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.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Gimme Shelter

As I've said before, I live on the cusp of two neighborhoods-- one posh and landmarked-- block after block of old, grand buildings with sidewalk gardens, elegant doormen servicing large apartments many of which have been handed down from generation to generation.  The other-- East Harlem-- a mixed bag of renovations and new businesses interspersed with block after block of projects.   Coming home the other evening, a man from the posh side was walking his retriever-- wearing pocketless shorts and a leather jacket-- the luxury of being able to go out and not even lock his door, knowing his trusted building staff will protect everything.   As I passed, the dog was in the act of relieving itself-- the great common denominator of life… and I recognized the owner as Jamie Dimon, notorious overpaid head of JP Morgan, talking head of the financial crisis, a man whose bank was loaned umpteen billions in a scandalous economic bailout, and walked away with a reward.  I resent these neighbors, many of whom live in the same fortress-like building around the corner, with a set of unformed guards outdoors like some kind of UES Buckingham Palace fantasy.  I silently bared my teeth, and didn't turn to watch him in the act of picking up after his dog.

Back in the days of Mayor Koch, when the first dog-waste law was passed, people balked and resisted.  My own dog looked at me like I'd lost my mind.  This, I thought, will clear the city dog population.  No one is going to want to live this way, publicly cleaning up after our animals, looking for a place to stash the trash, etc.  It felt damned humiliating.  But it didn't.  In fact, it seems there are more dogs than ever-- fewer buildings forbidding pets, which used to be rather common in the 60's and 70's-- more dog runs and pens, a huge new generation of pet services and shops, boarding and grooming options, dog walking and training, psychologists and specialized veterinarians.

The dog culture in New York is maybe beginning to edge out the child culture for economic opportunity and profit.  When I had my son here, there were maybe 3 stores in the city which sold baby furniture, very few toy shops besides Toys R Us.  Baby Gap had just opened up; things like jogging strollers had yet to be invented.  We looked to Scandinavia for well-designed accessories and carriers.
The market now is glutted with products-- toys, vehicles, safety devices, learning programs, phone apps. Re: dogs… cats… there were a few specialty pet stores… now there are spas, trainers, day-boarding, hotel accommodations, fashion, food, etc…

I grew up with dogs… yes, some retrievers and bred varieties-- but mostly strays and mutts I found and brought home.  Still, they were treated as animals-- no frills, no table food, no grooming and primping.  My Dad disciplined them with the same sternness as his children.  They got hosed down when necessary….  the long-haired ones were sheared for summer-- no fancy cuts. But they were wonderful animals-- companions, life-savers, friends, soul mates.

So many of my friends have filled their lives with animals.  It's a beautiful thing, but I still have a hard time when I see middle-aged women pushing their pets in baby strollers, cooing and babbling to their manicured little Yorkies and arguing with food establishment staff when asked to leave their animals outside.  There are women in my neighborhood who forgot to have kids-- or maybe never wanted them-- and have replaced some kind of maternal instinct with the dog bug.  People are going to hate me for this, and I am essentially an animal lover, but I still believe dogs are dogs.  I like to see them running wild in fields, chasing birds, rolling in the dirt, hunting prey, jumping for joy and diving into bodies of water.  Most are natural swimmers.

Walking across the Brooklyn bridge yesterday, I was once again impressed with the swarms of people who find New York endlessly explorable.  Residents, commuters, tourists.  The views of Manhattan from the other boroughs are constantly changing-- the density of new architecture is not just impressive but alarming.  The crowds of residents swell and services are in demand.  New York City is uber heaven.  It is also dog central.  I wonder if there is a pet census.  It seems to be almost a prerequisite for young couples and families… a priority.

My best dogs, like my men, were the bad boys.  I loved my wandering strays.  They taught me a harsh lesson about life and also helped me to learn the difference between parenting and ownership.  Dogs are dogs… and kids-- well, they are family and responsibility, and works in progress.  Training is never over; problems abound.. preparing a being for independence is a very different task than teaching a creature about dependence.  Love is not conditional; punishment is difficult and the Pavlovian approach goes just so far.  Trust is something we must nurture and learn.  Dogs love the hand that feeds; not so with children.  And appetites are complicated.

