Friday, September 28, 2012

To Text or Not To Text

New York City can be divided into two sociological groups:  people who text, and people who don’t text. 

The concept of telescoping information and response into an incredibly limited format is ancient; the current version unfortunately lacks the impact of a telegram sent, say, in the 1940’s or 50’s, when abbreviated language was more like a huge zipfile of meaning.  It seems now that something is completely missing.  It's cheap, like verbal fast food.  Of course, people are different now—people don’t understand things that I take for granted.

Repetitive, useless motion has certainly damaged our brain and occasionally wrists and hands… but at least I’m moderately aware that the ability to reply 40 times in a minute can dilute the message.   I’ve also begun to believe that I am some evaporating breed of dark brooding guilty emotional wreck that is on its way to extinction.  I'm sure statistically fewer people suffer alone in dark rooms; they now take drugs, and beat their landladies with wooden beams.  They OD on massive amounts of mind-numbing medication or they binge drink and crash vehicles. 

There is a blind man in my neighborhood;  I see him at the library and we speak.  I feel this enormous embarrassment in his presence—me with my free coffee refills and 20-year-old boots—for what I don’t lack.  Is that the inverse of entitlement?  My kids are pissed off that they don’t have a trust-fund-sized allowance.  They despise my refusal to carry a cell phone and my Luddite habits-- my appreciation of old, used things, of kindness.   The fact that I listen to the old neighborhood Polish holocaust survivor for long minutes,  the same incredible stories over and over—how she jumped from a plane, crawled through animal tunnels, hid under feed-bags, starved… and how no one writes her memoir.  I am nearly compelled to volunteer--- and then the conversation inevitably reverts to her complaining about her daughter who had no children, after heroically managing to survive the concentration camps so she could pro-create, now her progeny has no wish to respect this.  I’m sure her daughter texts. 

People who text--- a theoretically silent thing--- tend to be loud.  I notice this at the gym--- older people are quieter; they read the Times, watch MSNBC, ESPN, Law and Order.  Younger people have the screen on—usually the Kardashians, if I took an actual poll--   their ipods going, and they are tapping wildly at their smartphones.  Occasionally they answer calls--- frowned on, by notices posted everywhere—but who reads these? The people who already knew this, of course.  So they speak—loudly--- didn’t their preschool teachers program them to use their ‘inside voice’?  Apparently not.  When their friends come, they converse—so that it’s hard to ignore--- about their problems, about the market, about their weekends, their hangovers, their eating patterns---who they love and hate.  I try to love them.  I forgive them, the way someone in some supermarket is forgiving my own kids for their habitual tasteless narcissistic ‘loudness’. 

I think about the blind man--- how embarrassed I am that he must witness this behavior--- like he’s some superior sensitive being, because he's aware that he annoys people enough by his disability… but I’m still sure he listens and smells things with more perception than I.  And he’s probably irritated by my excessive politeness and guilty kindness.  Maybe he’d like to punch me. 

Looking around on the C train downtown this morning, I could pick out the tourists.  Some of them look less mean.  Some of them are dressed differently or wearing new items they mistake for New York ‘Style’.  Some of them have old-world charm and you can feel their inherited sense of family.  New Yorkers are always darting their furtive eyes around, looking at their phones, checking each other out or making a huge effort to appear too cool to look.  But you can feel their competitive gleeful flaunting of whatever it is they are wearing or reading or texting on. 

I am in such tight financial straits, I can’t imagine even carrying an ipad on a crowded train where someone could steal it.  How do all these people afford their iphone plans?  Their shoes and multiple bags?   My rich friend gave me a gorgeous designer bag and I still carry my $10 one--- the expensive one looks a) comically out of place with my thrift-level clothing choices b) pretentious and c)like maybe I bought it on Craigslist just to carry on the street.  Truth is, it’s heavy.  And I don’t need to be wearing my sins and savings in public simultaneously.   

The other truth is, my resistance to text is annoying to others.  They don’t want a pay-phone call, and they have little sympathy in fact for middle-aged people who are not fashionably dressed.  For aging rock musicians who get on the crosstown bus with a gig-bag like they are trying to act like a kid.   I mean, when you’re young and carefree and hot, you can ‘affect’ the down-sizing style of grunge or vintage mix, and the guys in Starbucks will still compete to take your order, will flirt and ask you about your music, will show up at your gig and look at you with those eyes the romance novels have made a cliché.  Your messy hair falls on your face in that charming way that makes everyone want to brush it back, just to touch you.  I stand patiently and invisibly in line now, and remember that person as a kind of fictional character in a favorite book.

