Monday, October 7, 2013

A vision softly creeping

Walking to the subway yesterday afternoon, Stan and I passed a striking-looking woman standing on a stoop, talking on her cell phone. A black town car waited at the curb, rear door ajar.

You make me beautiful,” the woman said into her phone as we passed by and out of earshot.  I turned to Stan.

“Her stylist? Photographer? Mother? Lover?”

“This conversation is just the kind of thing I would have put in my strip,” said Stan, whose Village Voice comic strip, “Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies, specialized in the found art of overheard dialogue.

Click to enlarge
The moment proved to be a propitious segue to the event we were headed for: Paul Simon talking with poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon as part of the weekend's New Yorker Festival. 

I say that casually, but my teenage self was sending up a high-pitched squeal. Paul Simon has been a hero of mine since the 1970s, when I was old enough to swipe albums from my older brothers and sisters. There Goes Rhymin' Simon was my first hot-fisted filch, with its graph-paper album cover design (thank you, Milton Glaser) and its king's-ransom's worth of songs, including Kodachrome, Love Me Like a Rock, Something So Right, and the never-out-of-date American Tune:
I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to its knees.
Simon's music has gotten him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, Muldoon pointed out.

Simon: "Yes, the first time was for Simon & Garfunkel. The second time was to aggravate Artie."

Muldoon: "How did that work out?"

Simon: "It worked out well. He's pretty aggravated."

I love Simon's music, his groundbreaking mixture of global rhythms and musicians on Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, his guitar-playing—but it's his lyrics I roll around in like a dog rolls in dirt.

"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance." 
"You've got the cool water when the fever runs high." 
"She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy." 
"There's a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline." 
"I like to sleep with the windows open, you keep the windows closed, so goodbye, goodbye, goodbye."

And, of course, "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar"—cited by Derek Walcott, with whom Simon collaborated on the ill-fated Broadway musical The Capeman (whose music I love), as evidence that Simon is a poet.

So it was surprising, often hilarious, and strangely not at all disillusioning to hear Paul Simon talk about the many seemingly accidental ways that titles and lyrics ended up in his songs.

"I was in a Chinese restaurant and on the menu there was a chicken and egg dish. And they called it the Mother and Child Reunion."

"I was flipping through a book on Magritte, and there was a photo with the caption, 'Georgette and Rene Magritte with their dog before the war.' But I thought it should be, 'Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.' " 

Asked by a girl in the audience to reveal the mystery of what "me and Julio" were doing down in the schoolyard, Simon said, "If I tell you I'm just going to wreck it for you—that was all about just getting the name 'Julio' into a song."

When another woman cited "The cross is in the ballpark" (from The Obvious Child on Rhythm of the Saints) as one of her favorite lines, Simon said, "Me, too. I wish I knew what it meant."

And he happily admits to quoting many, many lines from the songs he grew up with in the 50s, "when every song used the same three chords."

One of those chords ended up in Graceland—an unexpected minor chord played by South African guitarist Ray Phiri.

"They almost never use minor chords in South African music, so I asked him, 'Why did you use that chord?' " Simon said, "and he said, 'Because you use that chord'—a chord I took from Earth Angel. That's when I knew we were really making global music."

The racing percussion line that underlies Graceland gave the tune a rockabilly feeling that put Simon in mind of Sun Studios in Memphis, where Johnny Cash and Elvis had recorded.

With no lyrics for the song, he started singing, "I'm going to Graceland, Graceland"—"but I thought, 'Well, I'm not using that, it makes no sense.' "  Until he returned to the States and actually took a trip to Graceland, his first.

"I was driving down the highway, and there was the first line of the song actually laid out before me: 'The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar.' "

Muldoon interrupted: "It should be said, not everyone would put it that way."

Simon is either modest or flatly realistic about his lyrical gift. Most of the time, he says, "I don't know where it comes from"—a sentiment echoed by Muldoon, who encouraged a budding poet in the audience to "go in ignorance."

