Tuesday, March 29, 2011

So and sew...

I’ve been reading Harold Brodkey. Okay. Don’t beat me up. I know he's self-indulgent, beyond baroque, masturbatory, etc. His characters are hyper-verbose and unapologetic about contradicting themselves. They are good and bad; guilty and not guilty. But at least he was intelligent. And every once in a while he says something brilliant and is even willing to admit he stole it from someone else. Like this one: “I think style is usually just the way someone gets past the pain of amateurishness.” I loved that remark. Style is the earmark of New York Culture. Artist John Currin and his wife were recently featured in the New York Times Style section. Not a painting to be seen...just their trendy staged apartment and their photo-shoot-ready attire. Two nerds transformed by ‘stylists’ into ‘icons’. Many more people will know their clothes than their artwork which is more or less worthy (another subject).

So stylists are the new spin artists, the new public relations power-mongers, the machinery which drives the Culture of Amateurishness we have become. Which makes sense--- because we have time for tweets but not editorials, texts but not letters; lunches are short, food is microwaved, internet speed is breakneck...even agricultural crops are souped up because people don’t have time to wait for seeds to germinate naturally. We are full-grown children...emotional dwarfs zipping around from relationship to relationship. We don’t have time to become ‘professional’ in the traditional sense. We are a half-baked society with empty wallets and full closets to testify to our enormous style.

So yesterday I went to this exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory of quilts--- not just any quilts, -- exclusively red and white quilts which was a sort of tradition because red-dyed cotton tended to outlast other colors and most of these were centuries old. The incredible thing is, at first this graphic carnival--- like looking at sheets of stamps or a roomful of flags. But as you began to navigate the space, and to focus in on the individual quilts, you realize that each one is the product of thousands of hours of patient, tedious work-- piecing toward a whole, stitching meticulously during spare minutes in an era when spare minutes were rare. Not to mention the last thing these seamstress/artists would have imagined is their intimate work publicly displayed in a palatial-sized urban hall being i-photo’d by thousands.

Very few quilts are signed, except the ones which bear embroidered names of church-members or family trees. They are surviving soft testimony of some kind of self-less diligence and pride of craftsmanship, mixed with an undeniable protestant work-ethic thing, and also some kind of love. They all radiate this human, imperfect, elegant hominess we seem to be missing. The feeling that millions of old fashioned minutes are sewn with the cares and worries and dreams and sorrows into these now-precious things we with all our stylish crap forgot about. Nothing we buy at Tiffany will ever compare. Personal ego-less masterpieces which altogether defined a certain ‘culture’ which to this audience was more a charming relic than nostalgia. For me it was like a giant Valentine. Straight to the writerless heart.

So outside into the Park Avenue March cold and the in-your-face super-sized sculpted colored flowers and insects which now grace our mall like cartoon monsters or Koons cousins. Grotesque monuments to our culture of juvenility. What happened to carving from a block of marble? Now we get these mould-made Nara giant smooth dolls without even the ‘character’ of trolls. Just huge unedible candy people. I thought the death of culture began when the M&M store opened in Times Square. What is wrong with people? Does the Emperor need to be stark naked?

The quilts... not facebook. The humanity-- the confiding, confessional thing...after all, people slept under these, sweated out illnesses, made love, conceived children.

So, tonight I'm back from another rock and roll extravaganza-marathon gig. I returned to a seething voicemail-lashing from my unequivocably brilliant writer/editor neighbor for reading Harold Brodkey. It was heartwarming. Not like the quilts, but otherwise. And at least I admitted it (Brodkey-esque?).

As a self-confessed amateur professional, I say signing autographs is overrated. All of us who’ve slept with celebrities know that. And getting compliments is like the first drink for an alcoholic. Accept them only if you’re willing to antidote it with a dose of self-pity. Because you need it. But to be berated by someone of truly superior intelligence is like a blessing. Maybe a Jewish blessing but a blessing nevertheless. You are worth it.

Amen.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March Madness

The Japanese disaster has silenced dark voices and made any kind of whining not just politically incorrect but morally intolerable. We gasp and cry. Those of us who have been there, played to their welcoming audiences, feel maybe a bit worse. This is not a culture of drama queens. They need expertise. They need steamshovels and airlifts. They need essentials. They need everything.

Apparently we were somehow more sympathetic to the Haitians. After all, Japan is a rich country. We in NYC are used to masses of well-dressed NYU students, Tokyo fashionistas, club kids, Mitsubishis, Murakami, Manga. Of course we now need to consider lovely people who could not afford to live elsewhere than in the shadow of a nuclear plant on earthquake-prone terrain. Like most humans, we worry enough to buy insurance, but cannot really comprehend the future. We live for today. The Japanese, for the second time in history, have become martyrs for nuclear containment. Lightning unfairly strikes twice.

