Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving. New York

    It's still Thanksgiving in Colorado. And in California, as I write this. And Hawaii. Though they must get a good laugh celebrating colonists settling down with natives for a fine feast. After we gave them syphilis and cholera and the common cold we gave them…. statehood. Hang loose haole.
   The couple downstairs are in their late twenties I suppose. Kids really to me now. But they cook like grown-ups. The boy does. She sings and dances in the backyard and he digs into the kitchen and cooks. Like I remember and think grown-ups should and I almost never do anymore.
  The hallway to the front door, usually a forlorn sort of space, smells of bread baked, and the melange of a long meal come to a close. It must have been a good one because their guests spoke in laughing voices all night.
   And after the meal ended, they sang. Not traditional hymns or holiday tunes but a la Baz Luhrman, or besotted football fans, pop songs they took up and made their own. Fleetwood Mac mostly. Homemade karaoke, a little off key a little too brash but damn…. when was the last time I heard anyone sing after a meal.
   Summer camp, college, Scotland.
   Bed Stuy.
   The sun was brilliant today. That and the cold and the cinematically empty streets made a walk thru Brooklyn into a waking dream. I got off the subway at random, crossed thru the giant mall strewn thoroughfares of downtown, doubled back a block and found myself on Pierrepont st. Which goes into the heart of Brooklyn Heights, past St Ann's school, and smack onto the promenade overlooking Manhattan harbor and the City itself. The river sparkled, the helicopters circled, the skyscrapers shown, the great bridge coursed beside to my right and tourists filmed it all.
   Isn't that the "magic" of New York? That it constantly reminds you you are not the only seer, not the only "user" in the too close to the true modern parlance, you are one of a jostled million. It is messy, jarring, inconstant and hard and yet it sweeps you into wonder all the while. Like a fervent dance out of Jane Austen, like a run down a ski slope you shouldn't be on, you come out wide eyed and breathing heavily, sometimes when you just went out to get some bread and the paper.
  A man gardening in his sleeves in a guttered planter beside a house worth the cost of a fighter plane. Passed by 5 Japanese kids who'd found parking somehow on one of the most elite blocks in America. And why did they have cars? Two Russians and then 4 more Russians, the pair not knowing the foursome but turning at the sound of their own language going by. The guy with the Chilean flag on the shoulder of his jacket skateboarding badly as his girlfriend filmed it. Locals shaking their heads. And more locals trailing their kids in the playground of Columbia Place. This is their home. They call this epicenter "home". They come home…. to here.
  And one of their homes, where they sleep and watch cable shows and run out of toilet paper and wish they'd tossed an old appliance when it screws up a holiday meal and whisper with their HS lovers in the lower rooms and then get surprised mom left their posters up twenty years later, one of these 6 story brownstones has a plaque on it that says "From 1939-1940 W. H. Auden lived and wrote in the top floor rooms of this building. New Years Letter was completed here." And two doors down another of these homes has a plaque that says "Thomas Wolfe wrote "Of Time and The River" in this house."
     To put it in the vernacular , "WTF!?"
     I mean isn't it enough that from any of these houses you could look out a wide-paned window and see one of the greatest, most mind-blowing cityscapes on earth? Now you have to take in to account that two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century did the same.
    And for some reason, in New York…..that's reassuring. I don't feel dwarfed by the immensity of Manhattan or Auden, I feel in kind with them, with it. I feel his humanity and that of the city. It breathes closer. He sits there, the color of his eyes, of course a cigarette, and his fading hair.
   What New York does so well is demolish charm. It strips affect. You almost always see the tools at bear here. You know how the trick is done or you know at least that a trick is being done and you acquiesce.
  I stand at the promenade and I know the river's filthy and filled with undeserving dead. I know generations of people gave their lives trying to build lives around the shores of this urban palace. The financial district is strewn with some of the worst architecture in New York. The captains of industry on Thanksgiving even are waiting in line to land their Bell and Hueys. The Bridge is crammed with tourists and painted a military desert brown I suppose to shock and awe them. The BQE roars below spitting carbon dust over the living and the dead and as we gaze across the water and New Jersey retreats in ever more greying layers toward the rest of mundane America, I want to cry it's so damn beautiful.
  What do the Chinese have? Death by a Thousand Touches?
  I think New York has Grace by a Thousand Hands. Touching you daily, relentlessly, unpredictably, jarring and then enchanting, like inspiration, there one minute and gone the next mocking you, but there. Ever there. And like parenthood, or friendship, or love, ain't that the key? Just showing up? Being there. Reaching out. You head out into the streets of New York and good God the place itself just reaches for you. For some, that drives them nuts, for others it's the only gas they run on. And possibly in the middle, if you hang in there, I think oddly enough, the most immense city in America, the most competitive city we have, the most abstract set of right angled streets and buildings on earth can actually make you sane.
