Sunday, May 31, 2009

5/31/2009 Quote

“Nice boots,” he says.

“Thanks,” she says. “They’re really old, more than 10 years. I rarely wear them.”

“Old shoes can be the most comfortable.”

“Actually, they’re not. They do make my feet hurt.”

“I used to have these Frye motorcycle boots, with the zipper, ankle-high. I thought they were pretty hip at the time. Every time I wore them I couldn’t walk the next day.”

“Beauty is pain.”

“You must be used to suffering.”

Conversation Snippet

Saturday, May 30, 2009

5/30/2009 Quote

"...only a few handfuls of students now enter Yale with an authentic passion for reading. You cannot teach someone to love great poetry if they come to you without such a love. How can you teach solitude?"

From The Western Cannon by Harold Bloom

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chalk on Sidewalk

Nathan, an art student, is drawing a chalk commercial for Made with Love on the curving sidewalk at the corner of Jersey Ave. & Newark Ave. He is replicating the logo of Made with Love, the Organic Bakery & Café on Jersey Ave. It was the start of Memorial Day weekend, and the streetscape project had progressed down the east side of Jersey Ave, removing the concrete in front of Made with Love, giving the establishment a dirt entrance. Presumably, foot traffic for Made with Love was impacted. Was the chalk on sidewalk to remind pedestrians the bakery/cafe was still opened?

“No, I drew it once before.”

What's it like to work with concrete?

“Sometimes the sidewalks can have a rough surface. This wears down the chalk, makes it harder to draw.”

It was a brilliantly sunny Saturday morning, but rain was predicted for Sunday. He puts time and effort into something that by its nature is temporary. I wondered how he felt, as an artist, about this temporal aspect of chalk on sidewalk. “You get to do it all over again and that’s fun.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cuts & Stabs

M- worked at a head hunter firm in Manhattan. She was there seven years. The company, which has offices throughout Europe and the United States, is an employment agency specializing in Executive job placement—high level executives, mid-to-high six figure salaries (often higher) in top companies in all sectors of the economy, especially Healthcare, Technology and Finance. She was gaining seniority and could be considered a junior to mid-level executive. The job requires researching companies and individuals, then the process of match making the individual with the position. The companies were the clients who paid for this exclusive head hunting service.

Around 2006, company management changed and she was one of the last ones left from the old regime. Tensions never ceased between the newcomers and the veterans. Executives based in Manhattan and the New York offices of companies had a corporate culture that was more blunt and straight forward, like New York. The new regime saw corporate culture as interchangeable worldwide, and there was more emphasis on following rigid protocols and pecking orders. This is business after all, so there wasn’t so much of a contradiction but still, a clash of perceptions on the role of individual initiative persisted. There were eruptions, feelings were hurt, people insulted. Then work went on.

M-‘s immediate superior was of the new regime and they never liked each other. They did a lot of the same work—research, assessment, client contact—but M- was always the better performer which for the newcomer was fine. Occasional conflicts could be overlooked because in the end, her work ethic and positive results made him look better.

Being in Manhattan, about half of the firm’s business was in the financial sector, an understandably higher percentage than their offices in other cities. The summer of 2008 is remembered for a heated election where the republicans increasingly looked foolish and the democrats increasingly looked better and the economy was melting down. Ground zero for the meltdown was the financial sector. Banks failing, mortgage crisis, bail out fund legislation, we all remember the drill (how can we forget, it’s still going on!).

Hard to have pity for banking and financial company executives and their rapidly shrinking job market. Companies weren’t replacing executives, or adding executives, they were cutting whole departments. For every executive gone, there could be dozens of other employees that executive was in charge of; they lose their jobs too. M-‘s company was hit hard. Executives of all type were under fire and less in demand, job prospects going from dim to black but the New York office, with its heavy financial industry involvement, suffered the worse.

One wave of lay offs, then another. Early October, M- explained to me the dismal situation. “I wasn’t sure I would survive the last one, now everyone is over-worked. I miss the ones who were friends.”

Three departments now shared one secretary where before, each department had a secretary and each secretary an assistant. There were two junior employees, entry level right out of college types who also were part of those early waves of lay offs.

In other times, higher-ups who have to fire employees console themselves when turnover is higher because it brings in new blood and injects a new energy. True, but not the whole truth because training new employees and the time it takes for the new employee to adapt impedes productivity. In small doses it can help and in large doses it will hinder.

These days, turnover is turning but not over. The equilibrium is off. There are more workers going out than coming in. Those employed have no hope of any increase in salary in the foreseeable future, their work loads have increased and the gloom and doom, paranoid atmosphere only escalates.

By November, M- lost her position. It’s a high toned firm, she got one of the best severance packages I’ve ever heard about. She’s married and her husband’s position is secure and well paying. She’s not as bad off as many or even most who’ve lost their jobs due to the current economy. But, it always sucks to lose your job and it especially sucks to lose your job right before the Christmas holidays, when you are supposed to be celebrating and you are spending more money than usual and even a bad job market is worsened by the fact that few companies do any hiring until after the New Year.

