Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Wildfire of the Vanities

The passing of Tom Wolfe is yet one more fallen leaf from the tree of my New York City.  Like Quentin Crisp, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol-- he walked among the ubiquitous social landmarks of the version of our eccentric and rich urban culture I inherited in the 1970's.  He'd occasionally show up at the gallery where I worked; you could find him daily lunching at his favorite table in the Isle of Capri on Third Avenue and 61st Street-- right in the windowed perimeter area as though he was willingly on display, in his signature white suit, impeccably groomed and accessorized.  His hair was perfect.  Like so many writers of the 20th century who lambasted and loved the city, there will be no one to fill the vacuum he leaves.

A year or so ago, I saw him on the street, looking frail and aged maybe beyond his years, and it occurred to me that his generational tide was receding in a sad way; my own peers have grown old, whether they fight this or not.  We prepare ourselves for these clockwork ravages of time-- the natural purges of decades... but unlike the seasonal rhythms of nature-- the human race is not deciduous.  We die off, and the replacements are quite unlike their parent foliage.  If our annual cherry trees lost their color we would notice; not as much with the changing of the cultural guard.

The Bonfire of the Vanities seems innocent now, compared with the widened gap in our economic architecture; the millionaires have ballooned into billionaires, crime is criming, institutional corruption is rampant and pungent-- Wall Street, politics-- the music business-- just about everything is tainted with the stench of greed and the manipulations of power brokers.  Our daily news brings us one falling man after another-- the ones who grab, who touch, who lie, cheat, hoard and dissemble.  We are a diseased culture all dressed up like queens and princesses-- like strippers and whores-- we are enhanced, coiffed, made-up, pumped up like nothing else.

Coming uptown last Monday I was re-routed by the massive security barricades surrounding the Met Gala.  The police presence rivaled the Pope's visit.  Pedestrians and traffic were forced to bypass a wide radius around the temporary palatial-scale tenting surrounding the museum like a Christo installation-- for what?  So that the rain or elements did not alter the finery of the attendees who are not the New York social stars, but the usual nouveau celebrities-- the Kardashians, Beyonce, Rihanna--- on and on...  my museum-- selling itself to Hollywood for money-- so that the crowd-drawers-- the Costume Institute-- the rock and roll culture-- can continue to put on show-stoppers that bring audience but dwarf the art for which the museum was built to house?

I grew up at the cultural knees of this place.  I wandered its vast rooms and explored everything from Greek amphora to Chinese porcelain.  I prayed to the virgins, wept over the Dead Christ images, held my breath at the exquisite painted life of these dedicated artists of the past-- dreamed their dreams,  absorbed their images of history and mythology like my own bloodline.  A library card was all it took to gain access to these halls...  even as a young girl I let my princess fantasies loose when I ascended the Grand staircases.  I often did my homework in the Temple of Dendur and walked my dog at night outside the windows so I could imagine myself alone by the great silent pool.  

I've been experiencing for years the pop-wash of the museums-- the DJ's and soundtracks in the auction houses, the clublike atmosphere they create to pull in the younger crowd-- to make art 'relevant'... but somehow the paparazzi and celebrity-pomp seemed misplaced at the Metropolitan Museum.

Of course, that is the point now.  The celebrity culture owns everything; even the British House of Windsor, come this Saturday.  I used to get my fashion sense through art-- studying the great costumes and creations of the past via these paintings.  Now art is fashion, fashion is art...  the museums take their inspiration from the culture rather than lifting us to some artistic epiphany.  My first Graduate School 'talk' at the museum was the Giovanni Bellini Madonna-- most of these artists worked on Church commissions-- religious subjects and altarpieces; the spiritual informed their work and they innovated as they observed life:  humanized saints and Christ himself-- fleshy angels and suffering martyrs.  So the themed Gala-- with Catholicism nothing more than a fashion statement-- seemed like true trashy irony.

Not that I'm a religious prude-- but for Christ's sake, the pretentious uber-spending on religious grounds was Vatican-esque.  And Katy Perry literally stopping traffic in her angel wings which seemed more Victoria's Secret than Catholic... Rihanna with her Papal helmet and Sara Jessica Parker-- from the side of a bus to a Nativity on her head--- it was a little ridiculous. And yes, offensive, especially in light of the events of the world, the religious suffering, the poverty and devastation elsewhere, where religion maybe has a different meaning.

Downtown the Rockefeller sale reminded that wealth used to go hand in hand with some reverence for culture.  The collection was staggering and amazing.  That 1905 Picasso was haunting and deep.  Who among the Gala attendees will leave behind anything of this stature-- something museum-worthy in the old sense?  I don't know.  Tom Wolfe was in the hospital with an infection.  I wonder if he'd even had an invitation; whatever, I'm sure the display of vanities on 82nd and Fifth Avenue did not escape him.

