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.