Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Mad Marchness

On my first day at Princeton, I was asked to sign a copy of the university honor code.  This is an agreement, made with complete solemnity, that (a) as a student I will not cheat or violate the school's ethical educational protocol, and (b) that I will report anyone who does.  So I submitted my document, crossed out the second part, and signed it.  Of course I was called in and questioned, and I explained my thinking-- that if everyone 'oathed' to be honest, how could there be anything to report?

The point being-- there is a sort of assumption that the code will inevitably be broken, but to acknowledge this seemed a denial of the version of academic innocence that presumably qualified us for entrance in the first place.  The Deans-that-were thought I was being rebellious and argumentative; on the contrary, I was being honest and clear.  In the end they allowed me to sign off on the first clause, and delete the second-- an exception, in good faith, because they could see I was clearly committed to an education process.  In retrospect, they had to allow me my innocent belief that the academic world was built on a solid ethical contract and that we were there to learn.  Why would I think otherwise?

Granted, my first week of class I was terrified that my fellow students would realize I was under qualified.  Sure, I was a good student-- mostly because I loved to read-- but I'd come from a public school; my parents had never attended college, and my Mom's reading list consisted of Ladies' magazines and local newspaper stories.  She was certainly not stupid, but she used to read the spines of my library books as though they were in another language.  My roommates were from Boarding Schools... they'd had sophisticated specialized classes and some had had tutors.  I was naive and thought this some British system of advanced one-on-one teaching.

I survived... actually graduated with highest honors and won some awards and scholarships.  Yes, my Mom put the Ivy League stickers on her car and 'wore' my alma mater with some pride.  Both parents never forgave my foregoing the Harvard Law scholarship and depriving them of bragging rights.  But my life was my own;  the career choices that horrified them suited me.  Most of all I am uber-grateful to Princeton not for the guaranteed access to a certain society, but for the opportunity of learning.  I am intellectually rich and gained a sense of context... this is the world, this was the world... I know how to ask questions and where to go for answers.  I have an appetite for information, for art-- to understand, to look, to listen, to have an opinion.  I paid very little, other than work-study assignments.  Is this not education?

For many years, maybe as a kind of payback, I've interviewed prospective freshmen for Princeton.  It is volunteer work and my students are nearly all from the outer boroughs, so I do not overlap with neighbors and acquaintances.  I've watched the boroughs become more and more gentrified over the past decades.  My students in the 90's had rarely been to Manhattan; now some of them are world travelers-- but most are low and middle class people, and many are recent immigrants.  Their parents have not been to college, and they all need financial aid.  Some of them work-- even full time, at places like Wendy's, after school and weekends.  One of them this year cared for a blind father.   They are eager and timid but all of them seem to have this faith in themselves-- this belief.  They are satisfied with their performance-- even proud.  It touches me-- their young ambition, their dreams.

Once in a while I am assigned a privileged student-- from a city private school who has been prepped for the interview-- who is well traveled and has an iPhone.  They often come in winter without a coat--- they are driven to the meeting and have a bit of swagger.  They reel off their accomplishments and social service hours with professionalism, their global sophistication and their intentions.  Often they are legacy children; many generations have attended before them and they are nearly certain they will be accepted. They have had lessons and gone to specialty camps.  One of them last year had his own sailboat and competed in some junior version of the America's cup.

I have grappled many times with the admissions committee-- how can you compare these prepped and college-ready kids to the boy I interviewed in January from Kashmir-- who had sat in a public library in Queens day after day trying to absorb the new language, looking at Chemistry texts with familiar formulae?  Or the homeless girl who apologized for not having a shower... who slept in an abandoned basement, borrowed pens from her teachers, wrote in discarded notebooks and was reading Murakami?  They assure me these children will get every equal opportunity, and our assessments are being studied so they can properly 'read' the potential of unusual students and 'weight' achievement accordingly.  I believe them.  I believe when they tell me they can spot a professionally written essay in the first sentence.  They are good at what they do.

My own son has a great brain-- the city prep schools fought over him... but as a teenager, he lost interest in school.  I tried-- and let him fail, while we watched much less gifted kids achieve comparable scores and competitive grades with many thousands of tutoring hours.  I will admit he made some decent pocket money writing papers for his classmates in middle school.  It was a kind of job and at least he was doing someone's homework, if not his own.  I never ratted-- but along these lines, I've noticed wealthy families feel they are delinquent if they do not spend large sums on outside SAT tutoring and college advising services.  None of these are indicated on the applications.  Is this fair?  Not really.  My son has complained to me recently that many of his most successful friends have start-ups funded by their affluent families.  I can only agree.  Is this fair?  Maybe.  This is life.  Really beautiful girls are more readily acknowledged...  tall men are generally better equipped for basketball teams.

