Sunday, December 28, 2008


Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us; the other softens us.” Pema Chödron

If I had ever wanted to borrow a few bucks from my dad then the first words out of his mouth would have been: “What’s it for?” Then, “How are you gonna pay it back?”And he’d have reason to ask. He never had the money to lend me but he always had the reason to ask and then say, well, “No.”

If my fifth grade teacher, Mr. August Simondson, asked me a question in class I had to answer the question. Get it wrong, maybe, but not answering the question was simply out of the question. Turning from him and winking conspiratorially at my audience—after asking if I could call him Augie and coyly declaring that I would not answer the question and instead speak directly to my American class mates—would have kept me after school, hollering in vain at retreating school chums: “But we are the most respected nation in the world!”

If I misplaced (
read: lost) something that was going to cost my financially hard-pressed parents money to replace, say, gloves, umbrella, schoolbooks, or I don’t know, my sister, I could try and deflect the blame, though certainly not onto my missing sister: “Er, she lost herself after she lost all the other stuff,” but I would get a smack on the bottom for my efforts.

If I stole something from Woolworth’s on Steinway Street in Astoria, even something as relatively trivial as a bottle of nail polish (only on a dare because I—as a self-avowed tom boy who tortured her fingernails with her teeth—would never deign to wear the stuff), I would be made to return it to the store and stand red-faced before the stern gaze of neighborhood women under home perms pin curled into a stranglehold on their scalps, their unquiet hands pat-patting away in the pockets of their matter-of-fact smocks who not only knew my mother but liked her even less. I knew what punishment awaited me back home. The
Twinkies Insanity Defense (or in Bernie’s case, kreplach) would fall on deaf ears. My sister declared regularly that I was insane. No big deal.

If I hit another kid because I thought that kid was going to attack me first well, you get the drift. If my parents didn’t read me the riot act, then the kid’s parents would.

So, what it’s come down to today is that somebody else’s parents weren’t quite so strict, or they weren’t around much because they had lives of their own, and let their kids off easy or they were the role models their kids grew up to be. Those kids get away with murder—some literally—as adults. They grew up to be bankers, financial advisors, vice-presidential candidates and presidents. They’ve grown up to be the bankers who have been handed billions of taxpayer dollars, which, like the entitled brats they are, they refuse to account for. Billions of dollars have been stolen by grown up financial advisers and left investors—big fish and small fry alike— reeling (and a lot less rich) from a pyramid scheme that sounds like a childhood game. A little girl grows up to be a governor with aspirations to the Big White House on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. and decides in a widely watched political debate that she is just not going to answer the moderator’s questions and then flashes an ‘us against them’ wink at the television audience. And then some do make it to the Big White House and blithely make pre-emptive murderous strikes on foreign nations and don’t get even get a ruler thwacked across the knuckles, much less a more appropriately lengthy term in the Big House.

Growing up I learned right from wrong, tripped up a lot and eventually executed said wrong doing with less and less conviction until it became painful enough to make me want to stop. When, as an adult who had chucked organized religion for its failure to live up to any promise and that left only eternal damnation that may or may not pan out, I began to explore philosophies I could learn something from and live with. I was raised as a Lutheran in a church that held candlelight processions along stone pillars bedecked with fresh pine boughs at Christmas and draped the mournful purple cloth over Jesus at the altar on Good Friday where, as a girl desperate for forgiveness, I sat quietly pious in an empty pew for seven hours as the last words from the cross were delivered from the pulpit every hour until there were no more. A fire and brimstone-hurling pastor aptly named Pastor Ripper headed the congregation. I sang in the choir until I was a teenager. My sister and I appeared on a television program called Faith For Today, white robed and singing our angelic little hearts out—a momentary halt of hostilities. Aunts, uncles, and my poor unsuspecting cousins prayed under a different clerestory than we did that the world would be rid of the kind of homosexuals the boys grew up to be. They answered to the evangelical call and were born again, which apart from the hypocrisy I was witnessing firsthand, confounded me no end. Born again? Once is enough, thank you. I don’t want to cower before a god, rely on a god, get pissed off with those that do and then rationalize their ungoldly behavior because they have found god.

Atheism suits me but I am not so narcissistic as to think I don’t still have a lot to learn about hedging one’s bets. And I’ll admit to the heart-racing ghostly sighting and a penchant for German films about
angels tumbling to earth for love. Over the years I have sporadically attended talks at the Shambhala Center in Manhattan, drawn by the Kerouackian sound of their dharma gatherings. I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I do call myself a gleaner. I like the Zen philosophy of “Once you know you can’t un-know.” If anything has kept me relatively crime free it’s been this simple phrase; that, and the ‘do unto others’ chestnut. I was, and still am, an avid reader and until I began exploring further the tenets of Buddhism, inspired in part by the writings of  Pema Chödren, a Buddhist who follows Shambhala tradition, I relied on the witty aphorisms of the likes of Mark Twain: “Be careless in your dress if you will, but keep a tidy soul.” And “If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.” “God made idiots. That was for practice…” For relief from the more dire aspects of life I turned to comedy: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”—Mel Brooks.

This brings me to
Samsara and The Wheel of Misery. What I was doing was looking for a way out of the miseries of life. Catholics had Purgatory. So what if the place itself had been downgraded; sin and its consequences was still a pretty unpleasant notion if you weren’t going directly to heaven. Jews have Gehenna where it might be a year between death and salvation. For Muslims, hell is temporary residency for some who have erred and for the worst evildoers it’s eternal strife with no get-out-of-jail card to be had. Evangelicals have The Rapture. The country club mentality of Protestants suits their religious ends as well. Been good? You’re in the everlasting members-only private club. Bad? You’re not.

Buddhism was a jolt to my not fully released grasp of life after death. Religious afterlife: Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Protestants Evangelicals, Mormons; they all had it going for them. If I could make myself believe there was no hell, maybe there was a heaven; a relentlessly charming afterlife devoid of bankers, politicians, landlords, armed peace officers. Or incarnation! Poor and not nearly as smart as I secretly aspired to be in this life would be rectified when I was born again as a fabulously wealthy do-gooder scholar. Nope. Samsara blew the chips right off the table. Whereas reincarnation might be thought of as kind of do-over, in Buddhist philosophy that just means repeat, repeat, repeat.

If I can’t watch a movie like
Marley and Me in this life because I feel miserable about all those dogs in shelters that get passed up for the costly designer breeds, I can expect the same angst in the next. I’ll never lose the acute hearing I am suddenly cursed with when I overhear conversations on the bus about losing jobs at Christmas. The only way I’ll release myself from samsara (in my humble opinion) is to just stop thinking about it. When we meditate we are meant to stop everything; movement, thought, helping yourself to that extra and wholly unnecessary slice of pumpkin pie.

We meditate so that we can learn to be in the moment. So when The Mister and I see an old friend who is on her own and we accompany her and her expensive but adorable Maltese to the dog run in Riverside Park, I’ll also be aware and invite pleasant passing conversation with a stranger and her newly adopted mixed breed that narrowly escaped being put down at a shelter. I’ll listen for the sympathetic voice in some other stranger’s conversation about lost jobs who counts himself lucky in a schadenfreud kind of way because he’s got his own place. “Nobody’s ass, nobody’s feet but my own. No matter how bad thing’s is goin’, somebody else is got it worse.”

I’ll come to understand misery as a personal journey I need not be on but that no one but me can navigate the map of my own enlightenment. I may be on a journey that takes longer than this present earthly existence to complete, but I’ll continue to seek out the billboards along Transcendental Highway that read: “Happiness does not come from having much, but from being attached to little,” from
Cheng Yen. I’ll return again and again to those earlier signposts from my literary guardians like Virginia Woolf: “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”

Recently I came across a quote from the owner of
Le Cirque on being successful: “You can’t be afraid of anything, but you have to stay nervous all the time. If you aren’t, there is something wrong.”

I’m somewhere between that angst-inducing fog and blissful enlightenment.

Happy Samsara.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


"Whom the gods destroy, they first subsidize."
George Roche, former member of Hillsdale College

Accepting an invitation from a friend, Friday afternoon found The Mister and me at the guarded portals to the Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan's financial district. What better way to take your mind off an economy poised at the edge of the diving board above an olympic-sized pool of depression than the free tour of an institution dedicated to all things money, and especially gold. The recent news of the Made-Off Bandit piqued our curiosity even more. Bernie Madoff, it was reported (ad nauseam) in the media, was "hiding in plain sight," skulking around the upper east side under the "baseball cap of shame."

When we arrived at the entrance to the imposing, if restrained, Italian Renaissance-styled building on Liberty Street I silently congratulated myself, under the studied disinterest of two burly cops, that I had thought to ditch items in my bag like the autobiography of Angela Davis and "The New Abolitionist" newsletter I took from a recent meeting of CEDP (Campaign to End the Death Penalty) before setting out. We put down our bags rattling with dangerous change, loaded cell phones and the long forgotten and now toxically inedible hard candy that should have been confiscated onto the X-ray machine and stepped through a metal detector.

A quick glance through the offered leaflet informed us that when the bank was built, though the period favored structures of unvarying color, a polychromatic stone façade was employed for a building with virtually no decorative embellishment. And unmatched stones meant steep discounts. They could get it for you wholesale, even then.

The lofty interior of the building crisscrossed above us in soaring arches. Fortress-like walls bore the ironwork—some 22 tons of the stuff—of an overly ambitious artisan named Samuel Yellin that made me think of a sanitized version of Piranesi's prison etchings. Ornate flora spiked along the top of the tellers' windows where citizens queued to buy U.S. Securities; clearly the functional aspect of the artisan's handiwork and a disarmingly more charming precursor to the contemporary criminal deterrent of ragged coils of razor wire.

Immediately I was drawn to the seemingly incongruous display of a contemporary pastel-hued vase called "Winter landscape" by Barbara Bonnie Deutsch. Given the setting the accompanying quote was even more confounding: "There are two types of people in the world: the artists and the appreciator. Every artist needs an appreciator and every appreciator has need for an artist."

We waited for the tour to begin and poked respectfully around glass cases of currency on exhibit, mindful of the bored security guard. Out of his range of vision and still ignorant of the fact that the building is lousy with security cameras, like cheeky children we literally poked our fingers into a hologram of a gold bar.

As captivated as I can be by currency (read sarcasm here) I did find the much earlier forms of money quite interesting: salt bound in bamboo; strings of cowrie shells; "hoe" money (I won't go there) and tiny axes. There were the white wampum beads of the Iroquois Indians (and yes, of course I thought of the original fire sale of Manhattan) and woodblock prints on mulberry paper of the Ming Dynasty. Our guide, a thickly-accented Brazilian woman with a gentle demeanor pointed out the "star" of the exhibit and I wondered aloud to The Mister why the American gold coin under glass was called a "Doboo Eegew." I was rewarded with his scornfully whispered retort: "That's a Double Eagle, you wally."

The real attraction of the tour, and probably what was on everyone's mind as we gazed glassy-eyed at multitudinous currencies and activated videos on Crises Management, was the gold vault. We were escorted 80 feet below street level (50 feet below sea level) and stepped out of the elevator onto solid bedrock. For some reason I can't explain, the bedrock beneath my feet really excited me. It's something a New  Yorker hears referred to often (and recalls comfortingly when earthquakes make the evening news) and just as I, as a student, had heard often of Stonehenge, it's not the same until you are right there. Bedrock. It's mystical man.

In the vault, each tourist in our little group, to a person, managed to sidle up to the display of gold bars behind an open-work metal grate and poke a pinky fingernail through to touch the gold as our guide continued her talk. We saw the magnesium clog the workers, called "gold stackers," wore to protect their feet from errant gold bars. We did not see the room where security guards practiced target shooting.

I looked beyond the metal gate to a storage room holding tons and tons of gold and thought: Oh, yeah, the artist and the appreciator.  The artist needs. The appreciator has need for. Here—clearly—lurked the means of the appreciators.

When our guide explained the response of the vault's security system in the event of something, like, say a natural disaster or a terrorist attack like 9/11, and—after asking if any one of us was claustrophobic—the rotating cylinder that could contain us in under 28 seconds began moving and the collective pulse of the group quickened. A total shutdown? Steel bars slamming through the tunnel entrance? Airtight? Watertight? Like a cork in a bottle? 72 hours of available air? Okay, you think, that's three days in which to be rescued until she adds that the air supply would be for one person. Eyes flick nervously around the tiny room. Massive walls of steel-reinforced structural concrete imprisoned us. Who could I take on? Who could take me? Obviously The Mister would have to be spared so, let's see that's 36 hours. If there was a nuclear blast did it matter that this vault could withstand the blast? What would we find above ground? Would my cat Sidney make it? And that clock on the wall, stuck at 3:45 (and it was just after two) and jokingly explained to us that it told the exact time twice a day? Why wasn't that working? Great. How bloody ironic to be surrounded by over 70 billion dollars worth of gold I mad?

The mood was lightened considerably when the vault reopened (full disclosure: it never actually closed completely) and our guide announced that because her family members visiting from Brazil were on the tour with us, she was able to extract a favor from the guards and we would get to hold a bar of gold in our hands. I was the first to get my paws around it. It glowed like a block of neon cheddar and was strangely much heavier than I expected its 28 pounds to feel. (I also wondered about the coincidence of the 28-second shut down time. Was it possible a code so insanely simple as the number 28 was the key to all this? That it was assumed the connection would never be made? Like making your pet's name the password to your computer? Who'd guess that!) The weight was explained, having something to do with gold's density, which I honestly still do not understand. Our guide also shared with us the undocumented myth of the origin of gold's weight: that gold set down on the earth would eventually sink back into the earth because it was never meant to be excavated and would bring destruction. Got a point there.

That said, I watched as an armed guard accompanied the gold brick past a huge scale, which could accurately weigh something as light as a half a grain of rice. The gold was returned to its humble storage bin. I wondered which of the foreign nations that owned most of the gold down there owned that particular brick we had just blithely passed around and did King Whatsisname know we were handling it? Apparently few have ever asked to examine their gold. Maybe the "No Insurance Policy" for foreigners wouldn't be so acceptable if he did know.

We left chatting amiably about wildly inaccurate films like Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Italian Job which coincidentally we had just seen and never once questioned the illogic of those zippy little Mini Coopers unburdened by the actual weight of the gold they were carrying (see previous blog entry "Marriage in the Middle..."). Passing a closed set of wood-paneled doors we spied a sign that declared: "Quiet Please. Meeting in Progress." It took little to imagine the jittery suits seated at the expansive conference room table, wringing their hands and wondering how a nice guy like Bernie could get all his shit past them. Food smells emanated from behind those doors. Maybe they were just having lunch. Above ground again we were rewarded with little cellophane packets of shredded dollars.

Leaving the building with nary a glance from the cops posted there, bundled up once again against the bitter chill of a wet winter afternoon, I thought with all that gold below, surely they should be putting us through the metal detector on the way out. Now, what could we do to take our minds off taking our minds off the economy? Our out-of-touch Congress voted themselves a raise, proving they could effect change and put down their differences. The Mister and I decided to give ourselves a raise and headed off to Trader Joe's Wine Shop.

Good times.

The next day we returned to Wall Street with The Mister's childhood friend, Ted, as bears seem to be running with the bulls these days.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Marriage in the Middle of the Night.

These middle of the night concatenations are brought on by The Mister's earlier inspired blending of eggnog (soy) and rum (definitely not soy), freckled with grated nutmeg.

We indulged in a few hefty glasses of the traditional holiday grog. It's how I deal with Christmas, but that's another story. The Mister becomes hilariously drunk after a few sips. 

Most evenings pre-and post-holidays are spent in productive pursuit of our muses. The Mister's day job makes his free time more precious and when I am less involved in the song writing after the lyrics are done I leave him to the Back Room where he immerses himself in the music, the vocals and finally recording the song in our home studio before posting it on myspace.

I don't have a day job. In fact, I don't have a job. But that's anther story.

Tonight we settled in with our escape tools: the eggnog, stripey-patterned Mexican blankets to snuggle under, which we picked up at a Sante Fe flea market on a trip out west and a dvd. The dvd choice was the Cohen's Burn After Reading. We are both big fans of these filmmakers but disagreed on this one. Bickering ensued throughout. Well, I bicker singlehandedly; he opts as he nearly always does for calm overview, looking for the best parts of the film. I say, she (Frances McDormand) is not right for the role this time and posit unfounded suspicion that there must be trouble in the marriage. The Mister charges me with always looking for the negatives: the "glass half full" theory. I retort that the glass is half full and then go on to complain that Brad Pitt's character was killed off too early in the film. Searching for a positive to counter his rolling eyeball I add: "George Clooney, dreamy as ever though." Of course The Mister, even with a snootful of eggnog, is dreamier still.

We decide on the film for the following evening, being on a mission of denial at the holidays: The Italian Job. He launches into a deadly accurate mimic of Michael Caine and a sly reference to how I trip life's wires: "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off," which pitches me into hysterical laughter. Before turning in, The Mister pops a few charcoal capsules to head off the morning hangover. The moon is full—very full, an amber disc lit from within—and he knows there is no chance of me crawling in beside him before 3 A.M. He leaves me with: "My eye is twitching. I see stars, bright lights." IDS (imminent death syndrome) is predicted and I ask if his insurance is still in place.

So, here I am at my desk in the middle of the night, gazing out the window behind my laptop and wondering about this thing called marriage. Our adored black cat, Sidney Vicious, curls up next to my desk on his chair, prepared to stick it out with his fellow Leo until I call it a night and he follows me to bed; to his pillow beween me and The Mister. A Metro North train blasts a melancholy hoot beyond the silhouetted onion tops of the Russian church. Light traffic below swishes past and I imagine I can hear the ocean waves at Montauk in the soft, shushed retreat. We'll be there for the New Year—our reward for getting through this season.

We have weathered nearly twenty years together, The Mister and me. Not all of it calm. In fact, it's been a bit like the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio Four: very rough at first, often becoming cyclonic. Occasionally moderate or good, sometimes squally, though the gale force of our coupling seems to have died down considerably if not entirely ceased. Fair skies cover our relationship more often than not these days.

We met in Paris, France through friends. He was a bass player then and had been on tour with his band outside of Paris before detouring to the city to see his friends. I was visiting my own friends who had a slender connection to his. It's another story, for sure, but we hit it off immediately (he got my sense of humor), did what couples are expected to do in the love-struck City of Light, impressed and aggravated individual friends and after a few days and nights, with a great sigh of relief I bid him safe journey back to London. I say relief because then I was a footloose painter who had come to Paris intent on finding a way to stay and paint in the south of France and unwilling to commit to anything more than hot and heavy and most importantly, casual sex. One failed marriage had been enough for me and I swore never to cross that line again.

Cut to the present nearly, as I said, twenty years on the other side of that line. The Mister's dogged determination pitched us dazedly in front of a clerk at City Hall in lower Manhattan less than a year after we met and most of that time had been spent apart. Two weeks after that he returned to London and his band for some months.

But we are still here, I mull, as I search the darkened buildings for signs of life on the block. A pumpkin-colored glow snaps on in a window across the road when the cacophonous exit from the bar on the corner giddily shatters the silence until the shrieks of laughter from the young women and bawdy bellowing from the men disappear as quickly as it arrives and the night becomes silent again.

We met. We married. There has been much shrieking and bellowing over the years, mostly (okay, okay, all of it) from me. But there's laughter too. He came to the marriage with the tightly folded contents of his proper English baggage. Straight off I tore into the disheveled, bruised mess in my battered baggage with seemingly no compunctions while he furtively, over time, rooted out the less savory and more rumpled bits of his family history. We duked it out until we exhausted that method and slipped into the only alternative left for two people in love: We found a way to make it work.

He often leaves me love notes; makes me a cup of green tea before he leaves for the day job. We squabble in the song writing process, where the squabbling makes sense in the end. Even when I start us out on a darker note, he always manages to bring it around to a love song. I can still be a pain in the ass but have channeled my nervous creative energy into writing a novel which will be posted in successive chapters in the New Year. He indulges my refusal to return to the corporate world where I never fit in and exhausted myself from the effort of not trying. He encourages me to pursue the writing. We aren't rich financially—far from it—as two people living on a single moderate income is a challenge these days. But we have circled the wagons, hunkered down to our creative path and find we are much richer than we have ever been.

My eye catches a note The Mister has left for me. As long as these notes keep appearing and until I uncover two plane tickets to Zürich, a reservation at a spa called Dignitas and discover only one of the plane tickets is round trip, then I think we're doing just fine. 


Monday, December 8, 2008

Getting Started.

Coming to the Blogosphere for the first time, I expect to start slowly and cautiously down Bloggers Lane until I get the hang of it all. My goal is to have everything in place for the New Year: the photos and the musings of a sixty-something native New Yorker; stories I can recall (as well as make up!) from my past written towards the idea for a fictional Memoir of a Screecher. The novel I have written in the past few years—A Birdhouse in Brooklyn—will be posted by chapter, serialized on this blog, if you will. 

I started actively living as a painter in my youth. New York was a gloriously seedy place of freedom, with none of the Disnified Mallification that has crimped its former style. But things change. I have changed; not always of my own volition but even when the Boot of Fate was doing the kicking I consciously or unconsciously agreed with the direction. That lovely, discriminating and sometimes bewildering and frightening Boot kicked me to Paris, France where I met my future husband, a British musician. The Boot kicked me into a marriage which has sometimes riotously sustained itself for 20 years. Circumstances wedged me into a spot too tightly to continue painting and make a living. Making money was a soul-sucking endeavor but it was, for over fifteen years, comparatively easy money. The Boot kicked my nagging conscious around a little and nudged me into a different creative direction with The Mister. We began songwriting together, while he records and performs the songs. Still, the Golden Handcuffs chafed. Finally, I was kicked out of the lucrative corporate job and the Boot kept kicking as I made my half-hearted way through the corporate channels of hell until I saw the Light. 

I began to write in earnest. The novel was started while I collaborated on a screenplay of an original idea of mine with a former co-worker who had also felt the Boot. We went our separate ways but I was convinced I had a good story in me and threw myself into writing a novel that came out of personal experiences during and after 9/11, paths detoured, complicated friendships weathered and love reconnected.

I call the blog "The American Friend" because I communicate with distant friends in other countries. One friend in particular is a writer who lives in Barcelona. We share many stories, ideas and collaborations. We share a great love of the Wim Wenders film. 

I am her American Friend.

Sunday, December 7, 2008