and the image of the threesome in the carriage… Death, the deceased, and immortality-- well, three's a crowd and they seem somehow incompatible.  Death is neither kind nor proud, as John Donne pointed out over three centuries ago… and how many generations of Donnes have stopped for Death-- have thought about these things, have struggled with acceptance or resistance, embraced God in strength or desperation?

Despite the fact that the only absolute certainty of life is its demise, we are universally unprepared when death touches us-- when we are diagnosed or when we lose a loved one.  Some of us obsess and read obituaries daily, commemorate daily passings on our Facebook pages, indulge in private rituals and personal prayers.  Are we thinking of the departed or of our own selves, trying to rehearse the moment, to cope, somehow, with the ultimate thing we dread?  Some cultures celebrate death; my own foray into Goth-dom explored the macabre and dark; it was appealing and brave-- confronting the monster head-on, wearing fear on our clothing, tattooing its image on our skin like a boldfaced dare.

It's ironic that my last post was a sort of Eulogy… just days later my beloved mother died and the farewell was neither noble nor poetic.  I have had altogether too much intimacy with Death this year-- family, mentors…  my friend with whom I sat, whose witness and unwilling end-of-life nurse I became because she was unable to accept her fate and fought until the very end.  It was something I wish I'd not experienced, although I am told I did a humane and sympathetic thing.  There was no closure; the end was hideous, painful, sad and desperate.  The posthumous silence was heavy and haunted; it all felt terribly wrong and as though I'd been let into a private room no human should see.

My Mom-- the version I knew-- had been fading into some emotional and physical place of distance.  I could seldom reach her, although she occasionally came back into the present and looked at me with such deep poignant recognition and love; I craved those brief moments, and was not ready to lose her.  Personal grief is like a wave-- like a tidal undertow that knocks you off your feet and takes your breath away.  It is the end of possibility, the absolute curtain on something that feels like your true love.  It is undeniable and difficult.

Burial feels like a primitive ritual.  For me the concept of burial associates with hiding something-- covering something up which will eventually be uncovered.  Maybe that was the point of the ritual; I haven't researched this… but have read plenty of Edgar Allen Poe, and have noticed the enormous popularity of zombie and vampire films in recent years.  Still, as far as I know, no one has actually yet come back and described the experience.  Seeing my mother's coffin in a hole in a graveyard surrounded by strangers made me feel a little more desperate.  Leaving her there felt wrong; I sensed in my broken heart a calling-- don't go… stay with me, I wanted to scream-- to tear my hair and rub dirt on my face, to lie on top of her and sing to her… but I had to behave, to place my small shovel of dirt with a single white rose and wait for the gravediggers to follow later on with their little dedicated steamshovels.

The gravestone is a symbol, for most of us… but we still visit-- we leave flowers and stones; my friend brings his trucker Dad a coffee light and sweet with a glazed doughnut.  I've even seen a pack of cigarettes in a cemetery… a ball and glove, a Yankee hat.  Does this help?  It is so literal.  Death is literal; the afterlife is vague and unexplained.  We speak to the dead, we pray, we cry-- we write songs and poetry… we find things on the street, we look for signs.  Who knows?   Que sera, sera, my mother used to sing to me, but she didn't really believe that.  She even told me she wanted to be cremated because she feared suffocating.  Her wishes were not honored by my sister who always seems to manage the last word in my little family.  My brand of sympathy is discredited, my rock and roll existence is like a stain on the stiff white-washed facade of her artifice.  She has invented her version of dignity, of shame-hiding and cover-up.  Yes, burials of all types are familiar to her.  She speaks in cemetery tongues.

My Mom's interment took place on the day of the solar eclipse.  This offered some comfort for me, in the cosmic confluence of the heavens and the transition of my Mom who despite her old-fashioned ideas and obsolete code of ethics was rather pure of heart.  It forced us to look upward, to the sky-- a sort of directive to symmetry, and to the place she, in her funny naiveté, along with so many of us, imagined.   She also loved me, truly and deeply, while often objecting to my lifestyle and regretting what to her seemed my shameful and unnecessary oath of poverty and allegiance to a difficult and vague life-plan including single motherhood.   But I never complained, and everyone else did.

