Sunday, March 23, 2014

Empathy

     My father cheered when our dog ate flies. Killed them on our windows by slapping them with his paws. Black dog paddling at the sky, my dad's high laughter.
     Soda Pop. He wasn't a mutt. He was more a blend or a mix. A graceful mulatto. A creole dog. Let the purebreds walk around nervous and crippled by the obsessions of their suburban owners, their purity laws and neighborhood codicils, their trim lawns and vacuum packed homes where no one spills or shits or loves.
  Give me a mutt.
  Soda Pop. Because he had a white belly and when he turned over we called him root beer. He was mine. Well he was my brothers' but a youngest son thinks everything is his. Or should be.
   I'm sure I was a negligent boy. Slow to want to walk him, quick while doing so. Dismissive, ungentle, confident he was lucky to have our home and there'd be dogs to come.
  Strangely enough there weren't. Or never have been. I haven't had a dog since. Love them, play with them, borrow them greedily from their cocky owners but my own?….not since I was 12.
  Soda Pop had a spaniel's black coat with slow curls you could grab. A child could sink his hand in. Fur trickled over his toes. His tail was bushy. He wasn't more than 50 pounds and not a fighter. In a neighborhood of tough boys, like his owners he was more inclined to shy than bite. He had the kindest eyes. In them lit the simple canine desire to join you by the fire. A thousand generations of "feed me" pouring forth.
   He was born before me. All the animals I knew as a child were. The cats were all grown ups by the time I figured out they weren't toys. Soda Pop was a grandpa in my eyes. We were probably the same age give or take a year. He didn't fetch. He'd start to roll over and stop half way. He would offer one paw but not the other. He died on the picnic table on our back porch. Wrapped in a blanket laying on his right side looking out at the big Elms standing between us and the neighbors and the murmuring freeway below. 
   12 Christmases, 12 birthdays, 12 New Years, one graduation and all those Thanksgivings stuffing our house and his nose with what must have been heaven- it was for us. So he wandered among our shuffling feet and nosed our knees and watched us from his rug.
  And since then across three decades and two continents and three cities and too many apartments, I've "had" 12 cats, 2 raccoons, 20 something gerbils, a hamster, a snake and horses who belong to other people but who I tell myself are mine. Every one of them I know "liked" me because I fed them and didn't beat them. But in every one I looked to see that evidence of decision, that pause, that stutter in their animal motion that told me they were choosing me over instinct. I'd say I've seen it. But the people who get pushed by dolphins away from shore by the same motivation that saved others- it was fun for the fish- don't get to tell a tale.
  Do they have a soul these beasts? Do they "care"? Do they choose or care to choose- the beat of reflection, the puzzlement that makes us human, that makes an animal seem sentient, that keeps a hunter from pulling a trigger? (Or I should say a sniper….huntings hunting and sort of about the fact that one takes a life that's valuable to preserve other life.) But killing on the other hand….guy's walking down an alley and he's your enemy, raped your daughter or something and he's in your sights….and then he does something…pauses to look at a shadow….tosses someone's newspaper up onto a porch to keep it out of the rain...smiles at nothing..... Can you pull the trigger? 
 
  My friend Lowell and I were in some bar catching up on the latest 5 months we hadn't seen each other when a bug started across our table. It stopped. He noticed it and slid his thumb across the wood, gave it a nudge and the bug went on and I said, "You know I can't bear cruelty to an animal, can't imagine it, sends me into a rage but I'll still squash a roach with glee." And he nodded and said, " Yeah but after awhile once you say it, it has to be everywhere right? Everything has a little soul, even that little guy. When you can, when you're not starving, and you''re not threatened with infestation or something…let em pass by."
  I close my place up for weeks at a time. Seal it. There's nothing in my house to feed on, or so I think, but there they are. Flies. Trapped. I find them on the window sill like seals in the antarctic, dried in place. Frozen in gesture. And once in awhile I'll nudge one of these scetic figures and he'll move. Are they cold or are they starving? Is this how they try and survive the winters, a walking hibernation, in a metabolic insect aspic?
  Or has my apt become a flylike Galapagos? Do they know I won't kill them anymore? That I find them fascinating, beautiful? Warbirds compared to the happy blimp of a bee? Their mad cursive to a yellow jackets dutiful line? Bartok to Korsakov's Bumble.
  As I do with rats I imagine flies must mate for life. That they know their fellows and family. As I've come to with spiders so I am now with flies. They've such delicate armature, an architecture of living wire, eyes like dark gems cut with an hundred facets no one can see.
  I'll catch them under a glass. Slide a postcard beneath. The scramble. Possibly an arm lost but they'll manage. I walk out onto the porch and snap them free into the air. The fly catching lift like a jet off a carrier, like a spider falling in private gravity, mini mini squirrel, insectoid feline flipping over to safety.
  I just can't kill them much anymore. I don't own the rights. I can't take the motion away. The tapping perfection of their legs, the almost mammalian cleaning, the pauses they make before they move on, to me seem like small times of decision. They ponder, I believe, they choose, they wonder. They must.
  And sometimes in this chilled state they'll come to me. I'll get close and they'll indulge my prodding and step onto a finger, wander across my hand with the slightest tickle that tells me someone somewhere could call this weight.

