Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Please don't give....advice!

I hadn't been back to my meditation bench in ages, so this morning, I decided to sit awhile. The bench was difficult to find in the underbrush. 
While contemplating the clouds, I started thinking about my daughter...

...how great it is to have her home after her first year of college—and yet, I've already wrecked it. I vowed before she arrived, not to give advice, not, unless she asked for it. But there I was the other day, driving around in the car, telling her what she should do, what she should say, and, worst of all, how she should act! The response wasn't good. A nineteen-year-old doesn't want parental advice. How could I have forgotten from my days of avoiding my parents at all cost, just so they wouldn't ask me questions about my life or try to share their feelings? College kids have experienced enough of the world to get along without outside interference. By this age, parents aren't necessary, except to pay the bills and keep the light on at night. It's not a personal thing, I keep telling myself; it's a cruel reality, one I'm having trouble accepting.


Another cruel reality is the one that's unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm no engineer and I certainly don't know a rat's ass from an off-shore drilling rig, but I've joined the millions of people who are fed-up and angry about BP's response to the oil spill. According to Andrew Revkin, the blogger who writes for "Dot Earth" in the NY Times, it's time for the federal government to step in and push BP aside, to stem the flow of oil. Comments on his blog yesterday ranged from "way to go," to "you don't know what you're talking about," to "it's all Obama's fault," to "no one knows what they're talking about."
Pelicans trying to land as oil hits shore (photo credit: media3.washingtonpost.com)

And then there's Tom's p.o.v., which I've been thinking a lot about lately. We were in the back yard looking at his artichokes (you can check them out on Flickr), and talking about BP's failed containment attempts. He pointed way off in the distance to the Griffith Park Observatory, five miles away, about the distance the oil is spewing out of the earth, and said, it would be like aiming for that spot and trying to hit it...under water, impossible to do. 

 Rube Goldberg sausage maker
 Drawing of BP animation still that illustrates "Top Kill"

His point: we're deluding ourselves thinking we can drill without triggering a disaster, drilling deep into the earth, cutting into flesh without it bleeding. We've allowed exploration five miles down with no idea of the consequences, no proven solutions if things go wrong, all the while allowing powerful oil companies protection by sweetheart deals and handshakes from regulators and politicians, as reported in the LA Times this morning.

We Angelenos keep driving our cars because we live in a city that can't seem to envision a workable public transportation system— like they have in Europe or in New York— to get us from one side of the city to the other. (Yes, I know the argument for taking the bus, but my job is near the Beverly Center and I can't spend two hours getting there and then two back, even though the poor of this city must, and do, do it, but I can't, I won't, and that's why I keep driving). And the circle remains unbroken, and we keep spinning our wheels and drilling for oil to feed our cars, harming every living thing in its path. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


 Still from the video, M_E_M_O_R_Y

The act of memory— how it circles around to condemn you, or to lift you up to give meaning to your life— struck me as particularly poignant on my trip back East last month.

For instance,

Tupolev Tu-154, the Soviet-era plane that crashed in Smolensk

Wojciech Seweryn, the Polish artist and community leader from Chicago, joined the ill-fated flight to Russia with the Polish president on April 10, to pay tribute to his officer father who'd been slain by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn Woods in 1940. Wojciech, the artist from Chicago, died only a few miles from where his father, the Polish officer, had been killed.

Which got me thinking about my own memories, memories about my family, about living in New York, about how the act of remembering—or its opposite, the act of forgetting—shapes one's hand. 

What is memory? Is it who we are, or who is remembered?  
And, so, to that, a video about memory:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

After New York City... a deep slumber

I'd planned for months to go to NYC, planned every detail, everything I wanted to accomplish, which I did, but regrettably I neglected to make any plans for coming home. Once back, I fell into a deep sleep from which I've had trouble waking. 

Everything in Los Angeles is overwhelmingly bright, all white, dazzling light. I'm hypnotized by the white light.

 white everywhere

I feel like Snow White after taking a bite of the apple (get it, the apple?). The white houses here remind me of Greece, a country I've never been to but wish to visit, although I keep flashing on the recent rioting in the streets. What anarchy! What burning images!

This image of rioting in Greece looks like a scene out of Wagner's opera "The Ring."

Disoriented: feeling lost or confused, especially with regard to direction or position.  

It must be my job. Before NYC I had no problem teaching all week, but now I'm dragging myself to work. How much longer can I teach English to immigrants at night, when they seem not to be learning a thing?

Ehsanolah M., one of my longest running students, is a modern day Job, experiencing one failure after another, yet he keeps on trying. He's a religious man so he'd never believe that the gods are against him, but God keeps tripping him up: Ehsan sets his alarm for 4:30 a.m., but this morning, he tells me, he fell back to sleep and woke too late to get to Shul for morning prayers. He rushes there nonetheless, but misses the last prayer. 