Her immediate superior was the one who cut the position. “We never got a long. Cuts were mandated from on high. The earlier cuts weren’t enough.”

She made nice dough so her removal easily fulfilled mandated budgetary tightening requirements. The mid-levels left were now all from the new regime. The economy made it easy for the immediate superior to fulfill the back stabbing fantasy he held ever since the new regime took over the Manhattan office.

M- holds an annual Christmas party. It’s a gathering of her and her husband’s friends from work and social circles and their previous lives. I fit in the latter. Merry Christmas and how do you know M- are the ice breakers. In a way, it was keeping up appearances, but in another way it was a phenomena I’ve been seeing lately, we’re going to survive, we are not going to let the economy ruin everything. This party had that against all odds we will survive quality.

Past parties, there were the secretaries and junior employees along with the higher ups. This year there was only one from the Head Hunter firm, higher up, the gentlemen who hired her seven years ago. “Madoff seems to be the last straw,” he told me (the Madoff scandal coming to light was at full throttle). “This was news New York didn’t need.”

He’s a nice guy, I’ve talked to him once or twice before at an M- gathering. Graying hair, wine lover, stays in shape, just turned sixty, smart businessman. “I am doing things that I haven’t done in more than ten years, and I still have to do everything all upper managers have to do. I’m sharing a secretary. I’m writing letters. And, it’s not like I have less emails to answer.”

What is morale like? “Terrible. I’ve never seen it so bad, it self perpetuates but there are bigger problems to deal with than morale. You can’t worry about morale, and as a manager, I know that not worrying about it just makes morale worse, but that’s the situation.”

The immediate superior who cut M- was let go in February. Basically, a whole department that employed more than a dozen college educated people is now gone and there’s not even a glimmer of hope of those jobs ever coming back.

Today, the New York office is populated almost entirely by people who do not know or appreciate New York corporate culture—the same culture they are supposed to service.

And M-? She’s freelancing, applying research skills of executives for a fund raising project. She’s in her 40s. “I want to start something that I have more control over. Companies put people out to pasture at age 50, even in better times.”

Monday, May 25, 2009

5/25/2009 Quote

“Music can define life itself, and it has indeed defined my life. In life, as in art, there are recurring themes, transpositions. repetitions, unexpected developments, all converging to define a 'form' that’s not necessarily apparent until its ending has come and gone.”

From Searching for the Sound by Phil Lesh

Bob Dylan: Together Through Life

Dim light. The border town cafe is tacky and dingy but at least it’s clean. You’ve been hanging out in this place for as long as you can remember. Smoking is still allowed. There’s the smell of smoke mixed in with the aromas of whiskey, tequila and beer. The talk becomes a whisper when the band meanders on the stage. The accordion player is new, you recognize the guitarist. The familiar voice of the singer is rougher than ever, but he’s as happy to see the crowd as the crowd is to see him.

“Together Through Life” is Bob Dylan’s most atmospheric album. The project started with the song, “Life is Hard,” which Dylan wrote for a film by French director, Olivier Dahan. He then enlisted Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead Lyricist and writing partner of Jerry Garcia and quickly recorded this inspired collection of songs. David Hilgado, from the great Los Lobos, plays accordion, giving the same sort of inventive and distinctive texture that Al Kooper’s organ gave “Blonde on Blonde” or Scarlet Rivera’s violin gave “Desire.” The progenitor track, “Life is Hard,” is a European cabaret sounding ballad, where the accordion is perfectly normal. Dylan then traverses back to his more usual landscape of American blues. Dylan’s most recent records, “Modern Times” and “Love & Theft,” feature an accomplished mosaic of styles—rock and roll, crooner ballads, and various iterations of blues. “Together Through Life” is also a pastiche, although the blues predominate. The accordion and lonesome lyrics about love amidst desolation augment the end-of-the-line, border town, feel while also exploring the rarely acknowledged common ground of Tex-Mex music and Blues.

“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” begins the journey in a rockin sort of samba on a melody line that reminds me of the song by the Sonny Boy Williamson (I think #2) “Stop Me From Talkin,” which Dylan played in an infamous version on the David Letterman show in the 80s. Mike Campbell, the guitarist in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, plays some searing guitar. In this song in particular, there is a grooving interchange of riffs between the accordion and the guitar. David Herron, who is with the great BR459 and is a multi-instrumentalist, plays a real sour sounding trumpet, reminiscent of those salvation army revival horns on “Blonde on Blonde.” The narrator, at times cajoling—and other times, consoling—his lover, “pretty baby,” that no matter how bleak the present might seem, the present is all they have: “your love is my throne/beyond here lies nothin/nothin we can call our own.”