As things so often come in threes, I feel almost released this season, although I realize the acceleration of life at my age will bring the next round altogether too soon.  The Houston floods have brought the specter of mass grief and loss into everyone's horizon, and this tempers our selfish personal sorrows,  or inspires in us that much more sympathy.   For me the musician--  timing is everything.  My sleepless nights now are spent watching endless footage of rising waters like tears-- of rescue and sacrifice and devastation.  We are so reminded of our helplessness in the larger 'picture' of the world; for those who have laid loved ones to 'rest' in graveyards and cemeteries… the ravages of nature have as little regard for the dead as the living.  It is tragic and will leave an enormous scar.  And yet, one day, the sun will come out, as it did here all week while the southern coast was pounded, and the universe does not feel shame or grieve for its acts of cruelty. We sad humans must mourn, and save, and help, and love, and try to come to some understanding with Death, because he is surely not kind and will not pass us by, not a single one-- not so far.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Camera Obscura

When my adorable son was barely three years old, he came upon his first 'little person' on line with us at the supermarket.  After thoughtfully scrutinizing her, he cried out… 'Look, Mom! It's a girl just turning into a lady!' Of course it is difficult for young children to comprehend the phases of life-- the concept that they are going to grow up, that their own parents and Grandparents were once young-- that this is a slow, gradual, continuous process.

Now that I am entering a late phase of life,  I again find it hard to grasp the lessons of time, to accept the harsh losses and assimilate the regrets of my peers who seem oddly unprepared, despite decades of identical 24-hour daily allotments, for their senior years.  Recently I saw my Dad cross over-- cross, with all its meanings, is the appropriate word, because he wore a tough and cantankerous skin over his purple hero's heart, even in death.

My mother, on the other hand, has deteriorated slowly and with a kind of demented grace.  She sits in a chair like a soft throne, with her thinning white hair pulled up in a tight knot, her famous cheekbones still defining her profile, her skin still soft but papery.  It is her eyes that tell the story-- watery, unfocused-- occasionally expressive but progressively less and less present.  Where are you, Mom-- in some honeymoon dream with your handsome decorated lover lifting you over some threshold, standing above the falls with the deafening roar of water rushing you off into another undertow of memory? It is difficult to know whether the sadness I read into her increasingly blank stare is hers or my own.

From her chairside, I facetime my son-- her favorite grandchild, the nurse-companion assures me-- and the three generations share a moment.  He is quite a man now; time has done its work here, too.  I meet his old school friends on the street and some of them have begun to lose their hair and take on that look of premature disappointment men in their 30's and 40's often wear.  The babies I held so recently are adults now-- the young couples I knew are turning grey, losing their religion.  Witnessing these passages is the way I process my own.  I am relatively unchanged, consistent.  I have different expectations.  I gave up on my vow to own a limestone townhouse on East 70th Street; I no longer want one.  I treasure my things, my books---  thank the angels I can still play bass and write songs and poetry.   I ask for little else-- can survive on the barest minimum in this city where I feel rich without money.  Yes, I was fortunate enough to have had the foresight to invest in an apartment when they were oh-so-cheap… exchanged vacations, movies, restaurants-- for a home, 'ant' that I was, having left my 'grasshopper' husband in the UK with the rest.

When I moved into my building it felt palatial.  We'd come from a studio apartment; my son endured his kindergarten friends remarking he slept in a closet; he did.  The head of our new coop was this elegant, intelligent woman who turned out to have been the fashion editor of the New York Times at a time when this was culturally important.  Her husband was a world-renowned Swedish photographer whose fashion photos were spectacularly smart and iconic.  Since I had a Swedish boyfriend, our kinship was sealed.  They took me under their wing, so to speak.  I adored them.  We shared evenings and ideas.  They were perennial attendees at my all-night musical Thanksgivings, and were treasured and wonderful guests.  Gus, the photographer-- also shared my passion for music.  He came to my gigs-- even the difficult solo ones-- critiqued my songwriting with brutal honesty and a sharp POV… gave his opinion freely of my friends, their work, etc.  He came to school events and photographed the children.  He'd knock on my door at night when I was home and sort through cds and art books.  He brought me albums and tapes and taught me so much about jazz.  When I visited Sweden, I'd bring him small things… I even photographed his boyhood home-- the apple trees and the stream running through his memory.  He was like the father I never experienced.  His love for his own children was boundless and unconditional, and somehow he realized I'd missed out, and generously shared a paternal affection.  I was proud of him.  His choice of wife-- stellar.  More than anything-- his decisive modus operandi-- as though he knew exactly what he thought and wanted and laid it out there.  This is rare.  True honesty and a point of view to go with it.  He attended coop meetings and harshly criticized injustices.  He supported me in my crusades and shared my sorrows without pity.  As a couple, they were the emotional roof over my head upstairs.

