Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Snow that Never Drifts

One of my very early childhood memories is the day I nearly drowned.  It was a non-dramatic incident; I was 2 years old, standing in a pool-- at someone's beach club, maybe… my Mom was sitting on the ledge in her sexy black one-piece (she had that Jackie Kennedy vibe back then) with her sunglasses, and her long legs, and her manicure and her cigarette, holding me with the other hand...and I decided I'd lie down on the lovely blue wavy bottom, only to discover that I couldn't quite find the surface.  I could see my Mom, clearly… fanning her hand carelessly through the water--- laughing, joking with her friends in that language I couldn't quite grasp… and I was rolling awkwardly, trying to yell, breathing in water…

Anyway, I guess they fished me out and cleared my lungs, and I was fine… and no one ever spoke of this, that I remember; I was too young to blame, or even to feel sorry for myself, and I grew up with this childhood sense that my mother belonged to some slightly removed womanly 'cult' that I'd never quite infiltrate.  I never pointed a finger at her, or resented her for her failings, or even her politics, until she began to dislike me for mine, and by then I'd left the house.

There are lovely old photos of my Mom in maternity clothes, with a cigarette.  Middle class women didn't nurse babies in those days; they were given diet pills immediately after birth to lose extra weight. We drank milk-- not formula.   Babies in strollers were left in the sun outside the market while mothers shopped.  They nearly always travelled in packs or cliques, and the kids were expected to form alliances and amuse ourselves.  We didn't nag or beg for food or whine.  We wanted them to like us, to give us their attention willingly, to turn their powdered and lipsticked faces on us and smile like magazine mothers.  There was a sort of innocence in this negligence; no one was policing our parents and they were a little carefree and careless.  We walked ourselves to school, we played unsupervised in dangerous dirt piles and woods,  and we grew up.

Something about snow always takes us back to our childhoods, when snow seemed more plentiful, more omnipresent-- cleaner, quieter, less problematic.  Something about the disappointment of the much-hyped Blizzard of 2015 underscored my sense that some innocence has been lost forever.  I had this image of patients in their hospital beds overlooking the city-- feeling comforted that even healthy people would be paralyzed and unable to participate in their own lives-- that the world would stop, beneath a blanket of magical muting white fairy dust-- that every building, squalid or grand, would for a few hours look exactly the same-- -that Porsches and old battered Buicks would all be rounded white mounds on the side of the road.  That everything would be whitewashed and quieted and blessed… and for those of us who have already failed at our New Year's resolutions, well-- we could all have another slate.

Last night I went to sleep with hope and a sense of relief, in a second-chance-Christmas fog.  I'd have a 366th day-- no schedule, no counting, no obligations.  I'd be a shut-in; I could clean my house, or not-- I could turn on the last string of Christmas lights I've yet to put away, and read poems.  But it didn't happen.  It hiccuped and embarrassed and bombed.  People woke up feeling guilty they had overslept.  People felt duped.  We got sort of a tainted snow-day. By afternoon, I could pretty much navigate the streets in sneakers.

My Mom, who is perpetually covered in her own snowdrift of dementia, called to wish me a wonderful summer.  I've begun to save her messages, because they're so unpredictable they actually seem brilliant and philosophical, like that Peter Sellers character from whatever 1970's movie that was.  She leaves her telephone number incessantly, because she has no idea where she is, but worries that I won't find her.  The number has evolved.  It used to be my number, the one she'd called.  Now sometimes it rhymes; sometimes it contains letters, names.  Her television set has become a kind of God in her bedroom.  The Bloomberg commentators are her neighbors; the commercials provide the weather, her music, animal visitors, friends.. .a narrative of non-sequiturs that populate her life.  Sometimes she consults the TV for her own telephone number.  It can mirror the price of gold, the Nasdaq, or, last night, she carefully spelled out 'Celebrity Apprentice' on my voicemail, after the area code.  'Words', she said.  You know, it's 'words'.  'Call me back if you can,' she says, and then 'Call me back if you can't'.  

I can't help thinking in some way she is apologizing for all the childhood milestones she glossed over, or downplayed, or refused to process.  The school plays and concerts she attended but was careful not to applaud because everyone knows that women who become performers or artists don't have happy marriages.  Sometimes she even tells me she detests her husband.  Those are the conversations I like the best.  But I realize I am grasping at honesty straws in a bathtub of milky memories where snow both melts and falls at the same rate.  And I know for my father snow was quite a different symbol.  It was the responsibility of shoveling, and maintaining the cars, and the claustrophobia of being shut in with children and a wife who performed and cooperated but never really understood things.