Among the objects in the upstairs rooms of Christie's were small furnishings and things which seemed personal and precious.  A huge sort of greenhouse was constructed, with birdsong piped via speakers, and real hedgerow foliage around the display, like real gardens.  Scads of young employees waltzed around with their catalogues, eagerly waiting to show and open things-- unable to answer 99% pf the questions because they haven't a clue about the subject matter-- the meaning.  A young Hispanic woman circled the large greenhouse perimeter sweeping stray leaves into one of those old-fashioned movie-theatre dustpans...  this was her job.  Sweep, sweep... around and around.  She wore a black maid's uniform with an apron, and her eyes were red as though she'd been crying.  I imagined this was her second job and she was glad to have it-- and then perhaps regretted having to lap around while all these gapers got a glimpse of the formerly treasured objects maybe lovingly selected by an American royal family.  She was looking down-- engrossed in her task.  Around her neck was a simple cross, which touched me-- so like a young saint she was-- pious and simple, bowed and lost in the crush of the pursuit of something like money, less like art...

RIP Tom Wolfe-- whatever you represented, you will be missed.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Liars and In-no-cents

The US attack on Syrian chemical weapons facilities last Saturday garnered little viewership from the American public.  Certainly the Stormy Daniels interview had better ratings; television in general has lost its centrality in our lives.  I couldn't help thinking back to the Desert Storm airstrikes we watched from our sofas with a bit of nervousness and yet the detachment you feel watching someone else's video game.

It was a small maybe calculated distraction from the smeary smutty onslaught of the latest Trumpery-- an executive wielding of power from our clown-at-the-helm who spent the earlier part of the day bashing James Comey in characteristic unpresidential  excrement-slinging-- his usual weapon-of-choice.  Comey... with a quasi-presidential-scale faux-pas on his permanent conscience, or whatever the political version of poor judgement might be called... will have the last laugh in massive book-sales; there will surely be a seven-figure job for him out there...

Then there was the Zuckerberg testimony... the wide-eyed, studious false sincerity of a billionaire who sold out our privacy, claiming his innocence with every sycophantic reply, sugared over with
an overdose of courtesy and those huge, bloodshot deer-eyes dripping with candor, watery from his contact lenses.  It rivaled the Steve Cohen testimony... he didn't remember, he didn't know... who was actually less culpable than these Facebook thieves.  Nothing in this world can be undone.  The sins of the billionaires have shifted the axis of our political and social morality.  Nothing is free; everything is bait... and we like fish have hook-holes in our palates.  Nothing will ever be the same.  The end of the innocence, what little there was in the well-trod sites and pages of New York before the 70's, the 90's my friends visit frequently... anything but this.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the vast majority of medical and drug trials are not reproducible... that data is manipulated, cooked... so we are given medications and treatments to benefit manufacturers, and do little for our health which is nothing but a vague platform for massive financial gain.  We are the poor guinea pigs, obediently swallowing things, following instructions like schoolchildren... led down useless paths in our quest to cope with pain and the sicknesses that are byproducts of our culture.  There will be a small slap on the wrist.. and then we will go on... Zuckerberg's net worth will dip and then re-surge, as he promises vigilance, having thrown us all under the bus irrevocably.

An eight-year-old this week brought a knife to school and slashed his fellow students.  Sort of a flip-side to the story of the pre-school teacher who threatened a toddler with a slashing.  As I read the online version of the eight-year-old article, a huge pop-up ad accompanied the text-- some new state-of-the-art men's underwear in my face, eclipsing the news... like some kind of obscene big-brother shout-out-- the incongruities of this life-- the disconnects and random juxtapositions, the senseless acts of violence which seem to stem from some underlying emotional seismic rumbling-- the discontent, the warped and confusing version of democracy that is America.  How does anyone process, prioritize these disproportionate images, the flash-like brainwashing of Instagram-style imagery... pop Goddesses and queens with very little content but huge coverage-- Beyonce and her untouchable Coachella moment... the new Statue of Liberty? And it is as though she believes her own legend.  The Midas ass.

