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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Merce Cunningham, Frank McCourt: After the Meltdown, Part IV

Funny what you miss.

We felt many moments of pre-emptive nostalgia during our last months in New York City. It was an easy frame of thought to fall into: Here is our last night listening to world-class live jazz on a Monday night at the Standard, our last croissant from Bergamot, our last pizza Genovese at Don Giovanni (now being too grown up for Ray’s on Sixth and 11th), a last morning dance class at Merce Cunningham Studio for M, a final walk along the Hudson for me... But these were anticipatory losses, the real ones to come.

The real ones did come. After all these days on the road, we woke up one day a week ago and realized we hadn’t been alone together for 107 days–always in someone else’s house, or in a hotel, or in an airplane or car between the two. So put down privacy as the first thing we missed, in a real way (as opposed to a carefully curated "I Miss NY" way, calculated for maximum resonance among sentimentalists). In New York we had our place. And in NYC, there is a curious privacy amid the masses–nothing new here, the anonyminity of crowds a cliche, but now I know its truth personally.

The following day, as we hiked along a mountain trail at 5,300 feet; M suddenly cried out, "I miss broccoli!" And there you have it: under the pines and overhanging granite of the Ernie Maxwell Trail, the essence of our city life was boiled down to a vegetable and a state of mind.

With the conjunction of the closely spaced deaths of Frank McCourt and Merce Cunningham, in whose orbits we intersected, the one briefly, the other frequently, a third ineffable NY thing came to me today: possibility.

We moved into an illegal sublet in 1982; the building housed the Cunningham dance studios, and oneday M went upstairs to check it out. She came down a few hours later, sweaty, and said they’d let her dance. And so she kept on dropping in, dancing, and got to know the teachers and students, and even Merce at a distance, to the point of once being offered a scholarship–which she turned down, flattered, with great reluctance and rueful sense of "what might have been?"

Cunningham was all about possibility. His embrace of chance and non-narrative performance blended, for me, aspects of zen and sport with the hoity-toity-ness of fine art. In his way, Merce kept it real. (I remember him in an elevator, staring at how I blocked the door from closing by back-footing it–"memorizing the move to use in something," M said later.) As M kept trying to explain to me, Merce was all about those random moves and "bits" that were just done, un-patterned, freed from music’s beat, triggered by nothing, or else by chance and necessity.

Frank McCourt’s writing was the opposite, all about the story, the narrative, about his life as a narrator of stories about his life. We only met once, but it made an impression of a lifetime. He gave a reading at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park, shortly after "Angela’s Ashes" was published and started soaring up the lists. He wasn’t that famous yet. But it was happening, like a strange potion ingested that hadn’t quite taken effect. He read in a bemused, offhand style–applauded frequently by what seemed like a hundred former students of his from his decades at Stuyvesant High School. For some reason one of his older ex-students, friends of ours, invited us to join him at dinner afterwards, and we sat there sharing his moment, a bit grateful not to be taking up too much space as he accepted hugs and toasts. Finally someone’s gush about "making it at last" seemed to strike a nerve and he spoke out in a tone rueful, honest, and knowing in a way that felt slightly bitter: "It’s all very nice, the attention, but it’s a bit late. I really could have used this 20 years ago, even 10."

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what he said. And it shushed the crowd, his students, those young faces; they who were so triumphant for him (and to be honest, triumphant for themselves at having known him when). Many of them suddenly realized, I believe, the embarrassing truth he had just committed, like a faux pas: that while recognition matters, and money and fame do certainly glitter, youth is still everything. Just as when they were juniors at Stuy High and he was Mr McCourt, the coolest teacher with the best stories, good for killing 50 minutes of a school day.

McCourt showed what a good teacher he must have been by that refusal to take on the role of Late-Life-Success-That-Makes-It-All-Worthwhile. He rejected an easy celebration, and risked being seen as a sore winner, a grump or a Grinch, to make a point about life–about the lives of his students, now young adults. If you want something, don’t wait for it to happen, make it happen. Start now.

And while I can’t speak for his students, I know I it made an impression on me–being older than our fellow guests and a bit more bruised by life, I got it.

Chance and necessity, possibility and privacy–and broccoli. Seize the day.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Asset Safari: After the Meltdown, Part III

It is now 107 days since we’ve had a home we can call a home.

Leaving NYC in a taxi on a gray day, we flew West and showed up in Palo Alto, hoping for a fellowship–no dice. Paused in SoCal to see me aging Mum and scope out the job market–no job market. After a week we hauled anchor for Hawaii, where a house awaited, collecting dust kitties and still stuffed with M’s late mother’s personal effects (including a fourth husband).

Now we are back in L.A.

In our last weeks in NYC, back when all this began, I had a flash about how to wrest control of this shapeless life of ours. My head was in an unusual place–having finished my novel Feb. 25, I’d gone straight that evening, without even a tot of celebratory whisky, into a frenzy of boxing and storing and throwing. For the next 45 days I had no time to read or write. Meanwhile, M was finishing her book, on double-drop-dead-line, since we had to vacate March 31 whether or not the mss. was finished on its April 1 due date.

