Friday, December 31, 2010

This Moment

This is the last post of 2010.

Just as when I was a child, I feel a sense of momentousness as the old year ticks away and a sense of foolishness, too. Momentous it is, for this year 2010 was a wonderful one for me and FF. It will now become an entry in a blog, some photos in a binder, perhaps fading little by little from memory as new concerns and events take hold in my mind. Foolish it is, too, as I realize that these clumsy time markings of ours are just man-made attempts to observe, control and even to stop the mystifyingly quick passage of our lives.

Time is not real. Only this breath, this moment. Only this room in the old stone house in Tiny Town is real. Only this fire in our little hearth is certain. The fire itself is a wonder, never staying the same for even a second, the gases released from the log leap and dance while the spirit of the tree it once was rises up, igniting and extinguishing itself simultaneously. The orange, mumbling fire, never still, is the very essence of constant change.

Once a year we watch midnight come, as if this time we might hold it in our hands and have more time to examine that moment, turn it over and really look at it, and perhaps make the world stand still. I think we all have a deep urge to find a way to make time stop, to take one moment and to be able to understand it fully and quietly before pressing that play button again that sends us hurtling into the next, barely comprehended moment.

As a child, I always felt as if my moments were tumbling by too quickly for me to understand them. Vacations, school days, holidays, birthdays, or just nice days in brief space of time seemed to appeal to me to keep them, to not let them slip through my fingers. And worst of all were those decisive moments like graduations, a golden summer afternoon, a twilight whiffle ball game, hearing mother say "They've shot the President", or saying goodbye to Grandpapa for the last time. Those were mad days when I thought "This here is important, wonderful, irreplaceably great and/or terrible, and I must pay attention." And yet, despite the gravity of the moment, the time slipped past as if it were any day, as if the importance of things to me was, ultimately, of no importance at all to the universe.

And so the moments, consequential and ordinary, flew by at the same incomprehensible speed for me, and I was lost to nostalgia for the day before the sun even set.

Now, right now, I am sitting in front of the fireplace with my husband. It is our first New Year's Eve as a married couple, and we are spending it in our house in Tiny Town. There is gentle music playing in the background, an orange fire in our grate, and we are writing our way towards midnight in companionable silence, sharing the old red desk chair to prop our four feet up in front of the warm grate. Oh yes, this moment of contented domesticity is one that I would stop and turn over and over like a pebble in my hands. He sighs slightly as he writes, the logs crackle softly, the wooden flute music fills our living room, and all is well. Such moments would be worth stopping not because they marked a grand separation, but just because they were full of ordinary sweetness.

Certainly, as I get older I am less drawn to those spotlighted, decisive moments and more to the ordinary and everyday. In the quotidian moments of our days here in Tiny Town I have flashes in which I achieve a sense of timelessness, in which I understand that there is no then and now, only this moment in all its perfect roundness, eternal and comfortingly real, always accessible. When I have this glimpse of eternity, I do not need to hold onto any moments, not even the moment this year when FF and I said "I do" or the dropping of a ball on Time Square. Not even this lovely picture of two newly married people in front of a fire. I let them all go, because at last I see that not only can I not hold them, but even more wonderfully, they are not really going anywhere.

So there will be no goodbyes, 2010. You've been a great year, but we both know that you're going to accompany me on to what we'll agree to call 2011, and on and on until I grow tired and have to stop contemplating time and become part of eternity again. Time isn't going anywhere: It's just us, always on a train to somewhere, like the fidgety creatures that we are and always were meant to be.

Happy New Year from Tiny Town to all of you. Peace to you, wherever you may be.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Seasons of my Soul

If there were no Starbucks, I might freeze to death in New York City.

It was Tuesday, my New York City day, the air was bone-achingly cold, and I didn't have many classes. My teaching schedule tends to fall apart in December. And although I keep showing up faithfully, my students tend to get sick, flake out inexplicably or suddenly realize that, by golly, they are too busy at Christmas to study Spanish! Suddenly my schedule sprouts holes, unprepared lessons, confusions about billing, and other miscues of various sorts. So in the gaps between cancellations and hectic subway encounters in the frozen urban tundra, I seek refuge in Starbucks.

I am deeply thankful for free WiFi and hot tea.

FF and I are about to celebrate our second Christmas in Tiny Town and our first as husband and wife. This weekend, he helped me string up fir garland around the stone and timber walls of our pre-Revolutionary War living room, patiently looking for the nails I had driven with care into the old timbers last year. He hung the garland as I stood there holding the donut roll of connected fir boughs, fragrant like a sylvan feather boa. And as I stood watching him loop greenery around our cozy room, I suddenly had a mental picture of my Dad, now almost 11 years deceased, putting up the big old-style colored Christmas lights on the big yew outside Mom's kitchen window while she stood on the snow crackled lawn in her embroidered shearling coat giving him instructions.

That mental picture of Mom and Dad is one that surprised me. It was a "new" memory, if you will, one I don't remember ever having remembered before. Coming as it did in that moment of decking the halls of Casa Tiny Town, it showed me the continuity between my life now with FF and the world from which I come. For if there is a rhythm and logic to the life FF and I are building together, there is also another deeper logic that comes from our past and it provides a comforting synchronization between now and the other lives we lived when we were young trees. When I was a girl in the suburbs of Philadelphia, when I was still wondering who FF would be, I was watching this very scene unfold. Now here I am doing the Christmas decoration dance in another time and place, and it makes me feel as if I am living right.

There is a comfort to my life in Tiny Town with FF that is based on sameness. Our life has a schedule that involves our individual and cooperative activities: My Tuesdays in Manhattan, fish on Wednesdays, diner Fridays, welcome home notes, and countless small gestures and activities that through happy repetition make our life take shape and assume a form at once reliable and comforting. When we said our vows in August, the unspoken subtext was that for a long while now things are going to continue in basically the same way and that we two are really OK with that. This sameness is like a favorite record (yes, I wrote "record") that you've played hundreds of times before and, though the songs are always the same, the pleasure is new each time. In the soothing warmth of good love, I am finding out, the fun comes from observing the slight variations that emerge as we dance to the same old song.

