Saturday, February 29, 2020

Losing My Accent

It's been years since I watched a DVD on a television screen; my player is one of those VCR dual purpose machines that is no longer even patch-able into any viable system.  But recently I figured out how to connect my computer to TV, and as a test, I used an old video someone converted to digital.  So there I was, 30 years ago, puttering around a former apartment which in itself brought up a major nostalgia wave.  I loved my 'bachelorette' pad-- the compact but cool bi-level loft with the brick wall and the balcony where I'd hosted rockstars and journalists, wild parties, intimate candlelit dinners, rehearsals, recording sessions, baby showers and toddler play-dates.  Where I'd gone from vinyl to tape to cd, from Smith-Corona to Microsoft, from art consultant to bassist, historian to songwriter, 20's to 30's, single to married (and repeat...)...

Suddenly this woman who coyly shielded herself from the cameraman and then with candor dropped the charade was devastatingly familiar... and yet so far away.   I suppose since I've ignored the whole phone-culture, the selfie-obsession, the instant i-Movie phenomenon... I'm missing a couple of generations of self-documentation.  But thanks to the thoughtfulness of a visiting friend with a video-camera, a few 'slices' of my life-as-a-mother were recorded, along with some footage of me at the age of 9 playing Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.  Where the little girl in the sailor dress seems like some random animated doll-puppet, the young mother at home with her baby-boy was this woman I wanted to know.  It was as though I suddenly understood what men found appealing all through those years-- this casual grace, an unstudied sense of style... black hair pulled back in a cheap barrette, strands of hair falling like a shadow across a face I recalled like an old actor in her prime movie.

I've never been a mirror-worshipper-- rather a mirror-avoider.  There is a time, however, in nearly every girl's life where she makes this leap from awkward adolescence to some kind of swan-hood-- a moment where her body makes sense-- whether it is in a dance-class, on a sports field, drawing a picture-- acting-- suddenly you are a coherent 'being'; your parts work, your brain works.  You cease to be a duckling and you are given a glimpse of your potential-- your power.  For some of us, the accident of physical beauty provides either a motivator or a hindrance.  For others, the confluence of emotion and intelligence and action just seem to synch up and suddenly we are 'real'.  A camera can either confirm or contradict this perception; of course now, there are so many digital manipulations available, one can't really trust a photo.  Sometimes it took that moment where we were chosen for a part-- a team-- a friendship.  That boy we crushed on suddenly looks at us as though he's seeing for the first time... or some amazing new girl in your class wants to be your BFF, with blood signatures and clothing exchanges and vows.  It feels good.  We are validated.

In the video I could feel that validation-- a confidence, a confirmation...  her smile, her speech-- the calmness... as though life was a slow river and we had all the time in the world in this lovely boat of love and relentless gifting.  Even the baby could feel it-- he was relaxed and easy, and the way mother and son touched one another was so lovely... with trust and a profound sense of family.  I was absolutely mesmerized; the idea this was my 'self' was both exhilarating and devastatingly poignant.

My friends and I have come so far.  So many have veered off the road-- passed away from illness or accident or suicide.  Many have dipped into the lowest emotional depths.  Aging is difficult. Personally, I do avoid mirrors but being a working musician, I see the photos-- the craggy shadows and lines I do not cover over.  I see myself as a tree in winter--- the same branch-arms that once were dressed in lush green are now craggy and stiffer.  They have yet to break off-- I find a kind of brittle strength in these years, but my old beauty is missing.

Looking at the video again, I remember I had two lovers at the time; one was tall and southern- -the other was young and slender and European-- a musician, like me.  The young musician moved in and for several years we maintained a kind of family... but this ended, and he returned to his home.  There were other lovers, other roommates... the southern man and I are still close friends although there have been distances between us.  I can remember his face-- he reminded me of a young Gregory Peck and it took my breath away.  Now he is nearly as craggy as I.  He often brings me lunch and we take trips together.  Today he mentioned how he hates his southern accent.  For me, it is part of what I love--what remains.  Every once in a while he slips up and says 'si-REEN' or 'GUItar' with the accent on the first syllable.

Recently I've been interviewing kids for my alma mater-- mostly young women and many of them recent immigrants.  They are altogether so anxious to 'lose' their accents and become fully integrated American girls.  I look back at the young woman I was 30 years ago and understand why my Mom nagged and nagged me to make better choices while I laughed and smiled and waved her warnings away... all these years later I see how she understood that the 'accent' of my womanhood was something I would eventually leave behind.  Time is on your side for oh-so-long... until it isn't.   Which is not all that bad, I will testify...  wishing a heartfelt 'carpe diem' to my readers.

