Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ad Lib

A late-winter snowstorm gives us all a chance to breathe-- and even though I knew this one was going to be a let-down, I still took the vacation day and binged on TV films.  On the heels of International Women's Day, I've thought a lot the past week about women in the arts.   So my first choice was Within the Whirlwind-- the autobiography of Evgenia Ginzburg, a professor of literature who was sentenced for 18 years to a gulag in Siberia during Stalin's reign of terror.  Ginzburg, played poignantly by Emily Watson, managed to survive inhumane conditions of extreme cold and starvation and-- a little like Patty Hearst, I couldn't help thinking-- fell in love with the prison staff doctor.

The other film was from 1975-- an early Chantal Akerman work called Jeanne Dielman--  a nearly 4- hour masterpiece showing 3 days in the minute-to-minute life of a middle-class Belgian woman.  Without much dialogue or drama we follow her tedious daily routine--  hours of washing-up, meal prepping, shopping, shoe-shining… occasional baby-watching, and brief daytime prostitution with the same prim, emotionless attitude and clean-up as the housekeeping.  By the third day, subtle small things begin to go awry… and unexpectedly and without drama, she kills her afternoon john.

Evgenia eventually wrote her memoirs which were published abroad and which document her heroism and bravery.  Separated from her sons and her husband, she used her survival instincts; not least of these was her beauty, which appealed to the doctor and earned her better treatment than some of the women inmates.  She was nevertheless selfless and compassionate and courageous.  The film, written and directed by women, celebrates her intelligence, her art and her strength.

Watching Jeanne Dielman, I couldn't help seeing my own mother-- with the perfectly coiffed hair, and the lipstick… the well-tailored skirts and nylons and elegant shoes--- putting on aprons, gloves--- delicately scrubbing the stove, cutting vegetables, setting the table, pouring coffee, straightening papers, emptying ashtrays…  the daily shopping trips dressed in fashionable coats and scarves… the relentless claustrophobia of domesticity that made me swear every single day I would never get married.

Obviously the act of murder was a kind of emotional breakdown, a disconnect… a shocking climax to a drawn-out hour-by-hour monotony with very little insight into her psyche or mental state.  It is hard to even feel sympathy for her…  and then it ends,  with the heroine sitting quietly at the kitchen table, fresh blood on her hands and mouth.

What we are capable of-- we women, what is expected of us-- it is a different trajectory than that of men, no matter how equal or even superior we may be in so many ways.  We have children, we clean up, we care for sick friends with much more frequency.  We rebel and rock and roll, but so many of us inherit these expectations from our mothers, and we carry out these chores with or without resentment-- because it's simpler to do it than to ignore and feel incomplete.  It's part of being a woman, to let things go sometimes--- children are watching or listening, and we learn to gloss over with silence things that should be argued or protested.

I visited with a woman today who is clinically depressed, who is young and lovely and intelligent and cannot seem to accept being on the brink of middle age… even though her husband is devoted and loving, and she is 20 years younger than I am; she is blind to what we see, and unable to find her footing.  For some of us, life events intervene and force us to appreciate whatever years we have as a gift-- as luxury.  We stop obsessing about our own image and find our context.  For others, the mirror is their confidante.  They scrutinize and compare, worship physical beauty and attractiveness as their gauge of worth.  The culture seems to encourage this.  It also encourages people who are apparently blind to their own image, and deaf to their personal noise.    I watched a photo shoot in Harlem on Friday-- a woman dressed in a blue fur and a blonde wig with way too much make-up… voguing and pulling up her dress.  What version of beauty is this?  What role model for the young girls passing with their schoolbags and plaid skirts on the way home from the Sojourner Truth school?

I am old enough to realize I now am what I do, what I create.  The 'I' visual is no longer relevant or iconic or memorable.  I am one of the army of women who try to find meaning in their life and leave something behind for our daughters and little sisters.  Chantal Akerman suicided in her mid 60's.  She was depressed; perhaps she'd run out of ideas-- she'd been teaching in Harlem.  Today I long to speak to her, but can only find her work.  It seems important that I watched Jeanne Dielman and that it was shown without commercial interruption on a free television station.  It is difficult to explain to my young friend that these things are enough for me-- that the slow snow day of solitude and black coffee and rice is fine, but maybe not enough for tomorrow when I will resume my place by the typewriter, by the window of my brain and the weather of my ambition, where I will avoid the feminine prison of domesticity and self-devaluation by forging my own path forward, scripting as I go.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Keep the Change

It's been a banner flu season.  The weather fluctuates from 16 to 70 degrees arbitrarily, robbing us of a proper winter (no one complains, really).  Our current administration doesn't believe in climate change, despite the science and all evidence, and is supported by a significant sector of the population that maintains that God controls weather anyway. He apparently created man about 5000 years ago, despite the fossils and relics in the Smithsonian; he had Noah build an ark and board two of every creature.  Even I, in Bible School at the age of 6, asked, 'Where did the dinosaurs sleep?' and got sent to sit in the hallway.

