Monday, October 18, 2010

The Rocket Man Crashed in Los Angeles

The Theme Building at LAX ca. 1960 and Paul R. Williams, one of the designers.

Went back to Los Angeles last week for a business conference. Greeting me was the striking mid-century modern Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, newly restored.  The futuristic structure was designed in 1959 to give Angelenos a sense of unbridled optimism. It inspired the cartoon sky-buildings in The Jetsons.  When I was a child my father, a space scientist, traveled often for work to D.C.  Every time we went to pick him up from the airport I'd gaze with wonder at that white and blue spaceship with legs like the Martian invader ships in War of the Worlds.  My childhood was all about space travel, the outer realms of imagination and the future.  I grew up in the 1960s, a time brimming with a sense of change and possibility.  We never missed seeing Star Trek, Outer Limits, One Step Beyond and Twilight Zone.  I loved the works of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and Bradbury. I carefully pasted news clippings of the first moon landing in a scrapbook and the family together watched men walk on the moon with overwhelming pride.  Nothing was impossible. 

I truly believed that humans would live on other planets in my lifetime. My father nurtured that sense of embracing the future and readied us by giving us math problems to solve, instilling in us a love of literature and music, and also a sense of duty to him and my mother.  In his spare time he built complex abstract modern sculptures of wood and steel in sinuous, twisting shapes.  He came from India as a graduate student, met a beautiful, perceptive woman from Korea, had five children, moved to a big house with a swimming pool in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and lived, as so many Americans still do, on the edge of his means.  

But when I landed in Los Angeles last week, I gazed on the Theme Building with a sense of melancholy.  It had been over 35 years since I lived in L.A.  Sure, the spaceship structure looked shiny and new after millions of dollars of restoration, but its promise of the future looked dated -- a retro kind of impotence.  The well-worn freeways taking me from the airport were all too familiar.  No Jetsons hovercraft here, not even high-speed rail, just miles and miles of concrete, as far as the eye could see.

And my childhood home?  Thank you, but I prefer not to visit.  No one I know is home. The sixties gave way to the seventies.  Escalating costs of the Vietnam War drew funding away from the space program, and my father was out of a job.  Divorce and bankruptcy soon followed.  I recall combing the LA Times classifieds as a young teen for a first-ever job for my mom, who became a salesclerk at a high-end clothing store.  I also recall accompanying my father, who was always meticulously dressed and groomed, to the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard to pick up his mail and unemployment check.   

We didn't know if the space program would flourish again.  All we knew was that my father, a rocket scientist, could not find work.  And then, on the very day that the nation held its breath as Nixon resigned, my father, at the age of 50 -- in a serene act of what he believed was Hindu devotion, and because he thought he was worth more dead to his family than alive -- took his life.  It was August 9th, 1974, the day that the future darkened and changed course.  I was sixteen.  I left Los Angeles a year later for college and a lifetime of grappling with a deep, hidden sorrow.  My father left me with a final problem that could not be solved.

Today, the advances in science and technology would have delighted my father, not to mention the new Star Trek movie.  While his tragic, final act has haunted me to this day, it also pushed me to make the most of my one life.  I put myself through college and graduate schools, collected an array of degrees, found a wonderful husband late in life who respects me and makes me laugh every day, a dog who respects me some of the time and gives me unconditional love, and a dream job that keeps my mind sharp and spirits high. It's a happiness that focuses on day-to-day challenges and joys rather than on far-off galaxies.  

Would I have achieved all this if my father had lived?  I don't know.  All I know is that I did not care to linger in Los Angeles last week.  Too much sorrow was embedded in those freeways and swelled in the ever-returning waves of the Pacific Ocean.  I caught the first flight I could out of LAX after the conference and hurried home.