So my new prayer is ‘please God, don’t make me have to apologize’.   I don’t need to be cute and admired, or even served with respect.  I just want to avoid accidents and serious injury and maintain a compassionate demeanor.  I don’t want any false pity or attention.  I want to hold back the tears, politely excuse myself from over-intervention in the lives of the tiny subset who are less fortunate than I am and sense my excessive empathy.  I don’t think I’d ever punch anyone because they’re callously annoying and intrusive, and I don’t want anyone to want to punch me because I’m a nasty old library-user who too often confuses kindness with guilt.  I am going to try not to find myself navigating the streets, uttering ‘sorry’ like a verbal tic to texters and phone yappers who are walk-weaving like drunkards.  I feel like a polite old British grand-dad, and curse myself for this repetitive, useless act that is undoubtedly wearing away at my edge like an arthritic joint.  Please.  Jesus, even that is annoying. 

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Saturday, September 22, 2012


I’ve been worrying lately about how anesthetized I feel about this election.  I wonder if it has something to do with age… so many voting opportunities--- I used to get this choked-up sense of importance--- of power and personal freedom, of being part of a political movement… we could do something here, we could change things… in that old voting booth with the levers that clicked, behind the heavy curtain that felt like an x-ray shield--- like protection from something lethal...

Lately I notice I’m content to pick up a book—Emerson, Yeats.. .anything--- and just read a fragment.  This seems to be a habit of older people who always seemed to me when I visited-- non-linear---the conversation, the teas-- and they’d inevitably  have a pile of worn books--- like old friends… which they’d visit, I imagined, in the dark lonely overnight hours.  My shelves are dense with books I used to feel I had to start at the beginning and plow through…  but now I’m content to just be there, in a chair-- and listen for a minute.  Change my life. 

This kind of listening seems to have become obsolete… all the texting and attention-deficit hypocrisy that seems to pass for contemporary conversation.   Like permanence… young people here seem to be moving all the time… I worry that my son will never lie in his bed and night and feel the ghosts settle in the walls, the memories seep like black smoke underneath his door and surround him, the little panic buttons that will remind him of what he has lost.   Or I worry that he will.  

We separate… we become separate… this is a kind of lesson for death.  There is no easy way to die and there is no easy way to separate… not really.  That feeling of your first child--- you have just given birth--- and there is a separate little body there in the room… a body you will fear and fret over—whose every little pain you will fear more than your own.   And you are alone—and you could lose this small person—which would be unbearable… but here you are on this first morning, his actual birth-day, and you are still awake, nothing has really changed, except you are writing lyrics on the pastel-colored Babysitter’s-Reminder pad that came free with the crib linens, even though you know you’ll never have a babysitter because that’s not you.  And you still won’t be able to read your own handwriting in the morning… so you reassure yourself that nothing has changed.

So I am thinking today… this morning--- waking up and trying to read the lyrics I wrote in the middle of the night… and seeing something I wrote maybe years ago, on a night when I was keeping watch over a feverish child-- and delirious from exhaustion, and the only company I had maybe was that longing… that unbearable, desire-drenched deep-wounding thing that was part of some kind of innocence. 

But at least it reminds me of last night--  lying in bed—thinking about all the strangers I’d had this bed intimacy with… and there is this body next to me… with a penis, like all the others, like all the strangers in your life with whom you’ve become physically 'intimate' as my mother refers to it-- and what you don’t know about him fuels the night… takes you forward like a drug… and maybe you think making new memories will keep you safe from the old ones… but they don’t.  And you turn another page… farther away from this… another fragment you read… you ingest this moment, you adopt it.  It is yours, you can claim it... and still it doesn’t feel that way anymore.

But this other memory comes into my mind--- maybe because I read last night yet another story about a boy-molesting football coach—this one closer to home… in Brooklyn-- a school which tried to recruit my son-- and I am thinking-- -what has changed… is the innocence just unraveling?  So I had another memory fire-off… of maybe freshman year, in some beat-up old Buick, in the back seat driving down some country road.. half- conscious from drugs and alcohol... and happy, so happy… the way you were in those days… just to be in a car—because it is always the beginning of some great story….you are still at the beginning of everything-- and this unmistakeable sound…  tooth by tooth, the captain of the football team.. unzipping not your zipper but HIS… and you are high, in the back seat--- listening… and this is no mistake…he is going down on your drunk boyfriend who thinks it is you, is saying your name--- over and over, and this makes you happy… he is so innocent.   And you don’t want to interrupt his pleasure… and you never tell him… the football guy-- Mr. handsome/macho/future JP Morgan power broker with the perfect wife.  But now, 2012, you’d like to call him up and tell him, because the Football Captain—he looked just like Romney…. And you want to laugh, but you can’t wake the guy in your bed now who wouldn’t understand. 

And you still can’t read your handwriting in the morning…

And no matter how many times it wakes you, the panic button… and you try to understand it, to write it, to smother it-- you know you're on the other side of some bell-curve of this longing....and you try to convince yourself... to understand what it is that you are losing, or not losing.  And you make a point to remember some guy from the gym or maybe that painter you fucked on the roof so many years ago… the one whose love you felt… you actually felt… because he wasn’t afraid to lose you.   That one. Yes.  