Early on, before the wedding, the sameness of this rhythm here in Tiny Town irked me in a way I couldn't quite locate: I felt kind of jittery. Life was delightfully, annoyingly, enchantingly, maddeningly peaceful here! It was as if I were afraid that life would outrun me, as if there were something I was supposed to be doing but wasn't doing while I was here watching the leaves turn color and the river rise and fall. It was as if I could not feel truly engaged in Being writ large while quiet, as if I were going to miss my stop on the destiny train without the onslaught of the City's obstacles and energies. Constant change, of personnel and place, have been my life in New York City for the past 28 years. And constant change is not only inevitable, but also good, right? Keep pushing forward! Change keeps you young!

But I am no longer just about myself and my own quicksilver dreams: I am profoundly anchored to Love with a man who is himself as rock steady as a sustained G below middle C. Deep and kind, tired but tireless, he keeps a steady rhythm for me that quietens me. Is it this countryside or is it the man himself that soothes my heart so? No longer does the whim of change intrigue me, nor does it seem like the way towards any destiny worth having. I want to gather myself up like a thunderhead, like a great tree silently exploding from its roots in centennial slow motion towards the heavens. I want to feel my roots beneath me as I move with deliberate dawdle. I want to know the depth of my life, not just its speed, and see how it is always the same and ever-modulating in microscopic ways that I -- finally -- find worth noticing.

I no longer need a world tour to make me feel alive. I lose myself in the profundity of one single square foot of Right Here, Right Now.

Tradition, sings Tevya forever, tradition! I have discovered here in Tiny Town with FF that Tradition is not something that you do alone: You do it with other people, people you love. Tradition is not merely a series of parties and holiday shopping lists, but rather it is a conscious, cyclical exchange of feelings based on a continuity of identity and a shared passion with specific people. Now, in our first year of marriage and our third year of knowing each other, FF and I get to say, "Remember when...?" and we get to laugh together in a way that presages a future that will be equally, satisfyingly ours.

Somehow tradition never happened for me in New York City. People were coming and going too fast and they were too occupied with getting the project done, the better job, the invitation to the networking party, or whatever they were off trying to do. I, too, was coming and going too frantically to really know where I was headed. The spirit of strive and conquer, which is at the very heart of New York City's reason for being, discourages silent nights and it does not care about the quiet contemplation of one square foot of snow crackled ground.

Here in in Tiny Town, Christmas creeps upon us with a tree lighting in Revolutionary Square (our tree is about 15 times smaller than the one in Rockefeller Center), and a frozen hush that is so deep you can hear the very thoughts of the few passersby. When I shop on Main Street I get a 10% discount because I am a local, but I would shop here anyway just to share some encouraging smiles with the local merchants whom I now know by name and who continue to tough it out in this very contracted economy. The local weatherman promises a white Christmas, so I will pull a tarp over the short-cut logs from the old buttonwood tree we had to fell this autumn. Those logs will require some seasoning before we can burn them, I think. And I am satisfied that this pile will keep us warm. Next Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a very Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Soft Is Not Stupid

The recent news of pitching ace Clifton Phifer Lee, aka Cliff Lee, turning down the New York Yankees' offer of around 150 million for the Philadelphia Phillies more modest 120 million dollar offer had me exultant. Crowing. Ebullient.

I'm a lifelong Phillies fan, and of course I was thrilled that we now have probably the best lineup of starters ever in baseball history with Lee, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. And if we can only remember how to hit the ball, the 2011 season is shaping up to be a humdinger for Phillies fans. But the story really got to me because Cliff Lee, in his very polite Arkansas way, said "no" to a big steaming wad of money and "yes" to a lesser wad and the team and city he really wanted to play for. Cliff Lee said no to New York City.

Texas Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels remarked to MLB , "He was very appreciative of the time he was here (in Texas) and how he was treated. He and his family enjoyed his time here. He also enjoyed his time in Philadelphia and liked some of the things that opportunity had to offer. People rag on players for following that last dollar. Cliff didn't do that. I have a lot of respect for him."

Me too. I also admit that if anyone offered me 100 or so million dollars for anything I would be really OK with the "lower" amount. But in the professional sports world, saying no to money is unheard of and saying no to the New York Yankees, the Rolex of the MLB, just doesn't happen.

Did Lee turn them down because he likes the team in Philadelphia? Apparently yes. But there were also some factors weighing against the Lee family going to New York, like the fact that during the World Series some Yankees "fans" decided to spit, throw beer and shout obscenities at Lee's young wife Kristin who was sitting in the visiting team's seats watching her husband play. Nice, huh? And not too darned surprising to me. Yes, there's dumb fans everywhere who do mean things. But this particular bad had the stink of New York on it and, sorry folks, but no way that would have happened in Benton, Arkansas where the Lees are from. Neither in Philadelphia, I'd wager.

Said Kristin Lee "The fans did not do good things in my heart. When people are staring at you, and saying horrible things, it's hard not to take it personal." The fans did not do good things in my heart, she said. I am utterly charmed by that one sentence which is a gentle rebuke from a southern lady who was truly hurt by the uniquely barbarous behaviour of New Yorkers. That meanness, coupled with the arrogance and swagger of the city that considers itself the center of the universe, is one of the main reasons I am breaking up with New York. And it is fortifying to have my experienced verified by a pitching legend and his wife.

My lifelong friend Mary Elizabeth is a style writer and was born in the south. She was transplanted as a teenager to Connecticut, shared an apartment with me on the Lower East Side for a while before marrying her painter husband, also a southerner by birth. Mary Elizabeth and her husband woke up one day to discover they were sincerely and deeply unhappy in New York, though both were pursuing careers that would have dictated that they stay near the supposed center of art and fashion. But, she told me, they had an epiphany one day and left New York soon after, with a sense of great urgency. Says Mary Elizabeth, "We (Southerners) are genuinely hurt when (New Yorkers) mistake our friendliness and outgoing natures for falseness or stupidity." They went South, to Charleston SC, a place where you can be friendly and not be despised for it.

Not long ago, Mary Elizabeth and her husband bought a home in beautiful Altamont, NC. She only has to endure that peculiarly New York meanness when her career as a freelance writer brings her back to the city for conferences with the sharp-clawed denizens of the fashion and design world. It's not as if Mary Elizabeth can't have sharp claws when she wants to, it's just that she prefers not. Just like Kristin and Cliff Lee prefer not. Just like I prefer not.

It is not a sign of stupidity to smile, or to be generous or kind. But New Yorkers as a tribe seem to think so and if you have even a scrap of graciousness in you, you will eventually be hurt by New York's brand of mean. Beauty wears a frown in New York City, and she has sharp elbows and knees that she won't hesitate to jab into you if you show the least bit of softness. That is why I am leaving New York.