We live in a world fueled by money.  Our presidents have cheated.  Our star athletes have cheated.  Art dealers and museum curators cheat and lie.  Singers lip-synch; recording artists use machines and auto-tune.  They put their names on music written by others-- they steal and adapt things written by lesser known artists.  Not so many are punished; success seems often to whitewash the spotlight.  I suppose what bothers us most about the recent college entrance scandals is the villainous parent scenario.  It scars the institution of the American family, not that it hasn't been exposed as an often dysfunctional body with a perfect face.  It shows both a level of personal sacrifice, and a complete disconnect with the 10 Commandments of parenting.

Am I surprised?  Maybe at the particular scheme, but not at the modus operandi or the intention.  In fact it goes far deeper than this, which seemed almost innocent compared to the scandalous manipulations of our political and religious leaders.   And we have known for years about NCAA schemes.  I used to be warned never to buy even a coffee for one of my interviewees in the event he or she is an athlete and this could be construed as bribery.  So this, I thought, is where they get the money they use to pay off.  On the brink of the basketball tournament, the amount of media attention paid to these two actresses is a little suspect.  Especially one who stood for a kind of American innocence.  If these were just non-celebrity wealthy people would the news give them this much time?  Another instance of inequitable receipts.

In the end, the parents seem less guilty to me than those who received the money and offered the schemes in the first place-- who prey on the insecurities and vicarious ambition of the monied.   As do the overpaid college advisors who claim to offer access to the front of the line, who enable and pad applications.  Whatever happened to the level playing field?  Failure as a learning tool?  As a reality check?  Every brilliant athlete loses games, fouls out.  In the end we can't stand in for our children or hire stuntmen to take their pain.  Surrogate parents only go so far, and surrogate students do no service whatsoever but for themselves.  We might do better addressing the students, without their family-crutches... without their tutors and coaches and advisors.  In their unadulterated innocence, as it exists today, if we can peel back the digital masks and uncover some human shine.

Friday, March 8, 2019

And Then There Were....

You'd have to pay me to watch The Bachelor, I recall vowing to one of my friends who was investing in the odds.  Well... while it's not much, a blogger-friend has actually offered me financial remuneration for a few snide comments and speculations.  She's getting stale, she complained, Season 23 taking its toll and she's pretty much used her verbal ammunition several times over-- not that anyone remembers.  Despite spin-offs and the desperate appearances of the hard-core reality-show whores,  these girls are pretty much a flash in the cultural pan.

But for me, it is a bit of novelty.  Sure, I remember the Dating Game, but these were blind interviews and resolved between commercial breaks.  The couples rode off in their sponsored limos and were never seen again, for the most part.  Here, it seems to be an obvious promotional vehicle for some of these misinformed women who are ID'd onscreen with their age and profession every time they get a little cameo.  It's like a three month video audition selfie, with the terms 'rollercoaster', 'skeptical' and 'I'm not gonna lie' recurring in nearly every scene.

America loves a contest.  We watch Top Chef, Project Runway, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars... week after week we tune in to see the paring-away of players until a winner is crowned.  The Bachelor, as I see it, is like Miss America with one judge who gets to sample the contestants.   It's every man's fantasy, in the sexist old-style world.  What woman do I know who would submit herself to this kennel show?  And the prize?  A ready-made husband.  Pre-fabricated happiness.  Essentially all the women are pretty homogeneous-- no one is short or ugly or handicapped... their hair and make-up are perfect, their teeth are straight, their wardrobes are similar... no one talks about politics, no one reads, no one does much of anything but sit around with the other boring girls gossiping and waiting for the next opportunity to see this Colton, who is very un-Americanly a virgin (!).  Is this more or less than we wanted to know?  For me it's a red flag.  How can anyone who is parading themselves in a bikini before audiences of millions be on the same page as this guy?  Oh... there is one girl (eliminated) who had never been kissed.  How she got through middle school is beyond me.  Really? Frogs have done better.

So the final episodes have filtered out all but three women, and the bachelor has gone to their hometowns to meet their families whom we see in staged home settings.  Three women-- one of whom will become his fiancee and eventually his wife in a few short weeks... and he is still kissing all of them, using the words 'falling in love'... and wary about getting his heart broken, needing to be certain his feelings will be reciprocated, and the girl is not in it for the media attention.  There seems little doubt anyone on this show has any other motive?  But still America watches... believes...
We believe in love, don't we?  Despite statistics, betrayals, perversions, secrets, duplicities, plastic surgery and the fickle nature of this internet age, we believe.