Dad

  I hate flying.
  No, I don't hate flying.
  It deflates me. You get up there in the air and the world's suddenly flat. It's a panel. Men and women are specks, pepper on the ground. Cities look like digital grids, electric metrics, pinching out cars and trains and dirtied around the edges.
  Or the clouds close in and you could be nowhere. The white nowhere of 29,000 feet in a plastic tube.
  But when I hear a plane I look up. Every time. I love the sound of them, I love their naive shape, the faith we have as children given form - If I look like a bird I will be a bird!
  I love seeing them teeter as they land. Something so huge admitting its unwieldy nature to the eye. You want to reach out and steady a wing tip, help the girl descending the staircase in her heels.
  They look like dreams. They look dreamt. A huge business built on the absurd idea that you can defeat friction pushing an aluminum tube. That you can hold off gravity long enough, charge people just enough if you thrill them and get them there faster. Because it is there.
  But what a drag. Continents reduced to "flyover"s. Oceans crossed that have swallowed nations, and buried enough metal to build London 80 times. The earth's meandering miracles, her scent and body and her beings given us as gifts, made into a spiritless map. Why would you want it? Sitting in tortured barcalounger and fed the same same same same thing. Eyes, ears, nose, mouth.
  But when they go by I look.
  I look up and I see my father's dreams. I see a fragile thing a boy born with polio thought could get him off the ground. Could free him from the stern gravity of Pittsburgh. You can't run, you can't play, you can't fight, but you can fly.
  They go by, the commercial liners, the private jets, the weekend rarities and I see him in his basement building models; a wartime child with his fighter planes and bombers and DC-3s which carried the troops, the frames he cut from balsa wood by hand, the glue rare and expensive, the paint applied with medieval patience. I will build a world. I will make a thing that flies and I will be that thing. I will know them stem to stern, piece by perfect piece. When they pass over your house I will turn my back and tell you their names by the sound. Fifty years later playing on the rug somewhere near him sitting in his chair I'd hear a jet gear down on its approach to Pittsburgh and my dad would say "727" or "707" or "Heavy" and keep reading. This is my chariot, this will be my way, up and out.
   And it wasn't. You could fly with a withered leg but back then you had to have perfect eyes. And he didn't get those either, in Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs born in a house far from any neighbors in 1929.
  Planes were my father's imagination. Not in it. They were it. Once in a great while we'd be in the same living room not doing the same unspoken things- I'd play, he reads- and as suddenly as he could be sudden he'd be up and out onto the porch. Something with an engine built when he was a teenager was passing over our house and he'd stand in the back yard and look up and speak to whoever it was who was listening; name, model, make, year.
  My missing dad loved planes. Enough to make my missing brother back from college haul off and scream one Thanksgiving that he loved them more than us.
  And now I love them. No, I don't. But I look.
 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Pittsburgh's Next