But ignorance with your eyes open.

"When I was a kid, I was always looking at the sidewalk, because you might find a quarter," Paul Simon said. "One time I found a dollar. The thing is, you always have to be looking."

The evening ended with Paul Simon and his guitar and a simple, almost conversational version of The Sound of Silence. 

"Hear my words that I might teach you"?

We heard. We learned. He got a standing ovation.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Made-Up Life

[I'm very pleased to have had this piece run on on September 17, 2013.]

On the wall in my mom’s home office, there’s a plastic box frame that holds a yellowing page from McCall’s magazine. A 22-year-old has just been given a makeover, her waist-length hair cut into a fluffy mass of ’80s feathering, courtesy of cowboy-hatted superstar stylist Jose Eber. Her eyebrows have been groomed, her skin foundationed, her oversized glasses removed and her eyelashes mascara’d. She wears a strapless bodysuit, a plastic necklace that took its design cues from molten lava, and a big smile.

“I look in the mirror and I see this glamorous, sophisticated woman,” the caption reads. “I can’t believe it’s really me!”

I was misquoted.

What I actually said was, “I look like a hooker.”

Yes, that was me, wearing a smock and looking sheepishly at my reflection as Jose picked up my long hair in both hands and held it out to the sides, as if measuring my wingspan. (The master of disdain, Jose was unimpressed.) That was me, mortified by the yellow polka-dot outfit that made me look like a back-up singer for Shaun Cassidy. And that was me, driving away from the photo session and hoping the police didn’t pick me up on suspicion of solicitation at traffic lights.

I’ve always had a tense relationship with cosmetics. Mascara feels like I’ve drizzled my eyelashes with Elmer’s Glue. Foundation feels like a death mask. Lipstick wears me. Basically, I don’t like stuff on my face. (That feathery haircut, constantly wisping my forehead, ugh.)

Which was a perfectly plausible attitude from age 22 until about age 35, when I could get by with a 10-minute morning routine, including the shower.

But now I’m 52, and no chapter in Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck resonates more emphatically with me than “On Maintenance”:

“You know what maintenance is, I’m sure. Maintenance is what they mean when they say, ‘After a certain point, it’s just patch patch patch.’ Maintenance is what you have to do just so you can walk out the door knowing that if you go to the market and bump into a guy who once rejected you, you won’t have to hide behind a stack of canned food.”

By now, I’ve had to make cosmetic concessions. I won’t ride the elevator the six floors down to the lobby to get the mail without first applying my $1 eye pencil, for fear of running into someone I may or may not know.

I look at the unfamiliar landscape that used to be my skin, and try my best to smooth it over with a few drops of Clinique ‘Almost Makeup.’ I even bought a drugstore lipstick in a shade that most closely approximates the color I used to achieve by biting my lower lip.

The problem is, I’m an old dog now, and this new trick may be beyond me. I just don’t know what I’m doing. I once watched a young woman apply her makeup while holding on to the pole on a rattling subway train who did it better than I do.

I live in fear of ending up with that jittery trail of eyeliner that breaks my heart when I see it on an old woman—the kind of whom you think, “God bless ’er, she’s still trying.”

Today my getting-dressed routine lasts about 45 minutes and generally ends with my flipping off the bathroom light and making a little ucchh sound in the back of my throat. The cosmetic equivalent of, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

God bless me, I’m still trying. I’d even be open to another magazine makeover. But wouldn’t you know, McCall’s magazine is long gone. And so is that 22-year-old glamorous, sophisticated hooker in polka dots.

It's faded. It's been 30 years.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


I’ve lived in New York for 3 years and 235 days now, and still the city reaches out and surprises me every day.

This morning's greeting from the Hudson River.

It's partly a numbers game: With so much time spent on the street, you have a 90 percent chance at any moment of bumping up against the beautiful or the strange. 