So there is one girl in the final three... she is young, naturally and wholesomely beautiful, has cascading blonde hair and looks great in her bikini-- obvious chemistry-- the guy can't keep his hands off her on their one date... and you can't blame him.  But there is something reticent and unsure about her.  She is perhaps there for ulterior motives-- not too smart-- but knows exactly how she looks when she pouts or cries... she's immature and cannot even lie that she is ready for marriage because she still needs to ask her father to make her decisions...  I suppose this is a kind of honesty, there... I mean, who can swear eternal love after three weeks of television shoots and zero intimacy? So she is the one who admits that she is 'on the fence' which is either a ploy for more on-camera dialogue or a bold-faced strategy.  And it seems to work, because despite the main premise that he must select the 'one' who is also ready to reciprocate, he not only does not eliminate her, but refuses to accept her resignation.  

Here we have it-- not the Aesopian moral of sour grapes, but the American male obsession with the one that 'got away'.   He is now sure, throwing the whole show under the bus, before the scheduled countdown, that this is what he wants, and this is what he wanted the whole entire season, while he went through motions of bonding with 20-some-odd other women.  From the get-go...he wanted the doll-- the surfer Barbie, the blonde bride on the cake in realtime.  Sound familiar?

I have a hard time imagining how he can kiss so many women-- I mean, at my most promiscuous, in my prime.. when we were all sampling and curious-- there were maybe 2-- maybe 3... at a time.  Especially this stupid pantomime when he knew from day one what he wanted... when he apparently and admittedly made a judgment based purely on the physical 'layout' of flesh and features, as nature calls... and the fact that there was a slight hesitation on her part-- either she is smarter than we know, or he is just fulfilling the old prophecy of dating lore-- that he must have the one who doesn't really want him.  And for her, clever dumb girl, she has left the game... and somehow I sense she will feel insecure and sorry... and maybe the drama is totally calculated because isn't she really the truest player, the winner?  The one who left while she was in first place?  Who broke his heart and made it impossible for anyone else?  I predict there will be a sequel-- she will return because there must be a twist now, America is bored of the game-- there has to be a coda, some drama... or else ratings will plunge.

And is he looking for love--- or a job?  His football career was over... he has obviously been groomed for TV, seems a little more on-camera comfortable than he was as a contestant... his hair is thicker, his abs are better.... he relishes his own shower-cameos.  Maybe he is in love with himself.   It's a little suspect that the guy has never had sex, although this is television-- who knows?

I can't help remembering once this very handsome guy used to come to my gigs... handsome like you rarely saw in NewYork City downtown... beautiful.  He tended bar midtown in one of those clubby cavernous side street places with a famous name.  He was in an off-Broadway play.  He begged me to come by the bar and I reluctantly looked in one night-- surrounded by great-looking women, he was... but he went crazy when I came in.  I went to his play... he was good.. more than good.  He took me on a romantic picnic in Central Park... made love to me, begged me... but something about him... lying there underneath this guy that everyone stared at... I just stalled out.  And then... as I pulled away.. the guy went nuts.  Showed up everywhere.. followed me, stalked me, delivered flowers and gifts...  It was like he had this picture... of me and him.. already on his mental 'mantel'... the New York City thing... me, the Bohemian musician girlfriend.... And he was getting famous... and still I had more interest in some rat-faced guitar player at the time.  Anyone.  It killed him.

The guy married a well-known actress who was equally beautiful... they moved to LA... I'm sure he was happy... I didn't deserve him.  I never earned him.  It was nothing but the one that didn't want him-- the challenge, the competitive conqueror thing... I don't know.  I don't know what I want half the time, and most of what I wanted didn't exist yet.  It was not in another person, but it was waiting for me to create it.

The perfect fairytale reality-show couple thing... yes, you ride off into the sunset... but then what?  You and your beautiful mate on a desert island without a camera.  I guess then you make babies and you do some other kind of dysfunctional couples-therapy reality show.  I think it's a little sad to be The Bachelor.  Like pin-up of the month.  In a few years you get old and no, you don't lose your hair because they fix that now... but there you are with your decision and the ring that the sponsors have bought for you... your fantasy televised wedding and your celebrity Instagram... and you are yesterday's model.  Without the Bachelor Culture, courtesy of this Chris Harrison who is determined to be a media mogul, you are nobody.  You are last year's Ken in the Bachelor Barbie game.