   Mayor Peduto's new slogan for his new administration is "The Next Pittsburgh".
He was gonna call it "The New Pittsburgh" but some members of the old Pittsburgh or maybe the future Pittsburgh, talked him out of it.
   "Next Pittsburgh", sounds…. okay... and since a good number of us speak the first syllable of the city's name like it ends with an X,  the slogan's got some sibilant style.
  Or "stahl".
  Right now, with the polar vortex beating down on us and endless complaints about salt and potholes and tardy buses beating down on him, the Mayor must feel like he's standing in the center of the same old Pittsburgh, or possibly a new circle of Hell. Which happens to have frozen over.
  But people love to complain about snow storms and then blame mayors for them. It's a rite of passage. It's a sign of health. Of the old Pittsburgh grabbing the Next Pittsburgh's Mayor by the scruff and playfully, if painfully, showing its affection.
  I was at a party for the new Mayor and a wily old member of some of the more recent older Pittsburghs said to me, "I hope he let's them run the city." And I said "What does that mean? Isn't that what got us in trouble in the first place?"
   And he said, "What I mean is there's things in the city need to run like the lungs and the heart....and a good mayor knows how to get out of the way of the people who manage them best. And then pick the few things he can change. It's like Alcoholics Anonymous, you know? Lord give me the strength to know what I can change and what I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference".
   I stood there nodding, in this party of men in suits and women in dark dresses, and I thought there's change coming next to Pittsburgh that the old Pittsburgh might not even have words for, much less the wisdom.
  I couldn't help but ask how many of these well-heeled people were taking the measure of our new Mayor and wondering was he going to upset their old system. What's next?
  Let me make a prediction.
  Hold me to it. Make fun of me if I'm wrong. Seriously, laugh me out of town.
  Whether or not our new Mayor with his Next Pittsburgh campaign upsets the system of how things have been done and dealt with downtown -and I hope to God he does -  in the next ten years Pittsburgh's going to be resettled by a wave of people in their 20s and 30s who will not wait for change. 
  They will not nod their heads at cosy backroom deals over stadiums or rail terminals or other publicly traded lands. They won't listen to billionaires breaking the law who talk about "takings". They won't let their neighborhoods be shoved aside by lazy development or substandard schooling or indifferent local government. They will be the government.
   The popular signs of their arrival, the myriad coffee shops, the tattooed butchers, the smartly styled awnings in Garfield with frosted glass doors and pithy logos are just that, window dressing. What these people really do well when they arrive, is participate. They know what it is to be citizens, to vote, to volunteer, to press for change and not to yield. People do that already here yes but in 5 years there'll be a Hell of a lot more of them.
   What these people see in Pittsburgh is the shape of a democracy they can still believe in. They may have given up on Congress and the Senate, the Fed, the Supremely Conservative Court, and any hope that the Koch brothers will end their Republican Gotterdammerung. But they still believe in cities. In a justice of scale. 
  They look at our small towns and neighborhoods, many of which have seen better days and they think, I can make that work. We can remake that, with its 13 blocks and 4 churches and two schools and a playground and a local bar and a butcher. Sound like 1915? Go to Brooklyn or Portland or Austin right now and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about reborn. Well, Pittsburgh's going to be the next incarnation of that ideal and the dreaming, liberal, industrious grads of half the colleges in the US are going to take a long look at us when they choose where they want to live.
   And maybe want to invest their lives and their labor into molding a responsive, localized America.
   Pittsburgh is their perfect model. Their next stop.
   Let me predict- Our towns will be the template, the testing grounds, of an unabashedly progressive movement, 
where the conservative pendulum -just where it thought it should stick- will begin to swing the other way. Pittsburgh will be Rand Paul's Gettysburg and people decades from now will say "That's where it started."  That's where it worked.
   Again. In Pittsburgh.
   Because it has happened before and not by design and not to completion, but this city was for 50 years 
give or take after the reign of the Radical Republicans, a place where the American Dream got made. 
  Penniless foreigners arrived here, lived in hovels, worked like dogs, and in two generations were putting their grandchildren thru college and breathing easy in the backyard on a Sunday afternoon. 
  It wasn't easy and it wasn't always pretty, inclusive, or fair, but it happened. And it didn't happen because everyone pulled themselves up by their individualist bootstraps. It happened because people agitated, they broke what to them were bad laws and the laws were changed, children pulled out of factories, schools built, weekends created, unions legalized, and a social support system legislated into being where before there had been Darwinian squalor. 
   Pittsburgh worked because enough people said, "No, in our country, in our city, this shall not pass. This poverty, literal and spiritual, is not American."   And I truly think that people come here now, they move here, are drawn back to Pittsburgh, because they feel the echoes of that achievement in their hearts- the wheels of history came up thru the earth here and folks saw them- and they want to make it happen again. 
   "America. The Dream Lives." Corny? Sounds like a Republican cheer, or an NRA slogan? Nope, it's what urban farmers, and Americorp's volunteers, and farm to table chefs, and start up entrepreneurs, and living wage advocates, and site sharing artists feel in their hearts. They might not say it but they sure as Hell live it. It's their country and they're going to rebuild it, block by abandoned block.
   So how lucky we are that without a war chest, without the backing of the local Democratic machine, without at times a prayer, a 40 something guy who loves this town got elected to be the next Mayor of Pittsburgh. And for the last five years or longer, long before most of us even suspected the possibility, Peduto's been prepping for this influx. This change. This wave of American urban pioneers. He's been researching them, checking and cross checking how city after city might make itself more responsive to the will of its citizens, new and old.
  Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of people in this town who've never left who do the work of saints to make it better. I'm just saying they are about to be re-inforced in a way few power brokers used to brushing these saints away from the table will know how to handle.
  Pittsburgh's political realm has been like any one of its rivers, for way too long cut off from its people. We couldn't swim in it, weren't fed by it, couldn't even get to it. Those days are done. Before someone else comes along and tells us we can't use the river the way we want to, can't dangle our toes in it, can't call it our own, dive in. You won't be alone. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Nothing but birds