I shun vaccines and get my immunity from sharing microphones and water bottles with my fellow musicians.  We're exposed to so much coughing and sniffing and germ-swapping, it seems to keep us going.  I let my baby boy eat plenty of dirt in the NYC sandboxes; he didn't miss a day of school until he began willful truancy-- another story.  My ill friend won't eat ice cream or drink Gatorade when she's dehydrated, because she thinks sugar causes cancer.  She has stage 4c advanced metastatic disease that is so bad the tumors surely weigh more than the little that is still woman.  The pain is off all charts, the doctors avoid her, the nurses speedwalk in and out of her room, recommending things for which there is no technician available.  The drains are not functioning, her intestines are blocked, her ribs are on the verge of cracking and it's tough to breathe in most positions.

Being an actor, she watched the Academy Awards the other night; she still votes as a SAG member, and it provided some distraction.  I do not watch these things, but she told me about the envelope at the end-- how it gave her some hope that maybe she has been misdiagnosed.  We both love Idris Elba.  Was he even on the show?  I have no idea because I haven't seen a Hollywood movie in years.  I pray now that her TV won't break down because besides the morphine and oxy's, this is the main drug.

Tonight I am making her chicken soup.  I am a little happy because she craved it and it's something I can provide.  I am whistling inside; we had a great talk this evening in between her induced sleep cycles, and she can manage a few spoonfuls in the morning if I strain it carefully.  It's as though we're in the midst of a massive California brushfire in our tiny log cabin and I am outside calmly throwing glasses of water at the wall of flame.  These are my dreams.

In the world outside her disease, there is this metaphorical political American cancer.  Forget the influenza epidemic.  It's as though people in this country went to the polls and decided-- well, here we have the common cold… and here we have-- well, whooping cough or something.. .and then here we have-- yes, cancer.  Let's try cancer for a change.  It's really only a diagnosis… which my friend had at the beginning, when her laugh was still boisterous and theatrical and her red hair bounced around when she bartended.  It was like a script… a drama?  I'm not sure how she processed it, but she did omit some of the difficult choices that were recommended because reality is a strange scenario for most of us, and despite the nomenclature, nothing is real for most of us until it is on-fire/in-your-face.

When you are suffering and ill and even your dreams are blurred with medications and pain, the world is difficult to understand.  You become narcissistic not-by-choice and unable to think.  You occasionally lash out in bitterness and agony and it's difficult for those of us in the room, when the elephants begin to rage and stomp.  My friend is a staunch Democrat, as are most of the more artistic and talented people I know.   In her moments of clarity, she rants about the current President and administration.  Life in America is less appealing, we agree.  Despite all the negatives, despite the unbearable worsening existence to which she is sentenced, day after day, she refuses hospice care; she has an incorrigible belief that somewhere, somehow, there is going to be a way out.  Someone is going to find the key to this door of the house of terminal hideous illness.  It is a kind of belief and if Jesus were here, he would wash her feet.

I have just published a new book of poetry.  My friend has no interest in this, finds my lyrics depressing and would rather watch TV or talk.  The book is under an indie umbrella and we all have to foot the bill for these projects.  I am forced to do an amount of promotion to pay the debt.  My friends know that I live far below the radar of any economic level.  I don't know what a vacation is.  I have no practical containers for the chicken soup because I don't get take-out, ever, on my food budget of $20 a week total.  On the way out, I ran into a neighbor who looks quite a bit like Trump, and surely voted Republican.  He has the mannerisms of a self-made non-charismatic man whose money causes people to treat him with deference.  So, he says to me, I hear you have a new book…. should I buy one?  I shrug.  I happen to be carrying a few to the Post Office. He puts his hand out… opens his wallet as though he is tipping me.  I have a $50, he says, is that okay?  It's $20, I answer, without emotion, looking down so I won't see his billfold even by accident-- with the black and platinum cards and the fat wad of green.   I don't have any small bills, he announces… So why don't I slip it under your door later?  I shrug again… as he rolls..ROLLS my precious book like a newspaper, like he is going to beat a dog with it… my precious lovely book with the expensive matte-coated cover which cost me close to $20, each one… I resist the urge to cringe, and mumble the Post Office, time, deadlines, whatever...