As he got older, he was a little more cantankerous-- scolded my friends at my own table, announced he disliked people to their face… knocked on my door and demanded that I cook him Swedish meatballs, bake him cookies-- insisted on eating on my sofa where he left stains and spilled wine.  Whatever was on my stereo, he would take it off and put on either Bud Powell or Art Tatum or his very favorite, Slim Gaillard.  He liked a bit of humor with his jazz.  He loved women, beauty in all forms… and knew how to convey a message with an image.  During the last year, he began to pocket small things from my apartment.  I caught him in the act once, and he responded, without remorse,  'You don't NEED this.  You don't even notice it!'  It was as though he was aware our time was a little foreshortened, and he needed some souvenirs.  He was becoming greedy of moments as the sand ran down in his hourglass.  I, too.

Last week he passed away.  My grief is disproportionate; after all, I am not even a relative.  To their children, with whom I am not nearly as intimate, I can only express sympathy and condolences.  To his wife, who somehow understands my attachment, well.. I will cherish the future hours we can hopefully spend together, sharing ideas, like two women.  She is the maternal role model I never had; the enduring, amazing wife-now-widow.  I will listen and learn what I can, while she is here and generous with her evenings.

Recently an aging fashion designer stopped me on the street and asked for them.  They were quite the 'it' couple in their day, he always assures me, and generally accompanies this with an anecdote or two.  This time, for some reason, he graphically described the palpable chemical attraction one could sense between them in their prime.  For some of us, imagining people in their 80's and 90's as the Rihanna or Brad Pitt of their era-- well, it takes imagination… but I have learned now… such is time.  These waves crashing onshore at this moment, the surfers riding this crest, the shells and animals and fossils that we find in their shallow temporary graves at the water's edge-- will be less than memory in mere minutes.  All our selfies and photos-- well, they are just digital sand.

The images Gus left behind-- both photographic and realtime-- are etched in my memory.  The photographs are fortunately ingrained in the internet and in books; he has left a hefty legacy and will not be forgotten.  It is his persona that has left a mark on me-- the in-your-face direct line to his mind-- his affection, his humor-- his laugh, not to mention his gorgeous physical presence and unique style even into his 90's-- his personal fashion and his pride, and his compassion-- his unequivocal appreciation for whatever I had made, and the example he set as a father, a husband… and a friend.  I grieve for selfish reasons, as one does.  Last night, in tribute… I reached for my Slim Gaillard… and it had vanished.  Dearest Gus.



Monday, July 24, 2017

Noise of Summer

Summer mornings, rather than waking abruptly,  I occasionally slide from sleep into a sort of continuum of awareness.  Maybe it's the open window-- the way muffled night sounds blend into day noise-- a sense of nostalgia in the warm breeze, the birdsong-- but sometimes I forget where I am, what phase of life I am coasting into-- a sort of soft landing… as though I am steering through a dream, and for seconds feel I can time travel.  I often think of my Mom-- she is somewhere between life and death, between awareness and dementia-- and I miss her voice, her quiet singing and those kitchen sounds that are part of all of our personal geography.  During these moments, I can bring her back-- I can bring myself back… I listen for familiar clues, for music.

Most people these days reach for their phone, upon waking-- the way we used to reach for our lover, check the alarm, calculate how we could prolong morning bed-time-- before children, responsibility, reality called us into our day.  For some of my friends, waking brings the hard landing of depression, of regret-- we are no longer who we were, we are no longer lying with our great loves, no longer waiting for our babies and toddlers to jump on us with their laughter and their affection-- our puppies and kittens have aged and passed on.  Here we are with our past-prime selves, reconciling our agenda with
another remembered present… bringing the sounds of the day into focus.

Friday afternoon I went to have my hearing checked.  I am on Obamacare-enforced medicaid, like many of the income-challenged in this city, and while they relentlessly remind us to visit our healthcare facilities, they generally cover very few reasonable remedies.  Reluctantly I agreed to see the audiologist, having abused my ears for a lifetime, played ten thousand loud rock and roll gigs swimming in decibel-rich oceans, weathered a virtual hurricane of guitarists who have heard little above 4,000 Hz since their teenage years.  Many of them nevertheless lay it on for the rest of us, like a thin audio sandwich slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise so the main ingredients are virtually indistinguishable.

Not that I am innocent; volume was definitely my substance of choice, I confess to the ENT specialist who made me earplugs 10 years ago when a European tour left a permanent souvenir in my ears.  I remember how as a young player I'd melt into Marshall stacks and absorb the aural loops and acrobatics of stage audio.  I'd imagine riding a rough massive sound wave which rose and curled and brought me breathless to some new beach of musical denouement... but like all great drugs and unprotected sex-- there's a price and I am paying it.  My Dad survived five years of combat with some wounds and scars; his hearing loss was low on the macho-hero list of complaints; there is no purple heart for inner-ear damage.