Hunter has previously collaborated with Dylan. “Silvio,” a Dylan/Hunter collaboration, is considered kind of a light weight addition to the canon, nonetheless in the mid-90s concert performances, Silvio was often the climatic rocker of the show. Dylan is said to have found the lyric in a Hunter notebook and just added the music. The credits on “Together Through Life” specify that Hunter wrote only the lyrics, but unlike “Silvio” the lyrics are obviously not the sole creation of Hunter.

Dylan’s most recent period of songwriting began with “Time Out of Mind” in 1997, which followed years of intensive touring, two acoustic cover albums and the mixed-bag of 80s releases. “I’m Walkin through streets that are dead,” the opening lyric of “Love Sick,” began “Time Out of Mind.” The “Time out of Mind” songs revolved around a another Dylan drifter persona—world weary, older and devoted to love but acknowledging the pain love can cause. For the most part, the best songs on “Time Out of Mind,” and the two follow ups, featured the same narrator. Rimbaud, one of Dylan’s biggest influences, in his letters and best prose poems, speaks of the “I is Another,” essentially objectifying the self of the author, thus universalizing the personal. The dividing line between the subjective and the objective dissolves; the question of what is and isn’t autobiographical becomes mute. Rimbaud’s American contemporary and not accidentally another obvious influence of Dylan, Walt Whitman, while not as self-conscious as the Frenchman on the question of what is self, takes the same means to universalize a personal experience. Song of the Self is not about what is the self, but defines the self as part of the whole of Human Existence as well as Whitman’s 19th century American experience. We can see this same approach in scores of important works of literature—Delmore Schwartz, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg. Hemingway, with his Nick Adams stories uses a third person narrator as a stand in for the author, but those stories are likewise both autobiography and universal. A similar mechanism is at work in Kerouac, whether the narrator is Paradise or Dulouz. Robert Johnson epitomized the same approach in songwriting—who is the “I” in “Crossroads,” Robert Johnson or the persona that sings about the struggle of the dark night of the soul blues performers go through during the journeys between sin and salvation.

If the I in “Together Through Life” is the same person as the one we hear from on Blood on the Tracks and other Dylan works perhaps future scholars can debate. Enough similarities exist to make the case; all writers do sort of keep writing new variations on old themes. However, the persona wandering the desolate landscapes on “Together Through Life” is surely the same guy walking around in the previous three records. In many of the songs he wrote with Jerry Garcia, Hunter was adept at giving voice to the losers and down and outers who populate the Dead’s version of our invisible republic that is vaguely 19th century and a desolate, hard-scrabble and luckless landscape away from the urban centers of culture and commerce. Hunter is as fluent in the archaic language used in old folk songs as Dylan. Hunter’s contribution is seamless. The use of a first person narrator makes these songs immediate, intensifying the emotional impact. The songs feel personal, and that is an inventive accomplishment, and a rare one for the product of co-authorship.
“Hell is My Wife’s Hometown” takes its melody from “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” a Muddy Waters song written by Willie Dixon, whose estate is listed in the songwriting credit. Hidalgo’s accordion mimics the harmonica lines performed by the great Little Walter on the Muddy original, creating a spooky yet recognizable mood. Like most of these songs, it’s a crazy yarn, about the strange and destructive things love makes you do, starting off with “I didn’t come here to deal with a doggone thing/I just came here to hear the drop of simple rain,” soon the woman changes him - “She can make you steal, make you rob/Give you the hives, make you lose your job... One of these days I’ll end up on the run/I'm pretty sure she'll make me kill someone.” Still, the narrator declares, “My love for her is all I know,” and even though the “State’s gone broke, the county's dry” he is staying, although warning listeners, “Keep on walking, don’t be hanging around/I’m tellin you again that hell’s my wife’s home town.”

My favorite song on the album is “I Feel A Change Comin' On.” built around what sounds like a classic Dylan hook. It starts off with the narrator again, “I see my baby comin'/she's walking with the village priest.” I keep thinking, the priest is either advising her to marry this guy or to leave this guy. The guy is in love with this woman, but has another classic Dylan conflict, love vs. friendship. “We got so much in common/we strive for the same old ends/And I just can't wait/wait for us to become friends,” and in a really fun lyrical twist suggest to her, “If you wanna live easy/Baby, pack your clothes with mine.”

What seems to be open-ended is what happens to this couple. Of course, the open-ended story is not unknown to Dylan, and Hunter really mastered this device. The “plot” so to speak, is told through impressions, the case here – “Well now what's the use in dreaming/You got better things to do/Dreams never did work for me anyway/Even when they did come true.” Is she dreaming about marrying him or a better life that could be hers without him? We never find out, the song then veers into hilarious Dylan weirdness – “You are as porous as ever/Baby you can start a fire/I must be losing my mind/You're the object of my desire,” and then the way-out name checking: “I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver/And I’m reading James Joyce/Some people they tell me I got the blood of the land in my voice.”