So I get home…is there a bill under my door?  Somehow the guy seems to recall (he did smell a bit like he'd had a cocktail or two) that he'd given me a $50…. So there is a note…no envelope.. a note… which  says.. 'Hey I read the first poem-- about the Chevrolet-- good stuff… Keep the change.'  Trumped I am.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Exchange

I live on the edge of two neighborhoods… on the cusp, on the border.  It suits me.  I am close to the park and short blocks from grand homes and institutions.  I am also two blocks from the projects.   Across the street from me, my neighbors have an East Harlem zip-code, although I'll wager all of them have a better income than I do. Personally I spend most neighborhood-time going north and east-- past the projects-- exploring bodegas, playgrounds, small bakeries and shops, listening to languages besides English, browsing among vegetables and fruits used in Mexican recipes,  reading labels in Spanish.   Even the Christmas decorations have a different flavor.

At this point in life, I am spending more and more time alone.  I walk; I think; I soliloquize and invent… I may even talk to myself.  I wander-- down strange and familiar streets, into places; when I am alone my ear is sharper-- I hear things outside and inside my own head.  It''s as though I dare myself to become lost in my own city--- to lose myself, to become someone else, in a way-- like a character in my own story… a kind of odd controlled schizophrenia; I leave my house and turn left and suddenly I am anonymous and unknown.  I blend in and I am simply a woman.  No one greets me or looks at me… I am free, in a way-- unencumbered and clear.  It rests me… it provides my blank canvas.

I think I've always craved some kind of solitude-- even the kind you have in a group.  I like people but am reluctant to commit myself to any society that excludes me from other choices. Maybe it was my dysfunctional family (we all have them) and their failure at honesty-- but I never feel that I completely belong anywhere.  Even marriage felt odd to me-- it required my husband convincing me this would be a good thing… and besides, I'd be making someone incredibly happy and giving up nothing.  It seemed to make sense.. and I got to cross another border-- to belong to two countries, as I chose-- and that suited me… but the boundaries of marriage never felt right to me.  Maybe I was a terrible wife, but other women encroached on the walls of my own marriage-- my husband failed to protect me, and I left.  Motherhood was quite another issue-- but I was still someone's daughter, someone's lover, someone's sister… I could still live between identities, go from neighborhood to neighborhood-- play in bands and enjoy my son's basketball games with pride.

It's possible that solitude gives us clarity… in my case, the acceptance of my own penchant for straddling borders--- for being two people, in a way-- the one who walks and the one who observes--  the speaker and the listener.   At my age, I notice I am more blunt, more honest.  I say things directly; occasionally I offend people.  I see my own peers walking around clearly burdened with their pasts.  We have all experienced so much; for some, they are stooped with the weight of it, fearful that little will happen in coming years to balance or complement their life.

My son's friend asked me to help him return a ring he bought his fiancée a few years back.  It's such a beautiful thing-- it's vintage-y and unique.   He lost his Mom recently, and maybe that somehow altered him; he also knows I've returned rings and changed my own mind many times.  It doesn't bother me and I've never really regretted much in my life; it all seems to have brought me to where I am, which is not a bad place.  There's a book of poems I remember reading: Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.  I've always loved that title… as though this is the way I've lived.  Returning the ring-- dealing with the receipt and the agreement and the salespeople… it all seemed so absurd that this intimate, personal decision we make gets so 'handled' by so many people-- the processes-- the invitations, and name changes-- the paperwork and vows and all the guests and witnesses-- the home-buying and the furniture choices… and suddenly it was as though I was so close to my own relationship thresholds-- maybe in the very same store where my fiancé  had bought the lovely ring that had felt to me like a 25-pound weight.