What I am trying to say, I think… is first I find it understandable but challenging that our sympathies are so easily triggered by animals-- abused animals, abandoned and sick animals.. .while the world and our city are overpopulated with abandoned people-- the abused or ill who have fallen off track and are not so easy to cage and adopt.  Foster children-- misbehaving children, disabled children without genuine support.  Few people are likely to stop in the street and give their heads a pat or offer them treats.  It's tough.

But also, I think there's kind of a message in the fact that we have an overwhelming need for the iconic canine virtues-- loyalty, fidelity…  and these are becoming more and more rare in this media-ruled culture.  Much easier to buy or adopt values ready-made then to try to build them into the fabric of your life.  Buy a cute dog-- feed it, train it--- it will stay by your side.  Not so with friends, or even family.  Not everyone shows up when your chips run out, or you get a terminal diagnosis.  But your dog won't know the difference or judge.  Jamie Dimon knows this when he picks up after his retriever.

I loved my bad stray dog.  He took off periodically, but when he came back it more than made up for the fair-weather conditional behaviors of so many of my family.  It felt real.  It felt deserved and mutual.
What still bothers me is my poor friend who passed away in isolated agony, unwilling to abandon her cat who seemed to care little for its owner, and who in the end received a lion's share of concern while
her human owner heroically suffered in a kind of cruel human abandonment.  It's difficult and awkward to reach out to the sick and dying and destitute around us… but we can learn from our animals who love us despite our physical or health issues.  When alone, they are placed in shelters, where hopefully human sympathy will rescue them.  For my friend, there was no shelter, nor was she commended for her loyalty and love for animals.  Not by her cats, not by her neighbors.  On Memorial Day, I offer the sound of my one hand clapping for her, a veteran not of war but of life… a kind person who took so little, whose only true companion in life and death was a cat-- one of many she'd rescued and saved her from utter loneliness but in the end was helpless and a little distant, as cats can be.  Surely it did not know her only dying wish was for its safety and comfort.  Loyal as a dog, she was.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

View from the Bridge

I grew up pledging allegiance to my country’s flag every morning in nursery school where few of us even understood the words we mostly mispronounced.  We put our hands on our hearts and swore things and then we sang about God and other things.  These repetitions were part of our daily ritual, like a mantra.  At sleepaway camp I sang the Doxology at lunch; another repetition.  I liked recitations; I liked music.  I liked the sound of girls' and boys' voices in unison, like a choir.

Later on we questioned things, we refused to repeat words we didn’t believe in, we found the exceptions to every rule and that became a temporary raison d’etre.  By the time I was an adult, no one was mouthing things in school anymore; no one was pledging-by-rote or reciting things about God except in church.

I traveled out of the country for the first time as a young teenager; I was an exchange student in a totally rural village in Mexico which was an education in itself.  But it was the first time I became aware of being American, with all the advantages—and of the envy and the bitterness of people in a poor culture where plumbing was a luxury and electricity a rarity; where they’d experienced the well-meaning efforts of things like the Peace Corps which too often came off like smug imperialist elitism. Bleeding heart US liberals, rich kids wearing their overalls and charitable deeds like badges of honor.  My Mexican family had seen them digging ditches in their backyards with their transistor radios and their rock-band messaged T-shirts and didn’t much care for them.

This month I’ve been to 4 countries in a short space.  On the trip to Oslo I realized it was the first time I’d left the US since the election.  My SAS plane was packed with Norwegians; they didn’t even bother making announcements in English.  They handed out the required boarding cards the US began issuing after 9/11 because they wanted to know where you were traveling and on what plane in case of some incident.  But this time no one collected them at Passport control.  Maybe it was an oversight, but I felt as if we were downgraded to second-rate status and our priorities no longer have respect or meaning.  Besides, Donald Trump couldn’t give a shit about me or anyone else who is not going to line his gilded pockets.