In the city, there is a constant subtle roar; some neighborhoods are louder, but few are completely free of this-- motors, traffic, air conditioning, underground sounds, airplanes and helicopters-- the cumulative buzz of voices-- a rush, like wind-- even in the quiet patches.  There is very little silence, and when there is-- in these dead audio moments, I am aware of the rushing in my ears which crescendos to a whistling in the hours after loud gigs.  Yes, I now use my earplugs-- my protective devices which are a little too little, a little too late… but they take the edge off, and they don't really ruin the experience.  Some of my peers lament their hearing loss chronically.  They miss their old acuity and the way music sounded.  For me, I chalk it up-- I'm alive... I can put headphones on at medium-volume and still indulge.  There is perpetual noise in my life.  I ride subways, I walk the streets, I leave my windows open and hear the living sound of urban energy, like a blend of grey-waves.

What surprised me Friday is how little my hearing parameters seemed to have changed, despite the tinnitus.  I can understand speech, and apparently the new normal is significantly less acute than it was years ago.  Look around.  Scarcely anyone in the city is not wearing earbuds or some kind of headphones.  Speak to anyone on the street and they first remove their device.  On subway platforms musicians are playing to a vastly diminished audience; most everyone has their own portable entertainment in their phone.  But the ambient noise level-- when trains pass, especially dual trains-- exceeds most normal phone volumes.  No wonder we are an increasingly deaf culture.

Like the old Luddite I am, still without a cellphone, I am hyper-aware of the constant public phone-use.   Everyone in the street is talking-- earbuds in, microphones on-- looking straight ahead, and having a conversation-- on buses, trains… in elevators, at the gym… everyone is talking at once.  It's loud, as well.   I often wonder if lovers ever have those late night phone-in-the-closet dialogues when they sleep apart-- where listening is the focused activity.  No visual-- nothing but waiting for the voice on the receiver telling you what you want to hear.  It was everything-- the whispering, the confessions… the sound-on-sound intimacy.  We exchanged our first words of love in the dark, this way, so many of us.  It felt important and sexy-- listening.  It was all we had, and we invested in it.  Anyone could pick up another extension and eavesdrop, but it still felt so private and safe.  With all the texting and face timing, I don't think voice-to-voice communication is the same.

The face of the city has changed so drastically.  Many of my friends spend time on sites that post old photos of New York.  They look important and great to us, these images.  What people don't often speak about is how the sounds of the city have changed-- how not just the music has changed-- but how the way we hear music is different.  We are in our own little worlds, listening to our personal downloads-- watching clips, sampling songs-- texting and sharing… but essentially we are solitary. We are missing that version of conversation-- whispering, lying in bed in the morning with the street sounds seeping through windows, the stereo on… looking up at the ceiling, sharing our dreams and plans… inventing dialogue-- a version of love that relied less on visuals and more on what we said and how we said it.

So while I function with a soft roar in my ears-- a whistling and ringing and rushing I can never remove, I realize it is the memory of things I heard that I value more than the actual sound.  Like a painting of the moment-- a cinematic recreation rather than a digital accuracy, or like old photographs where not everything is in sharp focus, but the image is somehow present, and important.  I will take my audio memories any day, vintage as they are, faded and fingerprinted with static and ambience, blurred like dreams and weighted with longing and love; I am still listening.  

Friday, July 14, 2017

Fourth Prize

Independence Day.  241 years after the fact, the meaning changes.  I am wearing a safety pin on my black T-shirt, supposedly symbolic of my sympathy toward all genders, religions, ethnicities… you are safe with me.  Excepting, of course, those that profess bigotry, hatred, prejudice, exclusion… It is still alarming to me to find traitors among my circle of musicians, as though musical talent guarantees some sort of humanistic tolerance and empathy… and doesn't it?  Are you listening, God?

Actually, I often wear a safety pin because my clothes are tattered and torn; my sewing machine was repaired by a Chinese man in a tiny garage filled floor to ceiling with junk who swore technical mastery of my 1970's Swedish brand but failed to honor his promise despite the nine months of service and my additional monthly payments.  I believed in him.  The fact that he scarcely spoke English only made my faith stronger; somehow I make assumptions that immigrants have way more passion and dedication to the American dream than our birth-citizens who seem more likely these days to pledge daily allegiance to the Apple logo and little else.