It took my son's friend 5 years: maybe 2 to really believe he'd made the wrong choice, and 3 more to actually find this ultimate closure.  Finality.  He has a new girlfriend now.  When we get older, some loves we realize were addicting, or consuming, or manipulative-- or they looked like someone else, or they reminded you of something, or your best friend talked you into it… or whatever.  And then some affairs look absurd and like some kind of period of insanity.  And after it all, after a lifetime-- there are those moments that shine-- through time, from the half-light of this moment, back to that one… there is still this beauty-- something right and true… and we feel lucky, even though we never held on, that we felt this way.

We have so little present-- all of us.  Just this nanosecond of awareness-- the rest is just a movie-- an invention.  So few of us take the time to appreciate these tiny things we are holding at this moment only-- unless we are on the verge of loss.   We mourn at funerals, we bathe in morning light when we are aware our days are numbered-- we love those we can no longer see, and we miss what we no longer have.  Handing over the ring, I was aware someone else's moments were in my hand briefly--- even the feel of the box-- I could imagine how much it must have meant at the time, and he'd spent many multiples over what was appropriate ('in over his head', as he put it)… but there it was, becoming an item in a shop window for someone else to give their loved one, to become part of someone else's story.  I felt empathetically unburdened.  These symbols never had much credence in my lifetime, as I've said… and the truly spiritual instances of the meaning of marriage are more like star points in the dark liquid sky of my own history.  But then again, I am someone who likes to cross borders, to travel between worlds and rooms and to inhale winter evenings and mix them with older constellations and lyrics I have surely misread or mispronounced… and I emerged, on my way back toward Harlem, to the song of the melting snow, me stepping every block from past to present to future, between worlds.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Amateur Our

Every winter  I interview prospective freshman for my alma mater.  It's a rewarding task; it enables me to pay back a little for the really stellar education I received, and it allows me to connect with these amazing young women who are eager for knowledge and skills to change the world, to solve problems, to heal the wounds of humanity and make a contribution.  Most of them come from poorer families and need financial aid.  They are prepared and bright; they are enthusiastic and compassionate.  Few of them will win admission, but most of them deserve this, and all of them will go on to have productive lives, I am quite sure.

To support the mission of diversity, many of these girls are from immigrant families.  For some of them,  they are recent immigrants, and English is a second language; they have overcome challenges and have seen things most American kids can only imagine.  This week several of them happen to be from countries on the new 'banned' list.  While I am a kind of ambassador for my alma mater, we are now confronted with confusing issues and worries I cannot wholly facilitate.  Politics is not a subject on the interview agenda, but this year we cannot help but acknowledge current events.  I feel apologetic and ashamed of my country.  The real irony is, 18-year-olds whose native language is Farsi and Arabic have been studying government and American history-- requirements to embark on a higher education program.  All of them are better versed in constitutionality and American justice than our current president.  What kind of world is this?

My friend is tall and statuesque, and looks like a model.   She loves music.  She is even married to sort of a rockstar.  She sings; she gets up on amateur stages and wails.  She has all the great moves and gestures, but she is truly a terrible singer.  So she got it in her head to try her fortune at the Apollo Theatre.  I have to give her points for guts; she stepped out on the stage with all confidence, and every man and woman in the place was taken with her appearance.  But then she opened her mouth.  The audience, in reaction, opened their mouths in disbelief.  It took about 45 seconds before she was booed off the stage.  Democracy.  Did she learn something?  She is still making recordings, taking lessons from people who are quite willing to take her money, trying to jump onstage with people.  In her favor, she is hurting no one; fooling no one.

Night after night, I play alongside other bands of all varieties.  Some have great ideas and lack the musical skill to execute; some are well-practiced and derivative.  And some have absolutely no clue what music might be.  A classical orchestra requires auditions, a level of achievement and a competitive field of music students who are ready to make the leap to professionalism.  But re: rock and roll and pop-- it seems all bets are off.  Last night a combination of people took the stage who seemed to have no common thread except an umbrella band name.  No one played their instrument with any competence; the songs were formless and the performance was not even comical.  Technical issues and lack of experience kept them onstage far longer than their allotted slot.  No one booed, no one turned the power off.  I guess they had some friends in the house… but it was a true 'Little Miss Sunshine' moment.  I've witnessed altogether too many recently.  What happened to the 'hook' by which I mean not the song, but the stage removal device?