   There's a Mary Oliver poem about a tree. She sees a tree. Stares at its silhouette. And then the tree rises. The whole thing, into the air. Lined by birds. Crammed with birds, and as she was looking, when she looked, they took off. The shape of "a tree" lifting away, sifting into that particulate trail of smoke and beings birds make.
    For almost three years I stored half of my life in a warehouse in downtown Pittsburgh. 4th floor. Rectangle the standard size of a garage in San Francisco. My shit frozen in there, in situ. The place played top 40 24 hours a day. Guy in the space opposite ran a machine shop and covered all of our stuff in white dust but you couldn't begrudge his guts. Man had a job. He has making his way.
   Whenever I walked there to retrieve something I hadn't thought I'd need or reflect on why I had so much crap moldering away I passed half a block of those deathless pine bushes major cities throughout the Northeast cordon their parking lots with.
  And whenever I did I'd swear the bushes moved. They were filled with sparrows. Little chirping dirty sparrows hunting, trying to stay hidden and warm. Hopping as if with legs tied.
   And I would walk by and they'd go quiet and I would stop. And then I would try to get close to them and they would all fly away, leaping out of the bush like deer from a field and I would hope that Mary Oliver poem would come to life, and it almost did.
  I never gave much truck to birds. Lizards with feathers. Second rate pets. Toys for people who didn't want to handle an animal.
  My brother and my mother watch birds. They read the books and check the drawings against what they see. They bring binoculars on a stroll.
  It makes me sigh.
  But then I think……100 years ago nothing flew. Not a Goddamned thing. Nothing.
  But birds.
  And men and women would go on walks and these little mindless angels would move amongst them and lift up into the air, into the firmament as they called it, and dance and sing and dive and roll and we would stare in wonder and give them names and try to ape their songs.
   And I thought, what do I know of that? Can I tell a sparrow from a finch, a hawk from a harrier? Can I sing to them in ways that they might know and be calmed by? If they called to me would I come? Not.
   What weaker worlds we live in now. The trails we cannot follow, the colors we cannot tell, the names and play of the natural world we've never known which give life its grounding when all else is taken away.
  When my phone dies and there's no book in my bag and my credit card's declined what else do I have but the birds in their gathered flocks? The horses or cows huddled by our fences? The name of this bush or that, this shade, that color, genus, species, family, and type...the encyclopedia of existence sung back to us and not known.
  We've made ourselves illiterate. Before the face of all of creation, we're dumb. Speechless. We have no words for the world living just beyond the range of our servers. We cannot follow. We don't know what they do or what they bring us.
   Beyond that be monsters.
   No. We be the monsters.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Homeland

