Life, the Universe, and Everything

Plague Poems #21

PandemicMoi

Ode

I see it through a scrim now
the blue sky, the trees in leaf,
and realize again that seeing
is not simply looking.

When you haven’t been outside
more than twice in 73 days
except to walk to the trash cans,
Outside becomes mythical, mystical,
a radically new place
as unreachable as deep space
and as filled with surprising beauty
amidst its dangers:
birdsong riotous in the sudden quiet;
air fresher than most of us remember,
and the sky so damn blue; Johnny Jump-ups
left to riot across the lawn,
reseeding themselves in a stealth reclamation
as we recede like a long tide.
Weather passing through.

Even the light has changed,
filtered through glass and sheers,
fractured by blinds,
it flashes its constituent colors
like a shy flirt,
and paints itself wantonly everywhere,
now wearing the veil of curtains,
now filling your room like an empty glass,
never the same on each object it touches
and always changing them,
especially your face.

Other beauty emerges along with it
as the business of making money
stutters, grinds, stops.
There is art everywhere suddenly,
emerging from the shadow of commerce
(though it was always there)
out of the clearing smoke of dead factories
and burning banks,
the sublime, the absurd, the sublimely absurd:
empty trash cans, barren park benches, abandoned construction sites
overrun with gigantic flower arrangements in Manhattan,
a tugboat on the Thames blaring
“Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,”
the concert pianist and his instrument on a lone barge
in the empty canals of Venice,
the klezmer clarinetist riffing on his Brooklyn stoop
joined by a shofar,
whole neighborhoods singing,
singing from their balconies and windows,
show tunes and love songs and defiance and solidarity,
singing for our lives with
the Zoom choruses and bands, for
the new murals on hospital walls
thanking the people saving us,
and the photographers roaming the emptied streets
to show us the lonely architecture of our world without us
and the wild originality of our countenances
in our new masks—

and the hidden beauty
we’ll only see when we can open our doors again
to others:
the house filled with painted flowers,
the shawls and quilts and blankets and scarves,
the bread and beer we’ve learned to make,
the masterpieces of still life and portrait,
sculptures and glass and jewelry,
and all the creations that come out of us
when we go inside and close the door
to the world.

And the poems and stories, of course.
Because some of us have only words
to spin and weave and paint with,
to capture light
and hold up the refracting mirror.

Pay attention.

Don’t forget how to see.
Don’t close your eyes again.
Don’t open the door too soon.

‒May 20, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #20

PandemicMoi

Headspace

‒Day 78. Hat tip to Allyson Beatrice for her brutal honesty and a line too well-phrased to pass up.

How are you? No, really—
How are you?

A throwaway greeting, a social nicety,
grease in the community wheel.

Fine, fine.

I’m great.

I’m good.

I’m okay.

I’m hanging in there.

I’m not so great.

I’m more-than-blue.

I’m terrified.

I’m weeping uncontrollably at odd times

for no immediate reason except that
I’m in a fucking preventable pandemic,
living in a science fiction movie and
life is more uncertain than ever before
and I cannot wrap my head around its strangeness
despite all those years of exposure to the accurate fictions
and to the hyperreal warnings and
I don’t know when this will end
or how it will end and endings are always the hardest part
to get right.

I’m freaked out that there are so many people
doing stupid things that endanger us all,
so many people who think their
greed at the expense of people
they don’t think of as people is just fine,
so many who think a mask
somehow strangles their balls or makes them puppets,
so many who think their right to eat out
and get their nails done and go to the gym
is more important than others’ rights
to breathe and walk in the sun and just live,
and leaders who are just in it for their own ego,
not an altruistic, empathetic, responsible centimeter of bone
in their ravaged old bodies.

And because of them, I’m afraid I’ll lose or have already lost
everything I know, or someone I love.

I’m overwhelmed by sadness due to being just fine:
working from home in a pleasant, safe space,
ordering in and cooking, meeting the delivery people with massive tips
—from a safe distance!—
assuaging my guilt by trying to help others
with minuscule donations like putting my finger in the leaking dyke
of bankruptcies and mortgage defaults and homelessness and hunger
when the government that should be supporting us all has
merely taken our taxes and run, and the companies
they worked for rewarded their loyalty by absorbing,
amoeba-like, the cost of their salaries and benefits
to redistribute to their stockholders, not seeing or not caring
that deluge that’s coming when the dam of misery
cracks open
will sweep them away too
when the bodies wash up to their locked compounds
and batter down the gates.

And I miss being in the presence of my family and friends
in the holy communion of sharing of food and words and air
and that ineffable, unnamable thing that’s there
when we are together in the same room, around the same table
in the everyday ceremony of breaking bread together.
I miss that moment of recognition and joy
when we are meeting somewhere and
they hove into view through the crowd,
the familiar, beloved face in the sea of strangers.
I miss the embrace of arms around my shoulders,
the comfort of the full-body hug,
the peck of lips, the brush of cheeks against my own
I miss the glow of their bodies next to mine
in summer sun, in restaurants, at my own table.
I miss even knowing
I can get on a plane, in a car, on a train or a bus
and go see them in their varied loving flesh
any goddamned time I want.

I’ve watched the spread of death across the world
and it has fucked me up something fierce.

That’s how I am.
You?

‒May 17, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #18

PandemicMoi

Abyss

We used to go for months—
sometimes years
—without seeing each other,
without speaking, even,
picking right up where we left off
over dinner and drinks
when one of us flew into town.
These are the best friendships,
we insisted, then, the strongest, when
you’re not in each others’ pockets
all the time.

And now we can’t be.

At best, we must,
for the sake of love,
stand six feet away,
air hugging and blowing kisses while masked,
handing off gifts and supplies
(which have become the same thing:
yeast, flour, bleach)
like a ransom drop,
latex or nitrile between us,
shouting down the street a muffled
Goodbye! Goodbye!
thinking, I hope that’s not the last.

Even letting that thought
seep up into consciousness
feels like a betrayal, a jinx,
like asking for it.

I always thought
I’d be good at this,
being thrown into solitary
in some imaginary place
where I am persecuted for my beliefs,
whatever they are,

until I discovered I’m not,

even here in my own comfortable home.
Perhaps if it were involuntary, or
something more radical,
something more righteous,
an enemy less invisible and
more political, an act more heroic
than saving somebody else’s life
with a piece of cloth and shouting distance,
than saving my friends and loved ones,
than merely keeping the abyss
from devouring us.

‒May 13, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #16

PandemicMoi

R.I.P. Gem Spa. 

The layout will play merry hell with my linebreaks in the first couple of stanzas. Holler if you want to see how it really looks on the page.

Asteroid, After

Here when I arrived 34 years ago
at the corner of St. Marks and Second—
the walk over from the edge of the Village at
Cooper Square was a bazaar and gantlet of books
and comics and records and platform shoes and head shop
paraphernalia and cheap Mexican silver jewelry and sunglasses
and that crazy crack house that masqueraded as a community center
and tattoo parlors and vegetarian restaurants before they were cool and night
markets of stolen goods recycling through the neighborhood and all-the-time markets
of smoke-smoke and other recreations, holes in the wall with music and poetry and a wall
of sound from open doors and the bars closing at 4 a.m. and pizza parlors open all night, and
the egg creams with neither egg nor cream but all of New York inside a fizzing chocolate glass

from Gem Spa—

the Punks and Rockers and immigrants and college kids, the lost tourists, the runaway misfit souls
who found home, Lou and Allen and Patti, and their audiences and acolytes, and us, and later, the off-
spring of those Punks and Rockers and immigrants and misfits, stealing sodas and smokes and porn mags, buying a lotto ticket and an egg cream to make up for it.

Neighborhood icon and landmark,
neither crack nor heroin could kill it,
nor AIDS nor NYU,
though lord knows the banks tried
(what a valuable piece of property,
that corner),
saved once from oblivion, and now

gone again.

Little places are dying out, and the ordinary people
who make a neighborhood. It’s the opposite
of the asteroid hitting the earth
and wiping out the lumbering behemoths
(though some of them are keeling over too,
already old and sickened by the Internet)
leaving the scampering proto-monkeys
to hunker down in the ash and cold
and wait for the climate to warm up again,
all the while growing the brains and brawn
for survival in a new world.

After this is over,
will we hand over all the empty storefronts
suffocated by the tourniquet applied to our streets
to the people who don’t live here
who will rent them out to boardrooms in Kansas
who think they know just what New Yorkers need?

I’m afraid of what the City will be like
on the other side of this,
that I won’t know it anymore,
and worse, won’t like it.
Times Square was just a start,
the erasure of poetry
on the marquees of the peep show houses
a harbinger of the death of whimsy
to make way for Disney.
No neighborhood is safe
from tourists, but any place safe for them
is not worth living in.
There should be real dirt, the sharp edges
of real life,
not Naked Cowboys and Elmo grifting for Chrissakes,
to keep them from moving in.

Still, Gem Spa looked on slyly
while the East Village devoured alive
that Gap store across from their corner,
and up the street Trash and Vaudeville laughed
and flipped them the finger, then soldiered on
in their steel-toed Doc Martens
after the ashes of Downtown
settled like fallout and the waters of the East River
rose to wash them away.