My friends here in Stockholm have visited New York as often as they could; they’ve always been interested in tracing the origins of contemporary pop culture, like a pilgrimage.  They come to see where Bob Dylan lived, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, where Nancy stabbed Sid and where Thomas Wolfe came to produce his thick volumes of prose. I’ve always had a certain ‘currency’, being a native New Yorker; I witnessed things they read about and brushed shoulders with their idols before they were famous.  My love for Stockholm is known; it’s my ‘holm away from home.  I’ve played and sang here, recorded music, been loved, appreciated and entertained.  It is maybe the most beautiful city in the world… and still, I’ve always still had the underlying longing to return to my New York.

Today there’s a photo of not-my-president on the front of one of the daily Swedish papers; this is a social democracy—it’s a liberal and fair society; in the place I’m staying, owned by a middle-class older couple, a sticker on the washing machine shows Michael Moore’s face with the caption ‘Take Back the White House!’  Stockholm suffered a terrorist attack recently but they go on as the free society they are.  I realize I don't feel quite the same as an American… I'm sick of apologizing for a massive political error and an incompetent administration.  I'm tired of the jokes; they're wearing thin.

One of the things I love most about Stockholm is its geography.  The islands all have their own character and are navigable by foot.  Crossing the various bridges is not just breathtaking but gives a unique sense of perspective on the city.  I have always loved bridges; in New York, my son and I walked the 59th Street, the Brooklyn—even the Hell Gate Bridge.  There is always a moment—half way maybe, where you feel ungrounded…suspended… free, in a way, but with that crossroads thing in your head—knowing on every bridge, everywhere, someone has stood and thought about the jump.  It adds another dimension to my bridge-crossing metaphor.

Today I was on an especially high crossing, where I could see the water beneath my feet—the blackish, still-wintry, restless current.  I thought about going home—the end of my stay coming up.. and suddenly I realized going back to my country at this moment of political chaos, shame… provided no comfort.  The gap between going and coming home is significant; this time I feel I’m returning, but not to a place of belonging or security.  It’s like the national rug has been pulled out from under us and replaced with a blanket of golf-course turf.  For the first time in my life, I feel vaguely homeless.  I can only imagine how our US immigrants are suffering—standing on their bridge, with nowhere to return to, nowhere to enter… ‘Send these, the homeless tempest- tossed to me…’ the poem says… but no longer.  I will go home, in name only, like an immigrant, hoping to find my old dream in a place where the symptoms of greed and selfish Titanism are consuming the heart of my city.  Not the world that produced me; not the world of any godly version of society.  Holding the return portion of my roundtrip ticket, I feel duped and stranded rather than safe and welcome.  Fortunately I still have a day to two to contemplate my view from the bridge.  Not so for everyone.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Dogged

Somewhere between dusk and evening, I felt something slip through a hidden entrance- a cracked door, a hole in the sky.  I might have been on a plane from Tokyo... thinking about the way birds fly in a line some afternoons-- as though they are desperately trying to give us a sign, read us a message... and we, the opaque humans that we are-- fail to decipher, to notice, to apply.  I was staring out of a window on a long flight where time zones, geography, space and cultures melt and blur... where the view of atmosphere and clouds takes us to a place which seems un-life-like... close to the place we began, to the place we will rejoin.  Somehow it seems we are not meant to experience the literal milieu of an out-of-world place, that we are meant to be walking on the ground, using our feet and our hands like the primitive beings we once were.

Miles above our home, things like death, God, eternity-- they are within our grasp, we think... dreams and fantasy seem possible... we are one with the clouds... we are in the place of vast infinity and space.  On the ground, in a tiny room of the city, death was paying a visit to a friend I'd made maybe only because his illness compelled him to reach out, to connect with someone with whom he'd never have made contact.  But there we were-- star-crossed and intimate-- we adopted one another briefly, like my seatmate who had bared her heart to me before dinner.