What does this mean? He’s crazy to be in love, he acknowledges that that he is old and has a sense of wisdom, which I suppose one needs to appreciate both Shaver and Joyce. What exactly is the mind set? I don’t know, but perhaps exactly is the wrong way to look at a Dylan (or Hunter) lyric. It’s up to the listener to decide the state of affairs between the narrator and this woman he loves. What is unclear is how advanced is this relationship—does he want to have one, or do they have one and now it’s marriage or good bye? What is the village priest recommending, or since that image begins the yarn, is all this should I stay or should I go scenario just a projection the narrator is jumping to because he sees the gal talking with an authority figure and becomes romantically paranoid?

The concluding lyrics offer little clarification to the specifics, yet ties up the song nicely. We get a picture of the down and out, sad narrator. “Everybody got all the money/Everybody got all the beautiful clothes/Everybody got all the flowers/I don't have one single rose.” Not exactly the best candidate for marriage, certainly not somebody glad to see the local padre with his ‘baby’. He can’t offer the woman anything more than love. The chorus of the song –“I feel a change comin' on/and the fourth part of the day's already gone,” implies that things will soon be different. But what is that change, what will be the difference, that’s up to us and perhaps the song arrangement and the vocal delivery of the singer. After a romantic entanglement, Dylan characters often end up wiser, but alone “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” & “Tangled Up in Blue,” come to mind. The guys there wind up “walking down that lonesome road,” or “heading to another joint.” The “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” guy probably won’t leave the village, will continue to be shunned by the priest and stay alone, with his country music records and literary books.

The diversity of blues on the record include “If You Ever Go To Houston” a snappy blues shuffle, “Jolene,” a searing blues rocker and “Shake Mama Shake” that seems right out of Chess records, channeling a Chuck Berry melody. “It’s all Good” is a quasi-topical Dylan rocker that examines popular jargon It’s All Good and reveals the arrogance of that saying, which has seemed to permeate our lives. There’s a subtlety in the lyrics – “big politicians telling lies/restaurant kitchen filled with flies” – leaving the listener to surmise that with all these things so wrong, the only way everything can be ‘all’ good is to ignore and deny the world. It’s fitting that “It’s all Good” concludes “Together Through Life.” The central theme of the album may be the struggle for love, but for the poet, the world is not to be ignored and in fact, not denying the suffering and injustice in the world is part of the struggle of romantic love. After depicting the different romantic experiences in the twilight of his years that have occurred either in or on the way to this forlorn border town, the poet transcends his “self” and takes on the self-absorbed, media-drenched society we live in, and assails us for our false self-satisfaction that is blinding us to unfairness and misery, doing so with Dylan’s trademark bite of sardonic humor. He’s seen it all, he’s seen it before, he no longer lets it anger him but he is still compelled to give voice to those in distress and ridiculing those causing distress.

Dylan’s ragged voice—it has never sounded more raspy—second to perhaps the accordion, is the distinguishing feature of this album. He uses his phlegmatic death rattle in his phrasing, accentuating his world-weary attitude that accompanies his journey through the ultimate and timeless human dilemma—the secrets of the human heart.

Within his new hoarseness, Dylan also displays a rare warmth and affability. He weirdly laughs on “Hell is My Wife’s Home Town,” and busts out a heartfelt “whew!” to the band as it kicks it into gear on “It’s All Good.” This charming folksiness Dylan has heretofore only demonstrated on his marvelous Sirus Radio show or on his duet with Mavis Staples (and the Carter Family & Jimmy Rodgers tribute introduction) on the version of “Gonna Change My Way Thinkin,” on the “Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,” a tribute album of a few years ago. Unlike the previous three albums, the lone narrator is more interested in the happiness—complex and often exists more in appearance than in substance—that comes from love than the despair, the love sickness, that love also can produce. Dylan is having a noticeably good time on “Together Through Life.”

It’s pretty hard to claim at this point Dylan is redefining his career. He’s done that a few times already, so many times that the redefinition is irrelevant. Few have had such a long and fruitful run—since about 1963—and he’s still writing and performing in ways that are challenging and uncompromising. The last twelve years or so has been one of his most sustained and richest periods of creativity. Not only did the new record premier at number one, but when he finally performed a song from it during his recent European tour—“If You Ever Go To Houston,” it was as the first encore, the spotlight slot of any performer. There’s a whole bunch of fans now more excited for new Dylan than to hear the legend’s latest rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Clearly, Dylan is having a lot of fun and he is expressing that fun with a refreshingly cordial wit. Rarely has he been so inviting, And, almost as rarely, he has an audience willing to be invited, willing to appreciate without precondition his latest muse. In the Tex-Mex spiced blues ballad, “This Dream of You,” he sings “in an all night cafe, as night turns into day.” Anyone who wants to be in that cafe is in that cafe and having a wonderful time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Scenes from Newark Ave. Streetscaping

I don’t really know why I take these pictures. It’s basically where I walk just about every day. The shovel-ready streetscape project is underway. I like to watch construction. I try to notice things, like how a section is done—old sidewalks torn up and new sidewalk cement poured—but it is not sequential. The section that is worked on after one section is completed is not the section right next to the finished one, it’s down the street. Some stores have had a dirt sidewalk entrance for weeks, others are already scaped. Unfair, yet it does seem systematic. I guess I’ll keep taking these pictures and rounding them every so often. I won’t post them in order either. Just scenes, moments of transformation. Hard work. How did we get here from there? One day, another day.