My father and mother, taken soon after they met in Chicago in the late 1940s.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Stuck On Stupid About Ground Zero

The President of the United States spoke out in support of the right to build a mosque near Ground Zero yesterday - or was it Obama/Andy of Mayberry, giving yet another remedial civics lesson to his benighted townspeople, whipped up into a frenzy over some darn thing:
 “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”
Much has been written about the opposition to a mosque-muslim center two blocks from Ground Zero. My favorite was this one on Twitter:
I want to know the exact distance from ground zero, in feet, beyond which we're no longer allowed to be ignorant bigots.  I want the number ~ @HunterDK
While all this was raging, we moved into our new home in a newly-built apartment building in lower Manhattan, just blocks from Ground Zero and the proposed Muslim center.  This is a return to the area for me. About ten years ago I toiled for long hours in a law firm near Wall Street.  At that time, it was a neighborhood that you did not want to linger in if you didn't have to. When I came in on weekends, the place was deserted.  I spotted one or two other beleaguered and tired-looking lawyers on the street, but that's about it.  There was a small residential population, but not enough to merit even a single grocery store.  You couldn't buy a fresh tomato in the area even if you had a million dollar Wall Street bonus burning in your pocket.

Now the place is flourishing. The residential population is booming, along with the amenities.  In addition to groceries, restaurants, schools and shopping, several farmers markets have popped up to add bursts of color contrast - red peppers and tomatoes, bright green and yellow zucchini - to the brown-grey cobblestones and historic buildings.  Ground zero is active with construction, not only of the long-awaited but over-produced memorial, but also of buildings promising modern, new office spaces wired from head to toe for the 21st century.  It seems like every day a business announces it's packing up and moving to lower Manhattan.

Ten years was enough time to get over the psychic trauma lingering in the neighborhood from my law firm job, and I moved back with great enthusiasm.  We're gradually getting used to the new digs:  My husband loves the seven-minute walk to work, we're both in awe of our tremendous high-rise view of Manhattan, including the Empire State Building, and our dog Darwin is slowly coming to grips with the fact that there are no grass and dirt facilities nearby.  Our walks turn into historic and architectural tours:  There's Federal Hall, where George Washington, in a low tone so as not to appear overreaching, took the oath of office. The broad steps under Washington's statue are ideal for eating a sandwich on a sunny day while watching people go by.  There's Wall Street, so reviled by America today for running the country into a near-depression and almost ruining the middle class, but still central to the economy of the world and buzzing with excitement when the NYSE bell rings in the trading day. There's the old, revered Delmonico's restaurant, which taught our founding generation how to eat a meal in a civilized fashion.

Then there's the site that is of more recent, and still painful, history, and that is Ground Zero. When I came home from work for the first time after we moved, while ascending the subway escalator at Wall Street I flashed back to the morning of September 11, 2001 when I made that same trip to work, emerging from the subway about 9 am.  I went to the small kiosk as I usually do to get a bottled iced tea. It was run by a Muslim man who knew me as a regular.  He was the one to tell me that morning: "Two planes just hit the World Trade Center Towers." I went out onto the street, looked up, and saw flames shooting out of the towers.  It was alarming and disturbing, but I didn't know what to think, so I went to work.  But soon after I got to my office there was a low, disturbing rumble that suddenly became louder and the sky went out. I didn't know then that one of the towers had collapsed, and the wave of debris thundering past my windows was a crushed mass of building and people. I rushed up to the law library, where many had gathered to watch the news on television, and watched in horror as I realized what was happening.  Then the second tower roared past in a demented black cloud of dust and debris. A nightmare from hell.

Luckily, I was not showered with debris like others who were on the street when the buildings fell, and I did not know anyone personally who may have been in the Word Trade Center towers, the place where I'd get my flu shots every fall.  Still, it was an unthinkable experience - my mind couldn't process it.  My husband saved the voice message I left him to tell him I was okay and that I loved him - the voice was stoic, not hysterical.  The phones went dead but I was able to send an e-mail to my family, letting them know I was still here.  Remarkably, and rather too-conscientiously, I sent a message to our local counsel in Mississippi, attaching the draft legal brief I had been working on, telling him that we were under terrorist attack and that if something happened to me he was to get this brief filed on time.