I used to work in a club Monday nights.  Bachelor night.  Okay... so now I am underemployed and earned enough from my catty blog-comments to buy a new guitar strap.   Am I culturally enriched?  I felt like a voyeur and cringed during kissing scenes.  Afterward I lost my appetite.  I felt sorry for the women.  I even felt sorry for the bachelor.  I never felt sorry for Miss America but I already felt Colton Underwood's pedestal crumbling.  And he cried.  That was maybe unscripted.   He cried because he maybe wasn't winning anything, especially not his 'queen' but is himself a pawn of the entertainment conspiracy and this is the end of his fifteen-minute road. Surely she'll be back, Colton... maybe even as soon as next week.  Or, as an ex once said to console me during a heartbreak-- Somebody will.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Dreaming in Orange

Walking downtown from Harlem today I saw a disabled city sanitation truck being hitched up for towing. It was kind of spectacular-- these are heavy pieces of equipment, filled with stinking tons of garbage in various states of compression and processing-- organic and inorganic.  I couldn't help thinking back to the days when my son's early boyhood obsession was observing and naming all the trucks and service vehicles on the streets.  It was like an all-day movie-- endless spontaneous entertainment-- and a scene like this would have provoked much pointing and shouting and the inevitable slew of toddler speculations and questions.

So there I was, across the street with my eyebrows raised, mouth open-- and no one was there.  I thought of my grown son downtown, with his expensive watch and his designer boots and his iPhone--- how we went to a little playgroup at the Presbyterian church two mornings a week.  There were wooden blocks there-- and little cars the children rode around on.  There were puppets and some books and puzzles.  Things seemed innocent.  My childhood toys from the 1950's were even simpler-- a tin house with a few pieces of doll furniture-- books, crayons, puzzles.  Mostly we dug with spoons in the garden and filled cups with water from the outside hose.  We chalked up the sidewalk and played hopscotch, made costumes and pretended to be pirates or gypsies or gangsters.

I used to wheel my baby back and forth to my job with his little things-- a reindeer made out of a sock, a few small cars.  Later-- a tiny garbage truck and a digger, a firetruck and an ambulance.  These days most babies I see holding their mother's phones, or with plastic replicas.   No one seems to be pointing things out-- few kids standing around construction sites all day watching these massive excavations-- steam shovels and dump trucks.  We read some simple books over and over; we sang songs and clapped hands.  Today technology seems to have replaced so many of these activities.

There were times, raising my son alone, when I lived on a bag of stale doughnuts.  One fall I collected discarded pumpkins from our garbage area and we ate these until my dreams turned orange.
A phone message one day that same season ordered me to report to an address on Fifth Avenue; it turned out to be F.A.O. Schwartz where I was informed some anonymous man had paid for a shopping spree.  We were overcome; my little boy asked for play-dough and we were sent home with a lovely set of wooden trains that made me feel ashamed.

I'm getting old now; I stop on the street and exclaim at funny dogs-- or children when they are fretting or sad.  They are eating complicated food products and drinking sophisticated drinks from
places like Starbucks with well-designed containers.  I feel like an alien from another century, and I suppose I am.  I gasp open-mouthed at the sunset when I look toward the park at the end of the day-- or up at the moon as I leave my apartment at night.  These things seem new and wonderful.   On the Saturday train there are still break-dancers who risk their limbs on the poles and straps to entertain riders.  They leave me breathless and gaping; my fellow riders simply hold their phones up.

Recently I read in the Times that an enormous percentage of adults sleep with a stuffed animal.  I found this a little shocking, although I do know many people who share a bed with their dogs and cats.  Surely these same people have their cellphones on the night-table and consult their Instagram or Facebook.  I used to sleep with a land-phone by my bed when my first husband was touring, hoping he'd call at some ungodly hour from a far-away hotel room.  When he didn't, I'd stare at the ceiling and wonder.

Somewhere between the monied rush of well-heeled pedestrians in my neighborhood and the homeless street population there should be a place for me.  I go to the library and take home books...
I feel both fortunate and passed-over.  I am no longer a player and yet I am just that-- not a brilliant but a decent musician who manages to find a place for myself between a song and a kind of spiritual vehicle.  I am both lost and found, misplaced yet contented.  Like everyone, I am stuck here between past and future, but somehow more committed to the present than ever.  There is nothing I really need, beyond the barest necessities-- and yet I live in a complex nest of cultural insulation.  I have banked many things of value, although none of them are monetary.

Riding up in the elevator with my neighbors, I am the shabby tenant.  Then again, no one suspects my groceries were purchased with foodstamps, or that there is a poem brewing in my head.  It occurred to me-- phone-less and vaguely out of synch with sidewalk traffic, watching that garbage truck through the eyes of a boy who no longer exists,  I have regained a kind of old innocence and it feels fine.