I have recently been to a few young art galleries.  At one, the director started a conversation with me about abstract expressionism, the New York School, etc.  She consistently mispronounced names and
misstated facts.  She seemed to have no frame of reference or context, no sense of art history or even contemporary culture… yet was exhibiting at art fairs alongside established, experienced gallerists, selling student-ish derivative paintings for $20-50,000.  P.S…. she is very attractive and well dressed.  But who are her buyers?  Her next show is 'pre-sold', she bragged.  I couldn't help thinking this was the kind of smoke-and-mirror game we used to play when some guy called us and we claimed we were busy, night after night… until he finally swore eternal allegiance in exchange for one dinner.

Next week is the Superbowl--- an American institution, an athletic contest with a huge audience and the significance of a kind of annual war-game.  Plenty of athletes may not have leadership qualities, but they are fierce and well-trained.  No one suits up for pro football who has not spent thousands and thousands of hours in drills and scrimmages and grueling exercise.  The game itself has a certain number of variables, but either team has hard-earned the opportunity to compete.

Maybe the best man doesn't always win the American presidency, but never before has the reality-show culture usurped our politics.  This is a serious job, with serious repercussions.  It is a position of leadership and power.  Kings and queens in history have on occasion inherited an office for which they were unsuited, but never has the collective consensus of a nation been so willingly corralled into idiocy.  I have had enough.  A week's worth of incompetence, blatant inexperience and bad decision-making has awakened even the most soporific of dreamers and optimists into a reality check.  The inauguration felt to me like a kind of funeral and after 9 days of mourning, I'm sick to death of the cult of mediocrity and amateurism.  I refuse to sell out my fellow countrymen to what is not a compromise but a dangerous regime of lunacy.  One man's hyper-extended fantasy of narcissism and abuse of office is not going to deflate and sicken the platform of civil rights and humanitarian ethics that has defined much of my generation's decency.   I've never been a patriot, but it's damned unAmerican and way past time for the proverbial 'hook'.  Time for the sound of one hand clapping… and as the emcee says, 'NEXT...'




Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Oh what will you give me...

When I was 16, my parents sent me on one of those international exchange programs.  I chose Mexico where I lived as a native in a rural place in the state of Veracruz.  It was a life-changing time; my host family had never even seen an airplane-- had no electricity or plumbing-- and there was nothing but our common humanity to provide a basis for bonding.  I ate strange food, rose with the roosters, lived simply and without worry.  At the end of my stay, all the students in the Americas met up at an international conference in Mexico City at the soccer stadium, where I was asked to play my guitar and sing something uniquely American.  I performed Universal Soldier in front of a massive audience; I even got an encore.  Racking my brain to find a song promoting world peace and unity, I tried out The Bells of Rhymney but halfway through the second verse realized I didn't know the words.   I choked, left the stage while the announcer mumbled something about la señorita being 'muy despeinada'.

After I met Andy Warhol several years later (he often passed by the gallery where I worked)  I told him the story, as my first public humiliation.  He laughed and said as long as no one filmed it, it wouldn't be held against me.  I wanted to ask him if that might have been my 15 minutes, but he didn't really like questions; he liked answers.  So many years later, I still dread solo gigs, as much as I feel this is as close to my real core, and am somehow compelled to subject myself to this.  I've analyzed and analyzed: who cares if I'm terrible?  Plenty of people are terrible?  Nothing helps, and really, few people care.

I'm not sure if it's my age and impatience, but I've recently found myself reacting with increasing bitterness and cynicism at the state of culture in general.  Music disappoints; I rarely see films or concerts-- I cannot really afford these things anyway.  I know Carnegie Hall lives on, the Philharmonic-- and maybe this is a sad omission but I don't miss them; I have cds and records.  What I do miss is the complete paralyzing excitement of seeing something like the de Kooning women in the 1960's-- Andy's wallpapered room of cows-- the first Graffiti show, early Jean-Michel… Hendrix.  John Lee Hooker-- before I knew about him, or Tim Buckley in the 1960's.  I've wondered if I'm just too old and ruined to see anything with new eyes.

My neighbor is a famous editor and writer.  His work is indisputably important and post-modern.  He is critical of what I do, although he occasionally praises me.  There's a certain snobbery in his circle; contemporary writing has to be tough and terse.  I browsed one of his recent books; one section is just a list of words… difficult words, uncomfortable words outside of most people's reach.  Okay… maybe like a Donald Judd or some minimal sequential thing-- but Judd has a certain universal, unpretentious simplicity.  The literary version is awkward and I hated it.