I may be over-sentimental—my father once described us as "a family that cries at Stop signs"—but I find myself constantly moved by humanity. The old man in a white undershirt, bent at an almost 45-degree angle over his walker, his young female caregiver's hand hovering behind his back. The baby crawling on chubby knees over the grass at Hudson River Park. The owner guiding his three-legged dog through a crosswalk.

But even the city's inanimate features—the geometry of it alone—can yank me to a halt. 
Lower Manhattan
Ninth Avenue, from the Apple Store

East 32nd Street

And the art. It's frigging everywhere. It's in the places you expect it, of course; like MoMA, where Robert Rauschenberg's "combine," Bed—created from pencil, paint, pillow, sheet, and quilt—demonstrates his philosophy of "acting in the gap" between life and art.

But it's also in places you don't expect it. In fact, the amazing thing about New York is the amount of art that exists in the gap between life and Art. 

It's in subway stations.

It's on West 21st Street, where this fantastic creature greeted us from the side of P.S. 11.

How could a child not learn great things after walking through these doors each morning?

And clearly, they have.

There's also art in the middle of the lawn in the middle of Governor's Island in the middle of New York Harbor, where head in the clouds, made from 53,780 recycled plastic water and milk jugs, invites you to step inside and think awhile...

...and where antique French carousels carried children and parents into the past.

The past is a constant companion here. You can time-travel while standing still. 

Walk down a side street, and you may find yourself peering through bars at a tiny Jewish cemetery, sandwiched between brick buildings that loom on either side.  

This is the Third Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue Shearith Israel—the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, established in 1654, according to Tablet Magazine. (Also from Tablet: The Second Cemetery, tucked between brownstones on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, sits next to a building that once housed a Civil War tavern known as The Grapevine, where Southern spies would eavesdrop on Union soldiers—hence the expression "I heard it through The Grapevine.")

I think of these men and women who've slept here for hundreds of years while Sixth Avenue and condominiums and Trader Joe's have grown up around them. Wouldn't they be surprised, just as I'm surprised every single day, by what New York has to show. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

In August I dream of the sea

In August I dream of the sea.

I dream of Cape Cod
Where water like silk
Meets a Hopper shore.

I dream of Los Angeles
Where the cold and wild Pacific
Meets a manicured coast
And the highway bends toward Malibu.

I dream of Istanbul
Where ferries ply the Bosphorus
Where Europe meets Asia;
Where protest meets pepper spray,
Old men and their ways
Meet unvanquished youth.

I dream of Cape Town
Where a billowing cloth
Tumbles off Table Mountain,
And rolls toward the harbor,
Where boats carry the faithful
To rocky Robben Island
And Mandela’s tiny green cell.

I dream of the ocean in August
The sweet salt water of hope.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Turkey, Revisited

“On a recent night at a bar in one of the narrow alleyways of Istanbul’s European quarter, not far from Taksim Square, Duygu Duman said she was so exasperated with her government that she might finally take the green card for the United States that she won in a lottery and pick up and move. 
“ ‘The perception of Turkey has changed dramatically under this government,’ said Ms. Duman, 36, drinking Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg Lemonade while a Bon Jovi song blared from the bar’s speakers. ‘And now it’s getting worse.’ ”
The New York Times, “Resisting By Raising a Glass,” June 10, 2013

The young woman in the window seat was reading a comics magazine. Stan was eyeing it from his seat on the aisle, but he couldn’t read the captions.

“Excuse me,” he said, leaning across me to the woman. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes, of course,” she said.

“Could you tell me what that says?”

She pointed to the image of a woman going into a toilet stall. A man in a suit appeared to be following her.

“He is saying, ‘How can you be trusted if you’re in there by yourself?’ ”

We were on a Turkish Airlines flight last June from Istanbul to Selçuk, preparing to visit the colossal Roman ruins at Ephesus. We had just spent a week in the beach resort town of Bodrum and in Istanbul with the Aydan Doğan Foundation’s International Cartoon Competition, for which My Beloved was serving as a juror. (I wrote about our experiences during the competition here.)