Walking through Central Park in near-perfect weather, there was an unusual sense of tranquility… the birds were louder than the cars; Mexican and Puerto Rican families barbecuing and sharing… children playing in the grass… tourists headed to Brooklyn for the fireworks later… up here people are enjoying a holiday, trying not to think of politics and patriotic complicity.

I no longer understand America… the meaning, the immigrants giving speeches about liberty and opportunity that no longer 'ring'.   The bells of freedom, like the bells of St. Martin's church, are in need of repair.  We are like a mis-diagnosed country, the victim of our own philosophical health-care emergency.  Not to mention an early-Alzheimer's epidemic, because no one seems to even remember the melodies that are being recycled, scarcely a decade later.  Where are the lessons learned?  They are archived somewhere digital eons before the 'cloud' of recent invention which is bloated beyond galactic proportion with trivial bits of cultural and personal narcissism.

What will future archaeologists find?  Where are our fossils?  The detritus of our own waste-- unrecyclable plastics and packaging-- corpses and buried secrets from the hideous wars and crimes of warped humanity?  Where is our goodness buried?

Recycling is a good thing in the wake of our wasteful ravaging of this planet… but cultural recycling?  Where is our history, our memory?  Man in his heyday invented writing, to record for posterity things that happened, things that were invented-- instructions, testimonies-- memorials.  Most of us know how to read, but we ignore the important documents of history in favor of entertainment and froth.  How many of us have piles of books by our bed and dedicate time to deciphering ideas and digesting text?  We have televisions-- we have phones; we have instagram and Facebook.  Few lessons are learned here.

In our day, we have invented all kinds of things-- we have created chemicals and microbes; we have changed DNA and bred flowers and dogs.  We have diagnosed strange diseases, chronicled epidemics--- and yet we do not have cures.  We build skyscrapers and house thousands of people in a small space; and still, when calamity strikes, we cannot save these people.  We invent weapons of mass destruction… we fight wars of ideas, but we kill and injure; we cannot spare the innocent victims of these weapons.  We do not really know how to solve our global problems.  Are we independent, any of us?  Do we think independently and make our own decisions?  We rely on our technology and do not think for ourselves.  Somehow we have en masse elected as our national leader a man whose ignorance  is impressive and who could barely survive a day without a network of staff making decisions and executing procedure.  It is a flaccid state of affairs…

Rereading the Declaration of Independence which I am motivated to do after pondering the state of our nation this July, I am baffled that many of the original principles seem to be underknown and disrespected by the priorities of the current presidency.  Are we so codependent and selfish that we cannot look around us and prioritize humanity over material and economic gain?  Are we so shallow that we no longer read or remember any historic lessons?  How many Americans can name Beyonce's new twins and cannot identify 90% of the countries on an unlabeled map of Africa?

Of course, we have our phones; we have Google maps and Alexa and Siri.  We do still use our thumbs, but for many of us, we don't retain numbers and names; we don't wrestle with ideas or walk from place to place but take the physical and mental uber.   As far as history is concerned, we seem to welcome remakes of Hollywood movies and epics that succeeded once; someone seems to believe that massive budgets and contemporary celebrity actors will improve on the original, even though these actors' names will disappear from the horizon in a few telescoped years.  The lessons of history are absorbed in the collective Alzheimer's of our society which is so busy streaming and amassing data that it has forgotten its own origins, and sacrificed the independence of its brain, once the shining crown of Man.

We believe in God, so many of us…  but is religion another excuse for laziness? How many of us fall back on tenets and cliches and fail to have faith in our own ability to think with clarity?  We change our bodies and faces, we are obsessed with style, and yet we rarely spend effort to change our minds.  The tragedy of dementia affects us so deeply, yet here we are, daily, failing to protect or invest our most valuable asset.  Think about it… in the fast-fading afterglow of twilight's last gleaming...

Friday, June 30, 2017

Sisters of No Mercy

I've bookmarked on my computer a piece from the New York Times which follows the four Brown sisters via forty years of an annual photographic portrait.  Maybe it's because they are all around my age that I find the slow transformation so riveting.  And here we have just a visual-- a snapshot-- an annual moment... but we infer things-- there are deep emotional changes-- darknesses and distances.  The body language of the girls shifts and alters.  One year they are tightly embracing...  another year they seem isolated.  The dynamics between sisters changes-- the hairstyles, the clothing... what they seem to represent.  We are given so little information and yet so much.  It's like a sad film without a soundtrack... and why is it sad?  It is sad to me.  It is life-- the effects of time which are the only way we can really understand it.  Passages.  One of the women is the photographer's wife.  She seems to be a little more mothery... one or two of the others seem to be going through a more traumatic metamorphosis-- maybe a gender or sexual identity thing.. who knows?  But I keep speculating... observing.