Personally I know my poetry is flawed; it is human and personal and maybe too emotional.  It is overly confessional and sympathetic, and I want it to be accessible and not difficult.  I think I'm not sure whether at this stage of my life I'd fall in love with Proust again, or be able to read Georges Perec or even Jean Genet with the intensity I gave these so many years ago.  I might be critical of Henry James now, or find Trollope excessive or silly.  I cringe occasionally at Anne Sexton; I worshipped her in the 1970's.  Some of the books my neighbor promotes-- well, they are brilliant, in a way--- but they do not sweep me off my literary feet, and I care little for the characters.  The language doesn't get in my blood.  I want to be better, and I want my heroes to be better, as well.  I am not claiming to be an artist or a great poet, but I do want to be read, and understood.

Again, I am not sure what I am expecting.  I do know that few millennials have the sense of context that my generation was given.  Education has changed; history, aside from phenomena like Hamilton-the-musical, seems less pertinent to this generation.  We used to be able to look at a painting or hear a recording and place it in a timeline; not so, now.  Reading has changed for so many, and the way people perceive music.  They listen to so many things simultaneously, while multi-tasking; even volume has become subjective.  Art seems to play to this audience-- it is rare that I enter a gallery and find quiet simple canvasses.  There are crowds and chatter-- phones and selfies.  There is theatrical lighting and music and there is performance;  at my one and only visit to the new Whitney, there were roving performance artists; they were embarrassing and distracting.  I could not 'hear' the paintings.

But most of all there seems to be this sense of 'self'… I mean, even Andy Warhol had anxiety about his work-- insecurity.  A true artist hears his voice and executes as best he can, but he is never sure-- he has doubt and asks questions.  He knows his work is a process.  This culture seems to be so sure of itself-- so smug and narcissistic.  And a majority of the audience is obedient; they like what they are told to like, they hear what they are given, they wear what they think they should wear, what their 'icons' wear.  This worries me-- the diversion and commercialization of the process.  Art and fashion have become bedfellows; this has energized fashion but cheapened art.  And while I detest the massive cultural joke of Jeff Koons, I am also left cold by the more pretentious, dehumanized, technology-heavy exhibitions.  And there is so much out there-- trillions of images and soundbytes-- so much spectacle-- so many celebrities and events, a million channels.  How can we expect anyone to connect deeply and intimately with ideas the way one reads an old book in a quiet room?  Somewhere in every country, artists are despairing-- important canvasses and books are burning in a digital bonfire.  A sacred tree is surely falling at any given moment in a night forest, and no one will hear.

Still, I have this relentless need to communicate, which I think is the seed of all art, and a certain faith that I may touch even one person, or change something.  I suppose the experience of being dropped into a strange cultural river at 16 taught me a certain lesson… and I am grateful for The Bells of Rhymney, the riveting and beautiful words of a Welsh coal miner who educated himself, which somehow found their way into music and onto my teenage record player and changed my life.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

(Un)acceptable Losses

Monday night on the way to work, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder and told me a train was coming.  I was standing on the platform, reading; she smiled at me.  Was she flirting with me?  It's not often you get this kind of courtesy from strangers… am I getting old and she worried I was dangerously absorbed in my book?  Was it Maggie Nelson, the author, that prompted this?  Or maybe I was wearing my earplugs, ready for a night of loud music… and she mistook me for a deaf woman?  She was a lovely person-- I could read her spirit-- and I behaved like your typical New Yorker-- insulated and cold.

At the end of the year, the media takes stock of celebrities who have passed away over the last 12 months.  Personally I hold my proverbial breath because it seems someone always dies on Christmas.
I've lost a few friends recently, have been to more than my share of funerals these months… and I just learned that 2 acquaintances suicided on the same day-- both jumpers, same zip code.  Astrological, neuro-biological coincidences suggested themselves-- a bad anti-depressant prescription, dispensed at the same pharmacy?  Finally a poem begins to evolve in my head with each of their psychological 'ropes' intertwining like strands of DNA.  Somehow these desperate people are linked in a sort of ironic coda.

I was kind to one of the jumpers.  I'd reached out to her after a less-than-stellar performance-- I encouraged her and praised her effort.  This was sort of a relief, because we are not always generous enough to one another-- especially we musicians who are wrapped up in our own stage issues, our unmet expectations, equipment malfunctions, audience failures, club politics, inadequate compensation, etc.  We have our petty bitternesses and frustrations, all of us… we are uncharitable and cranky.  I admit to this.  I try to make resolutions to be a better person and bandmate; I take stock of my flaws with a degree of scrutiny-- I come up short.

