Thursday, January 31, 2019

Boxed

Last night I came home from a gig in the freezing tailwind of a tempered arctic weather-pocket-- three subways and a couple of cold stretches on foot with my gear.  Shivery, I turned on late-night television, along with a brief blast of warmth courtesy of my otherwise underused hairdryer.  Not much to watch, except My Lottery Dream House-- where this utterly charming host shows recent ticket-winners three alternate choices of new digs, with new money, and they choose.   The host/agent is someone you want to hang with at a bar-- this helps.  He is kind and warm and the scenario is one which keeps many poor Americans hopelessly addicted to leaking major portions of their hard-earned salary to Lotto dreams.  It's a lot more democratic than those Bravo shows--- Million Dollar Listing, etc... where we watch toxic real estate agents and their more toxic clients greedily wheeling and dealing and spending more than ten times my average annual income on open house entertainment.

Two weeks ago, the day that the $238,000,000 Manhattan apartment closed, I began this blog.  Thinking about that apartment, to be delivered as a 'White Box', according to press, makes the Lottery Dream House shoppers look provincial and homey.  In fact, I cannot imagine any Lottery Dream House contestants taking on the Manhattan real estate market where their average windfall winnings would dwarf into maybe a one-bedroom uptown.  Income requirements in most buildings in New York are far beyond those of even the luckier Lotto millionaires.

I am currently reading a book called Dark Money (also a film,  2018) which I highly recommend.  The manipulation of not just our economy but public opinion and political systems by these cloaked communities of highly moneyed individuals and self-interested foundations is not just nauseating and evil, but revelatory and jarring.  It explains and accounts for the disturbing misuse of ethics and religion to solicit unwitting American dream-buyers onto these horrific bandwagons which are puppeted by money machinists.  I have also been reading a brilliant investigative journalist named Lucy Komisar who has been following the Dark Money for many years; her exposés of offshore bank accounts and trillions of non-taxed unreported dollars are riveting.  I am not the writer she is and sadly unequipped to explicate the shameful state of our oligarchic economy. But Lucy reveals the facts behind the horrifying polarization of extreme wealth and the epidemic of poverty and inequality that co-metastasizes while we look at our phones and share our tiny narcissisms on Instagram.

For years I worked in a gallery which was a living 'White Box'.  It was a backdrop for paintings and objects which showed without prejudice or context as pure living art.  The space was easily transformed with lighting, with people-- without.  Empty, at night, I could play my guitar and experience the chill of real acoustic reverberation.  One large room, and the sense of space most of poor New Yorkers are denied both on the streets and in our tiny barely-affordable apartments.

But for these hedge-fund owners-- the ones who pay no taxes and set up fake philanthropic foundations which garner goodness points but are really just tax shelters and loopholes which leapfrog to the next level of ownership-- a White Box is a kind of diploma.  I mean-- who needs 16 bathrooms?  I can barely clean one.  Having grown up in a family of mostly women with only one-- well, we survived, didn't we?  There is actually a funny episode on Lottery Dream House where the big winner wanted a home in the Hamptons.  When asked what his priorities were, he answered--  "We're in the Hamptons, so we want lots of bathrooms!"  I visited my rich friend once in one of her luxury Manhattan renovations which she regularly flipped; when I remarked on the fragile tilework, she replied-- you don't think we're going to USE that bath, do you?

For the rest of us, I recommend the series of photographs Gordon Parks took of a Harlem family in the 1950's, where their one bathtub served overtime as both washing machine and storage.  In my first apartment, the living-room bathtub often served as an extra sleeper.  But these were the days of old New York-- when millionaires lived on Park Avenue and were relatively quiet and even a little sheepish about their spending and collecting.  Those innocent days when journalism served to inform the public and people listened or did not and usually had a conscience and were appalled at what they saw and some of us tried to change things.

In my closet I have several white boxes.  One holds cotton spools and threads of all colors.  One is filled with tiny patchwork samples of printed cottons I have collected over the years.  One holds colored papers--- origami, wrapping tissues and samples of things.  I open any one of these and a night is passed-- of memories, color, visual collages... and then back in the treasure box, back in the closet.  I feel rich-- me in my bed, dreaming in technicolor of my old mother with her knitting-- the two of us, in the yarn store, holding naturally-dyed skeins next to one another, imagining our blankets and sweaters and scarves.

A White Box, as opposed to a Black Box, implies some kind of architecture or system which is visible although not available for tampering.  The Black Box is utterly invisible, except for input and output response.  It begins to occur that this $238,000,000 White Box would not be affordable without the Black Box mentality behind it.

Ken Griffin, the hedge fund manager and White Box buyer,  has spent about 700 Million dollars recently snatching up real estate and breaking records.  He makes poor Michael Dell's $100,000,000 apartment look positively paltry.  Ken has recently gone through a hostile divorce and obviously has money to pare and shed.  Or to park in an apartment as opposed to the shaky banks.  He surely has a box in that building on the Cayman Islands where trillions of dollars sit, although there are only 45,000 official residents.  Or in Basel, where 1/3 of the world assets sit-- safely protected by the Swiss government or by shell companies and corporate 'layering'.  Also, we learn, he had an 'agreement' with the builders.  This means the same money that purchased also helped fund the building in the first place... my brain box hurts-- it's all a big 'shell' game.. and as my son tells me, at this level, the cash doesn't exactly change hands.  I mean, billions of dollars takes up space.  White Box Space.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

What a Wonderful World This Would Be

Tuesdays are trash nights in my neighborhood.  This week the Christmas trees are stacked high for mulch trucks; recyclables are bagged up, and discarded household items-- furniture, bathroom fixtures, books, framed posters and old appliances-- are piled up like flea market dumpsters.  On one corner, an almost-new baby walker sticks up-- clean and unmarked, with its Elmos and Cookie Monsters, rattles and spinners... I couldn't help patting the muppets on their little plastic heads, and wondered how these young parents could have left them cruelly on a garbage-pile.

