Wednesday, December 28, 2016

(Un)acceptable Losses

Monday night on the way to work, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder and told me a train was coming.  I was standing on the platform, reading; she smiled at me.  Was she flirting with me?  It's not often you get this kind of courtesy from strangers… am I getting old and she worried I was dangerously absorbed in my book?  Was it Maggie Nelson, the author, that prompted this?  Or maybe I was wearing my earplugs, ready for a night of loud music… and she mistook me for a deaf woman?  She was a lovely person-- I could read her spirit-- and I behaved like your typical New Yorker-- insulated and cold.

At the end of the year, the media takes stock of celebrities who have passed away over the last 12 months.  Personally I hold my proverbial breath because it seems someone always dies on Christmas.
I've lost a few friends recently, have been to more than my share of funerals these months… and I just learned that 2 acquaintances suicided on the same day-- both jumpers, same zip code.  Astrological, neuro-biological coincidences suggested themselves-- a bad anti-depressant prescription, dispensed at the same pharmacy?  Finally a poem begins to evolve in my head with each of their psychological 'ropes' intertwining like strands of DNA.  Somehow these desperate people are linked in a sort of ironic coda.

I was kind to one of the jumpers.  I'd reached out to her after a less-than-stellar performance-- I encouraged her and praised her effort.  This was sort of a relief, because we are not always generous enough to one another-- especially we musicians who are wrapped up in our own stage issues, our unmet expectations, equipment malfunctions, audience failures, club politics, inadequate compensation, etc.  We have our petty bitternesses and frustrations, all of us… we are uncharitable and cranky.  I admit to this.  I try to make resolutions to be a better person and bandmate; I take stock of my flaws with a degree of scrutiny-- I come up short.

Funerals and memorials are often a sore point with me.  When you are a musician, people want to honor you post-mortem by performances-- jams, concerts, fundraisers… some of these are moving and emotional, but many of them are just an opportunity for groups to showcase before a captive audience.  Personally I would want nothing but maybe a Bach organ piece; and I'd rather dedicate some music or an evening from a regular gig where my thoughts about someone inform my playing.  But it remains true that death is a kind of attraction-- the idea of it, the shock of it-- the spectacle of a funeral that is not ours still fascinates.  We read obituaries over and over, we tweet and post, we fantasize things we might have done with this person… and some of us actually embellish and invent anecdotes.  Journalists comb and autopsy information-- leak and reveal.  But most of us want to deify the person who has passed.  George Michael-- the most recent-- seems to have more than atoned for any sins he may have committed.  He seems to have evolved into a saint in life, an angel in death.  I never admired his gifts the way I loved the legacy of Prince, Bowie, Leonard, Sharon-- but his talent was huge, his success was undeniable, his fall-from-grace painfully public.  He more than redeemed himself with kindness.

We are so immersed in celebrity information and imagery that we feel connected to people to whom we have no connection whatsoever.  We adopt them, we feel we understand them; we make more effort reading their stories and learning about their likes and dislikes than we do vis-à-vis our actual friends.  We know what is in their closet and on their nightstand.  Some of us feel betrayed when these people pass away; we feel wounded and sad and personally derailed by these public deaths.  For me it seems amazing that death is so finite and precise.  After  9 months of germination, our moment of birth is recorded and celebrated-- the starting line-- this makes sense to me.   But it seems that death should be more of a fade-out--  a winding down after a life of complexity and millions of moments-- of schoolwork and football games, of things we painted, shopping lists-- meals, births, tears, books-- lovemaking, ceremonies-- quarrels and pain-- illness, accidents-- cruelty.  But there is a precise recorded moment, a finish-line, a clocked check-out.  Today it was Carrie Fisher-- she was hanging on in an intensive care facility-- vacillating, still dreaming and breathing… her family and her public reached out, sent love-- and then she was gone.  Now we are here; now we are not.  Some of her fans felt betrayed-- what could we have done? How could we have kept David Bowie alive, made him well? My friend Jimi-- if he was a rich man, if we could have raised enough money-- would he have been sent home with a new heart?  And the jumpers-- more than anyone, we feel betrayed by these people who chose to pilot their own kamikaze flights and trick fate altogether.  They shocked and devastated us, robbed us of an opportunity to reach out and replaced it with yet another obituary, another funeral.  We learned little.

I feel betrayed by my country, in the wake of this year's election.  It is like a kind of death for me;  I keep regretting I did not do more to prevent the outcome-- and it feels incredible that after the interminable months of contest-- like a 2-year-long football match--  just like that, it was done, and the winner was the loser.  The worse man won.  It feels like the death of humanity, the end of hope and democracy. As we go forward into yet another year, we are well aware that some of us will not last until 2018.  We will crash in planes, we will become ill, we will jump.  As the new political regime assumes power, I am especially anxious.  I am trying to find the lesson in this turn of events, and trying to resolve I will try to seize opportunities to prevent bad things, to thwart maybe one of the jumpers or cutters or overdosers.  I will try to remedy my flaws, temper my bitterness and impatience, my critical nature and my futile frustration with the state of our culture.  The lucky among us will log another year.  No one of us will escape tragedy or loss or failure and few of us will foresee the accidents which will devastate our lives.  As humanity grows older and more complex, the trillions of past deaths do not dilute the impact of that one which has just occurred.  Let us remember this as we look around the world and see universal grieving and trouble.  There is celebrity and fame, and then there is the individual human heart which starts and stops and is virtually indistinguishable, one from another.   Amen.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Skin Deep