Maybe it is because I'm so estranged from my own sister that this fascinates me.  I mean-- I have so many close girlfriends who feel like my family-- a kind of girl-intimacy I've always enjoyed since I was small and shared bunks and cabins at camps and schools.  But the sister thing-- the genetic similarity, the familial DNA blood-bind... to have lost this is tragic in a way, although so often necessary.  I would say I am more the victim than the perpetrator of familial betrayals and they hurt, even though we do without and go on and have a rich life in spite.  My son, on the other hand-- I can't imagine anything coming between us.  My sister-- there was a sort of underlying competitive schadenfreude I became aware of only in middle age.  It seemed so contrary to the sort of thing I felt-- wanting to make things and give things to my sister.. loving her children, sharing their joys and sorrows... it was shocking and terrible. It was an awakening and a lesson.  I moved on.  I tried to learn to share my affections where they are at least respected if not reciprocated.

There is a small human drama I have been observing now for two or three years.  A girl I used to pass in Harlem, with her pimp, or her dealer...  pretty, white-- mid-20's-- out of place in the crowd she hung with on corners late-nights: people smoking weed, slapping one another, playing loud music-- a local party and social 'club' for some.. for others, opportunities to exchange things, make some deals, etc.  More recently I began to see her on her own, walking quickly like a dog with a scent-- underdressed in winter-- disheveled and nervous... or walking slowly and without linear sense because she is high and distracted.  The last few months I see her outside crack houses and project yards-- begging, pleading.  The hood boys have a way of ignoring these girls.  They are blocked.  But I have observed that each Friday her sister comes uptown, hunts her down-- hands her an envelope-- maybe cash, maybe some disability check she receives for her.  I watch the sister and her boyfriend.  She used to buy her a sandwich or some food-- sometimes they'd eat somewhere.. and then the sister took off, back downtown-- sometimes looking backward, with teary eyes... sometimes just looking down.   Lately there is only a cursory hug-- the using sister is emaciated and her face is marked with sores and infections.  Her arms and legs are covered with needle punctures gone bad, track marks and other scars.   I am obsessed with this story-- what I infer-- the enabling, the attempts at rehab, the kidnapping, the betrayals; I know well the path of addiction with and without intervention-- the rocky  stumble downroad and the pain of loved ones watching as though through a television screen-- unable to prevent, unable to touch.

My own sister and I were reasonably close; of course, you are thrown together-- share bedrooms and toys... but as the younger, I always assumed too much-- that I would have a protector, a team-mate, a
sympathizer.  I was fiercely loyal and covered for her, took some parental hits.  At a certain point, her life became unmanageable and she just walked out of her old self the way moulting snakes slither away from their skins.  I can scarcely remember her scent-- maybe her acne preparation she wore at night-- I even thought bad skin was cool, craved it back then-- although I hated the smell of the gunk she used.  Shalimar, by day.  Years later, in my 30's, I reached out one night--- my second marriage was deteriorating and I was hitting a wall.  You go back to childhood for clues... No, she said, I never think about that.  A slammed door.

I have always been a girls'-girl... I have tons of great women friends who are my family, who have my back... my acquired sisters-- even my beloved cousin, who shares my heart... we are honest and intimate.  My sister is not only lost to me forever, but she has re-invented a story in which she is the true heroine-- the good girl, the one who inherits the birthright,  like a twisted version of the Biblical tale where the hairy brother shaves his arms and pretends.   When I see this sister in Harlem-- taking the difficult trip uptown -- I know I would have done this... I do this, for my 'other' sisters, for the women in my life who need uplifting or assistance or even a nurse.  The word itself... the way it is used for nuns-- yes, it is a privilege, a title-- a sacred thing... not a mere juxtaposition of birth and DNA.

Looking at the Brown sisters-- their subtle movements and frozen gestures, their metamorphosis and transformation from girls into women-- from strong into vulnerable,  mature, complex beings.. like a painting which evolves... which deepens and completes.... I still feel a kind of sorrow and maybe envy.  This tableau of intimacy and womanhood, of genetic similarity and connection-- it fascinates and evades me.   I am missing this, despite all of my wonderful and fulfilling friendships-- old and young--- I am somehow a failed sister, an orphan of sorts, a disconnected twin.  It is loss, in life, that makes us realize what we have had; I have learned this, and maybe this is the lesson of my family.  I have tried-- once or twice-- at my father's funeral, for example, which was a 'show' run by my sister-- I have tried to sense the missing in her.  But it is not there.  I do not recognize the woman she is; I do not feel her or know her.  Not for a second was there the smallest opening, the millimeter of Achilles heel.