And that is why Cliff Lee said "no thanks ", in the softest, nicest, Southern way possible to New York City.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Help! (or, How The City Kept Me Skinny)

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody's help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I'm not so self assured,
Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors.

Opened up the refrigerator door, more like it! My life in the country is comfortable. So comfortable. Perhaps too comfortable? This week Exile went to the doctor, a new one only a short drive from our little stone house above the creek in Tiny Town. I found out that I have higher than normal cholesterol and I need to lose weight. Bummer.

I was pleased with myself on a sunny morning scooting along in my suburban car to the nearby doctor's office, presenting my shiny newlywed Cadillac Insurance Policy card to the receptionist, and getting all my tests, prods and pokes done before 9. I was less pleased with myself when yesterday I got the message on my cell phone telling me that my cholesterol - "*BAD* cholesterol" she said, audibly shaking her finger at it - was high. "You need to go on a low fat diet," she remarked seriously, and then suddenly perky, chirped "Good luck!" and rang off. Good luck. Indeed, good luck. Perhaps just a bit too much good luck?

I have spent my life either underweight or just right. I have always taken a quiet pride in my low blood pressure and excellent blood chemistry. I was the quietly despised one you knew in high school and college who could eat anything and get away with it. Of course, in those days I also yearned for a bit of body fat in very specific, womanly places, and I was afraid I did not have enough of it. But those fears aside, I could EAT and I did. I see in photos from that period how thin I was, how slightly downcast-looking; a bowed young plant, too pale green as if lacking in adequate sunlight. When I was not long out of college, MUE (Mother of Urban Exile) gave me "A Half Day of Beauty " at Elizabeth Arden in New York City for my birthday. The well-muscled Swedish masseuse who said her name was Helga and had blonde braids wrapped around her head like a crown, kept telling me to relax my belly muscles as she pounded away at my front. And then she realized that they were just naturally that thrillingly drum-tight and rock hard. Ah.

These days are gone.

It's not as if Exile has been utterly unaware that things were getting, shall we say, a bit tight in the inseam? I have taken repeated, if short-lived, stabs at cutting out the extras and getting on the old gym horse. But physical activity for its own sake has never been my habit. The family still jokes about my single-handed revival of the archery team in high school and the odd group of misfits who joined me out there behind the gym getting their ya-ya's out by repeatedly assasinating a straw target, perhaps imagining it to be the face of their adolescent sorrows. It felt so much better to be shooting a real weapon than it did to get clocked in the shins by a hockey jock! I wanted to flow, not run with sweat. But still, I was thin.

I moved to New Haven, and college was a wash-out athletically for me. Old Eli did not have a physical culture requirement, thank Heavens. So I remained in the library and off-campus among the musicians, writers, outlaws, stoners and fringe elements. I don't think I attended even one football game at the Yale Bowl, not even one. I was romantically involved with boy-men whose main characteristics (besides having adequate smarts and/or money to be at Yale in the first place) were a passion for guitars, sex, marijuana, and being very adept at passing academic courses without apparently ever picking up a book. My lungs suffered in this period. And I stayed thin.

Help, I need somebody,
Help, not just anybody,
Help, you know I need someone, help.

I launched into post-College life armed with Wealthy Boyfriend (WB), his emotionally scary family, and a job at a major media company. Exile began to notice there was trouble in her ivy-covered paradise: WB's obsession with weed, his Fender electric guitar and his subsumed anger at his mother caused problems in our relationship. Meanwhile Exile was anxious and unhappy because WB's family used their connections to get me the job and because I was living in their carriage house in Westchester rent-free and driving theirVolkswagen to the suburban train station every morning, and because I could not figure her way out of this horrifically dependent situation. WB slept in every morning while I sallied off to my New York City job wearing uncomfortable linen suits and high-heeled pumps. WB did not have a job -- besides being WB. And the green corduroy blanket that covered us at night smelled of a heady perfume of body and bong. Exile was wracked by worry in this period and I became, if possible, even a bit thinner.


WB abandoned me by moving quietly to California and simply never returning. I discovered that I was living completely alone rent-free in someone else's estate house in Westchester and, after the fashion of only the very rich, nobody said anything or even suggested that I move out. But a few months later I moved permanently to New York City, found myself a sublet on the Upper West Side (with a two-octave, out-of-tune antique upright piano, no less) and thus began my New York City period. The phone went silent. And alone in my flat, I ate spaghetti and scallions with garlic most nights, hardly drank at all, stopped smoking weed and started writing. I joined a gym. I was still thin but a bit worn out.

Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.

There used to be a weight gym called Women's Health and Fitness near the major media conglomerate where I worked, not far from Times Square and the Pink Pussy Cat. It seemed to me that the trainers were all awesomely well-muscled lesbians with Brazilian waxes, sculptural hair cuts, and unshakeable sang froid. I aspired to their form. I began to go there every day after work, crunching and moving and tightening my body, and I developed some serious muscle on my thin frame. I began to cultivate a more positive world view and I felt as if I were arming myself, for what war I have no idea. I knew that this new, sculpted me wasn't any more really Me than the bent reed Me with the slight cough, but I liked the sculpted Me better. I was incarnating, thin and tough.

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won’t you please, please help me.

Yes, New York City kept me lean. Overwork, lack of money, a challenging public transportation system, and generalized anxiety kept me on the thin side and on the down-low with the old cholesterol. I didn't have enough money to build up any plaque in my arteries anyway. Long after I quit the major media company and my membership at the Lesbian Power Gym had lapsed, and after Mountain Sea and I went touring in Europe for several years playing music and collecting Euros in a hat from our German fans, I was still thin. Humping from city to city in Europe with my suitcase, a guitar on my back and lugging an amplifier on a rolling cart kept the pounds off and my muscles stretchy and tough. I ate fresh herring and fresh juices several times a week (that's fast food in German train stations), sprouted grains, dried fruit and yogurt and doses of thick European espresso. And when I came back to good old New York City after three years, I was tough, strong – and thin.

That was three years ago before I decided to find a mate. I found FF and we fell in love. And that's when I started the slow unsticking from New York City, the careful move to the countryside of Tiny Town, and now – though Exile's apartment is still not sold as of this writing - I have moved to the country. For the first time in my life, I felt the pounds going on, felt the pants a bit uncomfortable. But when I asked FF about it he didn't seem to mind or notice at all. And when I whined about my weight gain, MUE said, "Don't worry so much! It's because you are finally *happy*."

