Merry Christmas From New York

I was headed downtown to visit friends in from far away.  After a groggy start to Christmas Day, a day that generally fills me with despair,  I was running late, well after the time I’d told my friend I’d aim for.   I had a twenty minute or so southward train ride to get there, then a short walk west.  

As you approach the elevated Number One line at Dyckman Street you can see up the track almost to the next station north.   If you see the southbound train coming around that bend, experience teaches you can catch that train if you run into the station, Metrocard in hand, and make a smart dash straight up the steep steps.  

I went through the turnstile and made my dash smartly, but there was no train.  The one I’d seen, apparently a mirage.  There was no train on the horizon either.  I noticed how winded I was, I’ve run up these stairs many times– this was the most winded I’ve been.  I walked it off.  

At the end of the platform a man was talking on the phone with his back to me.  He had a baby carriage with him.  The baby was also turned away from me, but I noticed how solicitous the man was, walking the baby carriage in little circles to soothe the baby.  I watched them absently for a moment, thinking of the human parent’s instinct, if everything falls right, to comfort their child.  I recall feeling impressed with how this guy was taking care of his baby.

The train came.  The man turned the baby carriage slightly to move his child on to the train.  I could now see that the baby was a full grown beagle, sitting very patiently upright in the baby carriage.   I made a note to tell this story to my friends when I arrived, but as things happened I forgot about it.

We exchanged handshakes, hugs and pleasantries and then my friend said “I have a small gift for you,” as if remembering some trifle.  He went into the other room and returned with the best gift anybody has ever given me, possibly the best gift anyone has ever given anybody.  “It’s really nothing,” he said, handing me a hard-shell ukulele case with the imprint of a palm tree on its shell.

Over the years my friend has mentioned a dream image he has, of himself, sitting on a porch somewhere beautiful at sunset after his work day is done.  His work would be gently but firmly bending wood, plying it, smoothing it, skillfully using tools to turn beautiful wood into a beautiful musical instrument.  In another life, he’d have loved to have been a luthier.  

A few years ago he took a course from a master luthier and made a tenor ukulele, out of beautiful wood, over the course of several weeks.  He sent me photos of it at the time and mildly self-effacing comments about the instrument when it was done.   I opened the case and there was the hand-made ukulele, a very beautiful one.  Everyone I showed it to later could not help stroking it.  It is lovingly detailed, with several unique flourishes, and finished to the texture of perfect skin or something like that.  It is so silky that it’s hard not to pet it if you hold it in your hands.   Everyone who held it did.

It plays beautifully, with a rich tone I haven’t heard from most ukuleles.   He also somehow rigged the lowest string to be in a lower octave, as on a guitar, making this uke a much more useful instrument to play melodies on.  I smiled as I played a little Django ending that had been impossible to play on my other ukes.  Sekhnet could not stop commenting on its beautiful tone, just as I could not stop playing it in the car after we left our friends.  

“What an amazing gift!” Sekhnet said, “I hope you really thanked him.”  I assured her I did.  I think I did, I’m sure I did, I had to have.  Of course, now that I’ve played it for hours, and re-tuned it to concert pitch, I’ll sing its praises some more when I talk to him tomorrow.  He’d looked at the label inside, with his name and the year he made it, 2009, and told me, since he never played it (although he certainly could), that I should have it, since I would play it.  I certainly am playing it.

I played it happily for an hour or so in the background with Sekhet’s family.  Each of them had admiringly held and petted the beautiful instrument, a few even strummed the open chord it plays if you don’t finger the frets.  I then played it all the way back to the city.  When we got back I was concerned that the constantly sleep deprived Sekhnet get some sleep.  I left her and walked to the subway to head uptown.

Being Christmas, it was only natural that the train service would be fucked up.   The high-tech interactive electronic information signs on the subway platform gave random misinformation.   According to the fancy new sign the next A train was a Brooklyn-bound one scheduled to arrive in 46 minutes (average wait is supposed to be about twelve minutes).  There was no information about any uptown trains at all.   “We’re working harder to serve you better,” I said finally to two other sour-faced men waiting for information on the uptown train to take them home Christmas night.

A moment later there was an incomprehensible PA announcement and a Brooklyn-bound A train rumbled in on the downtown platform.   Another announcement began as the Brooklyn-bound train was departing, making a great racket across the station.