With the Turkish cartoonists on the judging panel, we had discussed censorship, freedom of the press (or the lack thereof), and the difference between the secular Muslim country that Turkey used to be and the increasingly conservative, religiously driven mandates of the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Many of the cartoons, entered into the competition post-Arab Spring, focused on themes of revolution.

Now the cartoon competition was over and we were traveling by ourselves to Ephesus, then to the phallic moonscape of Cappadocia, and then back to Istanbul before heading home to New York. The young woman next to us on this flight was a psychiatrist who worked with patients at a hospital in Istanbul and with residents of a poor community in the city.

As we discussed the political cartoons in the magazine she carried, she described with emotion and heat the changes she’d seen in her country in the ten years that Erdogan had been Prime Minister.

“It’s frightening,” she said. “Especially for women.” She cited some of the things Erdogan had done or vowed to do: ban abortion; “reform” education so that girls could leave school earlier, effectively lowering their marriageable age to about 14; increase religious education in schools. We've since heard about other edicts—restrictions on the sale of alcohol, forbidding public displays of affection, exhorting married couples to bear at least three children.

She also described a distrust of professionals on the part of the more conservative, less educated Erdogan supporters—to the point that her boyfriend, an ER doctor, had been kicked and had his ribs broken by a patient who thought the doctor was plotting against him because he read his scans on a computer screen instead of on old-style x-rays.

“Do you think about leaving the country?” I asked the woman.

“Many of my friends have already left,” she said. “But this is my country. My ancestors are here. Why should I have to leave?”

I’ve been thinking of her—and of our impassioned tour guide, Suleiman, who had said, “I have to speak out for my son, who is one year old”—as I’ve watched the coverage of the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square over the past week. Last year, I had wondered if or when the anger we heard in conversations would bubble up into physical protest.

So when the environmental protest over plans to raze Gezi Park and build a shopping mall evolved into a passionate demonstration against the government and for democracy, I wished I were back in Taksim Square to support the protestors.

On our first visit to Taksim Square last June, we had only been in Istanbul one day. I'd heard that the square was a center of political protest, and imagined it as something like the Federal Building in West Los Angeles, where you'll often see crowds with Iranian flags or placards lined up along Wilshire Boulevard. When we saw a march coming up Istiklal Cadessi, the famous pedestrian shopping thoroughfare that leads into Taksim Square, I got my hopes up that we were about to witness citizen outrage in action. But no—the marchers were carrying banners for cell phone companies and corporate brands.

I was continually flummoxed by the contradictions in Turkey—how the country seems to be moving forward and backward at the same time.

In the seat-back pocket on the flight from the U.S., a thick and glossy publication laid out in spectacular detail the hospitable infrastructure that Turkey offers to potential international business partners—including the country's growing young work force. (That three-children mandate seems to fit neatly with Erdogan's business plans.)

Shopping was already a thriving industry in Istanbul, from the historic Spice Market and Grand Bazaar... the rushing river of Turkish lira-bearing humanity along Istiklal:

Yet on the societal front, the increasing religious conservatism seemed to be sending Turkey back to the dark ages. Marry girls off at 14? Ban abortion? Imprison opposing voices? As of June 2012, Erdogan's administration had jailed more than 100 journalists and 30 mayors—including the mayor of Bodrum, who was therefore unable to attend the closing night dinner of the cartoon competition as he had planned until two nights before.

I loved Turkey. I adored Istanbul. My heart broke for our plane companion and our gregarious young tour guide, who were watching the country they'd grown up in disappear into a dark tunnel.

“My parents feel guilty,” said the young psychiatrist on the plane. “They said, ‘We should have stopped this years ago. We failed you.’ ”

Now a new generation is trying to succeed in Taksim Square.
Istiklal, June 2013.  Photo: EPA  From The Telegraph

For a more complete photo album of our trip to Turkey in June, 2012, click here.