He then trudges back home and finds his car is leaking oil. "The car is no good" he says. He's been saying that for a very long time. He takes it in to get serviced, but by the time he gets home the car's empty of oil again. By 9 a.m. he packs a big black garbage bag full of cheap clothing to sell and takes the bus downtown to L.A.'s garment district, walking for hours up and down Santee Alley, Olympic Blvd, Twelfth Street, Wall and Pico, but no one is buying. He walks and walks for "little benefit," and with his feet hurting, and makes not a farthing. He comes to class exhausted and sits with his head in his hands staring at the page, not knowing how to answer the simplest question. He's been out of work ever since I began teaching, almost two years now—with no money, no prospects, no way to support his family. English is the last thing on his mind.

Ehsanolah M. and his teacher

New York was so thrilling, I could have stayed forever, going to museums, having lunch with friends, writing with my friend M in her beautiful apartment, but this is real life, not as thrilling when you get right down to it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Poets House


Poets House at Hudson River Park

I want to call my mother—tell her I'm in New York City. Oh, and by the way Mom, there's a Colgate Clock right across the river from the Poets House in lower Manhattan, the exact same clock that sat across from Dad's store (a warehouse actually) in Louisville, KY. My mother would take me there as a child to have lunch with my busy father, where he'd sweep us out the front door and deliver us to Akins Restaurant to have the famously good hot plates of turkey and mashed potatoes. The bridge over the Ohio River, heading towards that clock, was the only route I knew to get out of town, to get away from my parents, the same ones I recall now as I sit down to write. 

 Colgate clock in N.J.

The Colgate Clock is a dot across the river, just north of the Statue of Liberty, which is an even smaller dot through my camera, and across the river too from the Irish Hunger Memorial, which recalls the Irish potato famine of 1845, and those who made their way to America, with Billy Collins calming voice reciting verse over the loud speaker. The Memorial is just down the street from the Poets House (my destination, if I can ever get there), and on the top is a good view of the clock and a kite sailing by.

Irish Hunger Memorial

I don't know why I've been thinking about my mother on this trip, but twice— twice!—I've sat down to write and she's been right there, letting me know I forgot to tell her my plans; in fact, why haven't I called, and why didn't I let her know I was going to New York for a month, where the shopping is fabulous and the knishes oh so good? I sense it's my fault I forgot to call, but then I remember that's all wrong, she died five years ago.

A theory for my mother's presence is that I'm on the East Coast, the port of call for my family. My grandfather and grandmother came through Ellis Island from Poland in 1908, or so I assumed; but when I checked the Ellis Island database for a Jacob Hildebrand, he wasn't listed; even Tom looked last month when he was on Ellis Island. At the Tenement Museum a few days ago, I asked our friendly tour guide, an artist and second generation German immigrant named Jason Eisner, if that was normal, people passing through without being recorded, and he said Jacob should have been there... but he's not.

(By the way, the Tenement Museum opened my eyes to the true poverty immigrants had to endure on their arrival here...not so different from today.)

 Friendly tour guide at the Tenement Museum on the lower East Side

Did my grandparents come under an alias, or under my grandmother's maiden name, Shereshevsky? Or did my grandfather take his brother's name, the one who shot off his big toe so he wouldn't have to fight in the Russian Army? Unfortunately, no one in my family has the answer, as no one knows the Polish village where Jacob and Rosa lived or where they landed. It's all speculation on my part that they were here before they headed to Louisville. I sense them on the lower East Side when we tour the tenements, but I don't really know if that's true.

But for argument's sake, let's say they landed here: still how does that explain my mother's presence and wanting to talk to her? Inside the Poets House, which I finally enter after much procrastination, I sit down in the lovely peaceful library, with the beautiful blue couch.

The first book I pull out is a collection of poems by Grace Paley, one of my favorite NY writers. Almost immediately I find this poem, untitled, about Grace missing her mom. My socks are knocked off by the similarity:

   Some days I am lonesome    I want to talk to my mother
   And she isn't home
   Then I ask my father   Where has she been the last twenty years?
   And he answers
   Where do you think you fool as usual?
   She is asleep in Abraham's bosom
   Resting from your incessant provocation

[Let me stop for a moment: I really love this line, how Grace is an ever-present provocation to her brilliant surly father, even in her old age]


   Exhausted by infinite love of me
   Escaping from the boredom of days shortening to Christmas
   and the pain of days lengthening to Easter
   You know where she is   
   She is at ease in Zion with all the other dead Jews.

This poem gives me hope: maybe my mother is there too. 

But sadly, she's not here in NYC. This city is only for the living— for eating, shitting, making money, loving, walking the children to school, working hard at artistic pursuits, going places on the dysfunctional subway, observing hairstyles and Hasids, enjoying the cold rain, trying to catch a show, going with the flow. 

And sadly for me I'm leaving tomorrow. I will miss this city, so full of life.