We can do this.
Swallow hard. Hunker down. Wait.
And then
let us sing Patti and Fred’s winter’s tale
of vagrant hearts prevailing.
Seize the air rights of sky
until the behemoths are
gone again
and it’s just us monkeys.

‒May 10, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Plague Poems #13

PandemicMoi
On the heels of the realization that T-Rump is trying to kill us because he knows he can't get re-elected now, this seemed appropriate:
 
Curse
 
April 28, 2020, 3:55 p.m. EDT: After three months, the United States hits 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, one-third of the world’s total. By 5:40 p.m., 58,640 Americans had died—352 more than in 19 years of the Vietnam War.
 
What wall will we build for this?
Will it be pieces of that rusted steel
joke at the southern border, dismantled and
the names of the dead etched in acid
or carved through with fire?
 
I no longer have the words for this.
There is not enough articulate invective
to rain down
what this man and his minions
deserve in their exploitation and failure.
Even the careless recommendation
of cake to the starving
does not meet this benchmark of cruelty and
sadistic disregard for human life.
 
The war dead already mock him
in his cowardice.
But we too are in a war, and too busy
trying to live without the help
that is going to those who don’t need it
to have time for mere outrage.
It requires something cosmic:
 
—a lightning strike,
burning him up on the spot,
his corpulence catching fire
like one of Nero’s torches
on his Virginia golf course
 
—a funnel cloud reaching down
from the blue heaven of Florida
to sweep him into its bosom
and drop him from 10,000 feet
at Mar-a-Lago
 
—a meteorite, just a tiny one,
the fiery iron core all that’s left
from its trip through the atmosphere,
like a bullet through his head
outside his tower on Fifth Avenue.
 
And a timeless internal moment
of the utter awakening of his conscience
to the facts of his deeds
and their consequences
to torture him
beforehand.
 
‒April 30, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020
 

Plague Poems #5

PandemicMoi

Briefing

“And you don’t have the right, frankly, to take … people who are literally putting their lives on the line and be cavalier or reckless with them.”
‒New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, April 25, 2020.

And if not for yourself and your family

then for your neighbor’s kid with leukemia
your friend’s friend with the new kidney
for the workers making
your inconvenience
merely inconvenient
the people making a different
sacrifice
more dangerous than yours
the grocery clerks and restockers
the delivery people
bringing you food
and masks and cat litter
bringing you the Amazon snake oil
of possessions
to make you feel better
in your isolation
until the EMTs and the ambulance
come to cart you
hacking and fevered
to a stroke or a ventilator
or a frigid mortuary truck
that last hauled frozen food
like you’re so much meat
to a data point in the statistics
or leave you to a small room
with your family
to sweat it out
and fucking pray like you haven’t in years
or ever
like the nurses and doctors and orderlies and respiratory therapists
pray every single moment of consciousness
to save your ass
and their own
and the bus and subway drivers and cleaners
the bank tellers and pharmacists
the garbage collectors
the police and firefighters
the engineers at the power and water plants
the folks keeping your internet going
and the gas stations open
where you fondle the handles
not knowing where they’ve been
or who touched them before you
without gloves—

For Christ’s sake, for Allah’s, for Buddha’s and Krishna’s
for the sake all the small and large gods of the world
but Mammon—

Stay. The. Fuck. Home.

‒26 April, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Gratitude, Schmatitude

BitchbuttonHappy Colonial Holiday, everyone. That should tell you what kind of a mood I'm in. Well, not really, but I was trying to write one of those gratitude lists because it is the Appointed Day On Which We Should All Be Thankful. And my id was just Not Having It. I started it twice, after "accidentally" erasing the first one, then gave up. I've learned to listen to the noise of my Freudian lingerie flapping in the breeze, so I headed over here to ponder it instead.

It's not that I'm not grateful for oh so many things and people; I'm not that big an asshole. I can tell you right now one of the things I'm resisting is showing how grateful I am on this particular day by doing that particular thing. I'm really bad at that kind of conformity. I get very sneery about it because I don't trust it. I don't trust it because it's not of the moment. I cherish most the spontaneous expression of emotions, when they come bursting out of us because they must. Even anger. If you've had to build that up, I'm gonna be mad at you that you didn't say something sooner. Maybe it's just me, but I can't tell you how often I feel like Cordelia and the rest of the world is Lear:

KING LEAR

Tell me, my daughters,—
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,—
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

CORDELIA

[Aside] What shall Cordelia do?
Love, and be silent.

Ugh Ugh Ugh. Pernicious, manipulative, selfish old man. This is what the enforced gratitude of Thanksgiving feels like to me. It's performative, to use one of my new favorite words. And it's not that we don't need a bit of performative grease to make the wheels of social interaction run more smoothly. Of course we do. The performative is not always false and insincere, but that's exactly how having a special day of gratitude feels to me: false and insincere. It also, like church on Sundays and confession, too often lets people off the hook for the rest of the time. Like, I said I was grateful for you all at Thanksgiving. What more do you want?


Second thanksgivingThen there's the public nature of it. One of the lessons from years of Bible study that formed an integral part of my ethical foundation is Matthew 6:5. "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full." Public prayer is performative as well, or can be, even when you are standing in representation for the people around you. It's a tool televangelists use all the time to manipulate their audiences and signal their holiness and how blessed by god they are. Public gratitude always strikes me this way too; there's an element of bragging in it. Look how lucky (rich) I am to have all these things to be grateful for! That's the part that makes me really uncomfortable, the similarity to bragging. 

Granted, not everybody is like this. I read some really beautiful, thoughtful, and heartfelt expressions of gratitude today on Facebook. All of them were from people I'm friendly with and hope someday to meet in the flesh and call them Friend. They were from people I admire, who do good work, who are themselves thoughtful in their expressions and compassionate in their responses and lives, as far as I can tell. They're the people who are going to make leaving FB hard, the folks I'm going to have to work at staying in touch with. They seem genuine to me. And I'm grateful for the opportunity of "knowing" them, even virtually.

And here's the thing, finally: I'm grateful every goddamn day, more so, the older I get. Grateful to wake up, grateful to be alive, grateful for the people who demonstrably (and otherwise) love me, for my job, for my apartment, for #JillybeanCalico, for being born where I was (though that one's getting a little dicey now), for good English Breakfast tea, for the hit of cold brew heroin caffeine in the mornings, for the steak I'm going to grill tonight, and the pumpkin pie that's in the oven. I'm grateful for everything, too much to list, that makes my life not just bearable survival, but actually good: music, art, conversation, books, Scotch, beer, good food, my education, my former students, a body that still works pretty well, the City of New York.

Life is goddamn wonder. How can I not be grateful with every breath? Even when I'm bitching. I'm grateful I can bitch.

And while I'm bitching, can I bitch about the bullshit story of Thanksgiving we teach our kids? Frankly, I much prefer Heather Cox Richardson's story of the origins of Thanksgiving to the one we're taught in school. The positively turning tide of a war against slavery seems like a great reason to be thankful. I don't know how this got tangled with the the Pilgrims (Anybody? Bueller?), who were not the kindest or most compassionate people in the world. It could do with a good untangling because the real story of our colonialism on this land is nothing to be thankful for. If you're going to be grateful, you should thank the people whose land we stole, that they don't murder us in our beds as they have every right to do. 

Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy your pie.


Catching Up, Starting Over

Feeling My Age MoiOkay, so it's been a while. The last thing I actually wrote, as opposed to just posting some graphic, was in 2015, about a year before I lost my summer teaching job at NJCU and things started to change. I promised in the last post that there would be a catch-up about why I haven't written anything here lately, and this is it. Its a long and kinda of ugly story, about five years worth of ugly story that I'm still sorting through and—though I hate this word—processing. Where one enters a story is crucial and I don't know where to do that to explain this to you; five years is a long time to encapsulate.

Encapsulate. Huh. The image I have of that is of a sliver, a piece of shrapnel that can't be removed, enveloped and surrounded by the body, encased, so it does no more harm, so the sharp edges are blunted and infection doesn't spread. That seems apt.

As I said, it's a long, convoluted tale with numerous actors and locations and consequences, bad employers and good employers, brokeness and broken-ness, desperation and relief, good friends and bad. It involves another move, a new job, the end of a friendship, another rescue cat, and what it feels like to be starting over while pushing 60. All kinds of doors opening and closing, losses and gains. I'm not sure how important the details are and I don't want this to sound like a wailing litany of misery, because it wasn't. It was just Not Right, and Not Good For Me.

O Hindsight, You are a Cruel Bitch.

IMG_0858
In Parkchester

Let's try this: back up a bit, to June 2013, when I take in a Friend who is jobless and being evicted from her apartment. Foreshadowing: I'm the only one of her friends or family to offer to do this. I'm living in Parkchester (pic at right) and have an extra bed, though the apartment is only a one-bedroom. She has two teeny cats that my then-beastie, HRH Queen Mab the Cruel and Beautiful, loathes (and has met before since Friend had been HRH's initial rescuer). So right off the bat, we have cat fights and separate litter boxes (more foreshadowing). I think the stress of two cats in her territory made HRH sick and killed her before she should have died. She gets sick and I have to put her down not long after the Friend moves in. That breaks my heart.