Moment of Sun

Sunlight bleeds through from above. Taken below the sidewalk on Newark Ave, from the basement level portion of one of the buildings. Soon, the concrete will be poured and the sunlight will disappear again from this gritty nook, until the next streetscape project.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

5/17/2009 Quote

"He was sure that their life together had happened the way he said it had. But it was something that had passed. And that passing—though it had seemed impossible and he’d fought against it—would become part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he’d left behind."

From “Fever” by Raymond Carver.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An Ordinary Mother’s Day

“Did I wake you,” my older sister asked when I flip open the cell, the Saturday night before Mother’s Day. “I just wanted to ask you to only bring a small bouquet because Mom has only a small, white vase.”

I know the vase well. Except for holidays, I always bring Mom a small bouquet, usually a bunch of purple of daises that I pick up at the Korean produce bodega on Newark Ave. on my way to the Hoboken train station. She put them in the same white vase my sister mentioned.

I sojourn in the suburbs to spend time with Mom at least once a month, for more than a decade, it was usually on a Saturday afternoon, not counting holidays. Ironically, Mother’s Day was one day I fulfilled with a card, not a visit. It is a fake Hallmark holiday after all. This Mother’s Day is different. It’s her fifth day living at an Assisted Living Facility in Paramus. She turns 90 in June, and although she is healthy and sharp-witted, there is a noticeable fragility creeping in and she is undeniably unable to live alone in the house where I grew up.

My Saturday visits had evolved into a structure. They started in the early to mid-90s, a few years after my mother became a widow. I had moved to Jersey City and a few years later, had broken up with my live-in girlfriend. Another break-up, but after this one I felt compelled to spend some more time with Mom than I had been. I’m sure all the typical psychological reasons were in play. And, maybe I still had some peace to make with my childhood. But it was also love. I love my family, I love my mother. Love is not always an overwhelming thing but it is a fact, and it obliges us to express it, show it. No matter the context, no matter if it’s familial or romantic, love coerces acknowledgement.

At first I tried to take her to a grand lunch or dinner, but that didn’t work. My mother grew up during the depression, no matter the price, everything was too costly. Why order an appetizer when there’s bread on the table? Isn’t that whiskey expensive?

Then it dawned on me, why not just hang out with her while she does her thing. Her thing on Saturdays was 5:00 pm mass, the anticipated mass for the Sunday obligation. It was a Vatican II deal that became quite popular in our household because it kept the entire day of Sunday free. The timing was perfect. I could get to Bergen County in time for lunch, spend a few hours doing Paramus stuff, which mainly was either going to a Mall, or going to Van Saun Park, a county park with a small zoo, or putting flowers on my father’s grave at George Washington Cemetery. Often, the afternoon included hanging out in the living room of the house, where we watched television and I would take a nice nap on the couch. Lunch was at a diner, or sometimes we just picked up sandwiches at the local deli. This solved the whole spending too much thing. Even a depression-baby tightwad like Mom couldn’t complain about a ten dollar or less per person meal.

I found out about the N.J. Transit rail system—I had been going into Port Authority in NYC and taking the bus out there, always a grueling trip. The train was great, right out of Hoboken, came into Ridgewood, the town bordering Paramus. My father had taken this train—actually, the one out of Oradell, a different line—to and from the Erie Lakawana Station, where he boarded the PATH to Wall Street. Kimball traveled this commute for more than 40 years.

Mom would take him to the train and pick him up. She has always liked word puzzles. Waiting for her husband in the car gave her some precious moments of quiet time, away from her gaggle of six children, where she could pencil letters in the tiny squares of the crossword puzzle or the tiny circles of the Daily Jumble undisturbed. I noticed my mother had this smile at the train station when she would pick me up for the Saturday visit. She always got there early and waited. The crossword puzzle paperback was always on the dashboard. My visits replicated her routine of 40 years—the anticipation of the train rolling into the station, watching the passengers flow out the door until she recognized the one she was married to.

“All those times I used to wait for that train for your father,” she would say.

After the visit, she would drop me off at the station, but always insisted on waiting until I was on board the train, then she watched the train head down the tracks. It became a joke between us—me insisting she should leave and she insisting on staying. The train inspired memories of her husband; we both knew that was why she liked waiting with me for the train.

My brothers and sisters have children. There was always a lot of activity and energy when they would visit, especially when my nieces and nephews were younger. It was often a circus, and always an occasion. Most visits took place on a holiday, so there were also the familiar rituals of celebration that had to be followed. My Saturday visits were low key and ordinary.