Where is compassion, where is humanity when the great God of money seems to have cast a golden shadow over us all, like the looming sky-touching penthouses which shadow and obscure our values and connections?  What is truth when lies dominate.. and win?  No longer does the tortoise come out on top.... they are choking on bad meds... while the hares are full-speed ahead with Ritalin and fat purses.  I see fewer and fewer real faces--- features altered and tweaked, bodies re-shaped-- even our most beautiful actors and actresses are compelled to make themselves more beautiful...  Television ads baffle me-- everyone is being urged to change their emotional state, their skin, their hair... Some days I feel as though I'm conducting a social experiment... trying to maintain a truthful commitment to my values, my modest goal to leave something behind in this world-- not a giant monument or a building facade, but a few songs or lines or poetry that might somehow find their way into a heart and sit there, like a tired passenger-- like company.  I am left behind... no seat for me on this bullet train of the culture which lies to me, which poses and manipulates and convinces... we must all be beautiful, we must all be young.. we must all watch this and that and have this and that... and those that cannot are angry and bitter and desperate.  All of us unhealthy... and there is contagion.

Yesterday on Lenox Avenue I collected 41 pennies between 110th and 126th... lying there on sidewalks like a trail left by some lost angel, like tiny sentries of some lost currency-- little copper discs that somehow made sense although very little cents... in 2018 terms... no one else wanted them... and I collected them.. from the damp street.. like tiny rescues... I tried to make some meaning of the small weight they became, of the cumulative purchase power... of the fact that they were free, they were gifts.. outside the Dollar store where people were hoarding bargains they mostly don't need-- piling packages of cookies and chips and frozen dinners into huge sacks... I wanted to stop them... to tell them something... but no one is going to listen to an aging woman who seems poor and powerless and maybe a bit mad.  I am mad.... I am angry-- not slasher-angry but beating-heart upset.  A penny for my thoughts here? No, actually, not even that.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

You Can Leave Your Socks On

Late-Mondays Times Square underground platforms are a kind of reality stage for a cross-section of New York City not everyone gets to sample.  Recently there is a sprinkling of track workers because
there is always post-midnight repair activity and endless delays... so you have more time to settle into the drama. By 2 AM there is little musical entertainment, but plenty of hustlers and salesmen of a variety of wares-- stolen cheap watches, re-wrapped candy, articles of clothing and discarded earbuds...  talkers, lonely displaced people with nowhere else to spend the night... shuffling old women often close to your own age...dragging their shopping bags, hunched over and unwashed... the squishy stenchy hardcore car-sleepers... rats taking their time doing a sluggish diagonal dance on the tracks because train traffic is sparse; there is a kind of rare silence.

Last week a nice-looking guy with sideburns sat down on one of the wooden seats and took off his boot.... he had clean white sport-socks on, and he started in scratching.  Minutes later he'd scratched so hard the ground was littered with dancing clumps of white fuzz from the cotton... and still he went at it; I tried not to look.  After a time, a sick yellow-green ooze started to penetrate his socks; my stomach turned over...  he stopped-- as though the liquid seepage was the antidote to the itch.  He shook out his boot, stuck his foot in and walked to the north staircase of the uptown 1/2.  Just like that.

Not even a minute later, a drunk young couple sat down where he'd been working his foot... I tried to warn them, but they were too busy groping each other.  I'm no germaphobe but I felt a little tense in my seat on the train;  I started to reconsider trying on shoes in thrift stores.  In every car, the late-shift was working the crowd--- asking for handouts-- food, old gloves, a smile...  the same girl I've seen nearly every week gets on looking for enough money to buy a room for the night.   Her eyes are glazed, her feet are filthy and bare, her skin is pocked with needle-marks and infected sites.  It's more than sad.  You squirm and don't give her money to get high... but you feel ashamed of the C-note in your pocket even though you can barely come up with your month's expenses, even with the care packages from the kitchen at your gig.  A man gets on and sits across from you-- bloodshot eyes, a wedding ring-- he looks guilty and somehow sated.

All the stories in New York City-- the lit and unlit windows, the drawn shades, the silhouettes.  My friend's boyfriend has been seeing another woman; I know this and don't say anything.  It's not my role to hurt her, to bust him... I'm caught.  Another woman just ended her marriage when she found her husband hopelessly addicted to porn and heroin.  She must have been the last to know, or the last to want to know until it was in and on her face.

My best friend in the world is an ex-- one of those men who comes in and out of your life between disastrous relationships and marriages. You figure one day you'll marry him, but you're not quite ready to surrender to yesterday's clothes that have lost their style and no longer really fit.  Still, he's there.... or is he?  You walk by his place one random night; he always comes to yours-- his is essentially a mattress on the floor, some piles of books, dingy walls and permanently shut blinds.  You buzz up... and a woman answers... it seems he no longer lives there... has he forgotten to mention to you that he's moved?  Who are you, you text.  You get home late-late and he's been calling..  and the tales begin to unravel like a committee of scriptwriters batting around a scene.  On the third night your lawyer friend looks up his court records and it seems he's secretly married.  He's living with some Asian waitress--- sublet his place and moved to Queens.  You are stunned... not exactly hurt, because it's not like that-- but stunned.  Like your security blanket has been ripped away... like a betrayal.  He cries... how could he have lied to you?  Every day-- every FaceTime, every call, every joke-- because he sees you nearly every day-- tells you everything... except this.  Day 4, he claims he's miserable, he hates his life-- he hates the lies, he's always loved you-- well, sort of, because it never really worked out between you...  but he has been your health-care proxy, your emergency contact.  Who is this man?  The Asian woman is a bitch and is showing her age-- not a nice comment, because she is like twenty years younger than you are.  I guess this happens once the green card is inked.  The double life thing...