A partner at the firm came by my office about 1 pm and suggested it was time to evacuate in small groups.  The debris cloud had settled and there hadn't been any new explosions.  One of my friends, eight-months pregnant, had a long walk back to Brooklyn ahead of her.  Some of us going north went out together, handkerchiefs at our mouths.  What we saw was truly that of a science-fiction movie.  Nothing but thick ash and debris and no one around but the national guard and police speeding in on buses and jeeps.  We slowly made our way up the East River. I saw the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge still standing and my heart leapt with joy that they hadn't destroyed it. Looking back we saw the giant plumes of black smoke against that pristine blue September sky.  Still no tears or cries - we were silent.  Finally, just past Canal Street in Chinatown, the subways started to run again, and I was able to make my way home to our apartment in Times Square.

I somehow had the wherewithal to go shopping for water and supplies in case the island of Manhattan was shut down.  But after I got home, for two days all I did was stare at the television, reliving the collapse over and over.  My husband told me this was not a good thing and that I should go out.  The museums in New York, in an act of grace, opened their doors for free that week.  I went to the Museum of Modern Art and sat in front of the large panels of Monet's Water Lilies, immersed myself in the wash of deep blues, greens and pale pinks, and began to feel restored.

That was my experience, and each New Yorker has his or her own story. I won't even go into how I had to return to work the next Tuesday, computers working on generators as our only lights, trying hard to churn out urgent legal work in the midst of a pungent, choking haze of burning plastic, metal and bodies. We all got through it.  Well, some of the secretaries in the firm decided to never come back.  To take a break, I'd walk the six blocks from my office to Ground Zero and gaze upon the remains of the twin towers, reaching upward like a skeletal hand.  Sure, I hated the stark architecture of the twin towers and wished they hadn't been built - but I didn't want them to be taken down this way, and now the remains are deeply beloved.

With all that past still very much present within me, I have no problem welcoming a mosque to lower Manhattan, just as I welcome any other place of worship to service and give comfort to the people who live and work in the area.  Those of you on the outside who have long disdained New York, who are you to suddenly dictate what should be built in our neighborhood?  And those family members of 9/11 victims opposed to the mosque, I'm sorry for your loss, but don't lecture me about loved ones dying.  I've lost both parents and several other loved ones, but I'm not going to claim the location of their death as a personal cemetery.  All New Yorkers suffered a huge loss that day, when the government failed to protect us and we as Americans finally learned what it means to be under attack.  No New Yorker or American will ever be the same.

We are building a memorial for those who died and we will always honor the incredible sacrifice of the first responders and the ordinary people who became heroes because they died simply for going to their jobs.  But those few who would appropriate the whole area out of a misguided sense of self-righteousness or to advance narrow political objectives are wrong.

As you can see, New York, and especially lower Manhattan, is moving forward, thriving in our country's freedom and the comfort of knowing that our country's ideals of equality and justice govern.  There's much to do.  If a mosque can attract capable and productive residents, go ahead and build it!  All who are smart, talented, skilled and forward-looking, you are most welcome. We do not discriminate based on religion, but rather on skills, intelligence and a broad worldview.  Those who are stuck on stupid, who have, in effect, let the terrorists win by forcing us to abandon our core constitutional values, please get out of the way.  We're too busy for this nonsense.

Read George Washington's magnificent, brief speech given in 1790 to a Jewish community in Rhode Island on the subject of religious freedom.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Scatter My Ashes Over the Dog Park

We moved from Times Square, vortex of all that is crazy, crowded and neon, to Riverdale, a lovely part of the Bronx with views of the Hudson River, lush with trees and fresh air.  After six years, we're moving back to Manhattan to be closer to work.  I'll miss the ever-shifting beauty of the trees, moon and stars, and the Hudson grandeur. But most of all, I'll miss the dog park, the place where I met my neighbors and learned to chat.

On my first day in the dog park, just across from our apartment complex, a raging discussion was in progress. The subject? When were they going to bury Anna Nicole Smith's highly contested but rapidly decomposing body. "Why are they fighting over that body anyway?" a woman wearing pin curlers shouted, pointing to a New York Post.  It's just a body - it's not her. When I die, I want my ashes scattered over the dog park."  We roared with laughter.  