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Monday, February 17, 2020

What's in a Name

Pathmark 125th Street has long joined the ranks of  discarded NYC institutions now--the site under transformation into an enormous residential and retail development.  For me, embracing designated economic poverty as an older adult, it was a reality-experience.  The simple enormity of the space at this location, unlike the crowded Manhattan supermarkets with narrow aisles and limited wares, was spectacular for someone like me who,  excepting road-trip stops,  was under-exposed to mall-shopping.  I visited Pathmark for the sales, the availability, the simple 'gift' of space... the late-night hours, proximity to subway.  Where else could I score a decent fresh turkey for 69 cents a pound?  The scams, the schemes of visiting regulars-- the simple neighborhood habits of those who brought folding chairs and sat basking in the generous 'lobby' air conditioning in summer-- the recycling, the socializing and innocent panhandling...  all part of the past 'innocence' of New York.

Finding bargains these days and living on food stamps is a challenge.  Last week I was in one of my current preferred grocery destinations in Harlem, and I heard a woman yelling... 'Princeton!' with more and more conviction.  So I turned-- yes, there those old days when some random boyfriend or bandmate would refer to me sarcastically by my alma-mater and like 'Mom' which never fails to prick my ears anywhere, I respond.   A small toddler had been leaning against my cart with that dreamy fearless curiosity 2-year-olds can display even in a crowd... eventually the woman came over, grabbed him, gave him a little smack... 'don't you wander, Princeton!'  I couldn't resist... yes, this was his given birth name.  Princeton. In the 'hood.  I had a little conversation with them both, assured the child he was going to be smart and important... and then a little inner monologue with myself on the way home about names.

I have a simple, basic three-letter name.  Actually my mother gave me the French 5-letter version, so the meaning of it would be understood as 'beloved' and not mistaken for the other derivative spelling-- 'friend'.  But the ratio of four-to-one/ vowels-to-consonants is a hard-spell for a child not to mention pretentious in the milieu of the 60's.  Compared to today's 'Beyonce' and Destiny-- the tag-names of the 21st century-- it is minimal.

My elementary school was part of the 1960's bussing experience.  Besides the physical introduction of diversity, there were the names.  We were all basically Tom, Dick and Harrys-- Kathy, Robin and Susans, in those days-- but these kids-- they were named after kings and presidents.  Their names were hyphenated and ornate-- colorful.  The girls were Velma and Darcelle; this elevated and embellished our morning role-call.  I went home and asked my Mom for a better name.  She did not grace this with a reply--  she who had given me one only, insisting when I got married my surname would fall into middle-status.

Many of my fellow students, as the 60's wore on, re-appropriated their African names.  Some of the Jewish kids I met in the city became radicalized and used Hebrew.  Rockers re-christened often--became single-names or branded themselves somehow, while it was fairly common for actors and public performers to round the edges of their ethnicities and smooth out family names into generic and non-specific identities.  My own father's family, like many immigrants desperately seeking 'Americanization'  had done this.   Go figure.

Lately it is rare that, in my local Starbucks where I am currently interviewing kids for my alma-mater (yes, little Princeton, I mention your name often) I rarely see a staff name-tag that looks familiar to me.  The variety of these is like the constantly expanding nomenclature for coffees and drinks-- exotic, conversation-provoking, ethnically transparent or confusing-- non-gender-identifying.  There are kids with names of countries, of seas, of flowers... of foods, of liquor brands and corporations.  Rappers acquire 3-part sentence names or words.  Common-- that one always sticks to me.  My name, in this expanded overpopulated internet world of infinite repeats-- is-- well, common.  Like most everything else.

I have googled my own name to find a whole column's worth of 'me'... I have even received mail and messages for my namesakes.  Three of us know one another-- in this city.  One friended me on Facebook.  Yesterday I asked a girl in the supermarket about her name tag... her Mom couldn't spell, she told me, but now she likes it.  It's different.  Desnity.  Spellcheck did a double-take, too.

While our traditional old-school vocabulary seems to decrease in usage, new languages and acronyms have become part of our work-arsenal.  People actually speak less to one another these days-- they text, they have their bluetooth and earbuds in... they engage less eye-to-eye.  They do listen... and they wear names.  It is hard to find a single human on a subway without a label or-- more often, several.  Wearing someone else's name was always strange to me.

At the end of her life, for some time, my mother could barely speak.  Her caretaker called her 'Queenie' which seemed wrong to me.  Queenie did not protest much of anything at the end.  Inside she'd regressed beyond even recognizing herself as 'Mom'.  But somehow, even at the very end, when I called her name,  I could see a small light.  Gift of God, the meaning.  No matter how we change, alter, edit, revise... no matter what our intimates and lovers call us in the dark, there is something in our original naming that imprints.  I thought about this, reading the obituary of Kirk Douglas... his adopted name meaning 'church', but his original name, 'Issur' meaning 'he who wrestles with God'... surely defined him.   Anyway, I think somehow he might have agreed, in the end.

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