 One night not long ago, I was a passenger, being driven through farmlands that sit above the valley of the Kiski river. Hilltop fields. Barns and homes sparse among the now sparse trees and the stubbled land. You don't feel it at first but you're on a plateau, a high series of clearings which push up east out of Murraysville and drop steeply into the Kiski as it twists toward the Allegheny. 
  The road ran south, parallel to the north running river but far above it. Narrow streets led left down toward what must have been ferry stops or portage points below in the old tangled geography of cliffs and feeder streams. 
   The fields around us were covered in snow. Horses and cows in for the night. Houses shut up. Stores at the occasional crossroad closed tight. 
  While he drove, my friend and I were talking about the kids he teaches, the boys he has in his care. He runs a boarding school- and we were trying to remember one boy, a man now, who'd been my prefect…a word which sounds so arch and means so little to most people but meant so much to us if the prefect, the older brother, the mentor, had been kind.
  I went to a private school. Something which raises all sorts of hackles in most people. And in me. Privilege. Money. Condescension. Parental petting zoos for an elite class. Holding camps for the bosses you'll have to face. The guys who in the future will get the contracts, the acquittals, and the favors, warehoused until they're readied to be handed the reins. 
  I suppose it's often true. 
  But it was the making of me. A scholarship. A handful of teachers who deeply cared. A headmaster who gave me something more than love. I hesitate to try and define it. He could take the noise of fear - its tracklessness- and turn it into….the songline of your life. Where you felt fear walk toward it. Where the hard questions are were the only places you'd find a self worth sending out into the world.
  So here I was….out in that world….in the dark dark dark of Western Pennsylvania.
  Not enough's been said about our particular contribution to blackness, to pitch, and to gloom- the wet ink that surrounds you when you come around a country corner in Westmoreland county and the trees lean in over the road to suck down the glow out of the sky and your car's headlights might as well be water tossed into a hard black furnace. 
  And then you come over a rise and a handful of houses huddled by a bend have candles in their windows or a back porch lit up, a wagon or a horse in silhouette, and it seems like salvation. You wanna run out and hug these people for keeping you among the living.
  My friend and I came to such a place and it looked like a concert was being held in a hollow between two farms. Beacons shown. The snow was white as paint in the sun. It looked like a yard of milk. 
  A hockey game. At 10 pm on a Thursday in January  Somebody'd cleared their pond, grabbed a couple generators and every male within a mile was sliding back and forth from snow bank to snow banked goal.
  It probably took us ten seconds to pass by these men and go out of sight.
  And I thought, how little it takes to get your faith back. To recharge. To remember to breathe. To believe. To give a damn. 
  And I think that it takes so little because the country around here is so tough. It's twisted and hard. It's spare. It's rusty and weathered. The people have taken and know how to take hits. So many.   
  Appalachia. A love child of apples and hatchets, it giveth and oh boy oh boy can it ever taketh away.
  I heard a woman sing at a funeral once. Her song had the verse, "Save us from the gathering storm, because we are not worthy." Now that reads hard, but if you can, in the soundstage of your mind, imagine a voice coming out of her pelvis bones by way of the actual jacket of the heart with no other intent than to wring absolution out of your soul. Then you know what I heard.
   That sounds like something most people would want to avoid. To me it sounds like home. Which most people spend a good portion of their life trying to avoid and then end up running back to. Or from.
   I love how brutal my homeland is. Brutal economics. Brutal politics. Brutal landscape. Brute logic thrust on its people until they ape their jailers.
   I love how sweet my homeland is. Sweet eyes. Sweet beer. Sweet hills and valleys stuffed with trees. Walking out of the airport and into a summer night, breathing in the green, sodden air for the first time in months...it's practically pornographic. I want to drink it, lap it. I want it on me.
   I love her, love her Pittsburgh.
    
 
 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The fault…. is not in our stars.