I remember reading in college about the many words for snow among Eskimo people; how there was a word for fresh fallen snow and another for snow on water, and another for deep, soft snow.  It was sexy.  In college everything is sexy.  I also remember a word for 'snow cornice' which actually meant snow that was about to collapse or avalanche.  Father snow, for me.  I told my Mom about this tonight and she laughed like a child.  Lately she either laughs or cries when I tell her things.  She no longer knows how to react, but has all the inflections of normal conversation.  In a way, on the telephone, she is the same watery Jackie Kennedy silhouette I saw through the surface of the water--in 2 dimensions, as she is, as she needs to be.  She waves, she laughs--- she doesn't process sorrow or disappointment or shame, or guilt, or the weather, or the season, or the time of day.

I used to dread certain seasons-- they meant being sent away, or going back to school.  But I have never dreaded winter.  It feels safe and dark and the promise of snow is the promise of forgiveness, even if it disappoints us and doesn't arrive, because we still have the dream of snow, the sleep of snow-dreams.
Fuck the salt and the plows and the shovels and the MTA.  We New York dreamers got our snow day in spite.




Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Je suis.

Several of my friends have criticized the fact that I have not substituted the 'Je Suis Charlie' logo for my profile photo.  Of course I am a supporter of freedom of speech, in all forms; it's just that I'm not sure I can truthfully substitute my allegiance for my identity.   I've always been fonder of the Descartesian 'Je pense, donc, je suis'.   I am really not Charlie; I am Writerless.  In English we say 'I am….'; the French actually say 'I call myself….'.  There's a difference.  Personally, I prefer to call myself a given name and to 'be' without the object.

Terrorism is irrational and unfathomable to me.  Violence in the name of religion is doubly absurd.  While I believe staunchly that everyone should be allowed to express themselves, to write things, to expose things, to disagree, to disbelieve--   I avoid offending the sensitive.  There are some issues--- religious, personal, whatever-- -that offend people.  I don't need to make fun of people who have no sense of humor, and I don't need to  hurt people who seem to be easily injured.

I'll never forget my own father telling me many years ago on the phone 'If you want to give me a birthday present, don't ever call me'.  I cringe if I telephone their house.  He hates me for something I'm sure I never did.  It's a form of personal discrimination I could never resolve; nor would I ever apologize or ask.  I definitely avoid ridiculing the guy; he was a war hero and I respect his right to resent me or dislike me or whatever it is.  Probably it's some form of shame that he's twisted into this vendetta, because I witnessed things I wasn't meant to, and like Charlie, I am unwilling to keep quiet or lie.  Nothing in life is more heinous than disguising a vicious truth.  I just don't draw cartoons that make fun of my father's flaws.  I do write poetry that he would never recognize.  His parental rejection informs my creative life in a way that liberates me.  I don't have an allegiance; I am free.

My friend has an art gallery.  She has a point of view and has struggled over the years, but she's on the brink of some huge success and suddenly she has hired a consultant to help her with her 'brand'.  All of this is so offensively absurd, not to mention that the consultant charges a massive fee to essentially take the unique POV which has taken years to develop and round the edges and file down the points so that it resembles something she can describe with other people's familiar adjectives.  This is to take her over the threshold of massive success and international 'presence' which essentially puts her in a contest with similarly branded entities and makes her eligible for a piece of the massive economic pie.  It's like people no longer have a dog; they have a breed.  Je suis Fido.

Last night I was reading a poetry collection on the way home.  It began with a section of new poems.  I had to keep looking back to make sure this was the poet I'd loved.  Then at about page 45, there was a poem about going home that took my breath away.  It was from 1981.  And another one--- same collection.  Every line was like a rocky beach that dug into the soles of your feet as you walked to the irresistible music of the waves breaking and the misty solitary horizon.  It made me cry, and wince, and fall in love with words.  Here was the poet … his 'je suis' moment… emerging-- crying out, writing as he was compelled, into sleepless nights, melancholy long afternoons, hungover mornings.  And as they progressed into the present, it was like looking back at some passionate love; they receded.  J'etais… whatever.  It was sad, because the guy has become sort of a brand-- for a poet, that is… a best-selling, award winning teacher and laureate.  But you knew that if he was a real poet, he knew, too.