All this left me plenty of time for one thing: thinking. And my thinking couldn’t be wool-gathering, either, or story-plotting. No, I had to assume the role of Captain Trips, master-planning our future moves even as our life morphed toward nebulosity, if not disaster.

The problem: How to turn a rout into victory? Since I’ve been reading a lot of military history for my novel, Dunkirk sprang to mind, but the analogy seemed risible; and as a rule one must be cautious about inviting comparison to Winston Churchill. Still, I conducted a staged withdrawal, trying to sublet the apartment, to sell our first editions of Eliot and Stevens and Cather and Bukowski, to find amid our possessions a liability to turn into an asset. And failed on each count.

To get myself through this initial period I decided to approach this entire episode–our "reset," as Obama might call it–as a four-star life detour, if the Guide Michelin reviewed lives like restaurants. I would drape it in flash econo-political symbolism, lard it with literary analogy, disguise the off bits with aggressive spices, like a cheap curry. Then call it an adventure. Turn suffering into material, the way a bistro chef takes offal and serves it up as tripes de Caen.

It wasn’t such a stretch. This is partly how it felt to be a magazine writer and editor, in the Latter Days of Journalism. Magazine people make sausage, almost without exception. I was good at it.

But I also was a fiction writer–which, in these times, is like saying "I whittle garden gnomes out of scrap lumber." Still, the fiction-writing habit seemed the only one still functioning after the meltdown. Freelancing a nonfiction story when staffers are being laid off by the hundreds is like a cow boarding a cattle car to the stockyards in expectation of reaching the next pasture.

Writing fiction, for me, for years, has been all about finding form in content, patiently sifting material and memories and associations until a constellation of truths emerge that one can shape into a whole. This was what I must do with my life, and our lives. Find the truth, and let that truth dictate the shape.

Or so I thought. For our content we had our life, which was about to become defined by movement and search and return, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath or the knight and squire in Don Quixote or Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s On the Road–excepting iPods and laptops, of course. Having been away from our West Coast hometowns for over 20 years except for holidays and M’s odd magazine assignment and my football book, there was also a feeling of coming home from the wars. We were both like Odysseus, fumbling our way toward the past that was to be our future. (From the above it can be seen how quickly literary analogies lose their potency; in real life, as inspiration and motivation their return on investment is about the same, if not less.)

The magazine cliche came easily to hand: Road Trip! The skeletal excuse for filling any hole in the fashion/gear/travel section in any magazine is to scrounge up some skinny callow kids and take their pictures driving down Route 66 in a vintage convertible. (Hey, if it worked for Huck Finn, Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Lewis & Clark, Hunter Thompson, David Lynch and so on unto "Thelma and Louise," don’t knock it.)

Besides, in addition to the Road Trip format we’d have the overlay of nostalgia that would come from retracing our footsteps. Indeed: twenty-six years ago, the voyage out ended up taking us from Palo Alto to New York City via a sojourn at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. That had been Captain Trips’ greatest achievement as a strategic planner to date. Now that I was being called upon to unravel the Penelopean tapestry of that move, to pull on a thread or two and see if it led us back to our origins, it was hard not to question the point of it all. Even if those 26 years amounted to the heart of our life.

Anyway, go we must. And as the clock ticked down, it became increasingly important, for me, to define the deal going down before it defined us. Crisis control for the middle class meltdown.

Speaking practically, calling ourselves homeless in a fabulous-ironic sense would certainly have gotten attention and, who knows, perhaps even an article assignment. But it seemed overwrought, as well as likely to provoke retaliation, given the plight of the "real" homeless–even though we really were homeless. Anyway, my second thought was to (figuratively) put on an old Hermes scarf and call it vagabondage. In Greenwich Village of old this would be an acceptable pose; but weren’t we headed out into the badlands where the wrong scarf can get you strung up? Also, vagabondage by definition lacks a strategy, especially in a society that doesn’t tolerate 50-something workers, let alone unemployed gypsies. No, we needed something to tell people who asked who we were, who asked where and how we lived. Anything but the truth, which is that we were jobless and homeless, dragging our possessions in a laundry cart across the Great American Consumer Desert.

That’s when my flash hit, an echo of a Depression-era snatch of dialog between Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who, as is well known, when faced with the insurmountable cried out: "Hey, let’s put on a show!"

In our case, coming from California, and being surfers at heart, the phrase I heard sprang not from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley traditions but from our own teenage years on the sand: Cue the Beach Boys! Check out Jan & Dean and those girls in clam-diggers leaning against a cherry ‘57 Chevy–throw the boards into the back of the station wagon, along with some blankets and extra wax. And by the way? Tell our teachers we’re going on a surfing safari...

What a difference a name makes. Among those who surf, and we do, "going on safari" is still as cool and popular as ever, and doing so at poverty level is still considered a badge of retro distinction. I began mentally toting up where we could rest, for days, weeks and even months, all within decent distance from a beach- or reef-break: Huntington, Laguna, South Shore Oahu, Bay of Biscay...

It’s all in your mindset. All in a name. Tell the teachers we’re surfing. Asset-surfing, U.S.A.