   I didn't graduate from college.
   Didn't fulfill my major. One credit short. One class I walked out on, cursing the professor. 
    My fault. No excuses. 
    Hell, I dropped another class -Econ 148 "Industrial America: Eden to Empire" it was called- to go dancing. Every Thursday was "Funk Night". Term paper due on Friday. Or dance till 3? 
    I chose the latter. 
    But I minored in art history and took more classes in that than I had to. 
     Like they say, that little itch may be telling you something.
   Anyhow. I've traveled a lot since I was 25. And wherever I go I try to find the museums, the galleries, the architectural gems, the houses of such and such an author or artist or composer. 
   I've crossed major time zones to see a single museum. A single painting. It's just how I work. 
   Put me on a beautiful beach in a gorgeous sun splashed equitorial country with sweet wind in the air and succulent fruits for the mouth and by day two I'll be digging around the alleys of the port looking for a two room museum devoted to the regional history of processed flax. 
    Sad, I know. 
    But of the 34 known Vermeers I've seen 28, face to face. I've stood in front of Rembrandt's Nightwatch in Amsterdam, his Lady with Ermine in Krakow, I've seen the Botticellis in Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, I've wandered the gardens of Kyoto tended to continually since the first crusades, I could draw you a layout of the paintings in the Frick, I walked the whole of the Louvre in a day, I've seen the Freer and the Frye and the Tates and the DeMenils. I like the Providence Atheneum more than the Hartford but the Alexandria one ain't bad. The guards in Atlanta's High are the sweetest but the docents in the DC Phillips actually like that you like their art. There's a world class collection of Netsuke in Butler PA and a museum of cosmetics in the hills behind Osaka. Winslow Homer's house in Prout's Neck, Maine used to be privately owned but I knocked on the door till someone answered and that someone, who told me sternly this was NOT a museum young man, turned out to be the father of a friend of mine from that college I didn't graduate from and I ended up sharing a bottle of wine with him in Homer's studio. After college, I broke into a steel mill to see a giant deer head that some brilliant street kids made out of the mill's dying hardware and got arrested, I've bribed guards to let me stay in the Giotto chapel in Padua after closing, I sang Soviet war ballads to a docent in Leningrad to get into Tsarskoe Selo when it was closed the day we were able to find a driver, I pretended I was a location manager for ABC TV to tour North Carolina's derelict Oaks Plantation.
  I've begged, borrowed, and I've stole. 
  My hero's the guy who lived in the basement of the Hermitage for two years to make sure its treasures survived the Seige. 
  I wasn't pissed at the bad guy in Red Dragon till he ate Blake's drawing. 
  The Taliban never registered on my radar till they blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan
  I desperately avoid going to museums with anyone I'm dating for fear they'll get bored and I'll have to hate them. 
  I've threatened people who flashed their photography on ancient drawings or tempera. 
  I chase cell phone users out of galleries.
  For art's sake.
  It's a commitment. 
  
  But the finest piece of art I know is in a little park in Western Pennsylvania. 
   
   During WWII, the Mellon family tore down a gigantic home in Pittsburgh's East End. (It was their home so who can fault them and from all accounts it was kind of a pile.)
  Pieces of the place ended up in a church not far away and they donated the grounds so the city could make a park. 
   Mellon Park. Sitting on the vector where Fifth Ave meets Beechwood blvd. A green triangle - like Pittsburgh in miniature. Undeveloped land held above three rivers of traffic. Beloved of dog walkers and private school girls on the lam, perched on its hill overlooking Homewood and then East Liberty sweeping beneath Garfield on the way to Highland Park. 
   A fine view. Not a large space. Nothing too special about it. Good for small garden parties, art classes are taught in the adjoining lot, there's lots of parking, and they don't lock the gates so it's fondly cared for by the locals. 
   Go in the day you can play frisbee, you can lay on a sloping field of grass and catch the sun, you can smell the roses, you can introduce your dog to the canine crew of Shadyside. 
   Go at night and it might just change your life. 
  
    There are only three roads that run east out of downtown Pittsburgh through the flatlands called The Strip. Penn, Liberty, and Smallman. They're the only exits. Come rush hour, in either direction, they're jammed. 
   Some people know that there's an alley parallel between Penn and Liberty that runs the length of this jam. Spring Way. 
  None of the 30 streets that cross Spring along its length have stop signs for it. You take it, you take your chances.   
   A man in a particular hurry to get home one October afternoon in 1999 blew across one of those streets and killed a young girl named Ann. She died in her boyfriend's arms. 
   A month shy of her 20th birthday. 
 