I’m one of two of the six that still attends Catholic Mass, so that was something we could share, just like lunch or shopping or walking through Van Saun and looking at the peacocks and the bison. These activities were only slightly unusual than her typical Saturday afternoons. We just passed the time together, enjoying the day and each other’s company.

Mom turns 90 in June. The Saturday visits went on until she stopped driving, roughly 1993 to 2008. During that time, her remaining friends started to die off. If you live well into senior citizen-hood, you deal with increasing loss. When I attended Catholic grammar school, unlike today, most of the teachers were nuns, the Sisters of Charity, a teaching order. Elizabeth Anne Seton, the first American citizen the Vatican declared a Saint, founded the U.S. branch of the order. Mom worked as a secretary of the school for my entire eight years there—actually she started before I was enrolled and stayed after I graduated and she then went on to work at Immaculate Heart Academy, a high-school for girls operated by the same religious order. Many of the Sisters of Charity sisters became her friends. She would spend time at Convent Station, the home-base for the order near Morristown. They went on many excursions together.

Look, Mom has faith and attends mass regularly. She and the nuns never did holy stuff, they never went on a pilgrimage or what not. Even if you have a calling to a vocation, you’re still a person. You want to hang out with friends and have fun when you don’t have to work, and the nuns were from my mother’s generation, maybe a couple of years older. One time she and Sister Rita came to Jersey City and I bought them lunch at the great VIP Diner (The Vip on Sip). Our next door neighbor in Paramus, who was born and raised in Jersey City, gave these two women (pushing 80 at the time) precise directions to the VIP. They both couldn’t stop talking about how great the directions were and that they didn’t get lost. They were more impressed with their arrival than the destination itself.

Mom worked in the school system of the Archdiocese for more than 20 years. By the time of the VIP visit she had been more than 10 years retired (actually, she became a part time secretary for the parish of OLV working in the rectory office, a position she still holds). She was friends with Sister Rita and Sister Julian for more than a quarter of a century. These nuns had been her good-time buddies for a very long time.

One by one, the Sisters of Charity she was friends with passed away, as did many of Mom’s other friends. After the age of 80 I guess, one has a lot more peers below the ground than above the ground. I’ve come to realize that gradually, our Saturday afternoons together became her main source of social activity. At the same time, as the years went on and the Saturday visits continued, I found myself just having more fun—at least as much fun—with Mom than I had with many of the other activities in my life. A friend of mine once told me, I hope my son brings me flowers and takes me to lunch when I’m in my 80s. I’ve thought about her comment a lot. She was wrong in her implication that the visits were an obligation. Spending time with Mom became as beneficial to me as it was to her. Maybe I had more in-depth conversations with other folks, and of course, old people can be exasperating, but there are these moments in life when you find yourself astounded that your parents are actually interesting. They’re interesting in and of themselves and not just because they’re your parents.

Families embody time. We make friends and acquaintances, but the person you are that they meet, the person you are that they know, is only the person you are now. They don’t know what went into making you that person. Your Mom though, she does know. She also knows what went on before the moment you and the world met. While I take pride in spending that time with Mom, giving her a pleasant Saturday afternoon—the fact of the matter is, what she enabled me to discover is priceless and ineffable. And, only she could give me that awareness and self-knowledge.

Unfortunately, time includes unwelcome change. After Mom had to stop driving, it was increasingly apparent that that she could not adequately take care of herself. My brothers and sisters and I have been dealing with this ‘what to do about Mom question’ for quite a while. It was just an endless academic discussion until 2009, when specific actions had to be taken. Luckily, the old man made sure she was well provided for so unlike many people in this situation, the financial aspect is not as big an issue.

The move to the Assisted Living Facility was an ordeal that took many months of debate. There was no simple answer, the process was step by step. The question was where, and when that was resolved, the question was when. Mom lived in the same house since the early 50s. Will the transition be worse than her living alone? I wanted to keep her at home as long as possible and bring in a companion person who could help with the house work and such, but my mother nixed that idea. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to move, she just lacked an eagerness to change. You can’t force her to move. On the other hand, there was the safety issue: what if she trips and breaks an ankle and is lying in the house for days? There were some disagreements between the siblings, but only on certain details, no screaming or anything. That is part of the frustration, not the absence of arguments, but that reaching a consensus was not the same as reaching a conclusion. Making the big decision only created a multitude of other decisions to deal with.

Anyway, Mom did move and now I was spending this Mother’s Day with her at the facility, with my younger (11 months) sister and her 12 year old son. The facility is very nice, like a resort hotel for senior citizens. Most of them use walkers or canes, a few are wheel chair bound. They were having a Mother’s Day brunch. The dining room was like any large, boring restaurant except not as crowded. Employees milled about, greeting residents and wishing everybody a Happy Mother’s Day, trying to generate a festive atmosphere. There was a buffet, although many of the old folks had to be served by the waiters. Several of the tables had families, mini-Mother’s Day parties, bright Mylar balloons tied to chairs. Then there were other tables with just old people. I noticed staff going up to these women, wishing them a happy mother’s day. My brother, who once worked in an old age home and told me that there were two types there—seniors who were visited regularly by very involved families, and others who were drop-offs. I was thinking of that term, drop-offs, when I saw the groups of residents, real elderly, sitting by themselves and nagging the waiters for decaf.