The humans living together doesn't go too badly otherwise, though we are worlds apart in ideas about neatness and cleanliness. Friend makes an effort, which I appreciate, though I fail to fathom people who have no personal concept of "cleaning up after yourself." She's getting welfare and SNAP benefits, but there's no way in hell I'm not going to share my food with someone who needs to eat, regardless of what those fuckers in the benefits office think is reasonable. Six months in, she gets a job, though the salary is minuscule and generally unlivable, and offers to split the rent. I tell her to keep it, to start getting herself back on her feet, thinking she'll use this as a launch pad to a better job.

About that time, my landlady, a friend of a sort-of former friend (there's another long story, but I have no need or desire to go there), informs me she's selling the condo I'm renting from her and offers me a very generous "buy out." Roommate and I decide we "haven't killed each other yet" (her words) and decide to keep living together to help each other out (my words). I still have to borrow money from my friends (you know who you are and I am still paying you back) to move us to a new place, smaller and four flights up, in Harlem, that Friend finds through her connections. It has the potential to be a cute apartment with decent amenities, but this is where it all goes to shit.

First of fall 2016-1
From the Dunbar, Harlem

I run out of money and can't retrieve roommate's stuff from storage after all, as I'd promised (although she's been working for three months now, she's contributed little more than half of one month's rent; I've covered the damage deposit and brokers fee, in addition to moving expenses and my half of the rent); I don't know what else to do but apologize, which I do. When it comes time to write the checks for rent after the moving is done, I get "billed" for her storage fees for the next couple months, until I reasonably ask why I'm paying for her storage. This precipitates screaming accusations of me lying to her (and reveals her failure to hear my apology), but she starts writing her checks for the full amount of rent she owes.

When I try to talk to her about splitting chores, she looks at me like I'm asking her to murder her cats and just shakes her head in apparent terror. I cannot keep up with her failure to clean up after herself. It's like living with a frat boy who never puts anything away, never takes out the garbage, never cleans a dish, never mops, wipes a counter or sweeps, never washes out the sink or tub or toilet, doesn't scoop the cat box, and tramps through the apartment with wet and dirty feet without cleaning the mud off. I never unroll my good carpet. The cats use it as a scratching post.

We argue. Loudly. Not often, but enough that I start walking on eggshells, never sure what will set her off. I am now the enemy. We stop talking to each other except when necessary. I hate this. I don't mind confrontation, but I hate unnecessary conflict. We're two adults, we should be able to have a reasonable discussion without name calling and screaming accusations. I hate the person she brings out in me; it's one I've fought all my life not to be, with the temper I have. A lot of passive aggressive shit gets done by both of us because there's no possibility of reasonable communication and I will not be screamed at. The cats shit and piss all over the apartment, ruin my furniture and belongings, kill my plants. Roommate (no longer Friend) ruins a fair number of my possessions too, out of sheer carelessness. This goes on for a total of four more years. By the last year of it, I'm only sleeping and showering in the apartment. I've quit trying to clean it. Another friend who's only here part time lets me hang out at her place when she's not there. I'm not homeless in the literal sense of the word, but I'm Home-less. And Home is deeply important to me.

Working (For) It

In the meanwhile, in June of 2016, NJCU's shithead Badmins close down the Writing Center where I've been working over the summer, without any notice, leaving me and my colleagues unemployed. Director and staff wage a hard-fought battle for its life, but we lose. I'm literally a week or so away from utter penury and considering bankruptcy. Roommate offers no help, doesn't seem to give a shit. So much for mutual aid. 

MDRCVeseyCube2
My office cube at Vesey St.

Miraculously, after sending out at least a couple of resumes every week for, like, five years, I finally get an interview with a non-profit for nearly the same job I had at AKRF, lo these many years before. It's even in the same neighborhood. But, unlike ARKF, it's full time and the pay is much better, as are the benefits. It's a nerve-wracking couple of weeks before I get hired, but get hired I do. I'm sad to leave teaching. I'm sad, to be specific, to leave the classroom and my students. I am not sad to leave the exploitation, the terror of not knowing if I'll have classes enough to live on every four months, the scramble to get by, the utter insecurity, the indifference of Badmin to both students and professors, the indifference of tenured faculty to the ruination of their profession and the living conditions of their colleagues. I haven't had a full-time job since 1990 and I'm worried about how I'll feel about it after a while. I've loved having the freedom to create art, to sit in cafes and write, to be able to take terribly paid but deeply rewarding teaching jobs in my field—but not the freedom to starve. The economy has changed too much and I'm 56. Freelancing is too precarious. Teaching doesn't pay well enough and is also too precarious. I need new glasses, good healthcare, dentistry, disability insurance, a retirement plan. A decent salary. Safety nets. Stability. I have to start taking care of myself.

Thanks to eight years of lousy academic "salary" and sudden unemployment I am up to my ass in debt: friends, credit cards, federal and state taxes. My credit rating is in the toilet. But I'm working now, in a great job with great people, and working toward getting the fuck out of this apartment. I cannot stand it any more. I start squirreling away cash in a strong box under my bed. State tax arrears come due and suck up all  my meager disposable income. This job is good, but it's not that good. Friends come to my aid—swarm to my aid—in a GoFundMe and I manage, with their financial and physical help, to get out of Harlem and into a new apartment in March of 2018. (Shout out here to Daniel Chow of Leonidas Realty, who really went to bat for me.) In a final fit of rage when I don't sign the lease again, Roommate accuses me of "always getting what I want." I'm not sure what that means. That I was supposed to keep taking care of her? There had been signs of that all along, and resentment when I haven't. She's still in the same badly paying job she was in five years ago, having made no effort to move on. Last I hear, she is in North Bergen, New Jersey, commuting to Times Square every day. 

20181021_204641
Jillybean Calico

A few months before this, I find a little hell-cat calico abandoned in her carrier on the street, with the door left open. She's scared and fiesty as hell, but I get her shots and spayed and move her into my bedroom, like I did with Taz, the tuxedo the Roommate brought back after her wee sister cats died. This calico stays nameless for a long time because I'm trying not to get attached to her, thinking it's going to be hard enough leaving Taz, who thinks she's mine. I don't have the emotional wherewithal for any more cats, or the income. But eventually, she convinces me that I'm hers now, and that her name is Miss Jillybean Calico. She's full of piss and vinegar and made of sharp edges, but a great snuggler and funny as hell. She comes with me out to Brooklyn in her carrier, in the front seat of another friend's car, and when I cut her loose after the movers have gone, she runs around the apartment in utter joy at all the space and snarls like a cougar that this is hers now. All of it. Me included.

It seemed to take a Herculean effort to move this time. It was too messy, in too many stages, and the last one involved way too much of me running up and down four flights of stairs, throwing out my possessions. I think that finally broke me, physically. Six months out, I'm just starting to feel a tad less exhausted and getting some stamina back. It's taken me that long to unpack, too. The last two boxes were just emptied this weekend, and the contents await the pleasure of the people I've offered them to, or of folks who will love them more than I do. 

This account, of course, has two sides, and many more details of everyday cruelties offset with moments of beauty. Harlem is a great neighborhood and I liked it up there. It feels like New York in a way Brooklyn or anywhere else I've lived doesn't. It's a close-knit neighborhood. I wish I could have afforded to stay, but it's just as well I couldn't. It doesn't need white people. It needs more well-paid Black folks loving it so people like me can go enjoy the great jazz spots, the restaurants, the architecture and art, and go home to elsewhere, leaving our money behind. I always felt a kind of guilt living in Harlem, and a lot like an interloper. Part of the problem, not part of the solution. So as much as I liked living in that part of Manhattan, I don't particularly miss it. 

As for the friendship that went south, well, after enduring four years of verbal abuse, false accusations, and irresponsibility, I don't miss that either. When people show you who they are, believe them.

Home Again, Home Again

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Fall in Bath Beach

The City of New York took a while to feel like home, but it's definitely that after 33 years. But nobody lives in the City of New York; you live in the neighborhood. In the run up to the move, I was forced to think about what I really require in a home and in a neighborhood. My previous moves have been opportunistic or of necessity. This time, I had the opportunity to find somewhere that felt like home, instead of having to wrest the idea from what I was given. I  had a cute, cheap apartment in Sunset Park, but the neighborhood was (then) pretty grungy and amenity-free. Parkchester was the closest to home that I've come, and I did love that apartment and neighborhood. But not the Bronx so much. Parkchester was an enclave, sadly, not part of a wider borough I felt at home in. Harlem was a great neighborhood that spoiled me in a lot of ways: great restaurants and bars, good grocery store, handy laundry, excellent cafes, libraries and bookstores, and a great commute. The building was seedier than it should have been, because it had clearly once been glorious, but the apartments had been chopped up and were tiny and claustrophobic, even without a roommate who, left to her own devices, would cover the floor knee-deep with her detritus. My bedroom barely held my queen-size bed, a dresser, my hope chest, and a dry sink. The closet was like a coffin. So was the room, after a while. I don't know how Jillybean survived in it for as long as she did. I'm not sure how I did, either.

