Monday, August 15, 2016

Rhinebeck NY

    I was shooting a film no one's ever seen in a mansion half a mile above the Hudson. A view one literally would kill for.
    The house belonged to a man named Sam. He'd made a fortune writing soap operas. He was tall, strong, well- fed. He looked like Rodin's Balzac. Not a handsome man but striking: one people gathered round, with the forehead of a Russian chess player, eyes that either undressed you or kept your secrets. Or both.
    Sam took me to a party. We parked by the gate of a place you couldn't see from the gate. Halfway across the lawn we met another man, wearing the most beautiful shirt I'd ever seen, untucked, flowing around him, blue grey like a canvas.
    "Hello Sam".
     The man's face didn't change when he glanced at me.
    "David, I want you to meet Jasper."
    Later that afternoon at the party in Jasper John's house I listened to a thin, cigarette sodden man talk about the Christ child's cock. When, in the portraits of the baby diety did you see it, Jesus's penis, or not. And what that told us about the times in which the painters lived.
   Women I would have killed for sat around him, listening in poses out of a seraglio.
   I asked him, is it true oil paintings take a century to dry?
    He said of course, isn't it erotic? The scent, the stench of what you make, of what you love most, isn't that what we all want in life, all around us, smeared on us?
   The women smiled. Yes.
   As in Ulysses yes? when Bloom takes a shit in chapter four and reads the paper and thinks about his wife fucking another man and his daughter also come to maturity, the ink of the paper and his own stink rising, the meal he'd just made the Kippers fried come to their natural end, and then he takes the "paper" yes, like the language we've been listening to and wipes his ass. Genius, no?
    I nodded. Sam laughed till he coughed. You're so full of shit Victor. Victor inhaled- Exactly!
    Johns asked me to hand out some snacks. His cocktail napkins were a bright Caribbean blue, I remember. Half the guests thought I was the help. Or one of his Johns. The art historian turned out to be one of the world's foremost art critics. The women, his students for the summer.
   Sam told me later, on his wide porch, the Hudson laying out below us, that he was thinking about marrying the woman who lived in the mansion behind him, which one couldn't see from his yard. I said I didn't know 80 year olds got married again, or had affairs, or sex.
   Of course David, what the fuck else is there? This ? and he pointed to the house and the grounds that I would have killed for ..."but I'm afraid our rigidities don't match. A shame. She's lovely. Paints all the time down in her place by the water. Doesn't chatter."
   She has another house?
   Yes, a boat house. Says the light's better there than in the manse.
   Sam, aren't you gay?
   Have been. Mostly. After awhile it doesn't matter as much, where, you know, how. Just who. I do have a son, remember, so I ....remember.
    Ha.
    Doesn't speak to me much, but there you are. Strangest thing - they don't tell you-  your children stop being your children and become anyone else. It's as much their fault as yours, eventually. Odd.  But a relief.
    The film never came out. The Director and the Producer refused to use a two page version of the final 10 page scene that we had to shoot and had no time for, because the actors, not they, had cobbled it together. Half way thru the 10 page sprawl the other Producer shut down the set and sent everyone home. We were blamed.
    The Director came back months later and tried to film a patch work scene- some Hail Mary, Frankenstein piece of writing to make saleble sense out of his mess-  on Sam's property, and Sam met him at the gate with a shotgun.
   I have rarely loved a man more. I keep that image of him in my head to this day. Grand Colonial estate, grass flowing down to the trees along the great river, the abandoned docks, the rail line, the Adirondacks grey in the distance, a tall man in impeccable dress. A shotgun.
   He died a few years later. I came back to see him just once. I was doing a play at a workshop in Poughkeepsie -which sounds like the opening of a stand up routine but there you are- I came by and we had a drink on his porch. He hadn't married his neighbor. The house was in decent shape and though his son was writing more often he didn't want to leave it to him.
    For some reason, I can't remember the segue, he started talking about WWII.
    For some reason it hadn't clicked in my head. Of course, he was the right age, he must have, and he did, serve.
    Combat, somewhere in Europe. I don't remember the facts, the name, the places which would give this story some non fiction gravitas. But he landed close to D Day and saw terrible shit. Boys died next to him. He wasn't a clerk.
    I said oh you should read Paul Fussell's book on his..."I know Paul, he's an ass." And Private Ryan had just come out so I said "They say the sound effects in the beginning are exactly like- " And why would I want to hear that again David?
    He had a stillness about him, I remember. He didn't move more than he needed to, and even less. His eyes didn't give much away. He smiled rarely. When he did laugh it was usually at someone's expense and he could stop a conversation completely with it. He had you, more often than not. He was the one you watched in a group. If he'd had a favorite hat, if it had blown off he would have stood there and watched it tumble down the street. What do they say, with a bemused air.
  If I've ever been in a bemused air, it was with him.
  Letters. That was the segue. It was something about letters, the texture of them, the feel of an actual letter, not the new fangled emails his son was trying to get him to open.
   He said the stationery the army gave you was completely singular, he'd never felt anything like it since: light but raspy to the touch, a militant onion skin, a material one couldn't imagine could give any pleasure at all but that nothing in his life had ever been so important as opening a letter from home at the front. The stench and the brutality surrounding him, sitting in a killing zone, and then his mother's voice or a close friend's coming up off the page.
  I think that's why I became a writer, yes, that's what I was trying to do, he told me.
  The light was just right, it was near sunset -he probably knew that- and he knew exactly which way to lean to catch the glow, but his eyes when he spoke about the war changed completely. Like my best friend's, getting out of the car he'd just driven into the side of a truck and lived, staring at me. My brother's when he told me his remission wasn't gonna last. My mother's when my brother stopped breathing. Even these are weak approximations. War. The deepest crime. And the one we send all our sons to commit.
  Sam. My war hero. Was 20 years ago this week I met you. Godspeed. And a shotgun.
 
