Friday, October 2, 2015

So real you want to reach out and touch it.

   Two weeks ago, I came back to New York, for the Fall.
The first morning, I went for a walk and noticed everyone was passing me.
I felt like a man who'd recently been thawed, like a figure edited into a faster film, the note of a bass drum pitched occasionally into the city's snare.
But it felt good. I was content. I told myself, "Walk slow, keep it this way. Keep a beat and let'em flow by."
  I felt like a boxer letting the blows whirl around him, ready to land his best punch.
  I felt like it looked like I had a secret.
  The simple truth is, I was unemployed.
  So unemployed I now looked retired. I moved like it.
  The chords of concern had been cut. Peaceful free-fall. I was singin' it.
  But the weeks do go by...and you find yourself picking up the pace, pretending to have a job called purpose, adding an extra quickstep to make the countdown at the light, to avoid the oblivious gaggle of school kids, the sidewalk skaters, the tourists on hold in the middle of the block, the millenials hunched over their smart phones - supplicants before the icon of Mary, like medievals over a book of days- palms open to the tiny glowing obelisk, waiting for it to speak.
  In short you end up ... well....Call me Ishmael..."it begins to require a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and knocking people's hats (re headphones) off."
   So I went to the museum. Where you generally can't talk on the phone, you can't skate, and the foreigners have a sense of direction.
  I went to the Sargent show. A man who fleeing modern technology in 1900. A man after my own heart.
  (I suppose I should say John Singer Sargent but if you don't know who he is, look it up, it's easy these days. I do it all the time.)
   Museums. Where people mostly keep their mouths shut. Where people wander. Where they do-si- do around each other and try to find some beauty.
  The point of all this is I came face to face with a work by Sargent I'd never seen. A full length portrait of a young Englishman, a book illustrator named Graham Robertson. 28 years old in 1894 and he looked like a boy. His poodle, who liked to bite Sargent, laying at his feet.
   I can't describe it any other way but that it was luscious. Mesmerizing, peaceful. Aglow, almost a  century and a quarter since its creation.
  I thought of the generations of its owners and of the museum employees who had cleaned it yearly as you'd clean the face of a someone newly dead, the people who'd hung the lights to give the painting its uncanny glow...and whatever happened to Graham and his best side all the years after the day Sargent convinced him to wear a winter coat in the summer, after his children or grandchildren gave the painting to the Tate, or sold it during the Depression, or lost it, and who was it chose to put the painting on this plinth here, in this show, who knew it would be the stunner. Who, beside Sargent of course who said "The whole thing is the coat."
   And in the end I think that is what made me linger. That sentence. That coat. That rich rich perfect coat. Of fabric, of paint, of design, of wealth.
   I stood in the Met in New York in 2015, 48 years old and asked myself how many different paths have you chosen not to go down?
  And I answered that, God, sometimes all I want is to be sitting before a wood fire, poodle at my feet, in a house in New York that I'd saved to buy, wrapped in conservative comfort, married to a semi society girl who was weathering well, generations of dogs and cats we'd buried together in the field behind the country house, books from a lifetime of travel safely stowed for each other's tastes, children away at school, interning, a drink in my hand, an invitation to a party, and a coat....a coat of darkest blue with velvet trim, ready to go.
  Coulda been.
  Sometimes I wish I'd done it. Just played the only part people really ever imagined me in or from - wealthy kid, protestant ascendency, to the manor born, old money, inheritor, scion of some American right of way. Lie that it would have been, all I had to do was smile and nod: the Racquet club, The Union, the University, the golf courses, the house by the sea. Horses. Come and take it.
  And so I hover in a gallery, getting in people's way, in the massive Metropolitan and reality blurs my already selective memory. A supplicant before this obelisk of a painting.
  The Englishman. He was an illustrator. He wasn't an heir. Sargent liked him because he was handsome and talented not because he was rich. Sargent liked the coat as much as the man, if not more. Sargent who was born absurdly wealthy used, it seems, every second of the freedom that money gave him. He worked, in a way, against it, making objects with no utility from a mountain of utilitarian cash.
  Where I grew up people made mountains of industrial scree. Yes, they piled into factories by the thousands and tons and tons of steel and glass, millions of designed particular pieces of it, came from that labor but what we knew of it, what we actually saw and had to live with were the leftovers, the by products, the slag scraped off the furnace floor and the kettle top and dumped into our neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods were built on it.
  So when I find myself falling into a reverie in front of a Sargent painting, right into the visceral wealth of it, something catches me. When I stand outside the warm and glowing homes of Pittsburgh, or the torch lit Georgian clubs of London where bespoke figures still appear out of the mist and dash up the stairs like characters out of Dickens, I shake my head and say, "Was that even real?"
   Which begs the question, what is the reality behind any projected dream of comfort.
   Somebody paid for it.
   Somebody took the job to make it possible. Under the ornate facade is a grid of steel. Behind the torch lit entrance is a guy making 12 dollars an hour and commuting from Indianola. Stir the paint and generations of shipbuilders up and down the Atlantic coast helped John Singer put it on his brush.
  I'm not saying it shouldn't have happened. I'm not saying a paying job isn't a good thing. I'm just starting to figure out why my feet aren't propped up by the fire in the NY brownstone I should have saved to buy.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Istanbul. A tour.