When I was a teenager I saw my best friend's father making out with a young woman in a restaurant.  It wasn't him, my Mom assured me... but it was.  Or it wasn't 'him' but it was my friend's father.  Itch.  The oozy, itchy leaking feet underneath those clean white socks.  Like a metaphor.  Who are these people?  I remember when we were young kids--- underneath our clothes we were beautiful and innocent... still honest enough in our free-love practice not to really hurt anyone... clean, even when we were bad.... but life goes on-- our scars and wounds and complications besiege us with small disappointments and failures... and we escape-- some of us have music and art-- fantasy... but others confuse their life opportunities with an emotional vacation... they create these webs of deceit and they knot themselves up so there is no way out without ripping off an arm or leg.

I don't love the guy.  No, but I expected loyalty-- honesty?  Some version of this... after all, what did he have to lose?  Me?  If you watch someone scratch long enough you start to itch.  I don't want to see what's underneath most people anymore.... we use our imagination.  This is why people love their pets-- their babies...  with humans it's complicated.  Needs... secrets-- stuff we hide that festers into addictions and lethal diseases... syndromes and mental illness.  So what now?  Amputate the guy?  You would never have known-- what were you missing?  Not  much?  You didn't need so much from him-- just trust, faith-- the phone calls and facetimes-- the seat next to you at your Mom's funeral.... It's a quandary.  The truth is more complicated than it should be.  It's a dirty fork in your road, here.

At the end of the 2 train ride, you get out.. you've got a couple of bucks to buy vegetables at the fruit stand; the same panhandler always there to greet you at 3 AM.  Hey, Baby, he says, like a question.  You wind up with 17 cents.  You tell him... 17 cents.  That's it.  That's not it, he says-- that's a fucking blessing.  He thumbs-up you as you drop the coins into his cup and he looks happy.  Clean.  Simple.  The truth.  He's a damned angel, this guy.  Somehow you feel better.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Pocketful of Wry

Yesterday on the sidewalk two small birds were having it out-- a bonafide squall... a few others flew in for the entertainment; two extras got involved in the fray.  It was like a game of 3-card monty... squawkers and gapers and rooters and much flapping around.  Finally I got a glimpse of the prize-- it was a chicken wing-tip-- like a discarded piece of Kentucky fried bucket-stuff on the sidewalk.  Hey, hey, I shouted to the sparrows-- not even pigeons who have no shame in this town-- that's your cousin there you're tearing apart-- what are you, cannibals?  Or maybe the processed stuff which passes as meat at KFC has no authentic bird DNA.  They dispersed, only to return when I got a few feet ahead... to peck it out until death....

I thought about Aesopian philosophy-- mocking bird humor-- an Ogden Nash or Edward Lear would surely come up with a limerick.  A Wall Street parallel?  A dog-eat-dog kind of thing?  What occurred to me is the fact that people have lost sight of the 'prize'... they will duke it out, compete, race and grab out of some instinct... kind of a Donald Trump thing-- going all out for a political campaign when you have no idea of what you might do if you actually win.  And, as we suffering Americans have learned well, not only does the best man not win, but the worst man wins, the best men stay home, the race ends in a brick wall collision-- no trophy, no pride, no victory-- just a kind of sick realization that you ruffled your feathers for some kind of cannibalistic irony...  a bad joke... fuel for all the cartoonists and comedians and late-night talk-show hosts.  I'm not laughing this week.

Last Saturday school kids led the country in a meaningful protest against gun-violence; they spoke with emotion and pride-- the mourners, the victims-- the girl vomiter who displayed her facial wounds to millions on international broadcasts, while the president-- the Commander-In-Chief whose worst pain is from a hair transplant procedure-- played golf or watched shark-week TV.   The demonstration totally eclipsed this year's NCAA tournament and imparted another ironic meaning to  Sweet Sixteen.   Brackets lost their edge anyway; the hype this year seems larger than the competition. Wth the exception of the first round, the winners seem less appealing-- no dreams, no legends, no compelling stories.