But my doctor cares. And I care. A lot. If life has become good for me, it has also become a bit myopic and less challenging. I no longer have broken escalators that I must mount or remain trapped in the subway, no longer do I have a fourth floor walkup to live in and miles of pavement to cover every day. I no longer have stick then New York model types around to suggest the way of lesser flesh, nor my chronically overweight black and latino neighbors in Harlem to remind me of the dangers of Doritos. I have only this happiness of mine and a fair dose of prosperity. Can I get my body back in the midst of all this fresh air and plenty?

Perhaps if my gym had an inner city obstacles course, complete with runs to the subway, tenement walk ups and a subway to stand on all the way home...? Or? Maybe I'll just have to learn to push away from the table.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


There was a hard frost on the windshield on election day 2010. It was 8 AM when headed out on the old Southern Road. The median was bristling with political signs, and when I arrived at the polls, a Sarah Palin lookalike on the left side of the main entrance of the Volunteer Fire House thrust a pink sample Republican ballot at me. To the right, a mousy woman with a receding chin clutched the yellow Democratic ballots to her chest as if she thought someone might steal them from her.

I was shocked to see such partisan behavior right at the door of the polls. In New York, the law says 250 feet away from the door of the polls, but here in Pennsylvania there they were, just 10 feet away. 10 feet. Like so close I could smell their hairspray, you know? I had the sinking feeling of being on the losing side already. I snarled at the Palin lookalike when she thrust her bit of paper into my hands. "I'd rather shoot off both my knees than vote Republican," I said with what I hoped was quiet menace. She didn't blink. Neither did I. She withdrew the ballot.

Inside, my name was quickly found on the rolls by the powder-white 2.0 versions of the elderly black ladies who have found my name on the rolls every year in Harlem for the past 28 years. Those elderly black ladies in Harlem are so good at their electoral jobs that sometimes they find my name on those rolls as many as three times! Now that takes talent. The machines are the old kind made of the same kind of gunmetal gray steel that armors the Intrepid in the New York Harbor. The red rubber handle that you pull is industrial strength. Oh, dirty old New York! Oh home of Charlie Rangel! But in Tiny Town I was found neatly registered only once, and I was led to the shiny new touch-screen voting machine which gave me less privacy than a public phone booth and less feeling of security than a parachute packed by Osama Bin Laden. I voted straight Democratic ticket. I strode back to my car. I was energized. Which is another word for really pissed off.

I know that voting Democratic in Tiny Town is about as effective as peeing down a well. But I have fantasies of Change. Yes, I do. I wondered idly what kind of candidate I would make? I'd never survive the beasts in New York City, but in Tiny Town....?

I am shocked by my own fantasy of taking on Stag County politics. After all, in a quarter century's time it had never occurred to me, even in fantasies, to enter political life. I was in New York and it was always clear to me that the New York political beast was way too ferocious for me. So why now? Could I really feel imagine myself becoming a bigger fish in this little pond? Has righteous indignation taken hold of me? I've thought a lot about what's going on in my corner of this nation, I have pondered campaign reform, I could fix some things. I have ideas.

Will Urban Exile don her form-fitting turquoise and orange super hero costume and dive into the blood red fray? If not me, who? If not now, when? If not here, where?

I am delirious.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Coming In From The Cold

Innocent of the privations of city life.
I just found my way to my friend Jen Block's blog, Pushed Birth. She writes: " is the sister site for Pushed, the book, and was created to provide women with uncensored, unsweetened information about U.S. childbirth care. (I) spent years researching why so many labors are begun by induction, why so many births end in cesarean section, and how modern maternity care is impacting women and their families. " Check out Jen's fantastic June 2010 blog (Yes, I am just catching up on my reading!) about how the closings of Bellevue and now St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan have deprived New York City's women, especially low income women,  of the two main facilities that made midwife care feasible (and legal).  You must check out Jen's book and blog, if you are planning to have a baby or care at all about women's health issues.

And now it is autumn for sure. In Tiny Town, I have brought in the begonias and placed them on the broad, sunny window sill in the dining room, the window that looks onto the little walled brick patio where they grew so splendidly all summer in their big earthenware pots. There are only two small plants left in the apartment in the city, one rather sad looking aloe and a tropical of some kind that came from a cutting a neighbor gave me. I tend to be unreasonably sentimental about plants, and I feel badly that these two are still living alone in the apartment where I only go now for an hour or two each week to check things out and give these two stragglers a little water. 

Urban Plant Exile
One of the begonias I just brought in from the nippy autumn air is three years old: I created it from a clipping I took when my music partner, Mountain Sea, and I got back from our last tour in Europe. I was tired then, a little worn thin in a variety of ways, and I was trying to get comfortable again in the Sugar Hill apartment which had grown dusty and lifeless during my extended absence. It was November and already chill when I saw a large begonia just barely hanging onto a dirty brick wall on 153rd St. and Broadway where it was being blasted by the cold night air.  I heard the plant's thin voice calling out to me to save it, so I surreptitiously took a cutting and brought it back to my steam-heated rooms, rooted it in a jelly glass, and later planted it in earth bought from the dollar store. There in my westerly kitchen window, the begonia slowly turned into a plant with oddly transparent leaves that had a fragile, gummy texture, but were stubbornly and defiantly alive. Sporadically it put forth a couple of of anemic light-pink blossoms: They fell almost immediately to the floor. 

This June, as FF and I moved things out of the apartment and to Tiny Town, I brought the begonia with me, and clearly it thought it had died and gone to Heaven, for over the course of two summer months it has turned in a bodacious wild creature. It now sports huge, dark, glossy almond shaped leaves, and numerous fleshy red racemes covered with dark pink blossoms. In a couple of country months, the begonia went from being a weak city weed to being a well-fleshed, rainforest beauty.

I take special pleasure in my plant's story: Its start as a wilting, frost-struck cutting in a jelly glass,  its survival from a certain urban death, its patient period of semi-wilted stasis in the city, and its recent phoenix-like rebirth in the country summer.  This plant is joy and hope, and its greatness is now apparent. I am touched by the begonia, and so I can see that it is really myself I am seeing in it. By saving the begonia I saved myself. I know that these softly rolling hills, this air, this river, these sun dappled sycamore leaves outside my study window are all working their big medicine on me, making me stronger, glossier and more powerful. I have always wanted to supply an Ark to the weak, the lost, and the damaged. Has it been my way of telling the world that I needed an Ark myself to shelter me from my life's storms? From the terrors that afflicted me as a child and then, later, as an adult? The apartment in Sugar Hill was my Ark for a while, but now, I have found a better Ark. The plants come onboard.