Last month my other friend finally released herself from the agony which had worn her the way some homeless men cling to an old coat which has long ago lost its usefulness, its shape, its reason.  She died like an abandoned animal-- like a dog, the expression is, I think.  Besides me, who was for whatever reason bound to execute her final perverse wish,  there was no one to relieve her, to administer, to comfort.  Her cat, to whom she dedicated her final choices, seemed oblivious and callow.  It ran from end to end of the apartment every time I entered, rejoiced at the opening of a can, purred with gusto after feeding... watched me hawkfully as I failed to find any reasonable solution for my friend's discomfort.  The cancer devoured her like a hungry hyena, but cruelly left just enough so she was conscious of the hell of her disease.  It went on beyond the limits of any decent humanity.  In Hospice they would have dosed her lethally with morphine long before.  The only metaphor I could summon was being in hard unproductive labor for a year.  It was that bad.  Relentless.  On the wall was no Do-Not-Resuscitate, no final instruction except a note requesting that her ex-boyfriend-- the one who had not shown his face for years, even though he lived nearby and was listed as next-of-kin-- be called to pick up the cat in case she died.  From its age, I suspect this note had been posted many years before she had an inkling of cancer, and maybe worried she'd drink too much and hit her head on the floor some night.  Or that one of the myriads of unworthy men she bedded would get rough.

Anyway, 'cats' was on the note; as long as I'd been coming in and out to help her, there was only one surviving animal.  I'd spoken to several people I knew about her situation.  It was dire and she was pretty much destitute.  Personally I was raised with dogs.  My mother disliked cats and associated them with spinsterhood and eccentric lonely women.  She was superstitious and not sophisticated about certain things, but she raised me to avoid their company.  Dogs-- honest and boisterous and loyal.  They stay with you when you're sick; they grieve for you.  But what I discovered among the population of animal-lovers in my friend-circle, was their sympathy for her cat was universal while all they gave poor Lucia was a tilt of the head.

I see hoards of homeless people on the street these days.  I can't take a subway ride without being shaken down by an outstretched hand and a story; it feels like the 70's again.  Yes, I'm a sucker for these people.  After all, I ended up tending to a lonely ill woman who wasn't particular nice to me, and would never have given much attention to anyone's suffering.  I stayed to the very end, to the moment of heeding the instructed phone call on the wall even though I could have punched her ex for his utter lack of showing up, whatever their relationship.  She had no one.

A few people absorbed the fact that she'd passed through my posts and poetry.  The reality of her death was the worst thing I have ever experienced; the agony and hideous lack of closure is impossible to exorcise.  But for a situation where I was not even allowed to arrange a burial or funeral, the number of people inquiring about the fate of the cat was overwhelming.  And not just inquiring-- scolding me, insisting-- bleeding for the cat who was old and fine and not particularly sympathetic or charming... with not a word for her owner who had equally prioritized her animals.

On the Tokyo plane, I watched Lion.  The credits gave statistics on the staggering numbers of lost and missing Indian children.  I wept through most of the film.    Three nights before, I was half asleep and happened to catch some blurb about one of the Beverly Hills Housewives and her new charity to save dogs from cruelty in China.  Yes, I love animals.  I have nurtured strays, fed (yes!) cats and sick pigeons,  felt sorry for dead rodents.   I tried hard to communicate with my suffering friend's cat who seemed to ignore both of us.  But what I cannot comprehend is the utter failure of humanity to sympathize with fellow men as much as they adore their pets.  There are many abused animals, I agree; but the number of sick and negected children-- not to mention neighbors and friends who suffer needlessly and die without compassion and care-- is baffling.

So while I love my neighbors' pets and will care for their dogs when they are sick or away, I can't help wagging a finger at people who cannot find time to look in on a sick or ailing or helpless human being whose unfortunate psyche is created to feel the pains of loneliness and isolation nearly as much as physical discomfort.  The homeless who sit on corners with sad-eyed and hungry  animals get way more financial sympathy than they do alone.  What is wrong with us that we seem to disregard our own kind in favor of animals who I concede have very little hatred in their hearts? But neither do babies and humans who have not been mistreated and punished and deprived.

Let's put the human back in humane... let us not forget our fellow creatures, unappealing and ruined and seemingly ungrateful as they may be; when you are sick and unable and tired and must deal with the pathetically inadequate medical system which favors the rich and the animals among us... it is not easy.  Have at least the sympathy of an average dog.  Amen.