The MTA had decided, in its infinite puckishness, to have the crackling, irrelevant, over-driven announcement delivered by the employee with the heaviest and hardest to decipher foreign accent.   I don’t know where this guy was born, but I’m sure the last thing his parents ever dreamed of for him was delivering this incomprehensible message to disgusted New Yorkers over the public address system moments after the end of Christmas Day. I have no idea what he said, but I do recall sincerely muttering something about fucking retards that I do not now feel very proud about having muttered.  

A dirty, smelly beggar was striking out as he made his way toward me on the platform.  He’d start to speak and get waved off.  I saw this happen a few times, found I had a single dollar bill in my pocket and thought “what the fuck?”   When he came toward me I handed him the dollar, which he dropped.  

Before he picked it up, he looked me in the eyes and asked “could you please help me out with two or three more?”  I told him I didn’t have it.  It was true.  My other bills were twenties, and outside of that, I had two pennies.  He continued down the platform and I was reminded of my dislike of people who don’t have the grace to say thanks. 

On the uptown A, which finally arrived, a large man asked “may I sit next to you?”  This is not a question anybody phrases this way on the New York City Subway.  It was the only seat in the car, and I nodded, almost imperceptibly, and without looking up from my book, only because it was the right thing to do.  

Then, because you know what they say about unpunished good deeds, he began humming in a soulful way, and turned his head toward me as I tried to read, which made his humming suddenly way too loud.  He began to sing, in the same manner as his humming, turning his head like a slow moving leslie-speaker to heighten the effect.  

He did that African spiritual-inspired melisma, making every quavering note a long, stylized, if cliched, statement of his soul.   After a few minutes of this I wanted to do something to make him stop. I thought about my vow to remain mild and kept reading.  

A seat opened across the way, and I took it.  I couldn’t hear his fucking singing from over there, and it was a relief.  Suddenly, I smelled ass, dirty feet, filthy clothes.  The smell was coming from the seat behind me, turned out to be a homeless woman.  But the smell wasn’t that bad, it was better than the fucking soul singer.  

The singer got off a few stops later and I went back to where I’d been sitting.  I watched the poor homeless woman, who appeared to be very much insane.  I thought of the almost infinite varieties of suffering in this world, and of God and the mythical baby Jesus weeping over it all, less than an hour after Christmas.  I  took out the ukulele, played a bit of Django’s version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and put the lovely instrument into its protective case as the train pulled into Dyckman Street.

As I walked up the hill to my apartment, carrying the perfect tenor ukulele my old friend had made, I thought of the blessings of this life. Those blessings are not the physical things everyone is taught to covet, of course, but what lies behind them, what we might call their spiritual dimension– what they represent in terms of our souls.   If the physical manifestation is also a beautiful thing, that’s ideal.

I thought of my friend’s ancient mother, now well-past ninety and noticeably much older than the last time I saw her, not that long ago.  She made mention tonight of her approaching death.  I’d never heard her speak of death, but when I quickly broached the subject of Trump, during a moment when her son had gone back upstairs to fetch something she’d forgotten, she told me that the only good in it for her is that this would be a good time for her to die.  

I told her that my mother, at the end of her life, had begged me to promise her that Sarah Palin would never be the president.  I made the promise and I’m as sure as it is reasonable to be that Sarah Palin will never be the president of the United States.  There are things as unthinkable as President Sarah Palin, but that’s an imponderable story for another time.

When I put her son’s ukulele in her hands she immediately began stroking it.   She admired it for a long time, and mused about how many other hidden talents her talented son had (he was cooking a delicious smelling dinner at the time).  

Later, sitting around the coffee table, my friend’s mother smiled, and pointed at her son and her grandson, huddled over the young man’s cellphone, looking at photos of some of the grandson’s recent architectural projects, I assume.   To her daughter, with a big smile, she said “kvelling…” This is Yiddish for a parent’s pleasure in seeing their child do something that makes them kvell with pride.  The daughter looked at her blankly and asked “who?”   

“Me,” said the old woman happily, as she pointed to her chest with a gnarled hand.

Pants

The hospital room was quite cool and they didn’t seem to have enough blankets for some reason.  Down in the E.R. they’d brought me a heated blanket, which was delightful.  But once I checked in, put on a hospital gown, began shivering, the nurse told me they had to look for a blanket for me.  Meanwhile she covered me with several sheets, which almost did the trick.

A couple of hours later a guy came in to wheel me to the room where they do the stress test.  I told him I wanted to grab my pants, since I was cold.  He assured me I wouldn’t need pants.  

As we rolled I told him I wouldn’t need them if I was getting right on a treadmill to start running.  He smiled, doing his only job, pushing the patient in the wheelchair.  I noted idly that he had pants, and so did everyone else we passed in the chilly  corridors on the way to the echo room.

In the refrigerated suite where they do the stress test, I was the only person without pants.  I asked a worker there if he could get me some pants.  I pointed out that everyone else had pants and that’s probably why nobody else was particularly cold.  He assured me he’d find me some pants, then twenty minutes or so passed and I still had no pants.

“I’ll be right back,” I announced, getting out of my wheelchair, “I’m going back to my room to get my pants.”  

The original pants promiser called out that he’d bring me pants, and a few moments later came back with a pair of blue cotton hospital pants with a drawstring at the waist.   Perfect, thank you.  

I felt much better having pants.  Something as simple as a pair of fucking pants sometimes can make all the difference, if you know what I’m saying.  

Four or five hours later, when my twenty minute stress test was finally complete, I called out as I was being wheeled away “and thank you for the pants.”  The man who brought them to me smiled, the circle of small kindnesses now complete.

Gratefulness 101

It’s an often annoying cliche: we are happier and healthier being grateful for the good things we have than being bitter or anxious about the things we don’t have.  No less true for being an annoying cliche, of course.   I am grateful today, for breath going smoothly and deeply in through both nostrils, quietly out the same way.  

Pain in the chest, radiating down the left arm, numb hand suddenly tingling with pins and needles.  Doctor told you months ago the left atrium, one of four chambers of your heart muscle, is very weak, need to see a cardiologist, who will call.  No cardiologist calls, instead promises: two weeks, one week, any day.  No day.  Then one day, amidst payment denials from agents of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, pain in the chest.    Directly over where the left atrium would be, here we go…. just to be safe, a trip to the Emergency Room.  

Twenty thousand dollars in state of the art medical testing and a day in the hospital later — a relatively clean bill of heart health.   Cleared to resume strenuous exercise.  

Bike ride the next day with two friends who have not fallen out of shape in fear of heart attack.  A pleasure, even if I was sweaty and gassed after a relatively short and not very strenuous ride.  I cannot describe to you the crispness of the world, the trees, the people, the deliciousness of cold water, of each deep breath, the miracle of the entire enterprise of being alive.  

It’s all a cliche, of course.  You really had to be there.  But I am one grateful dog today, still.

Minimalist

If I was a successful minimalist how different would my life be?   When Etgar Keret mentions the ‘inherent laziness that has plagued me for so many years’ it’s delightful to picture.  If I say it, of myself, it’s not that delightful.  Everything is a bit more delightful when you’re getting paid, and recognized for what you can do, but that’s only part of it.

Phone call from Albi, France interrupted my train of thought.  My dear, lost friend, taking care of his mostly paralyzed mother, apologizes that he was too depressed for the last six years to be in touch.    Which made me feel a bit better, I’d only been depressed and avoiding people for a year and a half.  

He reports that his hair is now white, he feels eighty and he has a chronic back ache from carrying his mother everywhere for the last seventeen years.

Seventeen years!” I exclaim.  “What a punchline to an inspirational story!” (start at paragraph five)   

His manic-depressive mother had made tremendous progress during the first ten years of his care.  She had regained the use of her body to an extent that baffled doctors.   Doctors kept predicting she would die soon, that this procedure would be her last.  He wheels her to the funerals of one dead doctor after another, a cigarette propped jauntily in her mouth.

Then, during a split-second of distraction, she slipped from his arms, landed hard, needed an operation.  The anesthesia put the 87 year-old back to square one.  She’s now almost ninety-four, and although sometimes quite cantankerous, can’t talk.  He has to conduct both sides of their arguments, which is exhausting.  He loves her and has no regrets about his choice to care for her, but feels a certain wistfulness to realize he’s been her selfless and unpaid caretaker for the last seventeen years.

We had a few good laughs, between talking about the many reasons for being too depressed to pick up the phone.   Then it was time for him to make sure his mother wasn’t choking in the next room and for me to get back to thinking about the important work I need to be doing.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, Part 23

There has been a lot of recent research on the changes in brain chemistry, the physical structure of the brain itself, and even the DNA, of children who experience abuse, neglect, hunger, things that scar them for life.   There is a great, short video presentation by a brilliant pediatrician, Nadine Burke Harris, clearly setting out the lifelong health consequences of terrible childhood experiences.  Fifteen minutes well spent, the link is here.   

An old friend was telling me about a recent experiment where they abused baby rats until their brains’ plasticity was gone.  This is apparently one effect of child abuse, we can think of it as  hardening certain areas of the brain that need to be flexible. Which makes the reaction of someone with this injured brain more extreme and painful than the reaction of someone with a pliable brain that can, literally, stretch and roll with the seemingly, to the un-abused person, minor punch.

This friend and I both identify with this kind of rat, the unfortunate subjects of this brain experiment, and our struggle to behave as well as possible is something we have always supported in each other.   The main thing you need when hurt, particularly if you’re an abuse survivor, is empathy for your hurt, so you don’t feel crazy to be suffering what you are — and so you look for empathy, but through a fog of pain.

My friend told me the experimenters, when they were done torturing these baby rats to sufficiently fuck up their brains, administered some drug and watched the effect on the little rats’ personalities.  The drug apparently restored their brain plasticity, or elasticity, or whatever it was.  The twitching rats became calm and cuddly.

We laughed that there might be hope for us yet.  There might be, there might not be.  But the laugh certainly didn’t hurt in any case.

Dueling Douche Bags in the New Jersey Night

Friedman and I once went to hit golfballs at a NJ driving range on a Saturday night some time in the 1980s.  Neither of us had ever done it and we both sucked badly at it. Standing side by side we snorted and giggled as we hit dribblers and sideways three hoppers.  Almost assuredly we were also somewhat intoxicated as we tried to drive golfballs for the first time.  

Making the obvious assumption of the homophobic day (and fair enough, given the optics), two self-respecting macho Jerseyites walking to their cars behind us loudly exchanged a sneering comment about the two girlish fags taking their homo hacks. Nowadays that witless comment seems hideous but quaint, but at the time, the words made my ears burn.

My next swing was like Mantle driving a golf ball, I hit it flush and sent a long drive to the back of the lot there (my only decent shot of the night).  

I could swear I heard the two homos behind me clam up simultaneously.  Very satisfied, I felt, as I hit the next sixty sissified dribblers, although Friedman and I, more self-conscious now, tried a bit harder to suppress our giggles.

Life As Metaphor

Thought I was on my way yesterday to meet a guy I haven’t seen in about thirty years.   A scamp texted that this likable fellow, who had been spotted recently, would be joining us for lunch.  As my life does not have the recognizable shape of most people’s I know, measured in a real-world career one can speak of, I thought of what I would say when he asked what I was up to.  I mused about this as I made the long trek by public transportation to a $40 snack with old friends.  

“I am living my life as metaphor,” I was planning to tell him.  He’d give me his patented puzzled look and I’d explain.

“For example, I founded a highly successful child-run public relations firm for the children of the doomed.”  

“Hell of a name for a P.R. firm,” he’d say.

“A metaphor,” I’d say.  

“From this you make a living, from the children of the damned?  Someone pays you for this?”

“Metaphorically,” I’d say.  “Of course, here in the literal world, everybody would know the first thing you need to have before even thinking about undertaking such a project is a funder — in addition to a name making no mention of the horrible fact that millions of American children, and billions worldwide, are in fact doomed, the children of the damned.  Some generous corporation or rich individual to pay people to do the work you have dreamed up for making the world a marginally more hopeful, playful place.”  

“From this you do not make a living,” he would say.  

“Again, metaphorically.  I’m alive, I’m making, I’m living.  Who’s to say my life dreaming in metaphors is any less rich than that of the billionaire who wakes early each day to go into combat for even more, and who once or twice a month sits on a board that decides whose big ideas will live and whose will die.  Which fledgling organization will wax rich and which will fall like the dry grass.”  

“Metaphorically speaking,” he would say.

“You were always a man who could grasp a metaphor,” I’d tell him.

“Metaphorically,” he’d say, with Talmudic precision.  “You got any more?”  

“One has a choice in life, I’ve discovered, between bitterness and happiness.  I choose to be happy, extremely and unremittingly fucking happy.  You got that, man?”  

“You are singing to the choir director, mein friend,” he would say, and I’d watch the famous Cheshire Cat smile spread across his gigantic, cherubic face like a metaphor for the Moshiach and the World to Come.