This week, I got the good news that one of my songs is playing on a French radio station. I am amazed and delighted that the audience for my little song, heard before now by a half dozen people, has just exploded by tens of thousands. I am touched by this evidence of my own blossoming and I think that the Great Gardener is taking pleasure in me right now.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dark and Rainy. Alone. Together.

Add caption
The dark and rainy Sunday followed the week of tornadoes. It was also the week Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge and I couldn't get him off my mind.

My apartment in Manhattan is 30 blocks from the GWB and you can see the span from my roof. I used to go up there in the early in the morning, around 6 AM just to close my eyes and feel the G-forces of the 40 thousand vehicles that pass over it into Manhattan at rush hour. My friend, the Argentine painter Daniela Mizrahi lived for years almost underneath the GWB in her little studio apartment which always smelled of paint, bread, smoke and car exhaust. The building, which clung like a bat to the black cliffs over the Hudson River, had a perfect view of the terrible and awesome Bridge, all lit up and roaring 24 hours a day.

I remember one particularly emotional night with Danu when we burnt some love letters on the pavement in the street. It was a necessary act, the act of destroying the component parts of a sadness. This is the kind of thing one needs friends to help with: Identify the formerly beloved object as poisonous and dispose of it.

The pages of the letters caught on fire quickly but then, not yet incinerated, were swept down the street by the wind and we ran after them yelling, trying to get them back so that we didn't set a building or car on fire by mistake. Slowly we captured the smoldering pages, ripped them up into smaller pieces and then burned them again (yes, some love letters take forever to burn, especially when written by depressing people.) The small orange embers were taken by the updrafts and swirled into the black sky, disappearing high into the great vacio beneath the GWB where they were extinguished in the nothingness. I thought, that is where love dies, in the darkness, under a bridge. I thought too that this neighborhood was too oversized for my diminutive friend, too cold and too lonely. That place was as lonely as a lost glove on a wet sidewalk, and I always felt afraid to leave her there.

Photo by Karol Du Clos
Perhaps because of that I cannot stop thinking of Tyler, standing on the bridge, hearing the interminable low drone of the traffic, breathing in the intoxicating gasses of the traffic and gazing into the great black vacio below the Bridge. So high, so very high, and so very cold. Did he hear any music in the low drone of the traffic, in the roar of the singing metal? Or did he only hear the beating of his own disappointed heart?

The suicide rate tells a depressing tale:  "Throughout the world, about 2000 people kill themselves each day. That's about 80 per hour, three quarters of a million a year. In the U.S., there are more than 80 deaths from suicide every day, 30,000 every year. This is the equivalent of a fully loaded jumbo jet crash every fifth day. From another perspective, you are more likely to kill yourself than be killed by someone else." (Geo Stone, Suicide and Attempted Suicide).  

It does not comfort me at all to know that I am more likely to kill myself than to be killed by someone else. Not at all. Such facts are odd and cruel and I am not sure that they even matter.

It does matter, though,  that when I sat down on the sofa and told FF that I felt sad, he put his arm around me and understood. Man, do I feel lucky in those moments that I know how to go and say that I feel sad to my husband, and I feel lucky that he is there to wrap his big, strong arms around me. Later that night, FF told me that one of his former tennis students who was a father and husband once parked his car near a bridge, a bridge that FF crossed every day on the way to work in those days; the man took of his shoes and socks, folding his socks neatly inside the shoes, and he jumped to his death. He folded his socks neatly.  These are the things we do, even in our desperation. As if somehow a folded sock might leave a quiet fragment of order behind in the onrushing chaos of self-annihilation.

It also matters that Tyler was only 18, in his first month at Rutgers. It matters that he was a talented musician, and that his room mate had been torturing him by spying on his intimate encounters in his dorm room. It matters that Tyler was gay, because if he had been heterosexual instead these encounters would have more likely entitled him to bragging rights than to shame.

"No one can make you inferior without your consent," wrote the fabulous and heroic Eleanor Roosevelt. Why did Tyler consent? Why couldn't he get mad as hell at his torturers, at society and at the people at the school who didn't respond to his call for help? Why did he instead turn his anger in on himself? No one gets to know now, and that is the thing about suicide: It ends the conversation.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

More Life Lessons Learned by Releasing Stuff

In Manhattan, there were tornado warnings this week. This only proves my overall feeling that it is time to get out of this city. There were not any tornadoes in all my days in Manhattan until now, which makes it seem like the End of Times. So I am returning to the task of carefully placing my stuff in the hands of others, sending it in various directions to be re purposed and appreciated anew.

Today's items carefully parceled out and creating whirlwinds of random human contact are:

The fax machine! An excellent Bell South machine that stores 100 phone numbers, works perfectly, but uses heat sensitive paper (an environmental no-no). Also good as a telephone. $15. What a deal! Off it went with its new owner, to 92nd at Second Ave. where, oddly enough, I slept for a week when I first arrived in New York on a former college friend's hardwood floor. That person would still be a friend if the floor hadn't been so, well, hard. I suppose it was better than sleeping in the subway, but just. Lorenzo, an industrial designer, picked up the fax machine (and its extra roll of paper) paying me $15 (the cost of the extra roll) and shuffling out the door with his preternaturally toothy smile, his Guatemalan poncho stylishly flung over one shoulder and an excellent Columbia backpack (containing the fax machine) in tow. Within the hour, the woman who sold ME the fax machine years ago (a former boss in the publicity business) called and said we ought to get together sometime. I had not heard from her in years. Did the fax have to go to someone who lived on the same block where I once slept on the floor? Did the former owner of the fax have to call me the day I sold it? Is the connection between these events more than random? You tell me.

Two lessons were learned from selling the fax machine (cheap).
Lesson 1: Don't make your friends sleep on the floor. They will never call you again.
Lesson 2: When you keep objects circulating and in use, the universe stirs in response.