When I was young, I had perfect skin.  It meant nothing to me-- in fact, it had absolutely no currency in my life, was sort of an albatross that made it nearly impossible for me to become a punk-rocker outcast-type.  My older sister had acne.  She also had a slew of boyfriends and hiked her skirt way up when we left the house for school.  I wanted her skin.   She hated me for mine, and I would have traded in a second.  Acne would make me look older-- as would braces on my teeth, I thought.  People commented on my skin-- aunts and cousins--- the doctor.  When I went to buy make-up, even as a woman, the cosmetics salespeople would remark-- why do you need make-up?  You have perfect skin.  Lloyd Cole had a song about this.  I did nothing to deserve it-- ate plenty of chocolate and fries and smoked cigarettes-- but it remained, as it was.  Beauty's only skin deep, my mother used to say, and despite my flawless facial surface, I still believed my sister was way more attractive.

In the office of my Primary Care physician, a woman sits at the front desk and does intake.  The right half of her face is horribly deformed, as though it was burned or blown off in an explosion.  She is in her late 30's and it's tough to look at her.  She has no functioning eye or mouth; the left side is marked with some kind of warty growths, but somewhat normal.  Her voice is steady and courageous and sweet; if I were blind I might imagine her as beautiful.  I commend my doctor for hiring her because she is unsettling, physically.  As for her dignity-- I cannot say enough.  She is well dressed and stylish from the neck down.  Her hair is neat and pretty; her hands are lovely and efficient.

When my son was born, he was adorable and perfect.  I couldn't stop admiring him, especially since I felt I didn't deserve to have this baby; I hadn't planned this, and my lifestyle for the first 3 months of pregnancy was a little crooked and a-maternal.  His infant skin was so tender he couldn't tolerate any animal products-- wool, fur-- anything besides soft natural cottons.  It was as though his surface was a metaphor for my heart; here I was-- a new mother-- a protector-- and suddenly I felt stripped and raw and on the verge of not just tears but utter emotional collapse at the slightest hint of tragedy or sadness.  Maybe this is what they call postpartum depression.  I was a single mother and utterly enchanted with my baby; there was absolutely no room for self-inspection or analysis.  I was too busy trying to remember all the little infant things I had never learned and too absorbed in managing his care while I worked and kept my life on the level.  But in caring for another being, I learned the depth of compassion.

As a young woman I fell in love with a black man.  Our attraction had nothing to do with color, and his strangeness had more to do with cultural rather than racial differences.  Sometimes at night, I awoke and admired the beautiful contrast of his dark, strong arm draped across my body.  His skin had a different feel and smell and taste.  In those days, some people in some locales didn't appreciate our marriage and our presence as a couple.  The differences fascinated me; in the end we separated, but we both learned things about appearance and acceptance.

My skin is no longer perfect; few things about me are pretty; we enter the autumn and winter of our lives and our human foliage begins to fall away.  Many of my women friends fight this process with injections and treatments; their medically-enhanced beauty is truly skin-deep and temporary, but it suits them, and it doesn't bother me.  Nor does the economic ability to do such things.  Money, I have discovered, is a little skin-deep as well.  It is temporary and may create a sense of security, but people still get ill and have accidents and mishaps, and while they may be comfortable and well cared-for, their lives don't seem to be more valuable.  They do give more to charity-- as do people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, etc… but this kind of billionaire philanthropy seems a bit skin-deep and cavalier-- it is acknowledged and rewarded, but do they suffer or sacrifice to do this?  They all seem to drive expensive cars, live in enormous houses, collect things and wear rolexes.  They do little more than balance their tax burden, while being applauded for stunning generosity.

As for my friend who is ravaged by cancer, she grows thinner every week.  Her skin is translucent and stretched over the contours of her face in a way that is startling. She resembles an anorexic; her once long, graceful limbs are spindly and twiggy;  the bones of her knees are knobby and prominent beneath her loose pants.  I feel I can see through her skin into her soul; her veins are greenish and sickly.  She is skeletal and taut-- both old and young, like an underdeveloped fetus.  She walks with bitter resignation, daring anyone to comment.  I told her she looked pretty the other day; she had on a purple knit cap and her features were feverish and her skin was flushed from the cold.  She was furious and screamed at me… this is not a word that applies to her physical or mental state, she warned me.  Do not use this language in my presence.   I wept-- I am not tough-- I am permeable and fragile.  I wear my heart everywhere; without tattoos, my skin betrays me, my tears are ready and I am unarmed.  I will not tell her again that she has acquired this sort of porcelain-doll facade-- and while her eyes have lost their spark and are glazed and empty from pain and the drugs, there is a kind of quiet holy dignity in her long-suffering expression-- and after all the treatments, the side-effects and the rashes, ironically-- she has perfect skin.