It was a varied group - a professor of Russian literature, an admissions officer at a private school, a clerk at a big-chain baby store, a nurse (in the pin curlers), a loud, foul-mouthed but extremely funny artist, a bridge-builder (not the metaphorical one, but a real one), a recovering stockbroker-now-third-grade teacher. There would be more over the years, people came and left, all with varied backgrounds, outlooks, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation.  It was like the set of a play.  Or maybe a sitcom. Every day several of us would get together to watch our dogs run and wrestle, and to chat about things, from the mundane (the healthy texture of dog poop) to the transcendent (symbolic imagery in Buddhist art, the athletic grace of Derek Jeter).  One morning the issue among the ladies was whether or not one had to wear a bra to the dog park in the morning (most voted yes).  Other days I'd argue with the Russian lit teacher over Shakespeare and off-Broadway plays. We talked of work, family, joys and sorrows, and became friends.

Although this kind of easy camaraderie goes on all over, whether it be in dog parks, children's playgrounds, bars or diners, it meant a great deal to me.  I was a loner bordering on the misanthropic. I spent years in academic research and then law, more comfortable with books than light conversation.  And much of that time was at The University of Chicago, known for taking one's blush of youth away and replacing it with book-learning and poor social skills.  I sparkled when teaching students, but was awkward speaking with adults and hated going to dinner parties or other social gatherings.  In New York City, not many people talk with or even know their neighbors in the same apartment building, so it was no problem. But then I moved to Riverdale, got a puppy, and had no choice but to meet, and talk to, the neighbors. I'm so glad I did.

Slowly, day by day, my reluctance to engage with others dropped away.  What was great about the dog park is that I met people I would never have met had I not gotten a dog. They were outside my usual circle of colleagues, and maybe this made it possible for our conversations to be deeper, more joyful and carefree.  It was like having an extended family without the psychodrama, or dropping in for coffee at a neighbor's house as shown in American ads in the '50s.  I recognized the same phenomenon in Roger Ebert's beautiful essay in which he describes the joy of getting to know people outside his circle at AA meetings.  

I needed this.  The reason I got a dog was to ease the unbearable grief from my mother's passing (it helps).  Within a span of three years, two other elders close to me died.  I had relied on these three to watch over and be proud of me (my father died when I was young).  But then I joined the dog park group.  They gave me advice when I got a cold, I rejoiced with them over good job news, we worried together over the awful troubles of the world and cried together when dearly-loved dogs died.  

They were in many ways ordinary people who worked hard every day in demanding jobs to make ends meet while managing households or school study at night.  But once you got to know them better, you discovered how extraordinary they really were.  Some had heavy added burdens such as caring for a paralyzed brother or declining parents, which they did without complaint.
Remarkably, these same people found time for creative pursuits as well.  The owner of the scrappy Boston Terrier/Frenchy mix did lamp working - making gorgeous, translucent colored glass beads that she turned into lovely necklaces and bracelets.  She's Jewish, but crafted a delicate rosary in glass to match the color of family members' birthstones for a Catholic friend when she became gravely ill.  The "mom" of the lovely black and white Papillon had one of the sharpest minds I ever encountered and did amazing, detailed needlepoint work, while the owner of the Katrina rescue German Shepherd-mix (my dog Darwin's best buddy) regaled us with tales of her cooking adventures, most recently Korean cuisine.The construction guy who owns the magnificent, kindly Rottweiler also painted pictures of scenes in Cuba. They all did something to give a flourish to their lives. 

I'm moving to a high-rise in Manhattan in a couple of days and do not expect to strike up close friendships among my neighbors.  But I leave the Bronx transformed.  

Thank you, my friends.  

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Own Toy Story

Moving time again. After six years in this place it feels like the right time. But how did the closets generate so much stuff on their own when I wasn't looking? Throwing out boxes of the detritus of everyday life feels liberating and brings to mind the free spirit of the Tang Dynasty zen monk Han Shan (Cold Mountain):

Thin grass does for a mattress.
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone under head
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
(trans. Gary Snyder)

Han Shan was a favorite figure of my Korean mom, whose big laugh was better than any zen monk's and whose rationalistic iconoclasm terrorized our best friend Harrie, the art historian/Catholic priest.  Like Han Shan, mom was big on the doctrine of non-attachment to material things.  Except that she collected things.  Antiques. Early American - especially toys and all manner of useful objects.