Lately I've been lamenting the deaths of some older musicians.  Some of them were part of magical times that will never come back.  They were privileged to have emerged at a time when music was rare-- not the cheap, over-marketed commodity it became.  When a music store was a small shop that had a few old instruments and a bunch of eccentrics who hung out and traded records.  When the blues was something that grew out of a culture and a tradition and the pure need to sing and play your heartbreak and frustration like a religion.  Some of these guys I was privileged to meet--- some like Muddy had worked in cotton fields, had been the sons and grandsons of real slaves.  Their limbs were hard like the trunks of trees and their hands felt rough like bark.  They'd grown up in poverty, and you could feel the landscape of their roots.  Few of them could read let alone read music… they had old guitars and they played the shit out of them.  Each one sounded like himself.  Je suis John Lee.  Je suis Muddy.  That's who they were-- not their given name but the thing they became.  The thing that they were--- not a brand, not a style, not Eric or Joe or Kenny Wayne but Slim and Wolf and Bo and Mississippi.  By being themselves, they were larger than they ever could have been.  People can collect them, and imitate them, and take their names--- but they can't touch the original.  But they can receive, because the original goes on giving, if we will only receive.

So while we need to sympathize and love and support what is right, protest what is wrong and cruel, what is most important is that we tell the truth-- that we tell our own truth, and that we are not afraid to think for ourselves, and be ourselves, and while we march for our causes and other people's causes, we don't forget to see how hard it is for disabled people to get through a day, and how everyone is losing someone, and thousands of innocent Nigerians are being massacred, and we will not forget what came before, and who taught us these things, and we will go on and become ourselves, we will not take anyone else's thoughts or beliefs for granted, but we will become what we are.  We will let ourselves listen and look and think and feel, and we will not be deterred or deceived because nous ne sommes pas, but each of us… Je suis.




Thursday, January 1, 2015

The World in a Glass Hat

The word holiday in some cultures means a day of rest-- a day with family, maybe religious services-- prayer, feast, fasting…. but once an 's' is added--- it brings a little angst-- the burdensome part of family-- shopping, clothes, parties you must give or attend, gifts you can't afford, gifts you don't want--people you can't face… the face you cannot fake.  So New Year's Day, in a sense, is a bit of relief.  Of course when I was young, it was a terrible reminder that school was about to begin again, that all the great Christmas anticipation was funneling into the dread of grey-white winter days and afternoon sunsets.  The only bright spot ahead was a snow day or two.

Because I am a musician, and my 'work' is often other people's partying, I have begun to crave solitude.  I love my work, but some nights I admit I fantasize about coming home.  These days, with kids grown, relationships settling into a flattish line, I find myself adjusting to 'the rest of my life' with a tranquility that surprises me.  My ongoing resolution is demanding more of myself and less of others.  I am trying hard to minimize my disappointment with others' failure to honor their own commitments.  But I will never fail to observe this failure, and I will sadly continue to communicate my distress in the interest of truth.

Today I went for a late-afternoon run around the reservoir at sunset.  I had spoken to no one since 5 AM; even my voicemail had a day 'off'.  The winter light at sunset, the incomparable silhouette of my city skyline across the water, like a great circle of architectural dreams, never fails to take my breath away, to remind me I am alive in this magical home of enormous challenges and inspiration.  I went up to Harlem to pick up my modest week's worth of groceries, absorbing the passing soundtrack-- Katy Perry blasting from the skating rink sounded almost symphonic, like the ice-dancers version of the Messiah-- and hockey pucks whacking out their own rhythm; a man leading a bike tour, yelling all kinds of misinformation as he pointed out the sights.  I resisted the temptation to knock him off.

Up in Harlem people chilling-- a girl punching her boyfriend, a couple shouting it out in front of the liquor store where the cashier is encased in a bulletproof booth, a huge man on his flip-phone yelling and gesturing madly 'you ain't LISTENING, bro-- that's your PREDICAMENT'… over and over, like a play.  In south Harlem I am still an outsider--- I am usually the only white person in the grocery store, but they no longer ask for ID when I check out my few items.  People in my neighborhood are impatient; the supermarkets are overcrowded and the shoppers are impatient and angry.  Everything is a delivery.  Up here, people buy less carefully; they wait patiently in line, and they walk slowly.  Occasionally women my age and older argue about pricing and sales, but for the most part, people don't question things.  Handicapped people are everywhere; medical issues mean disability; life with a cane or a wheelchair doesn't seem to frighten them.  Their ambitions have either been thwarted or flattened; they seem to accept what is.  They will never own a condo in the new 200 story monstrosity with a google-worthy view of Manhattan, but they will get foodstamps and a decent project apartment for life. Some of them even have park views… so who is the winner here?