“A lot of people use those walkers here,” my mother said, adjusting her red haired wig. “Do you think I look as old as the people here?”

“You don’t look a day over 87, Mom,” I said.

It’s quite amusing her vanity five weeks before her 90th birthday. In truth, she is healthier than most of the people at the facility—certainly as healthy as the healthiest resident—and, she is a few years older than the average age of the residents. But the same worry that preceded her moving here comes to mind. Will being around these people make her more resigned? Will it age her quicker—or will being free of the stress of taking care of the house rejuvenate her? I don’t know the answer, nobody does. It will be a while before we get an answer. And, the fact that the answer remains elusive only increases our anxiety, even though it’s now a done deal. Here she is, here she lives.

After lunch, we hang out in her apartment. On her new couch, I take a nice nap, just like old times. She, my nephew and I play gin rummy. When we decide to head out, there’s a woman playing a piano in the corner of the dining area. Couches have been moved around the piano. Residents—elderly women, with their walkers nearby, some wearing shawls—one has tubes running to a portable oxygen tank—sit on the couches, glumly listening to the piano player, an overly ebullient woman who sings: “You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it.” The drop-offs watch the newbie leave with her family. They seem like un-adopted teenagers left at the orphanage.

We bring flowers to my father’s grave. “I want to share them with Kimball,” she would say about my Saturday bouquets. When she was driving, Mom would visit Dad’s grave once a week at least—She planted flags every memorial day and 4th of July, a wreath on Christmas, special crosses on Veteran’s Day sold by the local chapter of the Catholic War Veterans.

“That’s where my name is going to be.” She pointed to the side of my father’s inscription.

It’s an austere tombstone. That’s the style at George Washington Cemetery. Only bronze plaques, set on the ground. These plaques have a small bronze vase that you take out to put flowers in.

“Do you want Josephine or Helen Josephine,” asked my sister.

“Jo,” said my mother. “Everybody calls me Jo.”

“There’s not a whole lot of room,” said my sister. “Dad doesn’t have Kim, just his full name.”

“We can put Jo in quotation marks,” I said. “Do you want “Jo”, Helen Josephine, or Helen “Jo” Josephine?”

“Just as long as it’s there,” she laughs.

This conversation may be morbid, but we’re all chuckling. I’ve never heard my mother comment on where her name should be on this grave marker that we’ve been looking at together since 1988. Has the move to the assisted living facility made her think about death more than before? Then again, what is the usual rate of thinking about death for someone on the eve of her 90s who has seen most of her contemporaries go to the great beyond?

Just another echo of the frustrating uncertainty my sibs and I constantly hear in our heads.

The shiny green lawn of the cemetery is thickly dotted with the flower-filled vases. All the dead mothers I think. People stand around several of the graves—some alone, some in groups. I see one guy sitting on a blanket. He is hunched over and alone. His lips are moving. He’s talking to his mother. Not the memory of the woman, or if he has faith in the afterlife, some sort of clairvoyant conversation with her eternal soul. He’s talking to his mother in his mind. The relationship may be a one-way street now that she is gone, but his love for her, that is still real. That is still the present. That will only die with him. Just because that person may be gone, no longer here or with you or part of your life, your relationship with that person, that loved one, doesn’t disappear, doesn’t go away. Vanishing easily is not what love does. Often, love doesn’t vanish at all.

I don’t know if I’ll be that guy or not. I do know that I’m lucky to be with Mom in the flesh. It’s still a fake Hallmark holiday, Mother’s Day. What was special about it was that nothing special was done, just like the Saturday visits. Ordinary time was spent and now that Mom is living in someplace new for the first time in more than half a century, maybe achieving the ordinary is the best that can be, and should be, accomplished.

My sister drove me to the train station and Mom wants to stay to watch me get on the train. She wants to watch the train come in and the train go away.

The four of us stood on the platform, and she said to me, “All those times I used to come here with you on Saturday.”

Similar words about waiting for the train for Dad, now she is saying them about me.

I gulp, on the verge of tearing up with joy (and sadness too). Then we heard the train whistle. The headlight of the Bergen Main Line, Suffern to Hoboken, twinkled in the distance.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

5/10/2009 Quote

"What do you want to see most?”
“Well—the back of people’s heads. Their necks—how their heads are joined to their bodies. I’d like to hear what those two little girls are saying to their father. Not exactly what they’re saying but whether the words float or submerge, how their mouths shut when they’ve finished speaking. Just a matter of rhythm—Cole Porter came back to the states in 1928 because he felt there were new rhythms around."