  You get human here. You get democracy. You get American.
  What an accident of history that this little island off the coast, so unlike the rest of the massive republic is in many ways its finest creation. The truest distillation of its ideals. Messy, muscular, polyglot, irreverent, but still protective of a gossamer beauty. In other words, the best of us.
   I like that the bridge which holds it at arm's length from Greater America is called George Washington. A man of probably impossible virtue leading us from the kitchen of democracy back across to the places where everyone needs to be fed and housed and kept safe.
   There's twenty six minutes left to the continental Thanksgiving 2013. In Hawaii, where the mountains majesty really are purple, there's hours and hours. I open the hallway door and there's still a little bread left in the air.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dates, deadlines, and lists

   I signed a check last week. My union dues. I like that I'm still paying my dues. I like even more that I belong to a union. Makes me feel at home. That I'm somehow still part Pittsburgher. Part of the Pittsburgh that's always mattered most to me. In touch with my ancestors and in their company, strengthened by numbers and not alone in the illusion that one can go it alone
   When I signed I noticed it was November 12th. The day after the WWI Armistice. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and all that. 11/12/13.
   And look. 11/12/13. Next year on December 13th it'll be the last time for a century we have a consecutive date line. 12/13/14. And that, 100 years from the beginning of the First World War.
   Why stuff like this matters to me, or strikes me I have no idea but it does.
   Maybe we all search for signs that there's a path out there, that there's a guiding hand, an order that can be counted. And when you sift through data there's some meaning to be gleaned.
   Or maybe it's just about mortality. When you can spot when you're gonna die somehow dates and time aren't just numbers. Or they are and that's what's scary. Numb numbers and inside one of them you cease to be counted.
   I read today that the Japanese want to build another high speed train line from Tokyo to Osaka. It'll be finished in 2045. When I read that, I started. Literally did an internal double take as I realized there's a good chance I'll never see that day. The death we all carry around inside us gave me a kick.
   Someone will turn a calendar over, flip a page in a planner, wave their hand in front of a virtual screen and it will be the day after I've died. Poof, you go from being angelic animated mud to dust in a day.
  JFK was shot half a century ago tomorrow. I was watching one of the myriad specials about his "anniversary" when the narrator said, "Kennedy landed at Dallas airport around noon that November day and was dead within the hour." His ears still ringing from Airforce One on the runway. Poof. Air through a keyhole. Any given day.
  One of my favorite parts of AS Byatt's novel "Possession" has to do with lists. Writing as I'm doing right now with my mind jumping from thought to thought, from Union dues to Dealy Plaza, from one image to another that in my brain lay behind the same darkness on the same canvas or that live in my brain tied together in a huddle and I'm trying pull them out - it's erratic and sometimes I feel like I'm doing what I hate to see writers do which is make lists…. "What I've been pondering this week"……"My top ten ___" fill in the blank.
   It grates on me this filling of space, the filling in of blanks with mediocre effort. The column has to come out on Wednesday so this Wednesday we'll make a list.
  The soldier in me, the guy who still thinks men should wear ties to work and jackets at dinner, he  thinks if you're paying to read my magazine or my paper, if you literally buy the magazine to read a column then this column should be made with care. You should feel it in framework of the prose.
   I had an acting teacher who once said "I don't go to the theater to watch people be themselves. I go to be astonished."
   When I read Adam Gopnik or Joanne Acocella or Updike or Amiri Baraka I feel like I'm walking thru a finely built home. A thing made to demonstrate some kind of love toward the inhabitants. Toward the visitors.
  I don't want to know what they had for brunch that day or what they may or may not be working on. I don't want to know what Gopnik's 5 favorite flavors of Gelato are. These are things he'd tell his friends. And as my friend Denise once captured on film, a man with the t-shirt, "Fuck you, I have enough friends."
  Now obviously I'm advocating for the devil here. It's a linguistic knot I'm tying myself into, the cords made partly of belief and partly practice. I tell myself if I wrote for the New Yorker I'd never ever write a blog. Well I never will but here I am thinking somehow a blog has some merit…..that the levels of incompletion can have beauty to them, curiosity, informal merit.
  Which brings me back to Byatt- the lead character in her novel is a British academic tightly described as tightly wound, intellectual to a fault, coldly beautiful but as the book draws to a close she realizes, we realize, that she's something of a poet. Her heart can't live within her professional bounds any longer and she... unwinds. She reaches a kind of stasis, a bottom, and then finds herself making lists. Of words. Just columns of language, stacks of nouns that strike her, hard verbs in her hand, and Byatt makes a quick argument that this is really how poetry and song start. How they get made. Shapes that fit next to each other, that sound fine one after the other, paired with thoughts that repeat again and again in a dream order that puzzles the will.
  Poetry is the unpuzzling. Singing the simplest thing we can make of the puzzled dream. What did Frost say when a student asked him what his poem meant?
  "If I could say it any clearer I would have."
  So I'm piling up my thoughts where they seem to go together. Looking for clarity in a bloody mess. Patterns in the field where I've run tracks across the trails of any guiding hand. Digging like a good union man and trying to make something worth the company stamp. Shouldn't be embarrassed that it's not custom. Not made with finish.
   I get it. Blogs are exercising in public. Letting the folks on the street watch the building go up. And yeah, sometimes as the man on the curb, I want them to stop and just leave the frame. All that steel drawn and angled against the sky. No more, no more. It's perfect just like that.
  Today's November 21st. One month from the Solstice, that brief beautiful day which for me has a simple import. A real festival. Ritual given inverse strength by the brevity of the sun. And in the shadow of Christmas….like the family bakery still in business next to the Nabisco plant.
   One week ago, my close friend George... his wife Michelle had twins. Two years from the day of my brother's death. I held them in their first living hour as I held my brother in his last. Held their hands. 6 pounds 15 ounces, 6 pounds 7 ounces. Phil didn't see 50.
  All these digits. Dates, times, measures and markers. Scratched onto paper. Carved into rock. Birth certificates and headstones. Fed into a server. Knicked into a dial so when we come back around again we can say where we were? Nah.
  Left there for someone to see when we're long gone. For someone to lay their hands on and find us in the details. The living will count our numbers, draw our letters through their fingers and feel among them the hands of the dead, working.

More letters

   I love the internet.
   I love that the air around us is literally filled with content. With meaning. Urgencies and voices and orders and rants. Streams of them. The idea of the ether resurrected.
   I love that there are galaxies of gaming forums, Romanian mansions of chat rooms, and endless apps. What was Borges' famous quip, "In the future every absurdity will have its champion."? Soon every absurdity will have its app. Once young strivers made for the Great American West, then the Great American Novel, then they made the Next Great Film. Now they make apps. Love it. Though neither could Borges nor present day Wall Street predict how they'll make money.
   I love that there's a music server named after a Greek goddess. I love that teenagers by the millions text missives and love letters by the many more millions every day. The daily correspondence of Edith Wharton or Anna Karenin (see Nabokov on the spelling of her name versus the novel) or Madame Bovary gone wireless, gone to hyper speed.
   We write again. Constantly.
   When I was in college I had one mad love. Mad for her. Me so serious and she the snark. My Neruda wrestling her Stevie Smith and almost always losing. We fell in love at about 7pm in a college deli the last day of Passover 1986, stayed up all night, sitting in front of a tomb, and then were separated for 8 months. We wrote almost every day. I would hold her letters up to my face in bunches. The light effusions of my muse. Like they were leaves fallen from the tree of life. Her scent made me ravenous. The first paragraph in Anna Karenina uses the word "home" ten times. Her, her, her, I'd not have been embarrassed to do the same, albeit so badly, when I wrote of "her".
   I still have those letters. Well, they exist. They're objects I could travel across the city I'm sitting in right now and within reason and a modicum of excuses place my hands on and hold again.
   On a bad night, after a few too many drinks they might even take on the quality of something sacred. Something scary. Something that might move me anew as I trace her spelling, the ridges of her handwriting and the folds of the pages she made either in a rush or with deliberate pressure, coffee or tea carved into the margins, which envelope she used, the hotel she was leaving embossed above, what foreign postal mark graced the corner. A trace of her mouth, her nails, the hot palm she put down on the paper. Still there.
   Such fucking wealth.
   Do I have that any more? Will I keep my emails? Even the ones that matter?
   What happens when whatever storage I'm using crashes and dies?
   Everyone has the same handwriting now. Everyone in some sense smells the same online.
   But I do love the internet.
   I hate that people use it to dabble in other people's affairs, I hate that the comment section below an article's become the epistolatory equivalent of a sucker punch. I hate that people hide in it. Hide behind their half efforts. In the constant noise it provides, the virtual crowd that can't touch you, the dog that always comes when you call.
   I love it because it shows how desperate we still are. Ravenous for contact, for exchange, for touch. Things that can't be virtual.