On the way back, passing the monstrous dark loom of Mt. Sinai (the ugly Jewish hospital, according to the central park tour-guide), thinking about the patients inside who marked the New Year from a bed… the first city births, and the first city deaths… those that could not quite drag themselves across the timeline... it occurred to me… if everyone simply told the truth, most of our more complex problems would recede.   If the doctors told them.. you have something we can't cure--- we can give you some poison that will maybe make your tumor suffer just a tiny bit more than the rest of you, but we really haven't a clue…  maybe they would have a choice.   I mean, there are certain drugs that work--- like aspirin-- but the biotech culture will continue to roll us into the trillion dollar irony of health-care.

If people went into a store and realized they really don't need these shoes that are $400…in fact, they really only need the ones they have… and if they went to pay for something, and owned that they really don't have enough money, because isn't that what a credit card is saying?  If the cable television executives and the huge entertainment companies just came out and said.. well, all of this crap we're promoting… it's pretty terrible; you don't need to watch it, and we don't need to make it anymore…
If the Academy one year decided to abolish awards because they really don't have many actors of the standard for which these awards were intended.  In fact-- what is competition and awards?  We either have the drive to be the best we can, or we don't.

And Jay-Zee and Beyonce, the so-called NYC 'royalty'… they would be dethroned because really all they have is a shitload of money, and a smart team of 'branding' experts.  And what is branding?  It used to be the cruel mark cattle ranchers burned into animals who are then 'property' and can be marketed, bred, tortured, killed, eaten-- whatever, for profit.  We live in a branded world-- of copyrights and lawsuits and copycats because so little seems original in the way that Mozart and Bach were original-- or Caravaggio or Leonardo.  Branding simply enables the exponential financial growth of mediocrity n this world where so-called experts 'authenticate' a work of art which is not original in the first place.  And if there was no lying, we would not need any of these people.

In fact, this middle-aged couple sitting next to me in Starbucks who obviously met online-- she is an aging Russian beauty with now-dyed hair, and a touch too much make-up, she is looking into his eyes with this desperate glow, like the new LED Christmas decorations on Madison Ave. which look happy but really lack the soul and 'life' of the old ones.  And he is telling her about his child support payments, and she is trying so hard because she needs a husband, even though he is a bit old, and he is lying to her, it is quite obvious he is a fool and a fake, and she is lying to him, too, because she hasn't paid her rent for months, even though she has an expensive haircut and a shopping bag.

Downtown so-called poets are reading Bukowski in an annual festival.  People who imitate and celebrate Bukowski, as though by reading these words, they will become poets, even though Bukowski himself would have told them, this is not poetry, and what was good about him was that he simply tried to tell the truth.  Isn't that what art used to be and when artists made art about lying, well, were they not honest about that?  And somewhere we all know about truth-- children don't lie, at least not until they learn that this is a very useful tool for getting something that they need.  If we consume artificial food we become sick and die… our flesh and blood know this-- but we don't seem to 'get' that we are a bit starved for art and music, some of us-- and for love, real love-- not the invented kind, and maybe even for a sense of God, a real sense of our soul, and we overcompensate with this competitive greed-culture… we stuff and stuff ourselves with crap…. and here we are on the streets, beating people for their iPhones, and paying masters-of-lying surgeons money we do not have to make us look like people we think have better lives than we have.

In Shanghai people stampeded at a New Year's celebration; one theory was that this was triggered by a paper shower of fake $100 bills thrown from a balcony.  The irony of the story was so poignant, so revolting, and so tragically 'real'.  Here we are, the untrammeled of us-- we have the gift of life, and we grow up knowing we must clothe our naked bodies, this is 'civilization', maybe the first 'lie'… but it is also protection, and has a meaning.  Still, we have our eyes, and our ears, and our mouths, and we have invented learning and books, and we can create… we can learn, we can discover…we can look back at our old year and see where we have failed to see, where we have been misled and fooled.

The blessing of the New Year is the illusion that we are turning a page, that we can start clean, we can start over.  Of course, as any addict knows-- it is not this easy, but we believe-- -and for that midnight moment-- the one that walks across the global timeline, hour by hour, country by country… we are all given this chance, together-- this annual chance, or the illusion of it, because it of course belongs to all of us, at every moment.  And we are human, and we will continue to fail to understand this, because we are too busy toasting our own selves, our false happiness or our refusal to be sad or lonely or truthful, and acknowledge that our enormous success or our abysmal failure… there is really little difference, it is part of our process, our life, which tragically, like the Shanghai victims, where we reach for something which glitters and it is death… the truth may feel like failure, but if we are truly honest, we will never fail ourselves.  As Sylvia Plath said in a privileged moment of clarity, and I remember this poem so well from my girlhood… 'we have only come to look'.