No one in my original birth family is quite like me.  They resent and despise my honesty and truthfulness.  They fear it, in a way.  I suppose this is a kind of power I do not fully appreciate.  I write, I confide, I disclose to my friends, I absorb their vulnerabilities and never betray.  Never.  The younger-- my son, even my niece, although I should not betray her-- they sense and love me.  But familial estrangement is in itself a kind of betrayal.   Among four sisters there is room for relationships to wax and wane.  But between two sisters-- it is like a marriage that either thrives or ends in divorce.  There was so much at stake, for her.  She had to be the winner, and I am glad, in a sense, to have conceded that.  If only that had made her feel complete.   My poor father went to his grave misunderstanding me (this was important to her), and I forgive him.  My success as a human has little to do with his version.  I was valuable to my sister as long as I gave and donated, have come to terms with the harsh reality of this.  In our fictional moving portraits over 40 years, there would have been so little touching, so little revealed-- just the aging, and in her eyes, the desperation and subtle anger-- the determination and the deception.  Here I am, I am what I told you I was.  As for me, my eyes would be watery, despite everything I know... I am breakable and here I am-- anyone's sister, trapped in a loveless photograph without a birthright, wearing last year's sweater.  I am what I have done, what I have left behind, the love I have had, the love I've been given, the failures, the betrayal:  I do not love being photographed but I no longer mind if you look at me.  I stand alone.




Friday, June 16, 2017

The Fire Next Time

Living in a city we are accompanied, it seems, by sirens.  There is not an hour that passes when some police or firetruck is not racing to some emergency call, followed too often by an ambulance or EMT vehicle.  If you are a parent-- no matter how old your children are-- this is your first association.  You worry, you pray.  People who have lived in cities during wartime have a deeper relationship with sirens.  After 9/11, we in New York city will never be the same.  For some, a siren may be comforting-- the sound of rescue.  For me, it is like a nerve which wakes.  If you have ever been involved in a fire, you understand its destructive power... the damage, the pain, the devastation... is beyond comprehension.  If you have ever been burned-- or cared for someone who was burned-- the process of treatment and healing, if this is even possible, begins at a threshold of pain most of us cannot imagine... and it escalates from there.  It gives war a new meaning.  And the prospect of nuclear war-- the threat-- seems like a hideous anomaly of humanity and an intellectual distortion of the 'program' of mankind.

The London fire this week brought this horror into graphic consciousness.  Our 20th-century symbols of urban progress-- skyscrapers-- can become dangerous traps of mass destruction, as we have learned.  Personally, I like living where I can climb down a fire escape somewhere... the luxury of a view is something I can bypass and something I will not again afford in this lifetime.  But the projects-- every city has its council flats, low income housing.  You get what you pay for; people accept their assignation.  Some are fortunate and live in great Manhattan neighborhoods with river views which cost them nothing.  I used to envy kids in the projects when I was little-- they had a common playground, a sort of small gated community; everyone seemed to know everyone.  They barbecued, they played radios and boomboxes.  Fathers came home and sat on benches in the summer; kids ran under sprinklers, their grandmas knitted and crocheted and gossiped after dinner.  But these come with a price.  The families have very little voice; if there is one bad egg the kids are a little unprotected.  Things happen, the police treat these communities with tough vigilance and less sympathy.  The maintenance is often sloppy and utilities are under-serviced.  The city or state can be an unresponsive landlord.  These people don't always complain or have the resources to know how to complain.

A friend of mine just confessed he is facing the horrifying prospect of losing his teeth.  How many times, recently, have I run into a musician or any one of my bohemian friends who lives below the economic horizon (most of us!) and lacked the means and medical support to take care of this?  Clinics won't repair beyond the minimum.  They extract.  You are poor-- what does it matter?  I worked at an East Harlem clinic one summer and found the dentist pulled children's permanent teeth because he claimed none of them will follow up a root canal; once their pain is gone, they are gone.  It seemed cruel.  I also saw 10-year-old kids with teeth rotting from sweets and lack of care.  Many of them were illegal immigrants and terrified they would be reported if they saw a doctor or dentist.  So they waited.

The point is, decent medicine has become an economic privilege.  It's not Obamacare, it's the damned insurance companies-- the drugs, the ads, the money.  It's a horrid business and corners are cut everywhere.  People are massively rich from this business; system abuses are everywhere and poor people must accept what they get which is substandard. My friend died of cancer, with maybe standard treatment but such minimal palliative care and very little sympathy from the system.  She had no voice, no lawyers to get her missing family millions of dollars from Johnson and Johnson, no experience or ability or even strength to complain.  As her advocate, it was an exhausting and losing struggle.  We had no access to new, experimental and less cruel treatments.  She suffered and died in agony.