The Rolling Cart. This handy, mobile, plastic object with drawers costs 24.99 new at the Container Store and it has been holding my bathroom clutter for years. I cleaned it meticulously and posted it with a photo and exact measurements. Within 45 second of posting on Craig's list, out of 12 people only Jasmine had the good sense to follow my directions by including her phone number and a specific time when she could retrieve the item. Well done, Jasmine! You will go far in life and you win the Rolling Cart for absolutely free! In proof of the now obvious truth that Jasmine will become Master of the World, she didn't even spend any energy on her free acquisition, sending her brother to pick up the Rolling Cart for her! Impressive.
Lesson 3: You will be rewarded in life for following directions.

The Television. This TV belonged to my best friend's grandfather, OK? And he gave it to my best friend's father. Who gave it to my best friend, Mountain Sea....who didn't really give it to me, but rather kind of lodged it with me when he left town as New Yorkers sometimes do. I have been watching this TV for years, and it works really well. Being an understanding type, Mountain Sea is letting me give it away now since he is not coming back from Tucson to retrieve it, and it's the old tube kind anyway. Well, I didn't even get a chance to post the TV: Peter, who called for the Rolling Cart (and missed it to quick and thorough Jasmine) asked if I had anything else I was giving away. I said, how about a TV? He said, oh wow, I was burned out of my apartment and I'm disabled and anything would be a big help to me! Peter showed up in a van with his girlfriend to get the TV and was absolutely thrilled with his new entertainment system. My neighbor carried even it down the stairs for him.  I told Peter I was sorry for his hard luck, and he actually said "Oh, you've no idea the trouble I've seen," which started up a melody in my mind, Gloria Hallelujah. "I can't tell you how much this means to me," he said, and kissed my hand.

Which made me think that anything I have to give away is, in some way, because someone was once kind to me, too. So thanks Mountain Sea, thanks Mountain Sea's Dad, Thanks Grandad.  You've done a nice thing.

Lesson 4: Always remember that there is always somebody who's in a worse situation than you are and that your generosity grows the minute you release it into the world.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Goodbye New York, I've Changed My Name.

Two big moments happened in the life of the Exile this week: I changed my name officially and I registered to vote in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania! The land of my birth, the home of old money conservatives, cricket club blue bloods.  This place is nothing like the edgy Upper West Side Democratic hive of New York City where I've been a citizen for 28 years.  I imagine myself a radioactive seed secretly planting myself into local politics here in Stag County: First Tiny Town, then the Nation!

First, though, the name change.  My marriage to FF has caused a landslide of bureaucratic tasks which I labored to complete, and even then stopped halfway: These tasks principally concern my new last name, and admitting officially for the first time that I am no longer a resident of New York City.  Oh man, this is a lot of work, let me tell you! But that is apparently what falling in love costs these days: Lots and lots of paperwork, lots and lots of hours filling out forms. I want to be officially Mrs. FF, old fashioned girl that I am.

First I looked for help to organize this task online: There are various sites for brides (not grooms) selling packages for 29.99 to help one go through the process of changing all of these documents to reflect your new life. What the ads don't tell you are two important things: You can get all of these forms and instructions elsewhere for free; there will be more expense, lots more expense, depending on how far you want to take this new identity thing. FF could have taken my name, which we both rather like, but it would have been weird for his parents and, anyway, what's in a name? Exile was quite unfortunately given a 6 syllable hyphenated first name by her parents, and since I didn't want an un-euphonius 10 syllable name, I asked the woman at social security if I could just use the second half of my first name, that is, the one I have been using publicly all of my life. No, she said. You must go to the Courthouse in Doilyville, fill out the forms, pay 299 dollars (where do they come up with that price?), and then appear live in court to tell the judge in person that you want to make a civil name change. Uh, okay, I said. Never mind. So now I have a 10 syllable name, just because I do not want to completely amputate my maiden name which I've always liked just to reduce syllable count. My name is long as a train. So be it.


Next step, FF goes to the the old HR department at Yankee Doodle Bank where he works, and he signs me up to be part of his Cadillac medical and dental insurance plan,  the first decent plan I've had since 1989 when I quit my job at The Big Newsmagazine Corp. Whooeee! They also have my 10 syllable name on file.

The next step was to register with all ten syllables to vote in Tiny Town, Stag County, PA. But they let me put my name the way I wanted it, without the first three syllables! No proof of my identity was required, just a mailing address.

Then came changing the passport and driver's license. Exile opted out of this for not wanting to spend the money. It was going to cost serious dime to do it, and they're both good for another 8 to 12 years, for heaven's sake. And by the way, according to All Sources, I will not have a problem with immigration or the police if I don't change them. I know FF will worry about this: After all, if I am detained at Kennedy Airport returning from our romantic trip to Paris, will All Sources come to bail me out? Still, I am not taking on changing those documents right now.

The final step was to change my name on ALL of the credit cards, also not a required step but one I want to do because it is FREE, and it is fun to see my new 10 syllables strung across all my plastic. None of the credit card companies put up a fuss about the new name, either, and no proof of identity was required to borrow or owe money! Whee. As a matter of fact, I found out from the lady at the social security office that anyone can get a copy of my birth certificate from the authorities without proof of a right to possess this document. So I said I to her, sez I, gee whiz, sounds like that would be a great place for an evil-doer to start building a false identity, huh? The social security lady said "Hmph!" but did not otherwise comment.

Now Exile's name change (all 10 syllables) is complete, I am fully insured and I am registered to vote in the Republican stronghold of Stag County. I no longer have any official contribution to make to the political life of New York City. Indeed, I am going incognito. The papers have been filed, the break-up is nearly complete. When I sell the apartment, we will be divorced, New York City and I.

The break-up with the political life of New York City is dramatic for me and provoking the usual psychic disturbance that every step of this slow separation has caused me. In the 28 years I lived there, even when I was touring for three years as a singer songwriter in Europe, I always voted. Always. I remember voting against George Bush from an Irish Pub in Bonn, Germany where I had carefully had my absentee ballot sent in advance.  Even then, looking at New York from across the ocean, I kept my hand in because my parents brought me up to take my responsibilities as a citizen seriously, and because as a New Yorker I felt my vote as powerful on a national scale. Now, New York politics will have to get along without me.

I don't know the political scene in Tiny Town or Stag County very well. I have a creeping sense that my vote here will be less important somehow,  lost in the less-populated, wealthier, more complacent atmosphere of this land of country squires and bridge club ladies. Somehow I feel like no one really cares what the people of Tiny Town do, think or vote for. Might I be experiencing the first inklings of the resentment that citizens of Tiny Towns all over the country feel? That feeling that nobody cares? Or am I just still suffering from the illusion that my vote in New York City was a lot more meaningful than it ever really was?