  "Well, two thirds of the Bible happened here .... And basically we're your only real ally in the East so I'm always surprised when Americans say, 'Turkey? Why Turkey?'
   It was my last day in the country. I'd asked the hotel manager if I could hire a guide, but one who was willing to make up a tour as we went along - I told him, "I have 5 things I need to do: I've got to buy some cloth from this particular store off the Divanyolu, I want to see the aqueduct, I want to see the oldest Christian mosaics in the city, I want a Besiktas scarf, and I want a real turkish coffee at the end of the day. Oh and I want to get into a Sephardic Synagogue."
  "That's six."
   "You're right."
   He nodded, "The last one will be hard. But, I know the man."
   By noon I was walking at a good clip on the crowded old town streets with a man I'll call the Turkish David Mamet. Not tall. Strongly built. Short black hair clipped for efficiency. Wearing a vest only war photographers or Hemingway buffs would wear. Smart as a whip.
   "He knows more about Istanbul than anyone", the manager had nodded, "you two will have... an interesting time."
  "You know that's a curse right?"
   He shrugged.
   As I bought some cloth for someone's xmas gift to come, from a store I'd randomly passed three days before and whose gorgeous patterns I couldn't get out of my head, my guide, Serhat, married and father to a young son, told me stories about Roman triumphs rolling down the main drag (the Divanyolu) a block away and into the Western City.
   Where Starbucks and Burger King and countless nougat stores now stood, bejeweled elephants and crowds of captive Bulgars and shining Circassians once paraded past. For a millennium, this was Main Street.
   "No one here ever called themselves 'Byzantine'. You people made that up. They called themselves Romans, and mostly they spoke Greek." He tugged at some cloth samples and then outside rolled his eyes at my bargaining skill. "You paid too much for that."
    "The guy started at 500 a piece, I got him down to 500 for three!"
    "He started in outer space so when he got you down to 500 you felt like you'd won. He's a thief, they're worth 300 lire."
    "Say something next time, huh? You're my guide, you're here to help me, right?"
    "I'm here to educate you. Consider yourself educated. Someone has to pay retail, I guess."
     On the way to the aqueduct we visited the largest mosque in Istanbul which sits on the highest hill - the fourth Hill - in the city- above the ruins of a 13th century school a local landlord was trying to demo for office space.
   " Mimar Sinan, who built this mosque - and he built scores of them in Istanbul- tried several times to build a bigger dome than the one in Hagia Sofia which is 35 meters across...but he never could. Imagine this man, a genius, his people have preserved the knowledge of the ages, algebra and geometry, poetry and the secrets of the Roman pontifices, saved all of it from your insane Gothic hordes...but still he cannot match the work of the nameless man who built the old church 900 years before. Amazing."
   We never did get to the aqueduct. We saw it about a hundred yards away as it crossed the main east west highway - Ataturk Bulvan- that bisects Istanbul. It was massive. A massive silhouette that looked like it had been drawn yesterday. I'd say 6 lanes of traffic ran beneath it but the Turks define lanes a bit more freely than we do. When I travel I like to imagine returning to the place to ride my bike through it- I never felt that in Istanbul. God save the brave few who do. Inshallah.
    The oldest Christian mosaics in the city ...well it depends on who you believe or who will let you in...but it's generally agreed that the best ones are found in the Chora church or, spoken in the more beautiful Turkish "Kariye Camii", "sam ee",  being the word for mosque and a word I never tired of saying out loud.
   (I thought we'd have found a word for mosques that sounded something like their word for it. The way Peking sounds like Beijing or Cologne sounds a little like Koln. I thought we'd have gotten close, that we'd have chosen a term for the most important structures in their community which sounded native. Ah well. I was learning.)
   There was a cafe by the front steps of the church, besieged by Germans or maybe they were Dutch, I didn't listen long enough to tell. There was a public bath where locals were trying to perform their wudu before prayer, dodging Birkestocked blonde men, and western women splayed across the stones.
   The entire building was framed in scaffolding- like a ship in a yard, you could barely feel the shape of the place beneath all the gridding. But inside...inside ...I nearly fell down. I'm not much of a Christian. I went to church every Sunday as a kid and I went to a summer camp where we linked arms and sang Jacob's Ladder. "Soldiers...of the...cross..." but once I got to college, Marx, common sense, and the fact that 5 billion other people don't pray to Christ made me think "Great ideas! Sure. Resurrection? Maybe not so much."
  But say what you will, what you learn is love as a child you will follow all your days. And when I walked into the delicate Kariye Camii, this old mosque built within an even older, an ancient, chapel, I felt like you do after you've been singing for an hour. Like you do when you finally tell someone you love them. I was speechless, and happily so. And happily this tough little Muslim man next to me had spent most of his adult life studying the odd obsession Christians have with the mother of their Christ, this lady called Mary. The container of the uncontainable. The living emblem of God's space in the world. Theotokos. What we moderns have made of the earth mother. Of the Goddess. He told tell me everything. Image by hovering image.
    I think he did. But I don't remember the facts or even the story. I was in a kind of reverie that I'm not sure I understand. I don't know why it took me there. The place.