 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

I, Los Angeleno

  From the Mexican border to Los Angeles County, 80-90 percent of the original shoreline wetlands have been dug up, wiped out, built on.
  The amount of suburban and exurban and neo-tripleX- unurban development that's happened in Southern California -and that's an idiotic phrase because it didn't "happen", it was made, bought, built and sold- since the Second World War, is truly mind blowing. 
    Housing - the phenomenon of unchecked unending single home sprawl along the California coast- is one of the great unwonders of the world. 
   I never get used to it. It's like watching a fire. Or like watching something you hope will catch fire and never stop burning till the scrub fields, and the salt marsh, and the pine gatherings return. 
   But it's a hopeless hope. California's great undying myth is homeownership. Like capitalism, like cancer it HAS to grow. My door, my garage(s), my yard. Ad infinitum. 
   And the other undying aspect of Cali life is the story of what was. Or more accurately what wasn't. You get it first, you notice it, or seek it out, from the old guard, the third and fourth and that rarest of the rare, the fifth generation Californian - Cheryl Camp you red headed genius where are you now - they look up slightly from their Vans and their Dickies shorts, over the top of their rebuilt Broncos and the sun glazed eyes focus somewhere toward when they were 15 or 16 and they start to tell you about the open fields that were the Marina, hunting for foxes with rifles over their shoulders where the condos spread now, the old Irvine ranch lands above Orange County which into the early 60s stretched for 20 thousand acres. Santa Clarita when it was an empty desert camp. The back lot of Fox spreading across Olympic and Pico to lean up against Beverly Hills like a fantastic theme park for the celluloid visionaries in their Canyon manses. 
   The story of California is always what's been lost. The virgin territory of Old California. But what's actually been lost is the urge not to do something. Not to build or sell or develop. It's almost unimaginable to them. But somewhere in the depths of their psyche the Californian feels the urge- Don't Rent It- they just can't bring themselves to say the words.
    For a place constantly trumpeting its growth and richness and adaptability, the deeper narrative of the local is a false lost innocence, his or her lost lebensraum, how the promised land broke its promise to them, its Covenant. (Why are my taxes so high!!) Californians are hard but dreamy Protestants -Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu no matter, the dream's the same- who can't figure out how they get even less now that they all decided to stop paying taxes for what they had. Saint Ronald, in the long run, let them down. And what's left to represent their American Dream? Nothingness. What's left simmering in their minds behind the wheel as they resent waiting for you to cross the street? The lust for open space, unused territory. Because it's the clearest expression of wealth; Land you didn't sell. 
    They say once you've made it thru six years in "The City" you can call yourself a New Yorker . I think you become a New Yorker like you fall in love or you can throw a spiral - it just happens for some people and not for others. 
    You can call yourself a Los Angeleno I think when you love a part of the town that no longer exists. You suddenly feel a ghost landscape in your heart. And you don't have to do anything about it.
   It's happened to me finally. 
  To get to Venice Beach from the airport you have to drive north on Lincoln Blvd. It's a simple and an easy drive, a god send if you travel a lot. I could get home or back to LAX in 15 minutes. 
  Lincoln drops down from Westchester Heights and into the giant Santa Monica basin. 7 miles of flatland, the great plain of Los Angeles, held in by the Mts to the north. When I first moved here to work in 1996 that descent out of the crowded and condo'd and mini malled Heights used to take you down into a long dark field. The Balloona wetlands. The delta of the northern flood plain of the LA river, which had never been built on. From the docks of Marina Del Rey it held out for two miles inland. A salt sea, scrub desert. Heavy succulents and dark bushes with spritzings of wildflower. Glimpses of calm water. Acres of what LA once was. The thing the Spanish said they saw when they landed in a bay with no harbor. Swampland and fields of seagrass as high as the saddle, one Captain wrote, his legs soaked to the skin by dew long before he reached the Mission 11 miles inland. 
    And here it still was, minutes after leaving the hectic airport. Primordial California. A beautiful nothingness in the epicenter of west LA wealth, no houses, no shops, no light. The drive home like passing thru the blacks at the edge of a stage - an intake of breath, a place to clear the mind before I dove back into the narrative of the city and my place in it. 
   And of course the point is it's no longer there. 
   Well half of it is. 
   The County sold it to Spielberg and Katzenberg and David Geffen, men with the power of Conquistadors, a power of Chinatown scariness, Stanford, Huntingdon, Chandler type strength. They were going to build their Dreamworks studio and leave half the wetlands alone. Which is half of what happened. The titans fought, the studio went elsewhere, half the wetlands closer to the water can still be seen and the other half East of Lincoln blvd is now the ultimate expression of that dreaded big box reality, Live/Work.  
  Is there a better moniker for the New America? LiveWork. The two now fused. You MUST work. It will follow you home. It IS you. Work IS home. Here are the keys. 
  So my lost LA is a hemmed-in triangle of weeds just south of Marina del Rey. Fitzgerald talked about My Lost City. I suppose this is My Lost County. (Los Angelenos being a little more expansive in their dreams). Strange the difference. NYers live in a compressed landscape of particulars but dream of the grand city. Los Angelenos live in a colossal city state but dream of a deli they used to go to when they were kids. 
   

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Charleroi

  

   "It rained during the survivor's lap. Poured. Only half of them had umbrellas but they walked. The luminaria that circled the track that circled the football field weren't going to light, but they walked, and we cheered and clapped. 40 some folks walked by us, some smiling, some glancing at the uncooperative sky, some of whom as you read this 
no longer alive. 
  Charleroi High School hosts the Mon Vallley Cancer Walk. Kids from 4 different schools: Belle Vernon, Ringgold, Fraiset and Charleroi walk their quarter mile track for an entire day, taking turns, taking breaks, hawking snacks and toys and games to themselves and anyone else who wants join them. They raised 110,000 dollars.
  It was beautiful American chaos. Kids walking both directions, kids running, dancing, and dodging each other. Balls of all description flying through the air. Dance music deafening the procession at the 50 yard line. Every fried, dipped, battered and cheese covered edible available at all times. 
  For an event to fight a serious disease it was wonderfully irreverent. What my acting teachers had always told me come to fruition.. play the opposite: laugh when they think you're gonna cry. Smile when you should be curling up in pain. 
  I climbed up into the bleachers to get a wider view of the field. Past the photo booth, past the word "Hope" blocked out in paper bags that weren't going to glow anytime soon. 
  I could see the dark valley of the Monongahela. I could see where the mills of Monesson once stood. I could see a farm not a quarter mile away. 
    And below me in this AstroTurf commons a couple hundred teenagers had built a messy town square. Hoodies, pajamas, blankets, sweats: kids huddling around the idea that this shouldn't be happening, this epidemic, gathering almost, if you weren't close enough to hear the banter, almost like they were praying. 
  Cancer rates in the Mon Valley towns, in the Kiski Valley, in parts of Greater Pgh itself reach 30 times the national average. When we built the Arsenal of Democracy, after all the steel had been poured, after all the glass and coke and aluminum and plutonium was pulled out of the bones of working Pittsburgh- who forgot to clean up the mess?
   What the Hell did we do to ourselves?
   And do our kids have to keep paying the price? 
   What's next for Pittsburgh? The future looks exciting. Uber, Google, Remake Learning, Light Rail? The names go on, describing growth like we haven't seen since WWII. 
  I looked down at Charleroi's field, feeling like I was dead center of what I'd call home, and watched 100 kids doing a line dance. 
    No future, no kind of growth's worth any of them walking another lap when they don't have to. 



Sent from my iPhone

Friday, April 15, 2016

Trump Night in Pittsburgh

  The Post- Gazette won't print an article, editorial, or letter with the word "Jagoff" in it. 
   David Schribman the editor in chief finds it offensive. Or possibly he finds it beneath his dignity. 
   A beloved term from our local dialect - a phrase possibly deriding someone as "a masturbator". (That word passes Schribman's muster I imagine.) Why give it the silent treatment? 
   I guess it would be similar to allowing the use of "intercourse" but not "fuck"? 
    Grandmothers might be upset. 
     Hell, mothers might be upset. 
     Someone please find me a mother or grandmother in the entire Greater Pittsburgh area who'd be upset by the word "jagoff".
   So it must be that the PG finds Jagoff beneath its dignity. 
     The same dignity that almost endorsed Donald Trump. 
    The same dignity that's pushed half of its veteran staff into early retirement. 
    The same dignity happy with the worst online homepage in the web's short history. 
    I'm kinda glad they told me they wouldn't print the piece below if I didn't excise my "jagoff". 
    When I looked up "letters@pg..." I shouldn't have pressed send. 
    And quite frankly folks, until the ownership of the paper leaves the hands of the blockish Blocks and the-where'd-responsible-journalism-go-Mr Robinson's none of us should press "spend" on the PGs pay site or elsewhere for its thinning content. 
   The time has come. 
    Let it and the Trib chase each other to the bottom. They deserve each other. The latter subsidized by a radical conservative billionaire and the former trying to sound like him. 
   Press delete. 
   I wrote this the night of the Trump rally in Pittsburgh and I should have printed it right then on this little blog. 
   Somehow I felt like Pittsburgh and its newspapers still co-habituated. 
   They don't folks. They don't. 
     Jagoffs. 
  There's been a lot said in the media about a new Pittsburgh. 
  How we're a cultural gem, a rust belt city reborn, a realtor's dirty secret, a foody Mecca, the best example of a new American Urbanism.
   What I saw last night, (a few nights ago) Trumps all of that. 
   Literally. 
   There was sound, there was fury, there were even a few punches thrown. But....
   I watched a number of people who should have been fighting shake hands. Take time. Reach out. 
   I watched a bearded college kid repeatedly approach the Trump supporters line along the convention center wall and ask,  "What matters most to you? Tell me." 
   He was never assaulted, he was never harassed. He talked to a massive guy in full Harley skins for quarter of an hour. 
   I watched three African American women talk for 20 minutes to a Persian CMU grad about what was missing from American government. He held
His hands up at one point and said, "Hey look I don't mean to offend you." They embraced when they parted.
  I watched a guy with half his head shaved carrying a "Dump Racost Sexist Trump" banner the size of a  flag for the 1st Air cavalry, speak to a man in a cowboy hat with the Virgin of Guadeloupe across his chest, quoting scripture - they never came to blows. 
  And I watched the city's police act with a kind of restraint and decency I can only say almost brought me to tears. 
   My point is: old or new, this is Pittsburgh. 
   We don't fit the national model of disdain, disharmony, and disunion. Thank God.
   We don't behave like jagoffs. Right or Left.
   We might get in fights but we don't hit each other without good reason. Usually. 
   So yes, there was anger,
 cruel words were thrown. But...
   I watched people, radical conservatives and radical democrats, both, who for good reason, believe they have been left behind by the powers that be, dispossessed. 
    Who believe their government has got to change.
   And I truly believe I saw them look at each other, across the divide under the David Lawrence Convention Center, and I think I saw them see themselves. 




Monday, February 1, 2016

Flying over the date line...

  It poured the last night I spent in Los Angeles. Rained the entire day. 
       The place was awash. Winds came from the ocean and from the mountains, the palm trees dropped their quilled limbs, garbage cans were knocked flat, and dust devils of trash rose above the roofline. The long over-shopped avenues were empty. 
       A Florida gale had come West and by some consent, everyone stayed inside. It was a Sunday without football. The roads not worth clogging. 
      That whole day, weird magic trailed me. 
      At a Venice Starbucks, there was no line. 
      I held the door open for a young couple and... they thanked me. Both of them.
      I went to a bar and everyone said hello and looked me in the eye.
      For over an hour, I left my car at an unpaid beach meter and received no fine. 
  Surely the Gods were for me. 
  Toward sunset and not far from Sunset, I turned onto a Brentwood street and the entire block was covered with pine needles. Long fronds from those expensive cypress trees tonier neighborhoods use to mark their territory. Blown down, end to end, the street was a deep scattered green.
   I drove to Will Rogers Park. The gate was abandoned. The parking was free. I walked up to Inspiration Point, turned my back on the view of the city and the bay, and watched a cyclist descend the green hills 2 miles away. A gold figure floating through the desert brush followed by the bouncing white ball of his dog. Oliver Stone passed me the opposite way with his wife. The horses that always ignore me from their paddock -once they know I have no sweets, no apple, no business telling them to stay- stayed by me and snorted and chewed, and we watched the light go out of the sky. 
    Today, I thought, somebody up there loves me.
    Which was bittersweet, as I’d come to leave. 
    I’d come to quit.
    I'd come back to LA to mail home the last of my stuff. The bike. The Golf clubs. A few suit jackets. Work out clothes. A pile of books. The kindling I’d kept for a life here that I thought might always catch. 
   And now I was done. Left the acting business to take a job in the administration of the City of Pittsburgh. 
    I’d never been to LA not to work. Never been a civilian before. The giant town felt absent. The air wasn’t filled with hope or my potential, it wasn’t filled with the money I might make in the blink of an eye. It was just air. Sweet cool California air the day after a storm.
    Strange. There was no hovering, no practiced waiting, nothing on hold. If I stood on the corner, on the concrete of a random SoCal crossroads, I wasn’t standing there waiting for my agent to call me and say They Loved You. No, I was just standing. I was just me. I was real. 
   Unreal. 
   I got up early the last day to mail out my last box. Crossed thru the park where my gym once was, a patch of grass with chairs stuffed between three office buildings, where I played tennis with a guy from Maine for 10 years, where I could swim in a pool built under the parking structure, under the grass itself and if you stood in a raised corner of the park you could look down thru the heavy glass and watch the swimmers go by. A park which on weekends no one visited, and you could read or write, or watch the inbound jets from Japan or Russia cut across the sharp blue sky their engines powering down. A place that bizarrely for its corporate setting gave me a peace I found nowhere else in LA.
  For the first five years I came here the little park had a resident cat. A small black feral who roamed the landscaping and sometimes hid like a hunter in the trees. A cat even the security guards knew by name and whom the office crowd left food for scattered about the grounds on white plates. 
    I spent five years trying to pet that cat and she never came to me but once. I tried everything, but only once. I was sitting eating a protein bar or some such stupid urban fare and she brushed my arm. I turned, put my hand down and touched her shoulder. Bones like a bird. Hair heavy like a stray’s, a cat that never had her guts out, she didn’t flinch but she didn’t lean into me either and that was it. The gold eyes went back into the grass and she hunkered down. No one I spoke to in all those years ever heard her make a sound. 
  I came back one year after a 6 month stay in New York and her plates were gone. She wasn’t in the book of her favorite tree. I walked in a quiet panic. A security guard who knew me said “Gatto negro, she’s gone now.” I asked “Died? They didn’t move her? Didn’t come capture her for some fucking health thing did they?” He smiled, “No man, she’s just gone.” 
   And now I was going. 
  A woman I know told me not to be sentimental, not to see the process as a loss. I could hear Joe Cotton’s character in the Third Man when they tell him to leave Vienna- “Be sensible Martins and go home.” 
   "I haven’t got a sensible name." he says and tears up the ticket.  
   I wish I had such guts. 
   To get to my friend’s apartment building from the Post office you walk East. I looked up. After a big rain, at the far reach of the avenues of Santa Monica you can see the tops of the Los Angeles mountains 40 miles away. You can see them for a day or two.
    Storm clouds gathered along the peak line of the LA basin. The morning sun turning them into molten gold. The air smelled like the Sierra Nevada. I was 10 blocks from the ocean, smack in the middle of a metropolis with 20 million cars, and inhaling with my eyes closed you coulda told me I was in Yosemite. 
   I love my new job. I love that Pittsburgh owns me. That I belong to a place. I know I was never going to be happy if I didn’t work for some tangible good in the world….lemme rephrase that… I know I'm never really going to be predictably happy no matter what I do so working at something I do know is important makes total sense. 
   But give it all that and still, just walking that distance from a park to an apt in non descript LA , in just those few blocks I could look around me and even in every haggled tree, every overpriced doorway, every narrowed glimpse of the Western sky I could still feel this dreamland’s power all around me. 
  It is astonishing. There’s a city at the end of the road, on the Western shore of a continent, ringed by ragged mountains, on a desert plain without water, with no harbor, a place as motley and mundane as a big box shopping aisle, built by thieves and racists and murderers, who squeezed the American Dream out of every immigrant they could sell a plot of dust to, a City whose history has been tried and convicted more times than not, and still into it pours the dreams and fantasies, the lust and madness, and the incarnate alchemy of the whole fucking human race. No matter how you well see it, no matter how you have it figured out, no matter how clearly you know the game is rigged and the house will win, still you’re gonna feel it in your bones…..anything can happen here…..
   In the end I always reach for Fitzgerald, who reached for something in this town and died trying. That line about the inexhaustible nature of our dreams in the face of all evidence to their contrary. That line about his hero, 
"Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentImentality I was reminded of something--an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago.   For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted....But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever."
   How odd I feel this way not about a man but about a place. LA. Despite it all, I take my hat off, well fucking done Big City Under the Big Black Sun. 
   Everyone should see it.
   If only to see themselves. 
  
   

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Waving and not drowning.

  I was watching a documentary about FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Eleanor and I kept noticing the way people waved goodbye back then, in those less selfied days. 
  They'd hold out a hand, palm down and shiver their fingers as if they were practicing piano or shooing something away. Big smile. 
  There's FDR waving to the crowd. He looks like a matron airing out a hankie. Even Teddy. Wave like a sissy and carry a big stick. Only Eleanor looked like she'd take you out with the back of her hand. 
   My dad waved like that. He'd stick his arm straight out and wiggle his fingers at me, smiling and fluttering, as I left for summer camp, after he took me to a party in High School, as he dropped me off my first day at college, smiling even after I'd slept the entire 12 hour trip to Providence, saying nothing to him, driving no share of the way, jammed next to the window because I'd stayed out till 5am with my girlfriend the night before and then lain next to her, us curled like dogs under the dining room table, my gear piled about, waiting for the grownups. 
  He smiled when he said goodbye even after some of our worst fights. Screaming rants, humiliation, brutality meted out in the meager family arena - but give it a few hours, he'd deliver me to where I had to be and he'd smile regardless and wave that wave like it had all been a game, something extraneous and silly to be shooed away, unimportant compared to ....compared to nothing sadly... as there wasn't much else between us beside fighting and waving. A few shared jokes. Some tv shows. We both loved cats. Christmas. The rest was silence. But when he took me to a train or to the airport, he would always wave and he always stood there, waiting, till I had left his sight.
   Synod Hall. Pittsburgh. I was listening to a famous quartet. Old instruments; early versions of a violin, a cello, a flute, and a viola. As one movement began, the Doppler wail of an ambulance sped by on the same note as the music. Harmony between the post-industrial age and the baroque. A duet 400 years in the making. Time folding it's hands around me. 
   Before the concert, I'd sat in a pew in the church next to the Synod. The City's grandest Catholic parish. Walking by, I'd seen the lights on, the inner doors not locked. I entered, crossed myself with some Holy water, which was for sale by the liter, sat down 20 feet from a seriously elaborate Mary surrounded by candles, also for sale, and soon realized that the church was open because it was confession.
   The center of the church, the grand mass under the nave, was nearly empty but directly behind me stood a silent row of the faithful come to petition their Lord. Like they were waiting for their grades from an angry headmaster. 
  The huge space, the candles, a few people praying. Why not? Why not tell them, why not tell Him, what you'd done. What I did. Why not? I thought about it. Just bow your head and tell him, Father, what you'd done. But I was sure I'd be found out, I'd blow my lines, the Protestant in me would protest and I'd get tossed out on my ear. Dad would have approved. Lapsed Catholic that he was, the rituals never got a good word. 
   I did listen. Heard some whispers, some shuffling, the soft click of a well made door, what sounded like a phrase I recognized from somewhere. But I didn't go in. I watched the candles burn down. I breathed in the emptiness and the quiet. A man and his two young sons prayed to Mary, after he explained who Mary was. The one boy staring intently as if she might move, as if there had to be a film about this where he could get the real story.
    The concert was mediocre. The quartet past their prime. The audience clapped for themselves and their good taste, their contribution to Culture in tough old pragmatic Pittsburgh. I watched some music students in the cheap seats trying to be polite. I wanted more - to feel it in my heart, but it didn't happen and I left before the encore. 
    We do that though. We applaud for those who show up. We thank ourselves. We forgive the present with the glories of the past. We attend. Especially around Christmas. We do a lot, we labor at that which in the holiday moment delivers all the thrill of a joke too often told, a story a close friend can't remember's confiding to you again and again. Ritual in this casual world, in our reform age, doesn't pack the punch it used to.
     We ask too much. And we give it no credence.
    We pay no homage.
    I think somewhere along the American line we suddenly decided we deserve all these feelings. That they should come to us upon demand. And when they don't don't, something out there must be wrong, something's missing.
   What's missing is you don't get to call the Gods down from on high when you need them. You don't put your Muse on hold. The Spirit doesn't show up just because you do. Walking in the door and taking your reserved seat isn't enough.
    I don't know why we've come to think it's that easy, inspiration, or when we copped out. And by you of course I mean me. 
    Like the priests and the self help gurus say, on both sides of the socio political aisle, Marriage takes work. Which is a way of saying, Love takes work.
   If you love Shakespeare you gotta read him more than once. A day. You love music, you gotta practice like a person who if they weren't practicing an instrument would be diagnosed autistic. You want the runner's high? Go hurt yourself. The Right Stuff, the Real Thing, the magic doesn't descend around us in the dark, until we work. The Gods don't smile on us until we suffer for them.
   And if you love each other, your family, your friends, your people, and it's the Holiday season....what? What does it take? Suffering and Christmas? 
   After the concert, I walked a little ways to the car in the cold and I thought, what did I leave undone this Holiday season and who did I forget to tell?
   My father's dead now half a decade. He can't tell me. He never could.
    I wave at the parents of a woman I almost married. I nod at people that recognize me or I went to grade school with, I can't tell the difference anymore. 
    Blocks from the theater my truck's parked across the way from a bicycle chained to a street light. Painted pure white. A girl died here. Run over by a commuter anxious to get home. She died on the pavement and her friends and family built this ghost sculpture. Its wheels lit by strips of tiny lavender bulbs. 
     I drive home on streets I could close my eyes thru. The last Christmas lights have come down. Collectively, homeowners deciding a fortnight was the limit. God, how dim and grey everything seems. How cleared out. The deep blue black of the City landscape regaining its hold on the shadows. 
    I must love the season. For a month or so, collectively we all lean toward worship, or kindness, or whatever keeps us from killing each other. And then it's the long climb toward Summer. It's like being dropped out in the ocean where you can't see the shore and being told, "Swim.That way. Have faith."
 
 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Like the night

   "She walks in beauty like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies
and all that's best of dark and bright
meet in her aspect and her eyes,
thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies."

      Most of my life I've asked why is this poem a great poem? It's a sledge hammer, it's a stack of cliches, with a ten year old's rhyme scheme it's as gaudy as its accusation toward day. It ends two lines late.
   Heck, it was the product of an all-nighter..
  "He wrote that ...coming home from a party."
   Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. The first play I ever did. I listened to the poem or at least this piece of it spoken every night for a month.
  I kept telling myself, "It's clunky. It thumps. It's awkward. Why this one?" Why this one in a language, a literature, filled to the brim with love poems?
   I watched the twin towers fall 14 years ago. I walked in their rubble. The air that week was filled with the atomized spray of some 3000 people - the detonation of two of mankind's most gigantic gestures. Our folly.
   Last night I watched The Walk, a Hollywood take on Phillipe Petit's high wire crossing between the North and the South tower in 1974.
   It's a thumpy movie. It's a stack of cliches. It's gaudy and it plays with your heart strings like a ten year old would.
   But when I saw them again, when I saw them standing there, full, finished, shining and perfect in that awful way that they did double perfection, I nearly wept.
  I don't know if we freeze the time, the part of our life we remember before trauma, that we choose to privilege, we freeze it and we leave it there forever, before the event. So it someday can be returned to or so that some part of us remains untainted, unhurt by what happened next. But watching, I knew myself back then. I could feel myself out over the void that was coming, that's still there, still waiting, alive and young and reckless in New York at the turn of the Millennium.
   When I saw the towers standing again, the actors touching the stainless metal, I was breathless - unhooked into an emotional vertigo- happily shocked and in love again with something that no longer existed, that had turned to dust, and that maybe never was more than an awkward couple of buildings you had to cast your hopes across to make better.
   But so many things exist simply in experience. They can be spoken of but not evoked. Not made true. Like a song, or a film, or a poem.
  This man walked across two buildings and made them one beautiful enough thing. Him and the New Yorkers who didn't arrest him, and the few hundred on the ground who bore witness to something far rarer than even a man walking on the moon. They made those two giant silver boxes into something graceful. Some thing worth all that work.
    My brother's been dead for 4 years. I ask for the simplest of things. That he haunt me. That he wake me from my sleep, or track me down, or scream at me when I'm foolish. From somewhere.
  I believe in the simplest of ideas, of the cliche of a ghost, of wisdom from beyond the grave, something a young boy would want from an absent parent. Some impossible crossing between the world of the living and the wordless dead.
  "Of cloudless climes and starry skies.."
  He wrote that coming home from a party.
   About a young woman, his cousin I think she was who he'd seen dressed in mourning. "And all that's best of dark and bright." She's been dead and buried in an English courtyard for a hundred and forty years. The raven tresses, the liquid eyes, her walk, her clouded face, what her voice must have been to the ear. All, dust in the earth for a century and a half.
   And yet.
   "All that's best and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes" and every time I hear that poem, bussed by it, I can feel that night's cold air, the kind of chill the dark can have in the country when there's an empty sky and the stars seem to suck the heat out of the ground. In six lines. Six lines laid down with a hammer.
  The real. A poem. Two towering staring metal ghosts. The space my brother left. It's all so astonishing. Incredible we go on daily living the lockstep lives we lead. The endless feeding, the lists, the half felt duty, the pallid day after pallid days.
  There's a light outside my window.
  It's a 70 foot flame spit out by the steel mill across the street. A building that probably contains the combustive force of an atomic bomb. The flame. I can read by it in a pitch black room. Just the mill blowing off steam.
   Byron dashing off immortality before daybreak.
  A million and a half tons of metal there and then not there and then there again.
  My brother in the corner of my eye chasing me, chasing me until I'll stop.