On the train this week I sat beside a homeless girl-- Maria from Panama who came to New York for her boyfriend-- shining and bright-- having won hands down her high school talent contest, she hoped to become a star, but had to sell her violin and saxophone for food.  Where is her joy of winning? What harsh lesson has she learned here?  I wanted to take her home with me, but I can no longer do these things.  I can no longer saddle myself with more causes and sorrows and sicknesses; I am worn from not even three months of the new year; my shadow is dense and dark-- daylight savings time seems ill-omened and premature.

One of the workers in my building complained to me about the way some new tenants have treated him-- with disdain and disrespect; these people who have bankrupted old Wall Street firms with their greed and shenanigans, their margin-trading and derivatives manipulation.  Here they are, the criminals and crime-masters of finance, buying weighty shares in my coop, throwing their power around like the entitled brats they are, tearing down walls and wrecking old fixtures as they move onward, losers become winners...  You are a good woman, this man told me, with his thick accent; you will be rewarded by Jesus; I believe this, he said, pointing to his heart.

My friends question the existence of a God who countenances childhood cancer, these senseless innocent killings... I do not hold Him personally responsible;  I know this is not the way the world works.  There are no Superheroes who catch falling infants from burning buildings, but firemen and people who reach out and sacrifice themselves for others.  We honor them, we decorate their graves and donate money to their families... but who are the winners here?  I don't know anymore.  All day the nursery rhyme has been going over and over in my head-- the Trump-as-King is in his counting house, counting out his money, the Queen is in the parlor (Trump Tower) eating bread and honey; the maid is in the garden hanging out the clothes...along came a wing-eating blackbird and snipped off her nose.  It seems the poor and the good are being punished here; they are shot and homeless and suffering from asthma and cancer and poor medicine while the losers have become the winners.  Crooked men are we, the new Americans, with our phones and selfies and downloaded lives-- broken brackets, crumbling White House, obscene coffers and man-made poverty; we are no longer dreamers but streamers.   Maria in the church basement cradling her empty violin case like a baby, waiting for her sad supper on a paper plate, singing a song of sixpence...


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Now You See It….

Many years ago I was working at a highbrow art gallery and made my first important sale to a rock star.  As he handed over what was then a small fortune, he asked me, politely, how he could be certain that his new painting was real.  You can't, I assured him; but I can.  I knew.  In those days part of our rigorous art education was connoisseurship-- we looked and studied masterpieces and were tested on deciphering fakes and forgeries from the real deal.  At a certain point, you get a feel for it-- you just 'know', like fresh-baked cookies from the boxed kind, like a green plant from a plastic one.  Guitar collectors search and play and touch and study-- the real musicians just 'know'... they pick up a guitar and it sings its history-- its wooden roots-- the skill of the luthier who lovingly put it together with electronics and bits of material so that its soul matched its beauty.  The best of them, like old paintings,  have passed through one or two owners who played them and loved them-- broke them in and seasoned the wood... they feel experienced, layered.

I was having a vigorous discussion Saturday with a visiting Frenchman about the art market, and out of my mouth came the word Authenticity-- like a sentry, like a pillar or goddess... like one of those lovely intangible names so many girls in the hood proudly wear around gold chains these days--  Destiny, Felicity, Cadence, Chassity (yes, I looked twice at that one... ).  Authenticity, in the end, is what matters, I heard myself saying… not the kind that is guaranteed by a stamp or certificate or committee when you buy a Warhol or a Keith Haring, but the real thing.

Back in the day, there were sketchy galleries on Madison Avenue who sold Picassos, Miros, Chagalls-- with or without signatures; most of these came accompanied by a piece of paper like a pedigree, guaranteeing their authenticity.  None of these galleries are currently in business; their provenance is a sort of black mark on the merchandise, even if it is real.  They reminded me of the papers issued when you bought a certain breed from one of those puppy stores which are also a thing of the past, buried beneath lawsuits and claims.   A guarantee of purity and lineage…  how were we to know this was a grey-market dog?  Would we return it after adopting it into our family?  Of course not.  Imagine the paperwork that comes with religious and historic relics--- Napoleon's penis which is insured for an obscene sum and would auction for far more-- who knows the absolute truth, the DNA nitty-gritty?

Most of us would be horrified if we bought tickets to hear a great rock band and ended up with their lookalikes simulating the music... or if they showed up and played cover songs all night.  We would know.  But the art world-- the quick overnight successes-- do we feel the depth of what they do?  Yes, Jean Michel Basquiat had a kind of genius-- looking at his work was like hearing the young Ramones at CBGB's before anyone told us it was cool.  But too many of us are happy now to hang a poor imitation of his unique style with a bunch of silly text scrawled across the page.  It 'looks' hip-- but it's really just bullshit.  Half the artists showing in galleries are wannabes or followers-- and the audience lacks the time or interest to investigate who their mentors were.  Most people these days get their blues from Eric Clapton, not Lightnin Hopkins or Blind Lemon Jefferson. People in general settle for the 'light' version, take their selfies and go home and watch Netflix.