Like this antique tin goose. When you turn the key, it noisily lurches across the table in a most ungainly fashion. But there's the delicate design, just enough to hint at the wings and a kindly face. And there's the lovely blue color, the ample feet to support such a large body, and the rust that shows its age.  It's seen a lot and taken a lot of falls.

A lowly shoehorn with exquisite color graphics "Shinola -The Wonderful Shoe Polish" serving both as useful object and advertisement.

A real prize, the striking orange cast-iron car with sturdy black wheels that still go.

She left many tin boxes, this one is adorned in gorgeous color illustrations of Aesop's Fables.

Here's just a sample of wrought-iron objects, now modern art: a measuring device acting like a zen circle, a tiny screwdriver with curves to the max, an old pan-scrubber made of connected ringlets.

When mom died six years ago, I cherished these carefully chosen objects like sacred relics and displayed them and the paintings and furniture she left all over our Riverdale apartment, just north of Manhattan.  Both my husband and I loved to be surrounded by these things, so colorful and beautiful in themselves, but even more precious because they embodied my mom's spirit.

But now we want to be back in the middle of New York City, to feel its pulse and walk out to coffee, music, theater, art, film at a moment's notice.  And to be closer to our jobs, of course.  We found the perfect apartment in a financial district high-rise.  It's tiny, but with floor-to-ceiling windows and panoramic views of Manhattan and the rivers.  But all those windows means there's no space to hang or display my mom's antiques.  They must be packed and shipped up to our small rental upstate, where they will wait for us on weekends and maybe, if lucky, be taken out of their boxes and displayed or handled.

Six years ago I couldn't have done this. I couldn't let go of these objects just as I couldn't accept that my mom, my best friend, was gone. But time heals, and I gradually realized that she wasn't really gone.  All those years I spent with her she was teaching me how to discern the real from the fake, in people and things. What is art and what is uninspired craft. It's a way of seeing that I could never master, but I can hope to approach, and even in my hit-and-miss fashion enriches my life considerably. When I marvel at the beauty of ancient Japanese pottery or the fine curve of the most humble wooden antique cutting tool, I'm doing it because she instilled a perspective in me, one drawn to truth and beauty. If I paused long enough to think about it, I could also see her in my own big laugh - especially when it's triggered by the puncturing of the pompous and inauthentic. She's a part of me and my perspective.  And the objects themselves are no longer sacred.

It's okay. They can go in the box.

As Han Shan asked in a poem:  "Who can leap the world's ties and sit with me among the white clouds?"  Me, mom.  I'm ready.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Give Me Liberty (and also Chopin)

My cousin Tiru was a scientist from India who came to America in the late 1960's. He tutored me in physics, piano, star-gazing and PG Wodehouse. He died suddenly 3 years ago, but I recall his July 4th story.

He lived alone in a small house in La Habra, outside of Los Angeles. When not figuring out how to protect astronauts from space radiation (his day job), he played a gorgeous 19th-century Steinway that he rebuilt.

On July 4th, fireworks were in full, noisy bloom. There was a muffled bump at the door. He opened it, and there stood a large grey dog.

Tiru looked up and down the street - no owner in sight. The dog let himself in. He lapped up the bit of ice cream my cousin offered. Then Tiru went back to playing the piano. Chopin Nocturnes were his favorite. The dog settled under the piano, listening peacefully.

When the fireworks were over, the dog got up, and walked to the door. Tiru let him out, and the dog went on his way.

Dogs don't like fireworks. But they do like Chopin.

Happy July 4th.

Tiru took me to see Artur Rubinstein in his 90's at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. I remember Mayor Richard Daley (the elder) gave the great pianist a special plaque. Funny seeing the two of them on stage together! Here's Rubinstein playing a Nocturne that I once played for my much-loved and admired cousin: