Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Sirens of New York

New York, you sly devil!  I hear your siren song.

Wednesday is the day I return to Tiny Town every week. Urban Exile, as you know, makes her modest living as a Spanish teacher and translator, and is still working in New York City on Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings. I scheduled a Wednesday morning class recently, despite my well-publicized breakup with New York, because my commitment to the client will only last into October, and because the new student is such an extremely interesting person.

I make only short-term commitments to New York these days, and New York is supposed to understand that.

Odysseys and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper

Thalia had her fifth lesson with me at her lovely, bright East Side penthouse while her large, owl-like tiger cat looked on. Thalia is a woman with a laugh that emerges from deep in her belly, and a mane of  fantastic blond hair that seems to defy gravity and float every so slightly around her head like an aura. She is wealthy, accomplished and beautiful -- and her husband is a VIP in the art world.

Thalia is learning Spanish for a project she is doing at one of the most important museums in Lima, Perú, and when I found out that the exhibit of which she was going to be in charge was one pertaining to Words, I was profoundly excited. After all, to exhibit objects is one thing, but to design a physical display pertaining to words is something else again! Our hour-long class stretched into an hour and 45 minutes as I surprised myself by giving a pretty inspired extemporaneous talk on Words as Symbolic Illusions and other existential concepts pertaining to language. It is fun to be around high-powered people who are doing major league creative projects and who are interested in what one has to say.

That's New York for you. Heady. The Ego perks up at the attention. Chatting with Thalia that day in her fabulous deco penthouse surrounded by works by major artists, I had that dangerous thought again: I can't leave New York! This is where the cool people are!  

But Exile has learned (thank Heavens) that when her Ego feels really happy (or mightily offended), her wise heart would be well-advised to raise the warning flag. I am not saying that the heady chemical spikes that result from proximity to fame, wealth and the high-test creative juice that New York offers can't be handled by a wise person; I am just saying that I am barely wise enough to deal with it. Exile can be made to forget her own resolution, her own journey and destination, when basking in the reflected light of New York's stars.

For you to really understand what I am saying, dear Reader, Exile must now explain that she has been fortunate to meet and work with some of New York City's brightest lights. As an artist, she has sung with some of the icons in the music world, worked with well-known talents in journalism and photography, and has had some memorable conversations with some of the dynamos of the Manhattan arts and literature constellation. Why this has been my fate, I don't know, and I'm not complaining about it. But if I look at my own past with a cold eye, I have to admit that I have allowed this flow of fame to distract me somewhat: Being around famous people can make you feel as if you have accomplished something just by knowing them. Truly, you'd be better off  just staying at home practicing guitar or writing a blog, for example, than hobnobbing with people whose work is, let us say, more well-developed than one's own.

My student Thalia absorbed my ideas about language like a cat laps up milk, and those ideas of mine will melt into the great work she will do for the museum in Lima. For humanity as a whole, that's a plus. For me as an individual, it's a kind of ho-hum result, and it begs the question: Why am I better at offering my creative ideas to others than I am at developing them on my own?

There are a lot of possible answers to that question, but one I offer now is that living in New York City for me has been to suffer from a continuous case of Attention Deficit Disorder. And if you add a few distractingly interesting famous people into the mix, the condition worsens. The multiplicity of possible routes to achieve something worthwhile in this city can be mind-boggling, and as a quick-learner I have moved easily from world to world with fair grace, attaching myself to high-achievers without ever achieving for myself the greatness for which I yearned. Dare I say that sometimes I feel rather like an intellectual demimonde?

True Oak now speaks up from her comfortable armchair in my mind, and derails my tirade: "Don't you think you're being a bit hard on yourself?" she remarks, readjusting a gossamer swathe of lavender fabric around her thin shoulders. "You have after all recorded two Cd's and quite a few singles of your own music. You have toured through Europe with your band. You have made your living as a freelance teacher for nearly 20 years, have run a cultural center, and have bought an apartment in New York City. You been a good friend to many and have loved a few. That's not nothing. What kind of greatness were you yearning for, anyway?"

Well, that's the million dollar question, isn't it?  True Oak has a way of bringing me back to earth with a thump.

Recognition and Greatness, Exile must admit, are not the same thing. Greatness is often found in humble venues, while Recognition is now available to anyone with a video camera and a stupid animal trick. It is humbling and somewhat embarrassing for Exile to realize that there was a good stretch of time in her life when she convinced herself that she was pursuing Greatness, when Recognition is what she really craved.

Ultimately, neither is important, though I write this knowing that the motto of Exile's parents was always "we don't care what you do, as long as you're the best at what you do". That, of course, was not true: they really cared a lot what Exile did, and were often not all too happy with the choices I made. I didn't always try to be the best at what I did, either, to whit the many hours typing poems and short stories when I was supposed to be writing press releases at my first job for Big News Magazine.

As a young sprout and in the ambiance of Big News Magazine I met many important and semi-important people: supermodels, politicians, sports stars and actors. I was wooed by sports writers and once even Dr. Dean Ornish flirted with me. Yes, the atmosphere at Big News was heady, Olympian even, and there I got a solid dose of feeling that I had "made it" just by being there. 

So when I finally break up with New York City, I will lose that supercharged umbilicus of Near Fame. I will no longer enjoy the heady illusion of accomplishment by proximity. I dread that. And I also know that it's the best thing for me.

Cut me off. Please.


Unknown said...

hi i like the blog very much.

Tenured Radical said...

OMG. Two days left! Great post. Captures something very real.