Okay, maybe it was never a preferred beloved plaything but a space-hogging despised gift from someone the family disliked.  Maybe it caused a household accident and left a scar on their perfect son or daughter.  It tugged painfully at my worn heartstrings, and reminded me that parenting, one of the commonalities in all our lives, comes in all varieties.

I just finished reading Savage Beauty, the biography of world-renowned poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Few women writers of her era reached the kind of star-status she held for some time, entwined as it was with her femme-fatale/girlish image.  One of three intelligent and complex sisters, she was raised by a mother who was multi-talented and a little narcissistic, and who will be remembered mostly for her illustrious offspring.  She is a photograph-- a letter writer-- in the Edna St. Vincent Millay archive.

Recently I've read several statements by 20th-century women of achievement in the arts.  Most all of them contend that motherhood holds little place in the trajectory of a serious and committed artist.  Not one of the Millay sisters reproduced.  Single parenthood is near-impossible.  I suppose I am forced to concede that my career was pre-empted by parenthood... not that I have regrets or bitterness or even second thoughts.  What I do know, most of all, was this 'skin' of sentimentality that descended on the day my son was born.

Pregnancy was fine-- I was tough, a veritable icon of feminism with my bass onstage and my leather boots and rock and roll attitude and huge stomach.  I ignored audience comments and journalist's criticisms about exposing my unborn child to not just excessive noise and jumping around onstage, but the thick cigarette smoke that filled clubs and venues in the unhealthy 1980's.  Then came birth... and somehow all those inborn natural hormonal instincts came in like high tide.  All bets were off-- not only was I protective and 'attached' to the baby, but every single television ad, sappy movie, crying child in a supermarket aisle brought me to tears-- like some latent Pavlovian response.

The biological co-dependence of mothering is a function of nature.  Animals require no instruction in caring for their young, but some of us humans seem to have lost our instincts.  Child abuse, family dysfunction and issues are common; while marriage requires a license, childbearing does not.  As I weathered the various storms of parenthood, I became more aware of the emotional challenges and less quick to criticize others.  I have also realized that everyone has their own parenting 'style'.  For some, it is compatible and peaceable; for others, the needs of children and parents are at odds.  We the parents, one would think, have the burden of adapting or handling the dynamic... but in many families there are immaturities and resentments that disrupt the hierarchy.

While I took responsibility for many of my son's objections, I also know I empathized-- agonized, at times-- disciplined not quite enough, but tried.  My heart was smitten.  It was difficult at times to focus on my own life's work, so entwined I was with the equilibrium of this growing person.  But most of all, I am accountable.

Every year I interview prospective freshman for my alma mater at this time.  It fascinates me to see these kids becoming adults-- their dreams, their local accomplishments about to become maybe global.  Maybe not.  Many of them have parents who were role-models; many do not.  I can remember myself on the brink of college-- my parents seemed to have little to do with my academic soul, although they claimed bragging rights when I achieved something that was traditionally impressive.  Most of what was valuable to me was not so to them.  Music? Poetry?  Not a viable tradable commodity in their world.  Were they responsible for my life?  Not really.  I have friends who were accountable-- who raised amazing humans.  Some take credit for their child's achievement; they brag, boast.  A few of them, tragically and irrationally lost children-- to complex emotional and mental labyrinths, addictions and fragile compositions that lured them to the darkest destination of all.  I don't know how these people recover; they don't.  But life goes on.

While I could never blame my child for anything-- excluding premature grey hairs and umpteen sleepless nights-- I find it most absurd that my adult friends have persisted, through middle and now older age, to hold their parents accountable for their own failures-- even when those failures manifest as a kind of success or creative output.  I used to have a cartoon on my refrigerator of a girl at her desk, penning a letter home--'Dear Mom and Dad... thanks for the happy childhood; you have destroyed any possibility of my becoming a successful author.'  Irony?  Still,  two or three friends of mine go on and on about their issues, despite the fact that fathers have been long defused by age, and narcissistic mothers have been reduced to nursing-home patients.  Ironically, they have usually not become parents themselves; or they have become fallible parents--either overdoing what they lacked, or failing in some other way-- expecting....

There is always someone to blame; ask Donald Trump.  But the most effective problem solvers are ourselves.  We must let go-- on both ends.  Isn't that what love is?  We must do our best, and then withdraw, let things happen.  Accept responsibility but also foster independence-- let the apples fall as they may, we of this culture that values 'eye-candy'... who watch the Kardashian babies becoming style icons before they can walk, who see our friends buying their children guitars, coaching games-- wanting so much for their kids to succeed maybe where they did not.

I have two friends with trans-gender kids.  The bravery of these families is inspiring.  I'm not sure how I would have managed this, being alone.  But there are no guarantees in life.  Despite our illusions, there is an awful lot of improv-- of unknown passages and discovery, accidents and wrong turns; there is no real GPS for the 'lost in the woods' thing.  Parenting is a vague map... some walk, some ride, some fly and some crawl.  Some spend most of their life retracing steps, regretting, analyzing... wasting energy.  We are biological entities... but we have heart and soul.  Lost dogs find their way home, despite odds.  If only we loved one another the way we love our dogs....