There are so many awards-- nominations, honors--- a self-proclaimed candidate can produce a roster of accomplishments and offices held.  Is anyone really bothering to certify these things?  Our children play in sports leagues; virtually every child is given a trophy... it's misleading, not democratic-- and gives children the idea that they are the best when they are not even good.  It's a Snakes and Ladders game of fame-- press the right Instagram button, and you are an instant princess-- not that I am bitter about the easy success of the undeserving-- it's just the substitution of this, like artificial sweetener, that leaves a bad taste and ruins the dream.  And in the runway 'walk of fame'... who is bothering to distinguish what is authentic from the rest?  Some of us are.

In this day of fake news, puppet presidents, internet hoaxes, and instant fame, some of us can feel what is authentic, like an old patina-- not a manufactured coating.  You can feel beauty, too-- in people-- even older people who have not had their faces updated-- you can sense a certain grace in their hands, in their eyes when they speak to you: who they were, who they are...  like slow wisdom or a ripening.

When I was a girl, my favorite book was The Prince and the Pauper.  I loved kings and queens in disguise--- even The Princess and the Pea-- the way real heroic nobility and royal kindness shone through rags and tatters.  We no longer have the example of  'good' rulers.  Quite the contrary.  But there are still things out there to be discovered that are badly dressed and brilliant-- or unmarketed,
non-Instagramed, and wonderful.  There is more soul in a couple of the men I hear singing in the train stations than in all the top 40 recordings I can't name.  Talent is no guarantee of success, and too often the best of them drop out.  It's too damned hard.

I still can't get over that da Vinci painting... I mean, when I was ten, my mother took me to see the Mona Lisa on its world tour.  Of course we waited endlessly on a huge line, and we were rushed by the viewing stage... but it was magical.  Yes, it was curtained and 'presented' with theatricality-- but you could breathe its importance-- its quiet beauty.  I had chills... I nearly cried; it was authentic.  But that $450 million painting? It spoke not a word-- no song, no chills, no magic.  It was flat.  Like a bird that choked, or a clown in couture.  It just didn't feel right;  but then there are always those who want to believe in the charlatan, in the false messiah, the doctored unicorn.

For years I tried to imitate my mother's simple yellow cake recipe-- it just never came out tasting right.  I finally gave up and did things from scratch my own way and discovered something else.  I'm not a baker, I'm a bass player.  Of course I definitely have my heroes, and have plenty to learn from the masters, but the last thing I want is to sound like them.  I may never be famous or celebrated, but I'll be myself.  People used to ask my Mom what her secret ingredient was, and she'd laugh it off.  I finally realized it was her hands-- her skill, her unique story, the passion and love she baked in-- her inimitable recipe for authenticity.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Instagram Coffee

When I first went to college I signed up for a minimal meal plan, to save money for tuition.  There were no cooking facilities or even refrigerators in dormitories back then... I had one of those cheap little electric kettles and I bought myself packets of instant cream of wheat-- a relatively new product.  The previous years I'd gone to high-school in a morning session (over-crowded school-scheduling) which required a 5 AM wake-up to walk dogs and put together a sustaining breakfast.  I cooked myself a pot of hot porridge or wheat cereal-- this took some twenty minutes-- with butter, cream (yes-- my indulgent mother) and brown sugar,  cafe-au-lait-- which had to get me through six long break-less hours until lunch. Even the memory of it is hearty and good.  My first homesick dormitory morning of instant mush was horrifying.  It tasted like paper--was either pasty or soupy-- gritty and awful.  Coffee was no better.

I've never been able to drink instant coffee.  As low-maintenance and minimal as my eating habits have become, by necessity, fast food has never been my thing.  I like brewed coffee-- pour-over, fresh-steeped.  In my son's well-designed office there are several varieties of machines which produce a perfect cup in seconds; individual servings with endless combinations of roasts and flavors... lattes, espresso, cappuccino-- all pre-measured, packaged in a disposable clean pod... all tasting, to me, suspiciously like airport coffee.  I've noticed many, many new chains of dedicated boutiques, all featuring some brewing or roasting specialty-- the craft of coffee, the process-- some at a premium that rivals the price of a good pound of fresh beans.  They all seem to have a following.  It seems even the post-millennials know the difference between office-brew and high-test.  My son goes out to Starbucks for his caffeine fix.  Manhattan is packed with chefs and food choices.  While McDonald's and Burger King don't seem to suffer, restaurants of all varieties,-- take-out trucks and stores offer seriously decent dishes for every meal.  Sommeliers have never been as sought-after; cheese experts, pastry chefs are in high career-demand.