   Images of Saints and and Prophets, apostles and angels; Gabriel looking more like Gabriela than I'd seen before....the Annunciation happening , between two women...hmm?...All placed and drawn 1000 years ago with a grace difficult to describe. As if the builders had just stepped away for a coffee and a smoke, the roaring intensity of their vision undiminished but not alien to a guy with an i-phone.
   Hours later we wandered down the steep hill below the chapel, into the old Jewish and Greek neighborhoods - Fener and Balat.
   I wasn't going to get into a Sephardic temple. Al Qaeda had blown up a synagogue a decade ago and the Jewish population of Istanbul -16,000 among 16 million- had hunkered down, walled itself off, or left. It was astonishing. Barbed wire, unmarked doors, defensive gates, prison security cameras.
    I didn't know why we stopped, mid block, in a block like any other in this tougher, poorer part of the city. My head was still reeling, the Mother of God, Christ Pantocrator, and then the children we'd passed on the streets above, filthy, playing in puddles, literally huddling in ruined doorways, unaware of course that they were objects of pity. "Gypsies?" I'd asked.
   "Oh no,....don't you see? Syrians. Europe in an uproar over 200,000 immigrants...we have one and half million in the country. They suffer terribly."
     I stood still.
    "And do you know where we are?" He asked me.
    "Next to an espresso shop that could be in Portland Oregon?"
    "The wall behind you is the oldest Synagogue in Europe. It's been a house of worship since the 1450s."
    "That wall?" It looked like a place you'd store trucks behind.
    "See the wooden building- two stories- that was their schul and where the baths were.....all done now since the bombings."
    "You're Muslim. You're a Turk. You live in a gigantic modern city. How does this make you feel?" It was unfair. It was so very American, but I couldn't help but ask.
     "Your Christ is a prophet, one of many yes, but a prophet, to me. To all Islam. These Jews, they are the sons of Abraham, as am I. We're people of the book. It's a disgrace they fear for their lives being here in their home."
     I learned you have to petition to visit a Synagogue in Istanbul. They need your passport number, your itinerary, and a letter from the US consulate. It takes two weeks or more. The few remaining temples are literally walled compounds, hidden in back streets, the size of a two bedroom two story home. One was now a museum, and that museum was closing at the end of the month. There'd been 500,000 jews in Turkey at the end of the 19th century. They'd been there since the Spanish expulsion and even earlier. They'd thrived. All this was coming to an end.
     To enter a mosque all I needed to do was remove my shoes, and show some respect. We went in together, into five of them, some massive, some the size of a Greek hilltop chapel, women draped in fabric, the men engaged in the rhythmic prayer of Islam, the westerners asked to remain in the rear of the space, and oddly enough the children let to run free. I was touched that the most intense prayer, truly men abasing themselves before their God, took place as infants and kids ran and played and danced in the Mosque.
   "It's a short quote from Muhammed, that we let them do this, it's common." And I thought of the countless times I'd been hushed in Church or wanted to hush some recalcitrant tween as I grew older, the rod and the staff you internalize as a Western made me laugh. I liked them both, these ways, theirs and mine.  Maybe I'd found some wisdom- two contradictory ideas in happy habitation.
   I never did get the soccer scarf. The craziest of the crazy Turkish football fans follow Besiktas. They're like a cult. Turks I'd met in America warned me not to get anything bearing the team colors, I might meet one of their sworn enemies somewhere across the globe and catch a beating. Which of course made me like Besiktas all the more.
   An example. One of the team's better players, but one who'd shown little affection for Turkey- an international star brought to Istanbul - had been racially harassed during a game with a rival. The next week the entire home stand showed up wearing his number and waving massive signs that said, "We are all black."
   The rival player who now was the focus of legal attention said, "I didn't harass him because he's black, I did it because he's a fairy."
   The next game the entire Besiktas home stand arrived again wearing the player's number and huge banners which said "We are all gay."
   To paraphrase General Patton, "Men that eloquent have to be saved."
   We ended the day in a college bar packed with twenty somethings you could have met in Berlin, overlooking the giant bay of the Bosphorus which of course isn't a bay but is so massive you want to lend it higher praise- Istanbul, a place that screams destiny, a location fated by geography, it could have been nothing else but one of the centers of human history. You grasp that all in a moment when you stand by the shoreline. It's humbling. Jaw dropping. One of the great narratives of the species made into a place.
   We had two coffees each, I think Serhat would only have had one but he thought as an American accustomed to "venti" portions, I wanted more.
  It was good stuff but no different than I'd had at the old Lebanese restaurant at Yale, or at the Greek food fairs of Pittsburgh. I smiled. Somehow the disappointment was not disappointing. It was just a coffee. This place was a place like any other, frustrating to its natives, limited, normal- the bizarre gestalt switch of being a traveler happening to me, to stand among what to you is miraculous but to a local is part of the commute.
   On the way back to my hotel we stopped at one more mosque, just slipping in before the 4th call to prayer began. He let me linger as the faithful arrived, heads lowered, hip to shoulder, gesturing that curious way with their hands behind the ears as if to say "The day's troubles are behind me, I'm here now Lord."
   I asked Serhat was there a major in Istanbul Studies, was that how he'd come to know the place so well...and he said no.....I simply do a lot of walking....and then he told me, when I asked him to be my guest whenever he might come to New York or Pittsburgh, that he had never left Turkey, and in fact had only left Istanbul a handful of times in his 40 some years.
  He was terrified of planes, of water or of heights, and the rhythm of trains made him ill. His wife drove the family car.
  He was, I realized, quite brave to even let me disturb the usual schedule of his touring but that he'd been asked by the concierge he said this time, and because I'd enquired about the mosaics, he would.
  I was with a man probably not too many steps from a hermitage but someone who'd made it his life's work to learn and love his home, his city, and share it with foreigners. He was its living map. I envied him.
  "I do want desperately to come to one place....San Francisco. There's something about that city I must see. So I will try. The bridge is beautiful. The light."
  I told him he was right.
  I paid him in Lire, not American Dollars and I wondered if that was a slight but he didn't let it show as he tucked the money into one of his many pockets. I watched him walk home, up past the Topkapi Palace, seat of the Sultans for 500 years, built over the capital of Western Rome,  an empire which but for electricity mirrored and or dwarfed what we call our own great powers, and beneath that the fortress of Constantine himself - the illiterate warrior who decreed Christianity will help hold the ground which the survivors of Troy must have thought, centuries before him, this will keep, this no one will take in a thousand years.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

The War at Home

       I don't sit around and think about dying. I don't ponder my mortality. 
       I think I've always known we don't get too much time. We have only so many hours. I fought sleep as a kid. I still do. Not as well as when I was 16 and tried to cram as much living, writing, raging and running into any given day as I could, but generally I still like to be the last guy up, the last man in the museum, the one the guards have to shepherd toward the door. 
     Because of this I travel well. I don't mind jet lag. I don't mind not knowing what time it is, not feeling the tick of my internal clock. Beyond physical freedom travel also brings you that psychic shake up - the chronological vertigo of moving from one place to another faster than we should ever  be able. The head rush at 30,000 feet.
   I got back from Turkey four days ago and I'm still waking up at odd hours. Sleep won't come. I wish I could embrace this like my 16 year old self - he'd have written a book by now- but mostly I walk the streets at noon feeling like it's dawn or watch tv in the middle of the night. 
   I flicked on the set in my buddy's house- it's always curious to navigate someone else's cable system, you feel a kinship if you guess well, old bonds affirmed - I got the damn thing on and the menu scrolling in under a minute and there, was The Civil War. 
   That 90's blockbuster that launched a thousand documentary channels and 1000 more Civil War neo-cons. "Lincoln said it himself 'If I can save the Union without slavery I'll do it. If I can save the Union with slavery I'll do it.' It wasn't about slavery!"  Shoot me. Or better yet, shoot them. (Wait, didn't we already do that?) 
   The Cannon in Silhouette at Sunset. The Fiddle Theme. David McCullough's Old Testament voice. The Red Line beneath the chapter titles. 
   Enough to make me groan. 
   25 years. 
   Think of Redford's film "The Candidate". He makes one impassioned, impromptu speech and becomes a challenger. His managers insist he repeat that impassioned impromptu speech verbatim 500 times and he becomes a joke. Ergo The Civil War. First time it ran I swooned, 15 years and 1500 reboots later, I wanted to hurl. And now add 10 more years. It's a classic car exempt from sentimental emission controls. It's classic doc rock.
   Regardless, I pressed "select". 
   And what came back to me as I watched was not the tale of the final episode, the sad battles after Appomatox or bourbon voiced Shelby Foote choking up "Was it not so real?" or how clearly the language of these long dead men still rings to me -how well they wrote- but that 25 years ago it was 1990 and I was a just out of college not yet to drama school, my dad and my brother were still alive, my mom still worked at CMU and what the Hell was a cell phone, who'd heard of an internet? Or blogging.
  I was back in Pittsburgh, living in a house owned by the friend of a friend who was yet to marry and wanted to be surrounded by his younger pals before the final plunge, so he charged us next to no rent and didn't care whether we slept till 2 or played U2 too loud or ate most of his food.
   I was an almost Ivy League graduate making 5.60 an hour plus tips, making lattes at a "coffee shop",  and commuting to work on a borrowed BMX. I was happy. 
   Once in awhile, I'd head home and visit mom and dad, eat out of the fridge, sleep in my old room up in the attic, if they went away for a couple days I'd colonize the house and turn it into my seraglio studio - the last designs of my sublimating High School self strewn around the little Dutch colonial. 
   But for a straight week sometime that year, was it Fall? it had to be- I came home and watched The Civil War with my parents. My father in his tan leather chair up against the fireplace. Mom in her comfier spot by the stairs. The cat dug in and drooling on one of them. I stood behind them, waiting, for awhile acting like I might leave, as if I was deciding whether or not the episode was good enough, whether I didn't have something better to do, when in reality I just didn't want to show them I wanted to be home, to be curled up by the fire, to share for an evening, oddly enough, in their silence. 
  When either of my parents was moved to tears, moved by something they'd seen or read or heard they most often said nothing. As we would in church, we gathered in a kind of piety. A shared hush. Some would call this WASPY rectitude or simple embarrassment but I've always been suspicious of people who want to show and tell me how important their feelings are- my sense is feelings come when they come and we should be grateful for them, wonder at them, thank God, rather than hold them up for all to see. "Unpack my heart with words and fall a cursing like a very drab."
   I think of the long black pews in my old church. Rows and rows of them as you walk past for communion, the slumped shoulders, the stillness, heads so obviously related not turning toward each other. It can be unbearable, yankee solemnity, but I'm comfortable being quiet before God, I've always felt my default response to the "Lord"- however you want to manifest him or her- when it wasn't singing was humility, silence. 
  And so 25 years ago when I was 23 and broke, my father and I would refrain from sniping at each other and my mom and he would call an evening's truce, and the cat would curl up around our feet and we would listen together to a fellow Pittsburgher read us a story from our country's most incredible, and maybe its saddest, chapter. 
  And since we knew him by degree, the McCullough's and the McCrady's on my dad's side grew up across the street from each other, we could tell when he read that he wasn't intoning like a distant God, or a tidy Western PA Presbyterian ticking down a list of the dead, but that he was throughout on the edge of tears. Like my dad listening as brothers, who'd fought on opposite sides, died in the same hospital with Walt Whitman the nurse to each, like my mother, an ancestral Virginian, hearing a Richmond girl bemoan the wreck of her family while the "chimneys of our leveled homes stood like telegraph poles relaying the destruction", like me listening to them both and not speaking, listening to the changes in their breathing saying they were sad and wouldn't share it. 
  And then the episode ended and it was 4:41 in the morning, tuesday the 15th of September 2015. Like any other day, but now. A side room in LA in the house of a friend from college who after he graduated was playing in Punk bands in DC while I was pouring coffee in Pittsburgh. Now a teacher, married 14 years, divorced 4. Still playing the bass. 
   The 24 hour media cycle stared me down. What next? Press select. Scroll.
   I walked out on to the porch. No light yet in the East. Dad gone, brother gone, cat long gone. - that's the thing about LA, you get a dark night but no stars and there are so few tall buildings that the land rolls out in front of you for miles. The sky's huge, you see the undulations that the desert here once had, but somehow unlike a Great Plains landscape, it's disheartening. Like the cable menu, it's endless but without comfort. Far from enobling, the eternity involved diminishes you.
   Sometimes I wish I smoked. I don't. I hummed the fiddle theme. I tried to imitate McCullough's voice, but it wouldn't come. The day I left Turkey, that morning one of the guys who ran the hotel, "Okay" was his name, asked me where I was from. Pittsburgh I told him. And you miss it yes? Yes I do, I told him.  I do. We have a word for that you know - memleket. It just means 'home', the ground there, but ....more than that. Like your word nostalgia, his eyes smiled, but ...harder. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


     Clear and Present Danger.
It's a tidy movie from the 90s.
Harrison Ford takes over as Jack Ryan from Alec Baldwin, who somehow decided he was too good for a franchise.
(Funny that.)
Willem Dafoe plays a black ops CIA commander and in one scene, buried in the Colombian jungle, he calls in an airstrike on the summit of a trio of Narco leaders. The major drug lords of South America, all in one place.
Dafoe has a soldier paint a truck with a laser signature, he makes a call to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic which launches a single F-18, which as it flies sub radar, releases a single piece of stealth ordinance, and......The US of A blows the drug dealers to kingdom come.
It's a neo con's dream.
It's a little piece of fascist justice that makes even Democrats nod their heads and say, "Fuck yeah", under their breath.
It's Obama with a beer in his hand watching Bin Laden die.
I have several friends who carry concealed weapons every day.
Shopping at the local market, feeding their kids lunch, on the way to Zumba, they could drop to one knee and kill you and 7 of your threatening pals.
I have several friends who regularly go down into their basements, unlock their arms cabinets and withdraw assault rifles -which on full automatic could hold off a platoon from the front porch- and take them out for target practice.
I have several friends who given the chance would wall off Mexico.
Who would end all aid to Israel.
Who would welcome a Holy War in reverse.
I think quite frankly that some of my friends are mad.
I still love them, but...
This is maybe why...
Because if I was president of these United States, I would have in the air a squadron of jets and helicopters, and I would have on the ground the most secret special Ops team there was to make and keep the promise that any-single-damn-one, any person, calling themselves a freedom fighter, or a martyr, or ISIS, or a retiree from Isaly's, anyone who so much as disturbed a stone at the ancient site of Palmyra -much less blew the standing history of civilization to bits because of their asinine, anal, infantile, imbecilic take on Islam- I would have them vaporized on the spot.
With extreme prejudice.
No hesitation.
I think we as the "defenders of democracy" and the "beacon of freedom" should for once back that shit up and blow these bastards to atoms.
We should have done it when the Taliban blew up the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan. We didn't.
We should do it now.
Kill anyone who gets within the perimeter of the City of Palmyra. Just say it. For no strategic reason, for no rational gain, with no apologies for due process or sovereignty or cause, you enter here, you die.
Kill them all because sometimes the stuff of eternity is more important than human life. Sometimes men should die so that temples stand, so that a painting is preserved, so that a song remains. Human blood should flow so that human history survives.
No quarter.
Yeah. I'll own it. That's on me.
Part of me thinks this is worse than any hand gun my buddy's wife might be carrying to the Shop and Save.
Part of me wishes my finger was on the trigger and Willem Dafoe was saying, "Paint the target."

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Burnt by the Sun

   I'd never seen a tarantula in the wild.
   Well, not a lone one.
   I had seen tens of thousands of them, waves of them, migrating to high ground in the annual spider "race" in Pinnacles California. 
  During the rainy season / the flash flood times, in the steep hills between the Central Valley and the Salinas, grandstands are set up in a state park where crowds gather to watch a tidal horde of arachnids move to escape the coming waters. 
   It's more you can imagine. 
   It's worse than you think. 
   It's truly stupendous. You get to see more spiders than anyone ever sees in a lifetime and you get to watch grown men scream. 
   But I'd never seen just one tarantula, on his or her own, in the California dust. 
   There's a park in south East County San Diego. Near Rancho something or other. It's a lot of desert acres sitting at the foot of a mountain the military uses for some purpose or another. Evidence that the only way to stop suburban development in California is with guns. 
   There's a willowed stream that runs aslant a gully, some riverine cliffs, some rare birds, a lot of coyotes, and an iron bridge that was built in Bethlehem PA and shipped to Southern California in the 20s. An early symbol of progress in this godforsaken land. 
   You can still see "Bethlehem Steel" embossed on the cross beams, arch rival of every Pittsburgh iron company. To reach the park from the nearby mega mall you pass right by them.
   I went for a walk at sunset. 
   Some would call it a hike. I think something called a hike should have the potential to kill you. 
    The drive from El Cajon to the park one could call a hike.
     This was a stroll. 
     I heard some birds. I avoided some beetles. I saw two uncut Pit Bulls and an asinine owner warding them away, I walked right up to the nose of a wild born Mustang, 15 plus years old on a late day walk with its kind equestrienne keeper. Sweet breath, soft eyes, along the trail he barely left a footprint.  
   Later, when the dark was falling as it does so quickly after a California sunset, I heard coyotes call to each other across the fields. Three different packs in the safety of the hills owned by the army, triangulating and wondering, I wondered, could they get to me before I recrossed that bridge and was I worth it, the meat vs the run and the fight?  
   Midway through the journey I came across a wasp the size of a hummingbird.
   A black fast attack demon of an insect, with bright orange wings. 
   An Apache helicopter of an arthropod. 
   A murderous exoskeleton with teeth and antennae and intent. 
   Dragging a dead tarantula three times its size across a cow path. 
   My first impulse was to run. My second was to stare. My third was, if that tarantula even twitches a limb, if it's got any life left at all, I'm gonna stomp that evil wasp and save me a spider. 
   But it was dead. And that wasp tugged it a full 15 feet. That wasp had to stop and regroup. It had to take a breather. Find purchase. 
   That's the fucking life force, I thought. 
   That's what things do to survive out here. Down here, in desert Alta California, in water free, Carl's Jr full San Diego. 
   I'm gonna remember that bug for a long freaking time. 
   And partly because it made me ask, What is it that drives people out into the desert? 
   Bugs, birds, tarantulas, even Coyotes, they don't have a choice. But why do we go? And more importantly, why do we stay? 
   In a place where we are guaranteed to die, if the AC, or the coolant, or the water runs out. 
   "Because it's clean." Said Lawrence of Arabia. 
    And I have to agree. 
    It's clean of us. 
    On the one hand, it's a place that denies kinship with our species. It tells us here is where you will fall. Here is where in a hundred years, they'll find your dried up carcass.
   And weirdly enough I think that's why a certain breed of people flock to it. It helps them vacuum pack their suburban dream- the home as an extension of the ego. The autonomous self made manifest by a three car garage, game room, studio and den, with a his and her master bathroom the size of a junior college. 
  All of it sealed and shut against a dangerous world. 
  For if that world is an actual desert, with no water, 110 degree days and killer avian bugs then how much more potent the home owner and his pioneer brood. 
   The home as the unabstract self. The brain and the soul and the human computer, in analog. Where one can sort and rearrange, sketch and legislate, doodle and dither for ever. 
   Where one can deny kinship with one's own species. 
   So it seemed when I was drunk. 
   On 112 degree sunlight. 
   I'd gone for a hike in the Mojave.
   And then it all switched over, and the denial of me, of "you", became a gift. 
   The heat shocks you into motionlessness, it encases you and you can feel the metal in the ground warming to receive your body, and somehow it's comforting. It's deliverance.
  The desert makes people glow. 
  Standing in a valley 10 miles across, flat as a seabed, with less foliate protein in its entire expanse than a back yard in Pittsburgh, you begin to entertain your own preciousness.
  You're a bag of fluid. A shining scarecrow in an oven made by the Gods. In all this dumb stone, dust, and wind, you speak. You sing. You sweat.
   It's humbling yes but at the same time, it elevates you. 
   I flex my hand in the sun and I want to cheer, My Christ will you look at that. What is this quintessence of dust? 
  The four major religions were born from the desert. Judaism. Hinduism. Islam. Christianity. All of them rose up out of the heat. 
  I wonder. Did we go out into those vast and beautiful wastes to find a God? Or get there and pretend we were one? 
  And if there is a God, or Godliness, maybe it exists only in the heat where our feet meet the sand, along that thin tissue between our selves and the glories of oblivion- air sun water-  right there all along as simpler people have known, in the dust itself among the lizards and the birds and the dogs and the bugs, all of whom sing and fight and sweat in their own ways, who all thrive where we can barely function. 
  In that hot and peaceable theater, can we still hear the faint rhythm of things as they should be? 
  Maybe that's why people go out to the desert, to the Mojave or the Sonora or the Chihuahua, to sit and listen, and wait. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A New Yorker

  My last apartment in NYC, in Brooklyn, had 10 radiators.
  My bedroom walls were lined with cast iron. I slept with a 2 foot gap between me and the metal. Between me and burn marks. Dating me had its risks.
  I did a lot of cycling. Almost no rental units have washers and dryers.
  I thought, "hmm, perfect way to dry stuff." 
   My landlord didn't agree. "Put nothing on top of the radiators. Nothing touches them." 
   So in a rare effort toward manliness I built shelves. Counter tops framed above and around the heaters. 
  Went down to the hardware store run by the Guyanans, conferred with David the son of the elder owners who'd occasionally give me slices of a jam filled cake on holidays I didn't recognize, dragged home the wood he assured me wouldn't buckle in the heat (it didn't) and built me some tan shelves around the black metal monsters in my temporary home. 
   And as soon as I finished them, I remembered that my parents had done the same thing. 
   Pittsburgh. 317 Chestnut St. The radiator in the dining room behind dad's chair, between him and the windows had a wooden "top" where mom packed her plants in rows to catch the southern light. 
  The rear radiator, a spectacular thing, ran the width of the living room with a 2x6 bent across it. A tribute to wooden suspension. And on top of that my parents piled their magazines. Scores of them. Hundreds. Starting on the right with the Nat Geos, the Smithsonian's, Dad's National Defense Quarterlies, Jane's Ships, left over LL Beans leaning into Consumer Reports, merging with mom's knitting instructionals and the odd radical tomes my brothers brought back from college and piled within all that sliding and sorting, like decks of cards in an abandoned casino were the New Yorkers. Years of them. Decades. 
   When I was young I sat by that radiator with my cats who liked the view and the heat. I sat there with them and pretended to have a desk. I'd slide my feet under the radiator, a little sting earned where the keel of the iron met my skin and I'd read my parents' leftovers. Magazines printed before I was born. Articles about countries that didn't exist anymore. I wondered, if I mailed a check to LL Bean for the price of a pair of boots in 1968 would they send them back?
    I couldn't believe people had been writing all this stuff, printing all this material, year after year after year. They hired people and sent them out. They paid people to tell other people about their vacations. You could get a job doing this. And there it all was for me to page through. To learn about the world from a hilly street corner in a collapsing steel town in Western Pennsylvania where almost no one was getting paid to do anything they used to do.
     The New Yorkers came to me late. They didn't have photographs. They reeked of adulthood. Little print. Black and white cartoons. For a child what could be worse?
   And then one day it happened, what could be better? 
    I often say to my friends I never want to be a child again. I don't long for childhood. I don't miss it. I don't want to run around in a smock and play with dolls and little toys, setting up campaigns and conquests or drawings car engines and guns or costumes and kittens, unconcerned with what adults care about because what adults care the most about, deep down, is love. The problem, or the promise, is that that love, adult love,  comes coupled with sex. 
  And suddenly love isn't easy. It's dangerous. It's epic. And often of course a tragedy.
   We love children and how easy it is for them to "love", how clear their emotions are but it's kind of like how "good" child actors are. They're not acting, they're just charming. They're playing tennis with the net down. They don't have the stakes that matter, that we're all gonna die for.
   One day, I was re-enacting Battlestar Gallatica episodes with my 12 year old buddies up in the attic or debating whether or not Vida Blue was a better pitcher than John Candelaria and then the next day I walked outside it was all just over and done with. I didn't want to play with Legos or build an empire of guns and tools and dirt and name it Narnia or whatever fantasy I was being fed lately, I didn't want to act out war movies scene by scene, or argue which Pittsburgh Steeler had the best head fake or the best arm. 
    I wanted to watch Laurie Murphy walk down the street. 
    I wanted to sit with her and see the finial hairs on the back of her neck catch the sun. 
    I wanted to watch her blink. I wanted to watch her breathe. Run. Flex. Bend. Be.
    Nothing else.
    Everything else was just wrapping, just foam flying off the sea. 

  And right about then the New Yorkers became very interesting. 
  They didn't come out every month like the Geographic. They weren't quarterly like dad's military magazines. The weren't even simply weekly. They had a day printed in the cover , " March 23, 1983" a specific day they'd been made back there in NYC and shipped to you to receive. 
   They talked about the previous week just passed in NYC , city politics, parties attended, artists interviewed, odd balls asked opinions of, all of it brought to us out there in the Appalachians and I couldn't quite wrap my head around why we were allowed to read it. I mean, we weren't NYers, how come we got a subscription? 
    Years later when I asked my Eisenhower republican father why he read such a lefty publication he answered , "so i can see what the enemy is thinking." 
  Like the guy afraid to cry during Charlotte's Web my dad privately loved the thing-  he read it cover to cover soon as it arrived. I can see him smiling to himself, wagging his feet back and forth - as clear a sign dad was content as your dog kicking when you scratched him- and I cursed myself that he and I now truly had something in common. 
  The painted covers, the waxed silky stock, the company typeface changing font mid page, the narrow columns, the two or three poems which appeared among the fiction and the non, and those ridiculous ads in the rear, tiny things from stores and schools too small you'd think to afford the rent. but there they were, the end. On my tombstone I wouldn't be upset if, "And he finished his New Yorkers" was carved across the top.
   They gave me diction and an education. They rescued me from countless hours trapped in airports, auditions, subways and bus stations. They've pulled me out of the depression and doldrums that tv only deepens. 
   And they taught me what was love. What printed love was. What passion could come up out of the page. The same passion that walked down the street, that hummed off the skin, came out of a sentence. A voice. Astonishing.
  I drove to Reading PA once because I wanted to see the house where John Updike had spent his childhood. He was from Shillington, a small town just north of Reading and it was still there, a tiny white framed workmen's home on a inconspicuous street. A team of architects used it as an office then but they let me wander around for an hour or so which now that I think of it makes me laugh. They didn't mind. Even when they found me sitting under the dining room table Updike hid beneath to watch the colors from his stained glass door move across the carpet. They didn't mind.
  All this to say it was this fellow Pennsylvanian, Updike who first made me blush or thrill to hear what it was to want a woman, to adore her, to try and describe what this other but same thing was, this femaleness that surrounds us all, all of a sudden transmuting from the maternal to the erotic and back again, and it was in the New Yorker that I first heard him speak and try to say it.
  I remember it like I remember breaking a bone, or running from a fight, or being caught out in a lie. When the truth gets tapped into your heart for better or worse, you never forget.
   Just a poem. Just a short story from let's say  December 14th, 1981, just for imagination's sake, a magazine mailed from a printing press in New York to Western PA and I held it in my hands leaning over the radiator as the cats purred and fogged the window and the metal burned my skin and I read Updike's story where a man lays gold Kuggerands across the soft mound between his wife's legs and they laugh, that finally they are rich, they are safe. This is what it was all for.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Theater Dreams

  I was in a shoe box last week. A theater the size of a shoe box. On Melrose Ave -the busier, noisier, trendier section of Melrose. 
   And by trendy I mean utterly behind the times. It's something you notice as you get older - big cities create these eddies that gather old trends and sustain them or ....eddies of nostalgia form in big cities because there's so much capital - human as well as corporate- and the human tide of it never stops. Never stops wanting to buy an old dream they heard started here. 
   The Ramones, or Guns and Roses, or NWA, or Patti Smith... The Cure... There are enough people walking the streets of New York or LA or London to convince you it's the year the week the day you first heard them and fell in love. 
   And every year enough kids come from the hinterlands to maintain the fire. 
    I missed all this because thank God, I was in a black box. 
   One of those lovely, tiny theaters you can't believe grown men and women use to perform in. Four steps to cross from the back wall and trod the feet of your audience. How in God's name could this place be used for Shakepeare or Ibsen or anyone else? 
   I've seen people stand up to give a toast in dining rooms bigger than this. More suited to the epic. 
   My local bar has better acoustics. 
   Last year I watched the High School students of Saltsburg PA, population 896, perform Bye Bye Birdie in a theater that held ....well 896. 
  When I was in college my black box was twice the size of this LA equity space, had better lighting and had wings to hide in and move things through rather than the exit door this place had to get you to the parking lot. 
   What a change is this. 
   You're a teenager, you're 20, and you're performing in a space the likes of which no one but the luckiest, finest Broadway or West End actors will ever see. 
   And then you become a professional. You work in this mad business, for what's called a living, and you ply your trade in a room you could rent from Guardian Storage. 
   Which is not room enough and continent to hide the slain ( ambitions of your adolescence). 
   It's an acting class. We meet once a week. We perform a scene our teacher's assigned us and then listen to his advice. 4 hours. Next pair, next pair after that. Every Monday. 
   12 of us in the space, a third of which is roped off to protect the props of the show running the other 6 nights of the week. 
   A soft glow on the raked floor. Everyone looks better on a stage well lit. Our teacher's an old pro, started with Steppenwolf in Chicago and made his way to LA where he's made a life half what he was raised to be, half what the business makes you. 
   I noticed as he spoke that the walls of the theater were cinder block. About the worst thing you can hope for soundwise. They were painted black and the ceiling was maybe 9 feet. 
  The chairs of the theater were recycled movie seats from the old days, with that red brushy plush penned into a metal frame, so fun to play with when you're five. Or 45. 
 Running above the last row of seats along all 3 walls - it's a 3/4s stage- the black paint seemed to have been worn down, almost to a silver. Above each seat. Little pale halos. 
   And I realized, that's the audience leaning back. Where they'd lain their heads listening to Hamlet, or Trigorin, or Miss Julie or some mad kid's latest rant. The very oil of them resting on the walls. Still there. 
   And every cliche I've ever been told still seemed true - that it doesn't matter how big the theater is or how much you get paid, the only magic to the thing is how you get thru to those people. Thru the cloud of language and feeling and drive you gather amongst yourselves any given night. 
   Like I said - big cities let these eddies gather. Mine's just a little less marketable.