I stopped looking for a new place in the Bronx after a while, disheartened by grunge and distance, and focused on Brooklyn. When I saw the picture of the building I'm in now, something about it just felt right. It was the third place I looked at on a really raw, rainy day and even in the dark, I knew this was it. I don't know what made it so, but I basically just told the realtor to take my money once we got inside. I gave them the down payment that night. Brooklyn feels like home and always has.

Some of my habitational requirements have been constrained by my accruing years. I'm done with non-elevator buildings unless I'm on the first floor. That's where I am now, with four steps up from the entry, and some days when I first moved in, it was all I could do to get up those. I don't know how I did four floors every day. I don't know how I dragged stuff up and down it. I want more quiet than I used to, and this is blissfully quiet. I want a neighborhood, like Parkchester, that I can walk around in and shop in, and Bath Beach is definitely that.

I'm still discovering its charms. Every workday, I stop and chat with Phyllis, my Jewish neighbor who feeds the pigeons at the end of the block. I say Ni hao! to the Chinese immigrant woman who fishes for cans and bottles in our recycling bins. Her smile is always luminous. The neighborhood is full of Chinese folks, storefronts in alphabets I can't read, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Russian, and Italian food markets. My neighbors are Polish and Russian immigrants and long-time Brooklynites. I haven't tried the restaurants yet, but there are several that look enticing. Still looking for a bar, but found a good diner and a couple of bakeries. I come home via Bay Ridge, and it half feels like an extension of my neighborhood, it's so close. I've discovered the good grocery stores (even the Key Food here has a great pasta selection; advantage of living in an Italian neighborhood): JMart, Net Cost, and the little Middle Eastern shop with barrels of turmeric and gram flour and a Halal butcher.

Being close to the water—smelling it, watching the freighters come in closer than I ever did on Lake Huron, hearing it crash against the breakwater—is heavenly. It's a low-rise neighborhood of two and three story houses and apartment buildings, tree-lined so heavily on my street that when I come home at night I have to have a flashlight in the summer. In the winter, Orion hangs in the sky over my building. I don't miss Northern Michigan, where I grew up, but I have missed being walking distance from water and seeing the stars and fireflies. On July 4th, there were 360 degree fireworks: Coney Island, Satan Island, on the bay, and behind us in the park. 

It's different out here, a bit more suburban, though still urban density without the high rises. I don't miss those either. Not quite car country like the interior of Bensonhurst or Satan Island. Enough of a commute to get some reading done again. If I had the heart for that.

Next! Next?

So here I am, back in Brooklyn, the borough where I started out in 1986, alone again in a 700 sq. foot ground-floor apartment half a block from the water, where I can see Orion in the winter sky and fireflies on the lawn (lawn!) in the summer. I have a hilarious, half-mad rescue calico whom I never meant to keep. I'm simultaneously deliriously happy, relieved, exhausted, and ... numb. I've never felt like this before, so I don't have words to describe it. I hesitate to call it PTSD because I don't feel traumatized; I might be a bit beaten up, but I'm pretty resilient. I'm not suffering anxiety, nightmares, or any of the typical symptoms of PTSD. I suspect what I'm feeling is more like exhaustion, and has more to do with staring down the barrel of 60, but also with various losses and the grief of those losses, and with the realization that I'm starting over.

I've lost half my furniture in the last two moves and what I've got left has had the shit beaten out of it by Roommate and her cats and time. I abandoned a lot of stuff out of necessity, not being able to afford to move it. Some the smaller stuff disappeared into the maw of squalor that was the Roommate's bedroom and rec (wreck) room over the course of five years. I need a new dining table and chairs (old ones were claimed somehow by Roommate, who insists I promised them to her), a new daybed (given away when it didn't fit in the new Harlem apartment), new accent chairs (one gave up the ghost in Parkchester, the other was ruined by the Roommate; neither owed me anything at their age). I've already bought a new, cheap trestle desk, where I'm writing this. But I can't yet afford internet service (work has graciously loaned me a mifi) and I need a promotion and better salary. Half my take-home goes to rent. I lost $800/month in disposable income between higher rent and paying back the tax man. Only a couple more months of the latter, thankfully. 

I've lost a lot more than possessions, though. I've lost my cooking chops, which is weird, because up until the last year when the building management ripped up our kitchen and never fixed it, I cooked a lot. Things I used to make with confidence come out tasting weird, or just wrong. Maybe it's the ingredients. I'm buying cheaper stuff than I used to. Or it's learning the quirks of a new kitchen. And not having good pans anymore. I've also lost my singing voice because once the Roommate moved in, I stopped using it. I used to sing all the time, and I'm starting to do so again, though I don't have any music equipment set up but my phone right now. I suppose that will come back too, the more I use it. In the meanwhile it's painful. I've always had a good strong voice and now I sound like a weak old lady who can't carry a tune. I'm afraid I might be one.

The worst thing is that I've lost the sense of who I am when I'm alone, and this is the thing I'm having the hardest time both explaining and dealing with. I think part of the reason is that my fantasy life has wandered off on its own somewhere. I used to have a rich and deep one, full of characters and plots that developed over weeks or months as I walked through my day. Now it's all empty up there. There's no people to "try on." The non-rent-paying boarders in my head that I used to joke about have vacated. I'm alone in my own head.

Alone, but not lonely. I do miss my cast of characters, but it's bliss having space to myself again. I just ... I don't know how to fill it. I don't mean the furniture. You should see the Pinterest boards I've got for that. I mean that I spent so much time on my laptop on FB, raising hell and instigating by way of distracting myself from my home situation that I don't know how to be in my own head, my own physical space, my own body anymore. I'm disconnected enough that I don't even know what that feels like, what emotions I have about it. Not dissociated, but not entirely present, either.  Here in body, here in intellectual capacity; maybe it's the emotions that haven't caught up yet. Disconnected, maybe. 

In that disconnection is my need and desire to hunker down on the weekends, stay indoors, and not see anybody. When I was living up in Harlem, I saw folks quite a bit, in part because it was a way of being out of Hell Apartment, and partially because, well, I like my friends. And I had more disposable income. Now that I'm alone again for the first time in five years, I kinda wanna just roll around in it. I cook, clean, do laundry, tease the cat, watch a show or two sometimes when the signal is good. I'm done unpacking and mostly with arranging, until I get more furniture to arrange, and I'm making small things. What I'm not doing is writing or reading, for various reasons.

Island&cat_sm
Jillybean contemplates the Maker Space

Until I moved, I hadn't had a work space of any kind for five years, and now have more than I quite know what to do with. It's not all set up yet. I haven't hooked up the desktop and its peripherals, or got the maker space quite the way I want it. There's not yet enough storage space to clear the island top for working. I haven't made any books in ages, but I've been doing teeny little craft projects related to the apartment since I moved in. Last night I bought two 12x12 galvanized steel tiles to make into bulletin boards and got out the washi tape to put a border around them. I've made a gazillion magnets out of my old pins and buttons. I miss the sewing machine I left behind because all of a sudden I have a bunch of things I want to sew.

But the beauty of writing is that you don't really need much of a work space for it. What you need the most of is headspace, and I've lost that, too, in my lack of privacy and retreat from my living conditions. I haven't written much in the last four years, either fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. For a while there I was churning out a lot of political pieces for the Cause. I had a frenzy of poetry after the election and that seems to have exhausted me. And fiction... pfft. I've had this next novel churning around in my head for years now and I cannot bring myself to even do the research for it. I keep looking for a way into it and everywhere it's a locked door. Even the fanfic is on hold. I've been doing mostly graphics at work, since that's my job, and even got to make a book there, but it's not the same. It's work. Sitting in front of this computer at a desk again, crafting something with words, feels good in a way that sitting at the one at work doesn't. I don't feel blocked, just empty. That's more disturbing.

I blame The Orange Dumpster Fire for some of my malaise (for everyone's). The shit show that is his regime (not administration; there is no administration. There are only cronies and sycophants.) has taken the heart out of many of us, and added to a lot of the anger I was already feeling with the Roommate. It changed and reduced what I could bear to read, changed the focus of my poetry (not for the better), stripped me of energy to do anything more than run my political action boards on FB (The League of Nasty Women, a clearinghouse for resistance actions and education and Against Trumpism, which is my personal shitposting about T-Rump), and march when I have energy.  Because I do not have that energy anymore, dammit. It's occupied too much of my headspace too, both being angry about how I'm living and being angry about the Orange Regime.

All this is a very long way to saying that I am Starting Over. I keep thinking about Lewis Thomas's essay "The Selves," which I've written about elsewhere. If I've written this long screed as a way to figuring out what the fuck is wrong with me, I think it's this: I'm between selves. I'm aging, and getting used to that. I'm alone again, and getting used to that. I'm not teaching anymore, and getting used to that. I've become far more politically active and opinionated, and getting used to that. I'm living somewhere new and working somewhere newish. I have a new cat. It's all new. The integration has not yet happened and I'm still disparate parts of a whole.

What a puzzle. Hope the pieces are all still here.


Keep it Secret

WorldWearyMoiShort article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today about students sharing personal information. I'm a little surprised that this professor is shocked by what his students share in class. When I first started teaching in the early 80s, my students kept journals. One of the things you discover as an English teacher is that the moment you give students a written outlet for their feelings and personal problems, they'll use it with a vengeance. For many of them it's the first time they've had a written outlet and they find it as satisfying as the rest of us who've been doing it for a long time. I kept a journal from junior high through my first years in the working world in my late twenties and then took to blogging (I'm being meta here, see?) and online forums like the proverbial wet duck, and was thus not as surprised as this guy seems to be.