My New York City polling places were always edgy, mostly unwelcoming places, even before I moved to Harlem. They tended to be mildewy, none too clean public school cafeterias populated by weary, bag-eyed  poll workers who took names, assigned voting booths, and thanked me (with a deep sigh) for voting.  My last polling place was the basement of a low-income housing project in Harlem, a linoleum-floored mausoleum of indeterminate color which seemed more suited to housing cots for flood victims, or a feeding station for the homeless than the noble business of exercising one's franchise. Year after year I went and voted, and year after year returned to those unwelcoming places, always leaving with head held high and a sense that pursuing this adventure was important and meaningful. For three years, my name was on the rolls in triplicate, and it took three years of letters to the Board of Elections to get myself to be just one person on the rolls. Ah, good old, dirty old New York City!

But as I near the end of my relationship with New York City, what has really changed as the result of all of all my voting? Charlie Rangel is still a congressman despite all ethical arguments to the contrary. Columbia University is still taking over vast tracts of expensive real estate claiming eminent domain and getting away with it. Homelessness and poverty are still creeping up scarily. The price of a subway ride goes up every year, as does everyone's rent. The buildings at ground zero still aren't built 9 years later (the Empire State building was built in 1 year and five months). And the escalators still don't work. So what has all this voting in the Big Apple gotten me? Maybe we haven't seen a lot of progress, but as Blanche du Bois would remark, possibly my faithful appearance at the polls has helped in some small way to keep us from sliding back to the Stone Age.

With my new name, my new location and my new registration, I now have a chance to begin again. Maybe the center of the world is not the best place to make a difference anyway, all illusions to the contrary. Maybe, armed with the impressive club of my new 10 syllable name, I can sally forth and make my one vote count here in Tiny Town.

Or maybe I will find out that size really doesn't matter after all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dreadful Moments and Easy Fixes

Ah, sucking up free WiFi at Starbucks on a Wednesday morning! Waiting here for the 1 PM bus to Tiny Town, I take advantage of the moment and the caffeine buzz to write to you, dear Reader.

With my bad attitude as expressed in my last entry here, it should come as no surprise that when I arrived in New York City yesterday morning I was confronted by a series of dreadful moments. Yes, I take some responsibility for it, and I suspect that with my own dread and loathing I actually conjured these moments into being.

First Dreadful Moment: The Chinese girl in the "Quiet Car" on the NJ Transit 8:32 to Penn Station who talked the entire time on her cell phone, palidly and smilingly immune to all requests to desist. How can this be?!?!

Drawing: Maurice Sendak
Second Dreadful Moment: Immediately upon arrival at the station, there he was, The Massive Sweating Fat Man, looking much like the scary nurse-baby from Maurice Sendack's Higgledy Piggedy Pop who screamed "No Eat!".  He descended the wrong side of the stairway and (I kid you not) actively tried to block me like a defensive guard as I tried to ascend. He moved to the left when I did and to the right when I did, all the while grinning and looking me directly in the eyes. "Walk to the right", I muttered. "Who made THAT rule!" he bellowed, "YOU?"

Third Dreadful Moment: Getting off the A train in Harlem where, walking up the three flights of stairs to the surface I encountered various discouraging artifacts in this order: a poo-laden diaper on the stairs; a wild-eyed man approaching people for "fity-fi' cent t'git tuh Brooklyn"; and finally a raggedy man stinking up a cloud of funk while screaming curses at the ghosts of his id who apparently inhabited the darkened, closed token booth.

Yeah, I know. This kind of whining ain't the best propaganda to sell my apartment. It is however apparent that even if I take a karmic approach to it, these sort of incidents are more numerous in New York City than elsewhere. That is, while I know that the better frame of mind I'm in the better things seem to go, I do not believe that this sort of machine gun-like spray of ugly moments will be apt to occur in, say, Woodstock. Any Woodstock. Anywhere.

So, as I sit here in Starbucks drinking yet another completely unnecessary cup of coffee and about to make my weekly escape to Tiny Town, I decided to write down a few suggestions for you, New York City, a few ideas that might pretty you up a bit and minimize disturbing moments.  I have a sense that if I put it out there you may actually take my advice, like you did when I started talking up putting estimated train arrival times on the electronic message boards that were already installed on subway platforms like they've done in Europe for decades already.  My suggestions are simple ones, mostly using existing resources, mostly already done in other places, that would make you a better place to be. Take heed New York: Your future depends upon it.

Suggestion #1: In high-traffic areas, paint the word "DOWN" on the right hand side of staircases that go down, and "UP" on the right hand side of staircases going up.  Paint the "DO NOT ENTER" symbol on the sides where you should not walk going in either direction. Do this in subway stations and all other major points of public population concentration. I guarantee that over time this will absolutely diminish the number of people walking the wrong way, diminish angry encounters and provide moral support for those who try to move correctly in tight spaces.

Suggestion #2: Put up signs at the bottom of escalators that say "Stand to the right." Obvious.

Suggestion #3: Oh, by the way, fix the escalators. Persistently broken escalators and elevators is not only discouraging and depressing to all and mean to people with baby carriages, but it's also in violation of the Disability Discrimination Act, 4.7, which states that: "From 1st October 1999 a service provider has to take reasonable steps to change a practice which makes it unreasonably difficult for difficult for disabled people to make use of its services." Let me tell you, when Exile's left knee was messed up and she was swinging around on crutches, walking up three flights of stairs to get to the surface from the D train seemed "unreasonably difficult", provoking tears on several occasions. The escalator going to and from the D train platform at 34th Street was broken for over a year! Does this seem "reasonable" to you?

Suggestion #4: Hire a lot more people to clean up around this filthy city, and not at minimum wage, either. Call them something cool like Urban Hygiene Technicians. And train them. Dress them in good-looking uniforms designed by Pierre Cardin. Give them the power to give out tickets for littering at $50 a pop. Send them to less fashionable neighborhoods. Make, don't ask, garbage producing businesses pay for this work force with a garbage tax levied at a rate based upon an estimate of customers or readers served. McDonald's, AM New York, The New York Post, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and their fellows will scream but they will not leave New York City if this is done. But all of us will experience a higher quality of life which, as Mayor Giuliani correctly decided, is fundamental to keeping down crime and making New York even marginally more livable.