From: The Lost Decade by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Any Day Parade: Groove on Grove

The weather felt more like March than May for the first Groove on Grove of the year, but hometown heroes Any Day Parade heated up the stage. During the warm weather months, from approximately 6-to-8 pm, musicians perform at the pavilion surrounding the Grove Street Path Station. One of the better ideas Jersey City has come up with, this weekly concert series has a fun, block party vibe. Alongside the cluster of fans and music lovers, there’s commuters and pedestrians passing through, vendors selling snacks & beverages, politicians and others handing out handbills, blue & white collar workers hanging out after their day at the job and parents with their kids who were running around and having fun. Probably not the easiest gig for the musicians, since the attentive audience is outnumbered by all the other commotion, not to mention the ever-present potential of uncooperative weather—the cloudy skies threatened rain and the chilly, damp breeze was increasing. Any Day Parade marched on though, playing with intelligence and wit, delivering a highly entertaining set that started off with a snaky blues song then moved through several rip it up country rock songs and ended with a blues-driven, emo-styled breakdown. I caught the band last year at the Grove-fest and have been hooked to their romantic lyrics and tasteful explorations of country and rock & roll ever since. Catching them live has always been worth the effort. They debuted several new tunes (they were new to me at least) and I was able to pick up their second CD, Where We Fall (which is awesome!). The singing and the playing was noticeably better than when I saw them earlier this year. The guitarist J.D. Daly reeled off stunning leads like he just got back from the cross- roads. My favorite song of the set, that I believe was introduced as “So Long,” was this up-tempo rave sung by the other guitarist, Larry J. Brinkman, that echoed Credence in their prime. “Where We Fall,” the title track of their 4-song CD (EP/CD) is a honky tonk grunge tune, a snippet of the lyric stuck in my mind— “love sure ain’t cheap, and lust sure ain’t free.” Introduced as a song they hadn’t recorded yet was a tender folk melody, sung with sweet feeling by Tree. Then a couple of songs later, the concluding crashing crescendo of “If I Stay Too Long.” The band turned on a dime and jammed up this powerful ruckus, with the interplay between the bass and drummer proving the intent was more free-jazz than noise. Tree delivered a searing, soulful caterwaul—only a few minutes ago she sang a lullaby, amazing. Set lasted about 45 minutes and the Any Day Parade train stopped at several stations of Americana. Genuine musical talent, truly inspired songs and a mix of genres few can pull off. And, they keep getting better. They work in a realm of versatility with musical chops up to that task. This band is the real deal and Jersey City is lucky to be their home. “I think we do better in a small bar where it’s dark, crowded and sweaty,” Brinkman told me when I went up to the band to congratulate them on their set. I can’t wait to go to that bar, but for now, Groove on Grove couldn’t have had a better 2009 inaugural.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

J.C. Abraham Lincoln

Soon after the 1865 murder of Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln Association of Jersey City was formed. It is believed to be the oldest among the many organizations in the country dedicated to the memory, preservation and understanding of Abraham Lincoln. I was in the New Jersey Room at the Jersey City Library on Jersey Avenue this week, and noticed this picture on an easel of the great man. I asked the very helpful librarian he told me about the Jersey City Lincoln association, and that the historic room put the picture up for the centennial of his birth in February. It was now May and still nobody felt like taking down the picture. And why not. We can never think enough about Lincoln. It is generally recognized that the Cooper Union Address he made in Manhattan as a candidate for president was the speech that brought him national attention. According to the Librarian, he supposedly once said, “I wrote that speech on the train from Camden to Jersey City.” Maybe our fair city inspired the conclusion of the speech: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Monday, May 4, 2009

Friday, May 1, 2009

Water Main Break

Water main break. Jersey Avenue. Water main break, it’s a common enough incident. Somebody knows what do to fix it. The preparations for this maintenance are so thought out and systematic that there is no need to worry, or even notice. Luckily, I live in a part of the world with a stable and dependable water supply and a stable and dependable system of supplying that water. Luckily, I live in a country and a city with workers like these. I have no doubt when I turn on the shower each morning water will spray out. How is that lack of doubt ensured? How are our taxes and water bill payments spent? Hard work. The street has to be cut open in the right spot and large pipes have to be repaired or replaced. We pass a scene like this at least once a week, maybe more. Everything we do—and everyone who depends on what we do—depends on having simple and seamless access to water. If this wasn’t the case, our days would revolve around obtaining water. Without water, we couldn’t survive and with water, we can make our society function and our lives meaningful. I find it easy to be awestruck at the complexity of the competence these workers possess—muscle to handle the equipment, intelligence to know exactly how and what to fix, and alertness so they aren’t injured by the equipment or the task. Do we ever think of the competence of these workers in their occupation when we turn on the shower? Walt Whitman explains the awe, in his Song of Occupations: “in them all themes, hints, possibilities.”