So what happened to music?  Why do we get this variety of instant shake-and-bake beats and lyrics that pass as records?  Where are the writers and the inspired, tormented poets-with-guitars?  Out in a tent on a backroad in Mississippi?  Sleeping with the gypsies in a caravan in Croatia?

I've been playing in bands for 40 years or so, and consider myself a second-tier musician.  I sympathize with the geniuses of my circle who surpassed their curriculum before they even entered music school-- who could not only show their teachers a few things but can play their proverbial asses off.  Many of them live in low-income or subsidized housing projects.   Some of them are dead, having indulged their souls and bodies in the process of challenging their own talents... or tormenting themselves in the self-doubting ritual of most brilliant artists who see the light and cannot quite get there every night.  Few of them receive the acknowledgment they are due; they must turn on award shows and watch the endless accolades of achievement doled out to the mediocre and uninspired.
It is like watching a cup of instant coffee win the taste award year after year.  It's a depressing sentence.

On another level, I co-host a weekly jam in a New York City club whose name bears tribute to one of the great figures in American music.  Many of our friends and wonderfully talented colleagues join us in celebrating our community here, in perpetuating a certain tradition.  But nearly every week we are joined by someone who gives themselves a list of credits-- who gets up onstage and displays the musical flavor-profile of a water-cooler-style instant coffee.  Do they get this?  Are they listening?  I don't know.  Some of it is simple skill and practice.  Some of it is 'ear'-- the ability to discern what is good from what is merely adequate.  But much of it is simple failure to listen.  Can these people distinguish a freshly-grilled burger from a fast-food filler-patty?  I would think so.   But here they are, offering up the audio version of plastic food choices, sometimes via instruments which belonged to celebrities before them, which cost a small fortune, but sound cheap and misused.

Or is it that we are not just deaf but blind?  In this world of a billion pairs of fashion eyeglasses, people do not see themselves.  We have Beyonce-unlikes who flaunt themselves on the street-- women of age with enhanced lips and injected faces who choose to dress and behave like their own daughters.  I remember becoming 40-ish... I could see in the mirror I was turning like a late-summer leaf-- from a youngish woman to a mature one.  At first I was panicky and loathed myself-- discovered tricks of hair-color and make-up.  But then I began to realize it's not so bad-- I don't have to be beautiful all my life; it's time to focus on content.  I've been loved; I can still continue to love.  So I have left behind my girlhood; there is still the memory and the experience.  And now, I have long left behind my 40's and in photographs quite see the beauty I did not understand at the time.

Recently I had an accident on the subway steps; it wasn't too serious but I noticed my knee had somehow kept the memory of some old injury and was stubbornly refusing to heal itself.  It was reminding me of my past-- fiercely holding on to some long-forgotten fear and stress of pain-- maybe from my ballet days.   A friend of mine has had a cancer recurrence.. like a message from his body-- a voice-- a scar which was untended.

Late Monday night, after my gig, I watched St. Louis Blues on some free non-cable network.  This is the story of the great W.C. Handy-- his struggle with music.  Even the actors playing these roles-- Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt--- Ruby Dee... had a kind of genius and exquisite talent we rarely see in our time.  The voice of Eartha Kitt-- unadorned, unadulterated-- those eyes-- I could not take my eyes from the screen.  The temporary blindness of W. C. Handy-- the depth of his musical nature-- how he nurtured and groomed this as he matured.  I think of my fellow musicians here--- even myself, with my handicaps and mediocrities-- how many thousands of nights we stood trying to understand ourselves onstage-- learning to listen and find our place in the music; how we suffer and starve-- me, the Princeton summa cum laude girl with the scholarships and accolades-- struggling to just be-- to let go of being loved, admired-- to be sometimes misjudged or slighted, hit on by club-owners and horn players--- chided, praised, cheated, marginalized and drowned out-- just for these moments of musical truth-- for my tiny contribution to something larger.  I am no genius; I am a cog, but I think I am finally a listening, genuine cog.