Good countries like Sweden house their lower and middle classes with respect and dignity.  These people are cared for with socialized medicine-- just like their richer neighbors. There are jobs for people; there are resources and people are happy and do not seem bitter and angry.  In cities like New York and London-- the populations are huge and growing.  The gap between rich and poor has become so wide, most of us have fallen in.  Business opportunities are abundant in a city, but poor people are poor consumers.  I haven't bought myself a new anything in so long, I wouldn't know what to do with an extra $100.  I scrimp and save, glean cheap staples from weekly sales, walk among the poor.  I do not get food stamps.  I qualify, but I have issues here. I am a survivor.  I live in a coop I managed to purchase many years ago when this was possible.  No building now would ever allow me to rent or buy.  My income is meager.  I am far below poverty level and yet I survive because I have a brain.  It is incredibly high maintenance to navigate New York on $20 a week but I manage and I continue to chip away at my goals and my work.  I feel privileged. I am no longer a mother and can subsist on rice and coffee without kids complaining.  God help me if my brain goes.  I will become a statistic.

People with large families who struggle do not have the time or energy to deal with so many things.  They forget, they postpone.  Daily urgencies take priority.  Some people forget to put batteries in their  smoke alarms.  The people in Tribeca last week who succumbed to carbon monoxide-- what was their economic profile?  But poor people in projects tend to be treated as children.  They are cared for and managed by the state.  It is all they can do to feed their families and get a little sleep.  They have little control over maintenance and options.  They are victims of the system, and when something goes wrong, they are victims of someone else's poor decision.

Bernie Sanders was shut down.  The business of medicine in the US is so vast I doubt anyone will ever blow it apart.  The epidemic of greed is way larger and way more hideous than the plagues of medieval times.  Illnesses are an income opportunity.  Vaccines are sold in the millions; our television is constantly advertising new costly drugs... they are buzzwords in our children's ears... and months later it is the TV legal teams soliciting users of these drugs for lawsuits.  We are lab rats, we are victims.   As long as the medical professionals follow proscribed 'protocol' however absurd and useless it seems, they cannot be sued.  This is the benchmark of medicine in a country where insurance premiums make private practice nearly impossible for medical students who dream of saving people with good preventive care.  So they prescribe, follow the system.  Even when they know better.  They look the other way.  They need to pay their exorbitant rent.   Their patients are for the most part obedient and become dependent.   Especially the poor whom we see sitting patiently in their medicaid-provided wheelchairs, waiting for buses with reduced-fare passes and piles of medicaid scripts and food stamps which allow them to buy masses of groceries which are not necessarily nutritionally sound, but which allow the supermarkets to sell quantities of product at uber-retail.  They offer their benefit card; they do not price-check.  It is not their fault.  They are under-informed.  Some of them voted for Trump because they do not read real news and nothing seems to change their life anyway.  They live in the moment.  They have food and go home and watch television.  They watch on their phones.

I can't even wrap my brain around this government.  What I do see is that people not only have a constitutional right to be free, to voice their opinions without fear-- but also to safety, to health care-- the same care for everyone.  The same engineering and building standards for everyone.   All lives matter.  Not just rich, celebrity lives but every single one of us.  The London fire called attention to this... and for a week or so, we urban people may consider these things... but then most of us will go on and binge watch our shows, and shop, and complain on Facebook, as we do.

Here I am, the aging lefty liberal, on my tiny digital soapbox offering very little.  But at least I am thinking...  and I walk around the city without a phone.  I look at things and talk to people-- not just my peers and artist and musician friends, but regular people.  Everywhere I see and hear things that upset me-- red flags, injustices, infractions.  If you see something, say something, the subways warn us.  Well, there is a human application of this as well.  Not the shysters and crooks who want your money on the streets, but the hundreds of thousands of good, hardworking victims of the system who maybe need a friend or some help.  One at a time, we can do something, all of us.  Put down your phone and look around.  Some things are inevitable.  But there is right and there is wrong.  There is daily tragedy; but maybe some can be prevented.  At least one life might feel 'mattered'... otherwise we are all victims of this regime of the monied, vassals of the Wall Street culture and the perversion of capitalism.  We can be creative... we can think, we can reach out and speak out, we can revive the concept of personal heroism-- love our less privileged neighbors and remember what it meant to be a real citizen in a free country.  Amen.