Funerals and memorials are often a sore point with me.  When you are a musician, people want to honor you post-mortem by performances-- jams, concerts, fundraisers… some of these are moving and emotional, but many of them are just an opportunity for groups to showcase before a captive audience.  Personally I would want nothing but maybe a Bach organ piece; and I'd rather dedicate some music or an evening from a regular gig where my thoughts about someone inform my playing.  But it remains true that death is a kind of attraction-- the idea of it, the shock of it-- the spectacle of a funeral that is not ours still fascinates.  We read obituaries over and over, we tweet and post, we fantasize things we might have done with this person… and some of us actually embellish and invent anecdotes.  Journalists comb and autopsy information-- leak and reveal.  But most of us want to deify the person who has passed.  George Michael-- the most recent-- seems to have more than atoned for any sins he may have committed.  He seems to have evolved into a saint in life, an angel in death.  I never admired his gifts the way I loved the legacy of Prince, Bowie, Leonard, Sharon-- but his talent was huge, his success was undeniable, his fall-from-grace painfully public.  He more than redeemed himself with kindness.

We are so immersed in celebrity information and imagery that we feel connected to people to whom we have no connection whatsoever.  We adopt them, we feel we understand them; we make more effort reading their stories and learning about their likes and dislikes than we do vis-à-vis our actual friends.  We know what is in their closet and on their nightstand.  Some of us feel betrayed when these people pass away; we feel wounded and sad and personally derailed by these public deaths.  For me it seems amazing that death is so finite and precise.  After  9 months of germination, our moment of birth is recorded and celebrated-- the starting line-- this makes sense to me.   But it seems that death should be more of a fade-out--  a winding down after a life of complexity and millions of moments-- of schoolwork and football games, of things we painted, shopping lists-- meals, births, tears, books-- lovemaking, ceremonies-- quarrels and pain-- illness, accidents-- cruelty.  But there is a precise recorded moment, a finish-line, a clocked check-out.  Today it was Carrie Fisher-- she was hanging on in an intensive care facility-- vacillating, still dreaming and breathing… her family and her public reached out, sent love-- and then she was gone.  Now we are here; now we are not.  Some of her fans felt betrayed-- what could we have done? How could we have kept David Bowie alive, made him well? My friend Jimi-- if he was a rich man, if we could have raised enough money-- would he have been sent home with a new heart?  And the jumpers-- more than anyone, we feel betrayed by these people who chose to pilot their own kamikaze flights and trick fate altogether.  They shocked and devastated us, robbed us of an opportunity to reach out and replaced it with yet another obituary, another funeral.  We learned little.

I feel betrayed by my country, in the wake of this year's election.  It is like a kind of death for me;  I keep regretting I did not do more to prevent the outcome-- and it feels incredible that after the interminable months of contest-- like a 2-year-long football match--  just like that, it was done, and the winner was the loser.  The worse man won.  It feels like the death of humanity, the end of hope and democracy. As we go forward into yet another year, we are well aware that some of us will not last until 2018.  We will crash in planes, we will become ill, we will jump.  As the new political regime assumes power, I am especially anxious.  I am trying to find the lesson in this turn of events, and trying to resolve I will try to seize opportunities to prevent bad things, to thwart maybe one of the jumpers or cutters or overdosers.  I will try to remedy my flaws, temper my bitterness and impatience, my critical nature and my futile frustration with the state of our culture.  The lucky among us will log another year.  No one of us will escape tragedy or loss or failure and few of us will foresee the accidents which will devastate our lives.  As humanity grows older and more complex, the trillions of past deaths do not dilute the impact of that one which has just occurred.  Let us remember this as we look around the world and see universal grieving and trouble.  There is celebrity and fame, and then there is the individual human heart which starts and stops and is virtually indistinguishable, one from another.   Amen.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Skin Deep

When I was young, I had perfect skin.  It meant nothing to me-- in fact, it had absolutely no currency in my life, was sort of an albatross that made it nearly impossible for me to become a punk-rocker outcast-type.  My older sister had acne.  She also had a slew of boyfriends and hiked her skirt way up when we left the house for school.  I wanted her skin.   She hated me for mine, and I would have traded in a second.  Acne would make me look older-- as would braces on my teeth, I thought.  People commented on my skin-- aunts and cousins--- the doctor.  When I went to buy make-up, even as a woman, the cosmetics salespeople would remark-- why do you need make-up?  You have perfect skin.  Lloyd Cole had a song about this.  I did nothing to deserve it-- ate plenty of chocolate and fries and smoked cigarettes-- but it remained, as it was.  Beauty's only skin deep, my mother used to say, and despite my flawless facial surface, I still believed my sister was way more attractive.