Writing can be an act of catharsis, and once you've written something down, it no longer "owns" you. You're free of it; you don't have to hide it and it doesn't have to rule your life as a shameful secret anymore. And once you share it in writing online, something wonderful happens; you get instant feedback: support, love, and the knowledge that you're not alone, that other people have shared or are sharing your experiences. You also get people trying to help you fix your problem: they suggest therapy, good local therapists, rehab programs, coping strategies, resources, and share their experiences with various treatment regimens. Sometimes they just offer good life skills advice. They give you links to online resources, they even, sometimes, help you pay your bills. (You also get trolls, but that's another story.) From our teens at least through our twenties, we're trying to figure out who we are and how to live our lives. Sharing that struggle makes it easier. With luck, we can learn from others' mistakes instead of our own.

I also think it's good that some of this stuff comes out in public. The politie middle class society I grew up in hid a lot of nastiness: child abuse, spouse abuse, ugly marriages, alcoholism. It never got fixed because no one talked about it, and there was shame in talking about it, as though, even if you were the victim, you had somehow let the community down. It's as though we were all striving to be Mayberry in our little town, and the people who wouldn't do it anymore and spoke out were somehow bringing shame on us. Everything had to be a secret. This wasn't just my little town either. It's one of the universal fictions that the Civil Rights movement and feminisim gave the lie to, that we all lived like "Leave It to Beaver" and the "Brady Bunch."

If my students had not had the courage to share their stories with me, I would have a very different view of life than I have now. That comfortable middle class home I came from gave me very little knowledge of the suffering other people go through. Hearing my students' stories about abuse, rape, abortion, misogyny, discrimination, drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, and the struggles of their day-to-day lives has made me a very different and hopefully more empathetic person—and it made me angry that they have to live like this. It also made me immensely proud of the students I had who were overcoming these hurdles in their own lives. The first step in changing anything is to admit there's a problem, and for too long, most of these problems have been underground, hidden by the polite fiction that they're things we just shouldn't talk about.

Bullshit.

There's nothing shameful about taking medication for mental illness and struggling to get the dosage right while carrying on your life as best you can. There's nothing shameful in needing an abortion, except, perhaps the lack of available cheap birth control in this country. There's nothing shameful about admitting your relationship isn't going so well. There's nothing shameful in talking about your upcoming surgery (old people do this all the time, don't they?) no matter what part of the body it involves. There's nothing shameful in having thrown out your abusive boyfriend, or having to go to a shelter to get away from him (except for the boyfriend's conduct). There's nothing shameful in talking about your eating disorder, or the fact that you're still uncomfortable with your body, or even (gasp!) acknowledging that "hey! I'm fat!" There's nothing shameful about not being able to afford your books for school yet because your kids have to eat.

Screw all that embarrassed secrecy. Air it all out. Make people look at the consequences of poverty, bad political policies, misogyny, and racism. There are politicians, especially, who could use a good dose of Facebook realism.


Grade This, Motherf%#@&*!

TeacherMoiI went off on my College Prep students last night. They've been a troublesome group and that's been only partially their fault. This half semester has been full of breaks and holidays and every time I'd get a momentum going, we'd have a break and lose it. Labor Day, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Columbus Day—every other week, it seemed we had a holiday. It's also been troublesome because I'm not teaching all of the class. I don't mind team teaching, but I think it's a mistake to break these two components—reading and writing—apart, and treat them as though they don't influence each other. And the only reason I'm team teaching is because CUNY, like most universities, limits the number of hours adjuncts can be in the classroom, even though they've increased the instructional hours of the course itself. That's just fucked up on at least two levels: not only does it prevent adjuncts from making a decent living by teaching at a single school rather than at least two, it causes stupid bureaucratic snafus like this one, which hurt students.

But I digress.

I went off on my students last night because when I told them my recommendations about their opportunity to take the CUNY assessement test are due next week, one of them said, "well why should we bother coming back after that?" And I lost it. Sarcasm on full bore, I responded, "because you might possibly still learn something." And then I gave them my patented five-minute lecture about why college is not about grades, it's about knowledge and learning, and how little your GPA matters in the grand scheme of things, and how they're only cheating themselves if they put nothing into the effort of learning.

This fixation on grades is pretty common among high school students and undergraduates. I remember having it myself. But I also remember the moment I realized what bullshit it is. I'd completely blown the final in one of my biology classes, not because I didn't know the material, but simply because it was finals week and my brain seized up like an unoiled engine. All the information was actually in there; I just couldn't get it to come out in coherent sentences or filling in the blanks. I left most of the test blank, in fact, something I never do, because I was just blank myself. Even my prof asked me what was wrong when I handed it in. But I realized as I walked out of the test totally frustrated, that it didn't really matter, ultimately, because I knew I'd learned a lot. I could have gotten at least a B on that exam if my brain hadn't turned to a gooey frozen treat. But that didn't lessen the amount of knowledge I had in my head. And neither did the C I got in the class, though it didn't reflect what I actually knew, either.

And that's why grades as the main focus of academic learning are bullshit. With the crazy emphasis on assessment and test scores that is prevalent in elementary and secondary ed today, it's no wonder students are all about grades. And that does them a disservice too. The best thing you can teach a kid at that age (the earlier, the better) is to love learning. To be curious, rapacious, even, for knowledge. Because the grades follow from that. Grades are just an imperfect tool for trying to see how much of what you've thrown at the wall stuck, and sometimes for how students will use those facts for good or evil.

There's no test that's ever been devised for how that knowledge will shape that student's pursuits, personality, or their actual life outside school, and that's what's really important. Did you learn to think for yourself? Did you learn how to apply reason to your questions? Did you learn something about how the world works beyond the theories? Did you learn the weaknesses of theory without practice and experience? Did you learn how to be kinder? Did you learn how to see and hear and appreciate beauty in its diversity? Did you learn how to step back and see the big picture and where the small picture fits into it? Did you learn from our past mistakes, or at least how to recognize those mistakes?

Those abstractions are the foundation of everything else. And you can't grade those. You can only mourn their lack in the world we've created without them.

 


Stupid Rules of Which I'd Like to Rid Myself

Badgirl MoiI don't like making New Year's resolutions, but I usually take on a project of changing something about myself, big or small, each year. Sometimes they're on-going, life-long projects, like getting a grip on my temper (notice I didn't say anger; there's a real difference. I've come to realize that anger is just fine; it's what you do with it that can be a problem.) Sometimes they're just small things, like getting some clothes that don't make me look like I'm wearing a sack. A lot of them are anxiety-producing rules for good behavior from the 1950's middle class upbringing I had, the one that was always at war with my dad's blue collar "lack of manners." I've made peace with my affection for using four-letter words, which, like smoking on the street, I was taught ladies never did. I've made peace with the fact that I'm not ever going to be a lady. I can simulate one, and I clean up well, so that's okay. Some of them are social control rules I learned growing up in a small town or as a pre-feminist, and were part of the reason I embraced feminism and fled to New York. And it's funny how many of these rules come to me in my mother's voice, too. She was great at communicating her anxiety about other people's opinions of her to me. Some of these, though, are self-imposed and come out of my own social anxiety about being "correct" and accepted. I suppose some of that is only-child anxiety, but they're not relevant now. I have a huge, accepting, beautifully varied family of choice now.

I still have these rules in my head, 50 years later and that's boggling in and of itself. It's time to let go of some of them. Here's a few of them. Don't laugh. I said they were stupid.

  1. Not ending sentences with a preposition. Fuck that.
  2. Certain foods can only be eaten at particular times of day (breakfast food must be eaten at breakfast; dinner leftovers aren't breakfast food; etc.). 
  3. All barns look good painted red.
  4. The bed must be made every day.
  5. Act your age.

That's probably enough for the moment. And not all of these are completely bad, like making the bed every day. I like getting into a neat bed at night. But some days, that three minutes it takes to make it is just more than I have. So what? I will stop feeling bad about it.

I should explain that #3 is a saying of my mother's meaning that wearing red, especially if you're fat, invites unfortunate comparisons. I've had a life-long aversion to the color because of that, even though I look good in it. How stupid is that?

Number 5 needs some explaining too. I've always had this distinction in my head between being an adult and being a grown-up. Grown-ups are boring and all about responsibility and maturity; adults are mature and responsible, but still know how to have fun. Now that I'm 50, I feel a totally unreasonable internal pressure to be a grown-up. There's a lot wound up in this: looking younger than I am, being a very responsible and precocious child, discussions about dressing age appropriately, a society that wants older women to fade into the woodwork. I've been dressing more conservatively as I got older, thanks in part to corporate jobs, and I kinda miss my loud colors and wild earrings and socks and shoes. Living in New York also did some of that, where black is just easier to take care of, but this is a fashion capital too, and I'm an artist, so I'd like to get some of my funk back:  cobalt hair, a visible tattoo. I'm tired of the camouflage, because it's becoming counterproductive. I'm short, round, older and rapidly becoming invisible. Nice in that I don't get harassed as much, but annoying as hell when I'm trying to get waited on.

And what is age-appropriate? I don't necessarily think the schoolgirl look is a good one for 30-year old women, but I don't think forcing older women into widows weeds is a good idea either. So what's age appropriate? And who gets to define that? Same with behavior. Tantrums aren't pretty on anyone, but I'm appalled by my growing anxiety to be home before midnight, as though I were Cinderella. WTF is up with that?

I'll let you know how it goes.


New Year's Meme

PeaceGirl 1. a) What did you do in 2010 that you'd never done before?:

Went to Colorado. I love going to new places, and this was pretty spectacular, as places go. With some good company, too

1. b) What did you do that you hadn't done in a long time?
Worked really seriously on my poetry.

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I try not to make resolutions. They're an exercise in futility. I set goals and plan projects instead. A lot of those didn't get done.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

Nope. Gettin' kinda old for that now. Most of friends are about my age, though some are younger, and I don't have kids myself.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Yes, sadly. My friend Jean Courtney took her life.

5. What countries did you visit?

No countries this year, but two states.

6. What would you like to have in 2011 that you lacked in 2010?

An updated computer system and faster connection.

7. What dates from 2010 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

I'm terrible at dates, but the day I found out that Jean had killed herself is pretty stark, and the week I spent in Colorado was, on the opposite end of the scale, fantastic.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

I finished an arc of my fan fiction saga, and with Helen's help, put together not one but four poetry collections out of the mass of material I've got.

9. What was your biggest failure?

I didn't revise my novel.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

No, knock wood. My back's been kinda messed up for a while though, making me numb in odd spots.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

It's a three-way tie: The new hand-marbled scarf I bought myself at the Center for Book Arts Holiday Fair, my Nook, and the little hadnmade ceramic soap dish I bought in Maine.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

My hardest-working students. They know who they are.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

Far too many of the Tea Partiers.

14. Where did most of your money go?

Rent. Same as it ever was.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Gwen's amazing house in Colorado. Not that I want one that big, but I want one that arty.

16. What song will always remind you of 2010?

"Empire State of Mind." I played that over and over coming back on the SI ferry at night. God I love it here!

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

a) happier or sadder? Still happy.
b) thinner or fatter? think I put on some weight over the holidays.
c) richer or poorer? Materially, 'bout the same. In friends, much richer.

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?

Art and writing.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?

Fucking Facebook. What a time suck.

20. How will you be spending New Year's?

Cooking for friends.

22. Did you fall in love in 2010?

No more than usual.

23. How many one-night stands?

Puh-leeze.

24. What was your favorite tv program?

Sherlock, though my CSI infatuation continues apace.

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?

Try not to do hate any more, though I can say I'm completely disgusted by the stupidity of so many of the Tea Partiers.

26. What was the best book you read?

The same one everyone else was reading: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?

School of the Seven Bells

28. What did you want and get?

A new teaching gig.

29. What did you want and not get?

A slightly bigger place to live and a Powerball win.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?

"Iron Man 2." Wish I could say it was "The Tempest," but not.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I was 50, and I went for cupcakes with the Birthday Club.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Cooler weather this summer and more time.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2010?

Fashion concept? Er . . . .

34. What kept you sane?

Books and friends. And beer.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

Oh, all the old favorites, though I was mildly fascinated by Benedict Cumberbatch.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?

The oil spill, and the stupidity of people protesting the Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero.

37. Whom did you miss?

Jennifer. One of us, obviously, is going to have to move.

38. Who was the best new person you met?

Gwen, though it was not so much met as rekindled a 30-years-dormant friendship. Why did I never keep in touch with her when she moved?

39. Was 2010 a good year for you?

Not fantastic, but certainly not a bad one. It feels a bit wasted, especially for a milestone year like 50.

40. What was your favorite moment of the year?
Swimming in the hot springs in Colorado with the Nympho Lesbo Killer Whores +2.

41. What was your least favorite moment of the year?

Anything that involved DeeDee the Destroyer's presence.

42. What was your favorite month of 2010?

August, a week of which was spent in the Rockies.

43. How many different states did you travel to in 2010?

Colorado, Wisconsin (inadvertently), and Maine.

44. How many concerts did you see in 2010?

None. Too damn busy this year, and teaching nights.

45. Did you do anything you are ashamed of this year?

Not that I recall, which is good however you look at it.

46. What was the worst lie someone told you in 2010?

"Sure, you'll make your connection in Madison!"

47. Did you treat somebody badly in 2010?

Gosh, I hope not. I haven't paid enough attention to Jean's parents though.

48. Did somebody treat you badly in 2010?

Not that I remember, and that's all that counts.

49. If you could go back in time to any moment of 2010 and change something, what would it be?

I'd try to talk Jean out of taking her life. I don't know if I really have that right, but I'll always wonder if someone had been with her if she would have kept plugging. But then, maybe it was just too hard for her, and I'm merely being selfish.

50. What are your plans for 2011?

See my previous post.

51. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010:

Sometimes life is harder for other people than you can possibly know. And you can't fix it for them. All you can do is love them.


Jean Courtney 1960-2010

 JeanJeannieMy friend Jean Courtney took her life yesterday and I hardly know what to say. This is the first friend I've lost to suicide, and though Jean and I had talked about it, and I knew it was an idea that she seriously entertained on her darkest days, I did not know she'd reached that point again. At left is Jean in May at my house, right before she was going to meet some old friends from high school in Parkchester. She seemed chipper then, if a little apprehensive, and determined to get the most out of her "up" mood, as if she knew it was going to disintegrate soon, as it did.

Very shortly afterwards, she moved into a new apartment, which she found very stressful but was pleased about, I think. There were some other stressful events and she let us all know that she wouldn't be visiting her Facebook account for a while. Then today, on her last post, her ex-husband (or wasband, as Jean called him) informed us that Jean had "passed peacefully from this life" at her apartment yesterday. Apparently, she left a beautiful note behind, though I have not read it.

Jean and I knew each other from our days at AKRF, when we were in what later became the Publications Department. We were somewhat less than editors, something more than mere word processors for the company's quite technical environmental impact statements. It was often high-pressure, deadline-driven work held to exacting grammatical and stylistic standards for which we were responsible, and Jean bore the pressure with more grace that the rest of us who worked there. She had a fantastic sense of humor, loved comedy and jokes, movies and celebrities, and could almost always find the humor in just about any situation. "Did you see [name of movie]?" she would say. "This is just like that scene where . . ." and it was! And the similarity would leave you chortling. Here's some of the movies she listed on her Facebook page: "Young Frankenstein," "A Clockwork Orange," "Religulous," "The Room," "My Suicide," "The Aristocrats," "Rear Window," "Borat," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Pulp Fiction," "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove," "North by Northwest," "All About Eve," "Bourne," "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "Memento," "American Beauty," and "High Anxiety." You can see she had a taste not only for clever comedy, for for the darker dramas and psychological thrillers, as well as political satire. If the movies you like are some indication of what kind of person you are, Jean was clearly pretty complex.

In those days, Jean was a seeker. She was enthused about, by turns, just about every brand of New Age spirituality that came along, and some not so New Age, serially monogamous to all of them. She studied Sufism, reiki, and about a million other brands of faith and woo that I could not keep track of, all in the quest for happiness, or at least some explanation about why she was in so much pain. I tried to respect her search, but they always seem to fall short of her expectations or needs, some more than others, when the practitioners turned out to either have clay feet or be outright charlatans. Unfortunately, Jean seemed to be the type of person that the unscrupulous and predatory repeatedly take advantage of, emotionally and in other ways, something that contributed to her depression. It's not that Jean was an unthinking sucker; like all my friends, she had a quirky analytical intelligence, but I think her emotional need made her a little desperate. Once she'd seen through whatever flavor of the month religion/spiritual shenanigans she'd been involved in, she could be brutally analytical about their shortcomings.

We lost contact for a while when we both left the company but had gotten back in touch again about two years ago. Since then, I saw or spoke to Jean a couple dozen times, in various states of happiness. We ran into one another again at a Patti Smith/Television concert where we ogled David Byrne and Brian Eno hanging out in the back of the crowd with us. At some point prior to this, she had been hospitalized for deep depression and suicidal thoughts, gotten a psychiatric diagnosis and gone on disability, which actually seemed to be a relief to her. I think she felt she knew what was wrong now, and could stop searching for answers and just concentrate on being healthy and happy. She was seeing a couple of therapists and getting some good drugs, and confronting and dealing with traumas in her past, especially some of the harm done her by predators and the woo practitioners, about whom she was intending to write a memoir. From the stories she told me, it would have been a hell of an exposé.I wonder now if that might have been part of what broke her. I know she endured a lot of awful slander on some of the discussion boards she'd been on and some of the things people said about her were unconscionable, especially in people who are supposed to be following some kind of spiritual path.

There was a time when I would have been judgemental about Jean's suicide, but I've come to understand how, for some people, that can seem like the only sensible solution. That that is true is the real tragedy. For all the fantastic chemicals we now have for treating various kinds of mental illness, they're not by any means a cure-all. They work for some people and not for others; they work for a time and then not at all. They only alleviate some symptoms and not others. And sometimes the side effects are so horrific that it's better to be off them than on them. And our society does not treat the "mentally interesting" as Jean called herself, very well. When they can get disability, they live on the edge of poverty, if not right down in it. Housing is scarce, often substandard, and may take forever to get into. Funds to support you while you wait are laughably (cryingly, sobbingly) inadequate, for the most part, especially in an expensive city like New York. If your family wants nothing to do with you, or is the source of your problem, that makes it even more difficult. Who do you rely on then?

One of my friends told me "it's all right to be angry with her," when I posted about Jean's death, but I don't feel angry with Jean. I feel angry with the people who contributed to her pain because they were too fucking self-absorbed or selfish or greedy to not hurt someone so vulnerable. I feel angry with a social system that does so little to support its weakest members. I feel angry at all the people who took advantage of her. And I feel deeply grateful to all the people who did help her—friends, relatives, social workers, psychiatrists, other medical and mental health professionals—even if it wasn't enough.

I understand Jean's choice, though I wish she had not made it. I wish she had called me. I wish I had called her. I'd been intending to this weekend, to see if she wanted to go to a a concert with me. Over the summer, we'd gone to see a couple of movies together—"Iron Man 2" and "The A Team, which we'd both enjoyed tremendously. We both loved Robert Downey, Jr., in t he former and Liam Neeson in the latter, and were laughing at exactly the same inside jokes in "The A-Team." We're probably the only two people on the planet who really liked it. Jean was a lot of fun to go to the movies with because she gave herself over to them whole-heartedly, in the spirit in which they're meant to be watched, the way kids do. We laughed! We cried! We had a great time! I was looking forward to seeing many more movies with her in the future, and getting to know her better. I always expect to get a lot of wear and tear out of my friends, and at 50, they're too young to be dying, especially of despair.

When I saw Jean last summer after I came back from China, she was quite depressed, but struggling valiantly to claw her way up out of that black pit. We met for coffee and I gave her a little jade pendant of Quan Yin, the Chinese Buddha of Compassion, the one that always spoke most to me, because I thought she needed it more than I did. The world is hard on gentle people like Jean, and I hope that pendant gave her a little comfort, insubstantial as it is. One of her last posts on Facebook was a link to raise money for the Muslim cabbie who'd been stabbed by a drunken, bigoted student. She had plenty of compassion of her own, for other people, but there didn't seem to be enough around for her.

I'll miss you, my friend. Whatever comes next, if anything, I hope it brings you peace and happiness. And if there's nothing, at least the pain is done. I really hope you're laughing your ass off somewhere with George Carlin.


The Selves--Apologies to Lewis Thomas

ReinventedMoiThis is the avatar of the me that never was (and probably won't ever be): urbane, sophisticated, glamorous, thin. What you get right now with me is, well, not that. I remember watching a soap when I was pretty little, maybe 4 or 5, in which one of the characters said to another: "You've changed!" in a sort of shock and horror. And I remember thinking, "That's weird. People don't change. They're always themselves." Sometime later in high school, I read a great essay by Lewis Thomas called "The Selves," in which he talks about our psychological development occurring in stages or different selves, and how sometimes we're between them, just waiting for the next one.

Now that I'm 50, I'm starting to see behind me a string of selves: the kid who lived and grew up in Michigan; College Self, who lived in Pittsburgh and East Lansing, and New York Self. The places we live in define us, as much as who our friends and family are. My New York Self, though, breaks down into a number of different Selves too, as my kid self did. I've said elsewhere that I think I've grown and changed more while living in New York City than I have since I was a kid in Michigan. A lot of my College Self slopped over into my early New York self, while the city taught me some hard lessons about being an independent yet interdependent grown-up. Three years of therapy made a whole new Self too. As did turning 40. My 40s have by far been the best decade. I felt competent, adult, and most of all, happy.

My 50s are going to bring some interesting changes. The older people I've taken for granted are dying, my friends and I taking care of them as they go. One of my aunts, my Mom's sister, is developing Alzheimer's like my Dad's sister did. Mel is watching her mom struggle to communicate in a nursing home, and my friend Eva is watching her mom deteriorate in one. Roz has parents in two separate places to look after, neither of them easy to get to for someone without a car. Paul's parent still seem to be doing well. I hope that goes on for a long time. I look at everyone else and almost feel lucky that my parents went quickly and without suffering or prolonged deterioration. I feel like I got off easy.

But I'm noticing more changes in me, too. I'm one of those lucky people who still looks a lot like I did in college: just a little grayer, but not much. Sadly, however, I'm not as, er, robust, as I used to be, to use a word much in vogue in the business world. No matter how much yoga I do, my back still goes out and my nerves get pinched, and it takes a long time get them unpinched. I don't sleep as well as I used to, and when I do, it's an occasion for much rejoicing. I don't bounce back from exertions like I used to. The most annoying thing is the arthritis in my hands and hips though. It's really not funny in my hands. My typing speed has dropped precipitously and I'm much more error prone. It's going to make book-making an interesting proposition in the years to come.

But the change I find most alarming, or at least disconcerting, is that I've begun to lose interest in things I was really passionate about: books, music, beautiful things. Don't get me wrong, I still love to read, but the amassing of books for their own sake is growing old, like me. I used to be greedy for them because there might be something in them that I desperately needed to know. Perhaps it was really more a hunger for knowledge, because I used to be that way about the Web, too, surfing compulsively, bookmarking everything. It's not that I think I now know everything, but I don't feel nearly as ignorant as I did, and sometimes I surprise myself with what I do know. As the Chinese calligraphy on my wall says, "books are treasure mountains," for what's in them, but I feel less and less of a need to own them. I also used to have music on if I was conscious and it was possible (e.g., not at work); now I'm just as happy with and likely to prefer silence, or the news. I've long fallen off the bleeding edge of knowing who's cool in music, and my tastes have changed too, though they're still pretty eclectic. And the pretty things? They're just as lovely in the store or the museum, and I don't have to clean them there. I like to visit other people's beautiful things, like I like to visit other people's kids.

Mostly, I don't care passionately about much of anything, anymore. I blame it on menopause and the lack of hormones, and I'm not really that sorry, just a bit bewildered. Passion is nice, but it's exhausting. I still like a good argument, but more and more, I like a good laugh just as much. The one passion I still have is a growing sense of compassion, and the desire to express that. I want to help make other people's lives better where I can, and draw attention to it where I can't. I care passionately about the people I love, and there is a growing number of them: friends, family, family of choice, students; the circle keeps expanding.

I jokingly call this my Old Fart Self, but I don't feel particularly old, except a bit physically. True, I'm losing my nouns in conversation (and lord a do hate, passionately, having to grope for words and being so inarticulate), but in compensation, I also care a whole lot less about what people think of me than I once did. I still like new music, I'm not afraid of technology, I want to keep learning new things as long as my brain still works, and I want to travel as long as my body still works.

RealMoi So here's what you really get, or the avatar of what you really get with me now: an aging boho with a lasting fondness for the funky and non-mainstream, but a weakness for pop. She likes beer and tequila and hanging out in bars and tea houses. The East Village feels like her spiritual home, but it's too damn noisy. Her hair's a little spiky and going gray. When it turns white, she'll dye it cobalt blue: a blue-haired old lady with a vengeance.


Crispy Critters

Sick & Tired MoiAchtung! Whining ahead. Ridiculous amounts of time have passed since I posted anything anywhere, and that's because this was The Year That Would Not End. Every time I thought I was clear of things and could get back to my own projects, just one more thing cropped up. First it was late papers for grading. Then it was unexpected editing work. Then it was story editing for friends. Then my back and neck went out (and I'm still working with numb and tingling fingers). Then it was catching up with friends I'd neglected all year. The latest obstruction is DeeDee Monster DeeDeePlaysDeadCU , the cat I'm watching for one of Gretl's friends. I took him on because he was terrorizing her elderly girls and I figured Mab could handle him (and can), but I can't. I've spent the last two months cleaning up after him constantly or chasing him off of things he shouldn't be on, or wrestling stuff away from him, mostly in the middle of the night. He attacks my feet every morning at 5 AM, shovels his litter out of the box on a regular basis, thinks everything in the house is his toy, and has peed on two rugs and broken a tea set (luckily one of the cheap, manufactured ones). It's a good thing he's so cute, because some days, I'm at my wits end with him, and that's mostly because bending over cleaning up after him has not been fun for my back, and I'm not getting much sleep. And it's freakin' hot.

As a result, I'm largely brain dead. No books are getting made because DeeDee is a world-class hinderer and will get into the brushes and paraphernalia. I can barely keep him out of my printer when I print something, and he's already been chewing on my brushes. Very little writing is getting done because my brain is a large, gooey bowl of sludge. As a result, I've been lying on my bed in front of the fan reading mostly junk and working my way through all 9 seasons of CSI, with occasional forays for groceries and post office runs. I've been to watch some movies with friends, but again, nothing brilliant, just summer blockbusters.

I've been working a bit on the poetry collections Helen arranged for me. I like what she's done, a lot, and I've taken most of her editing suggestions, but they all need fleshing out a bit more before any of them can be submitted anywhere. Nothing major, just a half dozen each (rolls eyes). Yeah, I've managed a draft of one, so far. I can hardly string a coherent thought together right now. I've never felt quite this friend before, but I hope it lets up soon.

Nonetheless, I've been thinking about travel and realizing I miss Barcelona and want to go back there again. Not just because it's such a beautiful, welcoming city, but because I enjoyed the solitude and the exploration. I enjoyed distilling my experiences down each day into a blog post and trying to discover what made that city tick, what its energy was. And I still want to get to Italy, maybe to Rome instead of Venice though.

But not this year. This year I need some recuperating. And I need to get rid of this cat.


Happy New Year!

Moonlitdoll I wish you
health and happiness
pleasures of the body and the mind
success
new adventures
the rekindling of old loves and/or the discovery of new ones
fireworks
candlelight
security financial and otherwise
good stories
continual astonishment
spiritual enlightenment (your choice of dogma or karma)
frequent amusement
a wee dram when you need it
big hearts
deep pockets
long fuses
something warm and fuzzy that is already house-trained
a sense of the ineffable
and people in your life who are as dear as my friends are to me.

I wish all of us peace in a time of war; compassion in a time of hatred; generosity in a time of need; self-knowledge in a time of blame; courage to right past wrongs, and above all things, love unconditional.


random thoughts on the end of the decade

DreamingMoiHmm, it's been an interesting 10 years. In just about 6 months, I turn 50 and it seems to be making me a little philosophical in my old age. The last 10 years have been, in comparison to, say, my 30s, really good personally, despite some things most people would call tragedies but that I've come to see as either life stages or just ordinary events. I think I've grown and changed more in roughly the last decade than I have in the first 40, with the possible exception of childhood, when pretty much every human being grows and changes exponentially. It's not that I've gained so much more knowledge (though I hope I never stop learning new things), but that I've figured out what to do with what I already know, emotionally and otherwise.

Continue reading "random thoughts on the end of the decade" »


thankful

Going to Church Moi Long time no post here. Or anywhere, for that matter. I've been busier than a one-armed paper hanger and I'm still playing catch-up. My desk and work table—heck, my whole apartment—looks like a disaster area. I have a hundred household chores, grading to do, books to make, projects to attend to, and absolutely no energy whatsoever. It's been a kinda crazy semester. Where to start? Maybe with the new tenant.

Akisu1 After many long years without a cat, I've acquired a beastie. Or rather, the beastie has acquired me. This is Queen Mab, who was once a lost little street kitty that my friend Gretl (whose pic you can see on the wall there) picked up and took home right before I left for China. She knew just who to throw herself in front of, too. All it took was her rolling over and showing her belly for Gretl to pick her up and bring her home. When I first saw her, Mab (who Gretl called Princess Farhana, after one of her Burlesque buddies) had dark grey stockings, tail, and ears, and we thought she might be part Siamese. She talks and acts like one, but her "points" proved to be just dirt. She's a big marshmallow with green eyes and an attitude. She was lying on Gretl's bathroom floor, purring up a storm at any attention she received and turned out to be a territorial tyrant, driving Gretl's poor, sweet, dim kitties into exile in the bedroom for the duration of her stay. Once I brought her home, it took her all of 15 minutes to adjust to her new abode at my house—and make it hers. Here she is staking claim to my desk. She's playful and funny and very good natured. She likes people, which is a real switch from the last bitch-kitty I had, but she's a one-cat-per-household cat. And she talks. I kept thinking about her the whole time I was in China and fighting the idea of bringing her home. After all, having a kitty puts the kibosh on most serious travel, doesn't it? But like with the Borg, resistance is futile. Cats pick you. You don't pick them. So now my house is covered in cat hair. And white, you know, goes with nothing I own. Nothing. I don't care. She's put punctures in my leather sofa and barfed on my rug more times than I can count already, and cost me $1,000 last weekend to get her butt unplugged. I don't care. It's great to have a beastie in the house again.

I'm back teaching at CNR again, but I also, thanks to a renewed connection, picked up a couple of classes at the College of Staten Island. This is both good and bad. Good because it's a CUNY job and that pays well, plus after three semesters I get benefits. Bad because it's in Staten Island and the first seven weeks were a brutal schedule: up at 6 AM, catch the subway at 6:45 to the express bus at 7:54, reach CSI at 9 AM; office hours from 9-10 (yes, I even get paid for those!); first class from 10:10-1:10, second class from 1:30-4 (no break); run for the ferry shuttle at 4:05, grab the 4:30 ferry back to lower Manhattan and catch the #5 train to the Bronx to teach another 2.5-hour class there, and catch the bus back home, where I arrive at about 9:30. Not much time to eat, and 8.5 hours of being "on," which, believe me, is not the same as sitting in a cube for that length of time. By the time I got back, I was totally knackered. Then I had a 10 AM class at CNR both Weds. and Thursday. After next week, I'll be down to three classes total from 6. I'm still doing the AM class at CSI, but I've only got one more evening class at CNR and then just the Thursday morning classes, so it's not as bad now, but I just don't have the stamina for that anymore. Not sure I ever did.

Not surprisingly, I got sick as a dog about two weeks ago. Not the flu, thankfully, but the usual awful case of bronchitis I get when I'm run down. I'm still fighting it off, but the cough is going away and the stuff I'm hacking up is no longer a disgusting color and doesn't taste like my lungs are rotting from the inside out. Last night I got the first full, cough-free night of sleep I've had in a couple of weeks. Of course, the cat woke me up at 7:30 demanding attention, food, and entertainment. She's like that. Me, me, me.

So with six classes to teach, that's about all I've been doing. Helen was here in October, and I saw Jen briefly when she whizzed through town for the New School's science movie festival. She and I and Helen went to dinner at Spice Market, a place I've been dying to try (well worth the money) and then drinks with Gretl afterwards, so I'm working Helen into my circle of friends here too.

I've been getting some good poems out of the ferry commute, I think, and teaching, as always is something I find stimulating. The classes at CSI were tough, not because of the subject matter (basic computer skills), but the audience. Such a huge difference between the Staten Island "kids" who really are, and the ones at CNR, who, even when they're young, have really had to grow up fast and don't take anything about their education for granted, even when they don't quite know how to be students. The ones at CNR have so many obstacles to overcome and the ones at CSI seem so much more sheltered and take so much for granted that it's frustrating when they goof off and talk over me. Plus I'm competing with the internet because the classes are in the computer lab and they can't stay off fucking Facebook.

I missed Julie's non-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving, even though she rescheduled it around me, so I'm getting no Thanksgiving at all this year, which feels a little weird, and that it feels weird is weird in itself because I've never really celebrated the holiday. For a few years when I was a kid, we went down to Uncle Dave's & Aunt Eltha's for an Allam gathering, but that didn't last long because there were so many of us. In college, I rarely went home for it, usually going to the Uncle Ralph's & Aunt Lucy's for dinner. In grad school, I sometimes had dinner with friends. When I moved to New York, Jen and I started having our own un-Thanksgiving: movies and Chinese food. That lasted until she got married and moved to LA. Now I haven't done much of anything, and this year, I'm sick, so I'm sitting here whining about not celebrating a holiday I never celebrated.

It's actually a holiday I like, and never really saw the harm in. It's not religious, it's not especially patriotic, it's more about what Christmas used to be: family and gratitude. I understand that there's also the whole PC suppression of native culture thing wound up in it too that should make me vaguely guilty, but I somehow can't see it that way, either. I think the original celebration was as much about survival and the attempt at sharing the land (which sadly failed) and was turned into the national conquering myth later. We can't imagine the kind of hand-to-mouth existence new settlers had in an unfamiliar land, where a bad harvest would leave them like the Roanoke Colony. It's essentially a harvest festival, something people have celebrated since we've been planting crops. It's hard not to be thankful for a good harvest when your life depends on it, and I don't really see any reason not to express that thanks. I like it because it's not a holiday that involves presents. It's about food, family, friends, and gratitude.

But I was never allowed to say "Happy Thanksgiving" when I was a JW. That was somehow giving glory to some other god, though I never really understood why. I understood why we didn't celebrate Halloween, or Christmas or Easter, because they all had roots in pagan celebrations. But somehow being thankful for food and survival didn't seem, well, pagan. It just seemed grateful and human. I like what Michael Ruhlman wrote about it today: "Thanksgiving should be about being with people we care about, about paying attention to what we have so that we don't waste it, so that we make more of it, so that everyone has it."

So now that I no longer identify as a JW, I think it might be a holiday I invest in, like New Year's. I doubt I'll ever celebrate Christmas or Easter as they never had and and don't now have any meaning for me, and Halloween seems just like silly fun. But Thanksgiving I could get behind. Next year, maybe I'll have dinner here. I'm certainly grateful for the friends who form my family of choice, for the good food I have access to here in the city, for learning to cook, for the chance to do it for my friends and send them home with leftovers. I'm happy to share what I have and can do. I'm grateful to the small farmers who invest in old-fashioned organics and free-range food and haul it to the greenmarket every week. I'm grateful I have so many friends to share it with. I'm grateful I have a job (even if I have too many of them), so I can afford to buy good food and share what I've got with others. I'm grateful for my finicky cat, who doesn't really appreciate how spoiled she is.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.