Suggestion #5: Put recycling cans in every public place. Every public place. Make companies pay for their own collectors in front of their big buildings. In Germany, every train platform and bus station has a neat, well constructed box that contains three enclosures for garbage (black), paper (blue) and metal and plastic (green). The City or MTA could be enterprising and sell the recyclables thus making some money to pay for the Urban Hygiene Technicians (or someone to sit inside that dark, empty token booth). And we can also in this way teach our children well -- and our own lazy selves, too --  to be conscious of the planet.

Suggestion #6: Hire Quality of Life Inspectors for the subway system. These QLIs would also be neatly uniformed (I imagine crisp white suits, like milkmen, and neat little black bowties). They would quickly remove people who beg, play their devices too loud, busk, sell things, or do anything to disturb the riders inside subway cars. Everyone in Harlem knows that when school lets out, the subways in our area become rife with gangs of teenagers who think nothing of scaring citizens minding their own business just for fun. QLI would work primarily from noon to midnight which is when most of this unwanted activity occurs. There need not be many of them, but they will travel in squadrons and appear randomly on the various lines. The gratitude of the paying passenger would know no bounds.

Suggestion #7: Help homeless people. Help them. Not to mention all of the rest of us --  by giving them places to live and people to take care of them. Since we absolutely know from the experience of other cities that doing this is actually a lot cheaper than paying the $800,000 in unpaid emergency room visits that is incurred every year by the average homeless person, one can't help but wonder why you, New York City, persist in keeping these folks on the street and in dire straits. Hm, pay less money to decrease suffering. Now there's a thought.

Suggestion #8: Institute CCZs just like London has.  Within Congestion Charge Zones, which are marked with highly visible signs (see left) and on city maps, a payment of $12 a day would be charged either to a driver's EZ Pass or by mail to the owner of the license plate via Automatic Number Plate Recognition. Failure to pay the CCZ charge would result in a fine of $200. With this already proven system, the City would decrease traffic in congested zones AND raise money for the transportation system to pay for Quality of Life Inspectors and City Hygiene Technicians.

The bottom line for New York City is that it's got to stop pretending that the same level of social organization, rights and privileges can exist here as exists in Boise, Idaho. The unnatural congestion and issues of this massive city need to be addressed firmly and quickly. Or I won't be the only one waiting in the station with a one-way ticket to Tiny Town.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Going Back To This?

Our honeymoon is over and tomorrow early A.M. I go back to New York City for my regular Tuesday as if nothing had happened or changed.


This is the scene (left) I will see when I get to my neighborhood on the Number 1 train.

If I'm lucky there will NOT be a big fat rat running along the tracks.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Exile in Paradise

Photo by John Dugdale

The Exile is woozy with happiness (and exhaustion) because she and FF just got married.

Our old-fashioned wedding on an private antique railroad train was marvelous, both by our own account and that of our guests. Some of the finest people in Tiny Town and well beyond took part in our celebration, and everyone at the nuptial shindig was sincerely happy. There is a strong feeling of Mission Accomplished going on in our hearts, not just because we pulled off a rather complex event and not just because we are finally Mr. and Mrs. FF: Rather, we are completed by the fact that our ritual brought joy into so many other hearts and brought our people closer to us. MUE was smiley, and SUE was the ultimate sister of the bride, throwing a top-notch rehearsal dinner with great panache.

In short, we left 'em laughing. That had been our hope and it was why we didn't just elope in the first place. So. Mission Accomplished.

After the wedding, FF and I packed lightly and drove 12 hours South. We spent the last two days in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in a small log cabin where there was a nice feeling of privacy, despite the fact that the owners lived just across the way. Last night, a black bear placed his muddy paws on our back window and we feel it as a mountain blessing. Mission Accomplished, said Br'er Bear. I left my beautiful wedding bouquet of cream colored bunch roses, buplurum and royal purple snapdragons (which had survived the car journey pretty well) sitting in a hollow stump in the woods: blessings back to you, Woods. I imagine Br'er Bear's snuffin' my bouquet right now.

So at this writing Exile is on honeymoon with FF. I am sitting in the lobby of the historic Inn in Altamont waiting for FF to finish his tennis game at the Club. I am comfortably ensconced in an arts and crafts leather and wood sofa facing the Brobdignagian stone fireplace at the end of the Great Hall, tickled by the slight piney breeze from the nearby mountains, and I am taking a moment to dash off a note to you, dear Reader.

Does Mrs. FF feel different now that she and FF are really married? Yes, indeed she does! A keystone piece fell into place with a decisive whumph when we said our I do's, a keystone that's been waiting to fall for a good while and which is going to make our home hang together strong. Yes, Exile feels different now that we're married, but the words don't really come to describe it. Just whumph.

FF looked gorgeous this morning in his tennis whites and even more so because he's got a big old smile on his face all the time! I asked him today if he'd rather if I just drop him off, check us into the Royal Suites (where we are staying the next few days), and come pick him up later. He said, “No, it'll be fun to walk in together.” So we walked into the Club together and he introduced me to his pro: “Walter, this is my wife, Exile.” And I realized that it was the first time he had introduced me as his wife. I am absolutely sure we both got the same little jolt of pleasure from this fact. I have yet to have my debut, “This is my husband, FF”, so we have yet more newlywed cherries to pop. Oh, what fun!

Life at this moment is completely happy, and I can't imagine this good feeling ever going away. No matter what happens, he's my FF and I am his Exile. We are a family of two now in the eyes of the state of Pennsylvania, our friends, our family and, yes, ourselves too. It's real.

In all this blissful yumminess, New York City has faded almost completely from my mind. Yesterday, FF asked if I had heard anything from Kalim, our real estate agent, and I replied that I had not and did not expect to think at all about New York City until after our honeymoon. He agreed. New York City doesn't belong on this honeymoon with us.

I haven't gone so long without thinking about New York City in 28 years, and that is a really good sign. It means that with this wedding, with this step into the rest of my life, I thee dismiss, New York City. Get thee gone, big bad old town! New York City doesn't have that old voodoo hold on my mind like it used to. It's as if the words “I do” were the secret incantation I had always needed to break the spell the city has had on me all these years. The nostalgia and the confusion are gone and I can, to quote the song, see clearly now.

You see, for me to want to leave the biggest, baddest city in the world I had to believe that there was someplace worthwhile to go to. And when you're talking about the putative center of the world, that someplace couldn't just be another city: It had to be another heart.

Forest Blessing. Photo: Urban Exile

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.