W.C. Handy had his retribution: parental forgiveness, restoration of sight-- great lifetime acknowledgment.  Not so for me-- I have my old scars, like the pain in my knee which will heal, telling my story, somehow inserting themselves into the music-- the experience, the joy, the sweat and truth we try so hard to convey, with tedious long years and words-- 2-track soundbites and voices ringing like old bells in the face of the Instagram wall that stands before us with ever more facile digital brickwork, every day.  And yet, I wouldn't trade a single analogue minute, old and scarred as I am, me and my vintage guitars, my scraps of paper and my dreams.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Let the Games End

I don't know why the opening ceremony of the Olympics sort of gives me the shivers.  Maybe it's the color wash of pomp and nationalistic display that just seems so out of touch with the dull and miserable reality of the less fortunate population.  Puerto Rico is neglected; starvation and disease are rampant in so many places worldwide; the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots has never seemed so hideous.  The Korean culture itself--- the military parades and exhibitions of the North like a braggart's bluff-- the singing girls and the happy marchers... the reality of repression and forced obedience... the apparent moratorium on human rights that welcomes athletes from a hostile and hideous regime for what-- the spirit of competition?  I just don't get it.  It feels opportunistic and juvenile... some kind of #metoo madness.

Not to mention the pall cast over the gymnastic community which has colored yet another sport almost permanently.  Who protects those of our children who have been deemed special or uber-talented and marketable-- whose natural skills and talents have been parlayed into industries and fortunes not to mention a kind of national heroism?  As a young aspiring dancer, I could sense the thorns and perils even before I understood abuse and boundaries.  We each have instincts, but our ambitions so often triumph better judgment... as well as that of all those people on our path who close one eye when there is a huge pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.  Until the whistles blew.... and how many sports are now tainted by cover-ups, pay-offs, cheating, doping?  Does the best man/woman win?  Look at our elections.  Not only did we get the dark horse but we got a non-qualifier.  If politics was a sport our president would be limping at the starting-line with an ill-fitting uniform and no sponsors but his own sad brand.  Eisenhower might have been a good golfer but he was also a 5-star general.

What version of America shows up at these international competitions? The athletes are still young players in a kind of dream-- individuals with the drive and stamina to be the best they can be-- who put their skill on the line internationally for their nation-- but who are we?  A disorganized country with little focus except money-- an untrained leader whose familiarity with the 50 states came from watching the  Miss America pageant.  And now he wants a military parade-- this man who never fought a war or trained for one-- who throws around threats and battle-language like some kind of cartoon character.  The Monopoly president whose claim to office is an affirmation of the sad state of pop culture and the negation of human values.  We won't see his image on a bill or coin, but on a game-piece-- a gambling chip.  The man himself to me is an ever-expanding hot-air balloon-- the latest float at a Macy's parade...  to bring him down will take some strategy because he is not just a player but a cheater.  In the end, in my personal American dream--- to ultimately deflate the high-flying symbol of bloated greed and cartoon quackery will take a simple pin.

I can't help blaming the current flu epidemic on a certain emotional malaise among my American peers.  My friends and I have been mostly depressed since Election Day 2016.  Anything could take us down.  Few of us trust the medical system  to protect us against disease or to give a whit about healthcare beyond what profits the insurance and drug companies.  We do not get vaccinated; we get sick.  We are watching these games and athletics through feverish eyes, wondering at the lingering inequality of women in some sports, and worrying about the fate of the Korean cheerleaders and delegates.  Will they be punished?  Will there be defectors?  Why is South Korea so apparently recently solicitous of its evil Northern sister?

To me the two Koreas seem like a dysfunctional family; the South-- a beautiful place, ranked No.1 in the world in technological innovation-- so there is obvious talent and brilliance concentrated there-- a thing which might create envy in any family.  In the North-- repression is standard; starvation is rampant.  Students reputedly must buy their own desks and chairs to attend class, etc.  It is not a place that fosters creativity or joy... one pities the athletes who cannot possibly reap the rewards available to other nations-- win or lose.  It parallels my own sad family, in a way.... love has become impossible.. and although I neither respect nor admire my sister, she has used threats and fear to further alienate and weaken any family attachment I might have had.  She has forbidden her children to befriend me, although they have attempted defection... and now through force and might has conscripted the core and remaining fortune of my nuclear family so that even my own legacy will be withheld.  It is a game without rules; a rigged contest where the judges are the contestants, and there is one pre-arranged winner.

In this upside-down Trumped world where the jokers preside and justice sits on a bench with yesterday's stale sandwich, well... these villains will continue to steal the pie.  But for my true sisters of musical voice-- of pen and pencils and paint-- the filmmakers and innovators-- my teammates in life-- we will dance on their graves one day.  We will speak and write and sing and continue to raise our children with unconditional love.  We are out there-- on the streets-- in cornfields and in small homes... some of us coughing and barely able to board a public bus...  we wave to one another-- with some hope--  in our old clothing, with no medals or trophies but underneath it all,  a still-ticking American heart.