  Go to Mellon park after the sun's gone down. Come in off Shady ave. Park in the old Belgian block lot, there's always space. Behind the art studio bldg, and cut into the garden wall, you'll see a small wrought iron door propped open  
  It lets you into a walled walkway. A few steps down to the left and you'll be standing next to a fountain that generations of Pittsburgh high school students have met and played by and flirted around. Spread before that is a lawn a little larger than a tennis court. 
  Embedded in that lawn are 150 stars. Lights. Each surrounded by a tiny stone collar on which is written its name and location in the sky above. This pattern fills the lawn but to see it you have to cross the grass and wander within it. The stars at the East end can't be seen from the West. You must enter. You must take the steps.   
   Stars above and stars below. And on November 20th they're the same. The lawn mimics and draws down the sky. Real stars and our stars and us in the middle.
   November 20th was Ann's birthday. 
 
    I come home to Pittsburgh and invariably I overschedule. I do too much, promise too much and focus too little. 
  Every museum, every gallery, every happening, every play, every reading, every thing that anyone's ever made for me to see and be astonished by, everything I've tried to find in art that I found not in myself and consequently everything I have not finished….each defaulted class and task and journey. These make me forget that this little park makes them pale by comparison.
  I'll be home a week and come some evening, driving from a bar to a restaurant, from a meeting to a drink, it'll suddenly snap into my mind. Mellon Park.
  And I'll pull into the lot and my car will rattle across the cobblestones and I'll curse my suspension and then two minutes later I'll be standing suspended between heaven and earth, but very much of the earth and as human as I let myself be.  
   To say that there aren't words for it is to want too much. We have words for everything. We're built by them, crippled by them, but sometimes they're what make the species worth not wiping from the world, that we engage and remake and recast, with our words.
  But sometimes fewer of them more finely fit the music of a place.
  And there are places where even your breathing seems privileged, the movement of your eyes in your head and the sound of the blood passing round your body an astonishment. When I'm in this tiny park, when I'm standing among this girl's long lost stars, mostly I stay silent. I never knew her. Never even met her. But sometimes I'll sing. Or hum. Or pray. I can't really carry a tune and half the prayers I remember I remember half of them, but it's a way to say thanks.
  
     
  

Friday, December 20, 2013

And they were sore afraid.

    Christmas, rush down upon us.
    If there's true evidence we've passed from youth to age, if there's any rock solid proof we are not who we once were, and have been put aside from our childish things, it's that the entire month of December moves like lightning, when once upon a time its passage was a glacial pleasure.
   One night. The 24th. Xmas eve, was an eternity. An opera of pre-adolescent impatience. So many hours, so many minutes, every second counted down in the dark. Murmurs and shapes beyond the bedroom door cased and interpreted like cold war intel. The youth of America become a horde of late night holiday Stasi. What are they doing? If, when, why, what? What will I get…..?
   And now I lift my head from the Thanksgiving table and December's in double digits. It's the solstice. Rudolph and Frosty long gone from their prime time slots. Holiday concerts concluded. Company parties thrown early to include Hannukah. There's barely enough time to put stamps to cards and hope they get there before Christmas. O-mail, oh o-mail (original mail), oh where have you gone?
   I'm 46. I don't own a house. I don't have a dog. I don't have a "primary physician". I have things in storage I haven't seen since 9/11. I walked away from a life in a hometown most people could only dream about to work part time on tv in a city I have about as much interest in as I do magazines at the dentist. My family is fractured, my friends have married and moved away, women I could have made a home with have made homes without me, and still, God, in desperate spite, do I love this time of year.
   Before I flee, I love driving down side streets in LA, seeing random Xmas trees being dressed in apartment windows. Row after row, after acre after square mile of Los Angeles rentals, the irregular holiday glitter gilding the low rim of the California night…. and the day after I leave everyone waking there to say "But how about this weather!" While we in the thousands funnel back to an odd Appalachian hill town in Western PA.
   I miss the different darkness which surrounds advent in the East. In Pittsburgh. The heavy cold, the slap of iron air on the face that drives us indoors to light candles and burn fires, and then what those candles mean to passers by. 
   Walking along streets I've known by heart and hand since I was 12. Houses I've dreamt about, wandered by, traced with my eyes, since before I could give a name to longing. That visceral thing that comes out the windows of my home town. That thing I fill them with. Sash and portico lit,  thresholds glowing, balconies strung with cords.
  I go to the same Church, same Christmas eve service that I have since I was a boy. When no one knows I'm in town or when I have no place to stay, I still go, and sit in a side pew and listen to the preludent hymns and carols, and watch the magnificent space fill with bodies. The coats and the scent and the murmur, the same it has been for decades.
  We kneel on rich cushions, our throats struggle to sing, the men have become too old, the acolytes impossibly young, was the church this bright when you were a child, the sermon seems glib, the Bleak Midwinter too short, but the body folds in your mouth, the blood still scours your heart, did I see a friend descending from the altar but his family leaves quickly when the organist leaps into a bright concluding solo that would have made Ginger Baker proud and when I shake the priest's hand at the far end of the nave I notice he doesn't remember my face.
  And when we're let out into the new born world, for the life of me I cannot sleep, so I walk Pittsburgh's East End streets and poke around to catch a glimpse of the families who stay awake, listening for the muffled music of their parties running deep into the nativity, their houses burning safely, domestic scenes framed in windows like paintings taken from the museum, and made animate for a day.
  There's a Catholic church set on the slope of Pgh's Polish Hill which doesn't even begin its midnight mass until freaking midnight. So I can do my wander of the lanes of the greater city like a yuletide stalker, watch scores of families and lovers and the scorned and the solitary head to bed, and still in the wee hours show up at the steps of this place and see the faithful pour out. Carrying their children, stunned themselves by the length of the rite, quiet in the calm of evening, nodding to each other before they drive off to their suburban homes and leave this church of their forefathers to the inner city silence. It's breathtaking. I want to hold my hat in hand when they descend the stairs and leave me standing on the cobbles. The street built by the same men who built the church.
  I guess I should feel lonely right about then. But what I feel instead is peace. Calm. I guess that's what comes from Christmas' blunt communal heat. The furnace from which Spring's pentecostal fire will leap, so brilliant it should hurt, so fierce it should terrify but it leaves you, it leaves me at least, right where I should be. In tune. Everybody's listening. Everybody's facing the same direction. Like they said of Basie's band, everybody's breathing at the same time. Well, almost everybody. I don't know why I love that so…I'm suspicious of crowds, of parties, of the dull chants we all know (USA! USA! We will we will ROCK YOU.) ….but somehow come December 24th I'm enthralled by this herding of the faithful.
  I guess, at base, what stuns me into happiness and what hovers all around us all at Christmas is what I think can still be called …..revolutionary.
   A prophet's radical request. 
   The religion I was born into has all sorts of dramatic problems which are debated daily and its followers have a particularly bad habit of thinking every other religion was simply another rung on the ladder of faith that lead to them, but Christ did lay down one still remarkable challenge. I have no interest in individuating Christianity from Islam or Judaism or ….Zoroastrianism…. it has no privileges for its particular believers, but what it asks of of us, what it insists upon day to day to this very special day is dumbfounding. And brave. As the old prayer says, "We are bold to say…
  Poverty is not a poverty of the spirit. Wealth cannot be a wealth of things. In fact a wealth of things is an act of violence upon one's brother and sister. A prophet came into the world, as other prophets will and have, divine or otherwise, it cannot matter, to tell us…..Give it all the fuck away. 
  I mean, "….Jesus...".
  Literally.
  So when I stroll among the discount shoppers of mid-town Manhattan searching for a gift, when I watch the millions crush down 5th ave more interested in the grand opera of consumption than actually finding that gift, when foyer after business foyer is filled with Salvation Army clangor, blood and fire, and person and after person posts how much the holidays exhaust their patience, I can't do anything but smile. In all its forms, all the noise noise noise gets hushed for me by that simple ask.
   Give unto others. Something. Anything. I would bring a lamb. I will play my drum for him. Hold a door open. Nod to a stranger at a cross walk. Wait quietly in an insane line.  Laugh with your fellow waitees at the truth of that. Happily return to an analog humanity. Take half a day to buy something completely useless to honor someone priceless. Send a note. Put pen to paper and in your own hand express something which is proof positive of some actual time you spent to tell them that they matter.
   Neither you nor they nor most anyone you'll ever met will ever "matter" to the history books or to NASDAQ but in the ledger of humanity you took a second, you took an hour in a certain season, to give thanks and praise to those you know and maybe love. And if that isn't a good and joyful thing, what the hell is?
  Merry Christmas. Every one.