In the office of my Primary Care physician, a woman sits at the front desk and does intake.  The right half of her face is horribly deformed, as though it was burned or blown off in an explosion.  She is in her late 30's and it's tough to look at her.  She has no functioning eye or mouth; the left side is marked with some kind of warty growths, but somewhat normal.  Her voice is steady and courageous and sweet; if I were blind I might imagine her as beautiful.  I commend my doctor for hiring her because she is unsettling, physically.  As for her dignity-- I cannot say enough.  She is well dressed and stylish from the neck down.  Her hair is neat and pretty; her hands are lovely and efficient.

When my son was born, he was adorable and perfect.  I couldn't stop admiring him, especially since I felt I didn't deserve to have this baby; I hadn't planned this, and my lifestyle for the first 3 months of pregnancy was a little crooked and a-maternal.  His infant skin was so tender he couldn't tolerate any animal products-- wool, fur-- anything besides soft natural cottons.  It was as though his surface was a metaphor for my heart; here I was-- a new mother-- a protector-- and suddenly I felt stripped and raw and on the verge of not just tears but utter emotional collapse at the slightest hint of tragedy or sadness.  Maybe this is what they call postpartum depression.  I was a single mother and utterly enchanted with my baby; there was absolutely no room for self-inspection or analysis.  I was too busy trying to remember all the little infant things I had never learned and too absorbed in managing his care while I worked and kept my life on the level.  But in caring for another being, I learned the depth of compassion.

As a young woman I fell in love with a black man.  Our attraction had nothing to do with color, and his strangeness had more to do with cultural rather than racial differences.  Sometimes at night, I awoke and admired the beautiful contrast of his dark, strong arm draped across my body.  His skin had a different feel and smell and taste.  In those days, some people in some locales didn't appreciate our marriage and our presence as a couple.  The differences fascinated me; in the end we separated, but we both learned things about appearance and acceptance.

My skin is no longer perfect; few things about me are pretty; we enter the autumn and winter of our lives and our human foliage begins to fall away.  Many of my women friends fight this process with injections and treatments; their medically-enhanced beauty is truly skin-deep and temporary, but it suits them, and it doesn't bother me.  Nor does the economic ability to do such things.  Money, I have discovered, is a little skin-deep as well.  It is temporary and may create a sense of security, but people still get ill and have accidents and mishaps, and while they may be comfortable and well cared-for, their lives don't seem to be more valuable.  They do give more to charity-- as do people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, etc… but this kind of billionaire philanthropy seems a bit skin-deep and cavalier-- it is acknowledged and rewarded, but do they suffer or sacrifice to do this?  They all seem to drive expensive cars, live in enormous houses, collect things and wear rolexes.  They do little more than balance their tax burden, while being applauded for stunning generosity.

As for my friend who is ravaged by cancer, she grows thinner every week.  Her skin is translucent and stretched over the contours of her face in a way that is startling. She resembles an anorexic; her once long, graceful limbs are spindly and twiggy;  the bones of her knees are knobby and prominent beneath her loose pants.  I feel I can see through her skin into her soul; her veins are greenish and sickly.  She is skeletal and taut-- both old and young, like an underdeveloped fetus.  She walks with bitter resignation, daring anyone to comment.  I told her she looked pretty the other day; she had on a purple knit cap and her features were feverish and her skin was flushed from the cold.  She was furious and screamed at me… this is not a word that applies to her physical or mental state, she warned me.  Do not use this language in my presence.   I wept-- I am not tough-- I am permeable and fragile.  I wear my heart everywhere; without tattoos, my skin betrays me, my tears are ready and I am unarmed.  I will not tell her again that she has acquired this sort of porcelain-doll facade-- and while her eyes have lost their spark and are glazed and empty from pain and the drugs, there is a kind of quiet holy dignity in her long-suffering expression-- and after all the treatments, the side-effects and the rashes, ironically-- she has perfect skin.