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Kerb Your Enthusiasm

Some mornings I wake up to a strangely un-urban quiet and I wonder, ever since 9/11, has 'it' happened... has my city been wiped out and I am a lone survivor... and I look over at my old clock radio, and there is still electricity... and my phone works... and I can hear the birds now... but I step out into the day with this sense of being newly baptized or finding out no, it is not cancer... and I vow to keep this attitude--- of grace and awe and innocence-- despite the nasty/smelly/greedy meanness I am bound to encounter on my daily route.

I have caught myself several times this week muttering expletives under my breath when someone shoves me aside to get on the bus first or runs a red light and clips my guitar case as I jump back onto the kerb.  When did I become this impatient old crank and how far will it go?  My friends have been leaking bad language, sneering and frowning and growling more than usual.  Is it the humidity?  The Republicans? When does cynicism become malevolence?  In an election year when name-calling and one-downmanhip seem to be the standards of our leadership?

Wasn't there a 'luxury tax' in our old Monopoly games?  We paid it, if the dice brought us there; we went to jail and paid our fines.  We paid extra for houses and hotels on expensive blocks, as I recall.  Have they changed the game to parallel the Bush-era tax cuts?  Not that I know, but I no longer care about games.  After a brief 1981 flirtation with Space Invaders I checked out.  I hate computer games and God knows I still don't have a cell phone.

But some nights I feel I am a stranger in a strange land.  I don't 'fit in' the way I used to... I am eavesdropping more than participating, but in a way I am mentally participating while my fellow urban occupants seem to be mutually eavesdropping.  I see things in three dimensions--- not just as they are, but with their history, framed by time-shadows of meaning.  My life is vintage now-- which for me doesn't mean just aged, but suffused with long-simmered flavor.

I watched an episode of Gallery Girls.  Yes, I confess... okay, I was writing and multi-tasking while I watched--- there was not nearly enough 'meat' to warrant just sitting there-- but there it was, unlike any version of the actual art world I have known, but like most reality TV, styled and watered down with some kind of Kool-Aid-like silly additive.

But Jane Holzer was there, looking substantial and vintage-y, and a little kind.  She was always kind, I think.  And I suppose Bravo shows are a viable variation of Warhol-lite.  Andy might have approved.
At 6 AM after a night of musical drama (I mean the kind that happens among band members), I turned on a TCM film called 'Pressure Point'-- one of those low-budget black and white tough early 60's pieces that resemble theatre more than cinema.  The direction was sparse and brilliant, the acting was breathtaking and razor-sharp.  Bobby Darin--- wasn't he a pop-star? He was like verbal spitfire, and Sidney Poitier's portrayal of a prison psychiatrist treating a bigoted Nazi psychotic prisoner-- was not just heroic but godlike.  There was a story, with political 'weight'... and there was a soliloquy.  There was passion and meaning and a message.  So what happened to our culture?  And why are these micro-talents on TV and in music and film so massively wealthy and poorly iconic to our under-informed young people?

I suppose if one is brought up on an exclusive diet of boxed breakfast cereal, Rice Krispies begins to resemble a healthy choice.  Watching Bill Clinton speak tonight, I grew nostalgic for the 1990's.  Jesus, next to the lame pickings at the conventions (Michelle Obama aside--- you are a sister!), he was oratorial and convincing.  I'd follow the guy to any local bar not to mention the polling booth.  I do like Obama, but liking the man and putting him at the helm of a 300,000,000 passenger ship are different.  And Romney--- this guy couldn't get himself on a decent ballot in any past but now, with the lack of viable competition, he's a contender.  A Mormon president.  Who's next?  Tom Cruise?  These are dangerous thoughts.

Has anyone read Paul Krugman's column this week?  The question should be 'has EVERYONE' read this?  Are people informed at all?  Are they listening and/or thinking or just chilling and watching another political reality show?   Because the lack of enthusiasm is contagious.  Thank the south for Bill Clinton tonight... he had a little of last night's Poitier passion and he got the crowd on their feet.  But will anyone get this country on its feet?  Are we too lazy to stand up and walk, to do more than hit the remote buttons a few times... ?   Of course I love Tom Petty but is this song really the energizing anthem we need?  Am I willing to give something up for my political cause?  Do I have anything left to give?  Is there anyone out there or is it all just television?

My first really vivid Presidential memory was of course Kennedy.  In that era we needed to see family portraits and outings; there was serious dealmaking going on behind the scenes-- international manipulations and villainous politicos.  There was sex and bourbon and blood and foreign intrigue.
Now we don't need to see nice family footage.  We need some rolled up sleeves and some tough talk and bone-breaking conviction and some fight.  Not nasty quips and accusatory twitters and assinine exaggerations about fish-catching and marathon running.  I feel like people are placing bets rather than voting their beliefs.  Is this an election or a Superbowl?  I'd hate to base the outcome on the ratings, but I'll wager the football audience exceeds the voter count. Come on, my fellow Democrats... let's play some Offense before it's too late.

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