We here go on with our lives; we watch CNN and speak of this. On the subway home, I found myself in the midst of some loud ghetto gang coming out of the midnight showing of Battle: Los Angeles. The other nighttime riders were intimidated. These guys were blingy and high, rowdy and rough. Earthquakes dispel this kind of fear for me. I asked one about the film. They all began chiming in about how much they hated it and if they hadn’t conned their way in through the side door, they would have demanded a refund. Apparently they hardly saw any aliens, and really, I suggested--- LA is like another planet to us New Yorkers and its destruction seems some kind of fantasy anyway. Now Japan—CNN—the tsunami damage, the nuclear reactor crisis— this is terror--- real terror in realtime. But they hadn’t heard even a word about this. Nada.

Tonight Obama did his brackets on ESPN. Okay.. .so is he supposed to be tearing his clothes and weeping? Life goes on... life goes on everyday. People die---we are devastated—and then we walk out into the sunshine and order our Starbucks. Those of us who cut ourselves and refuse to eat? Does it help? It does not. Money helps. A little, although I don’t trust texted $10 contributions in a world where American banks managed to repay several trillion dollars of debt in a very short time. People are facebooking like crazy, arranging benefit gigs where they get to have a slightly larger audience than maybe last month, in the name of a good cause. Maybe U2, Muse, Kanye can make a dent. I want to help but getting on a stage with competing loud guitars and raising maybe a few hundred dollars at best seems to do little besides medicating troubled egos.

Today I picked up a random book of poetry and began to read. It was okay. Nothing earthshaking. Bad word. But after 30 pages or so, I came upon my own scribblings--- maybe a few years old. I’d read this before-- -didn’t even remember. Not a familiar line until my own scrawl. So does this mean that the poems were not memorable? More like I’ve read so many less-than-spectacular at this point that they’ve lost significance. Like a pretty girl in a crowd. Is it just the nature of life that as the days and moments mount, everything loses significance? Experience is diluted? Of course a needle stab is a needle stab. Over and over. But the rest? How many times were we absolutely knocked out by a song or a painting or some book when we were teenagers? Do kids still get these epiphanies? Some do, I guess. First loves are still painful, no matter how unromantic facebook and texting and multitasked relationships seem. But the whole muck of information and websites and twitters--- what has this done to dilute the soup of human thought? Is there even a floating particle of carrot or potato anywhere? The information on these disasters--- are we numb? Why is it that the yen has reached a new high against the dollar?

Maybe the 2012 thing is real. Maybe the Biblical deluge is overdue. We’ll have to get someone like Harold Bloom or the Nobel Prize committee to help us weed out the ark-worthy. And what if one of the penguins turns out to be gay? Doesn’t want to mate? Then it’s really the end-end.

My Mom has some form of Alzheimer’s. To me she just seems happier. I can’t help thinking she was sick of all the stuff in her head and just let go. She was sick of my father whining about dinner and sick of getting her nails done and her hair cut. She went out in a homemade rowboat, in the midst of some sea, and just let the oars go. It’s kind of peaceful. All she has to do is float. Other people take care of her. Occasionally she calls me and alerts me that her 92-year-old husband is having an affair. But usually she seems peaceful and happy. I wonder if she has registered the earthquake. She seems safe.

The crosstown bus came, like always. In this Obama era I know if a driver looks at me with contempt it’s not a racial thing; he just hates me. When you’re middle aged, it’s easier to be hateable. Like dead flowers or just someone they have to brake for. But this guy talks to me, he’s glad to see me. We’re both glad that there are no fallen buildings and that we both have been working and we will have a meal and hot water. Life is good here. We have to worry about the Japanese people and do our best, but we are also allowed to watch the Sweet Sixteen and have cake. The kid who died on the basketball court--- his team finished the game.

Today I read a piece somewhere alleging that Obama is not equipped to handle multiple crises. Well who is? God? Maybe Kobe can dribble 2 balls and dunk 3, but if 4 passes come at his head he’s going to get a concussion. Earthquakes.... things that Can’t Happen Here. They happen. I don’t know if anyone else saw this footage-- from a horrific tsunami-ravaged landscape-- a dog, barking at the cameraman...and when he followed, filming, he was led back to another dog, lying on its side, wounded. The barking dog was distraught... but as the cameraman backed away, the dog sat down again with his friend. Something so unbearable about that shot.

Obama and I both bet on Kansas.