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: