The ultimate tracking tool

I was talking to my friend Scott the other day. He is what you could call a gadget athlete, very into the idea of tracking, and a master of the latest device, but not actually doing much exercise beyond walking to and from the train. But his latest purchase left me genuinely awestruck.

There, right next to his Nike FuelBand, was the Tikker – a tracker whose sole purpose is to count down to your death. It counts down the years, months, days, hours and seconds that you have left.

Its point is to be a constant reminder that time isn’t fungible, but a good that’s becoming scarcer every day. It reminded me a bit of Darren Almond’s clock installation – the quietly urgent tick tock that can be heard behind all the din.

It is of course mostly a gimmick. Actuarial tables can’t predict when you die nor will a watch. And I am hoping you are already doing some seizing of the day. And really, isn’t almost everything a waste of time, evanescent, gone without a trace? Isn’t that the bitter-sweetness of the human condition?

But it is a brilliant rebuff to so many trackers already out there (and having checked into CES, we ain’t seen nothing yet). It says, to me, that whatever you happen to track, it’s all futile in the end, we’re all just counting down to when our number is up.




Family, lost and found

You might have noticed at this point that my family was more of the “unhappy in its own way” kind. Helmed by parents whose own parents had never shown them much affection, which meant they never learned how dispense it themselves, my family was an archipelago of six individuals with few bonds. We were four girls, who could have been friends and should have banded together to defend ourselves against the unhappiness around them. Instead we all retreated into our private miseries, desperately alone.

Now, many years later, everyone’s worked on fixing what got broken, with middling success. I’ve managed to patch together reasonable, respectful relationships with both parents and two of my sisters. However, my third sister was so traumatized by her childhood that she, like me, ran away young, but then permanently severed all ties to her family.

She was my favorite sister, even though I never let her know. Blond, very thin and vulnerable, she was the little-est of the bunch, and generally got ground under in the fight for whatever crumbs of attention were to be had. I know where she lives and what she does; she has a general idea of what we’re up to, but remains determined in her refusal to re-establish a relationship.

It breaks my heart but I respect her choice.

A while ago, a new person came into my life through a circuitous route. She’s 87 and lives in my beloved Brighton Beach (I can see the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel through the windows). She started life in what used to be Romania, but is now Belarus, and has lived in Russia, Poland and Israel. Her whole family was murdered by the Nazis. Her husband and son are dead. We see each other every week, and have long conversations and go on little outings and errands. She lets me practice my still halting Yiddish on her. She is sharp, and witty, and beautiful. She stuffs my pockets with her rugelach, sugar cookies and sponge cake. She makes sure I wear a scarf and a hat. She loves to see me dance at the events we go to, and one day I will get her to dance with me.

I walk to her apartment from mine, one straight line 6.8 miles, down McDonald Avenue, the most utilitarian of thoroughfares. Everyone else is going to work. I am disappearing. Her apartment is my little refuge from the world, a place utterly peaceful, outside space and time, with just the F train clattering by every few minutes.

She is the third of four girls and her name is the also the name of my favorite sister, #3 of our lot.

She calls me the daughter she never had. I can’t call her my mother, because I have a mother. She’s not really like my grandmother either – at 87 she’s still too young, in a way. Maybe somehow, someone has given me another sister.

Oyfn pripetchik

The love that won’t shut up

29th of January 2012 is 13 years to the day when Robert Dickerson died, of liver failure caused by Hepatitis C. Having worked on a project for a new Hep C drug last year, and having talked to a lot of people with the disease, I now really understand what that means: brutal and miserable.

Anyway, Robert Dickerson’s artist name was Benjamin, and he performed in a couple of great Atlanta Bands, The Opal Foxx Quartet and Smoke.

Smoke and Benjamin got their epitaph in the move Benjamin Smoke by Peter Sillen and Jem Cohen.

Photographer: Brian Halloran

Although I have a few bones to pick with this movie, it did instantly get me out of a particular kind of funk in 2000, when I wasn’t sure where my life was going and felt trapped and frustrated. I actually went to see it a couple of times, sneaking out of work to sit in a mostly empty cinema to watch and re-watch it.

It made me decide to apply for an MFA in photography (even though I didn’t have a ton of work to show), and work only part-time for those couple of years. This was the exact right decision to make at the time, and I’m glad this movie nudged me in that direction.

I’m not into the Patti Smith pilgrimage in the movie – neither Benjamin or the band needed that kind of endorsement, and a little of Smith’s faux-prophetic earnestness goes a very long way. And the artsiness of the black and white photograph is perhaps artificially somber, since Benjamin seemed like a very funny and sweet person. But I did love Benjamin’s theatrics, Smoke’s music (strange, langurous melodies and lovely instrumentation – cello, cornet, banjo); and am grateful that it helped me discover The Opal Foxx Quartet, and some of the other bands and people in that orbit.

Anyway, Benjamin would have been 52. So, happy birthday.


Patterns: mortality

I originally started this blog to find out if there were larger patterns to the things I love.

The tags don’t lie: there is a very consistent theme to almost all of my posts, and it’s mortality.

Oof. I hadn’t quite expected that.

I think of myself as an optimistic, forward-looking person. And all I seem to want to talk about is death, the fragility of existence and the past. Where could that be coming from?

I don’t have any really good answers for right now. The only one I can think of is that I have subconsciously adopted this outlook from previous generations of my family.

My mother was two years old when she spent months on the road with her mother and three siblings, fleeing westward by cart, foot and train, through an apocalyptic Germany, ruined cities, dead people, dead cattle, forever crying babies, the smell of dirty diapers, meagre food, sleeping on floors. My grandfather had fled separately, since his presence would have meant certain death for the whole family had the Red Army caught up.

When this little band finally reached their destination my grandparents were both jailed and my mother was given to relatives.

Now, I am not claiming that this odyssee was either unusual or unfair. Millions of people had the same experience, my family had supported the war, they had the benefit of coming out alive unlike so many others, and my grandparents deserved their prison sentences.

But I am trying to put myself in the head of a two year old, and the impact of this apocalyptic journey on the brain of a small child.  Moreover, my mother grew up to the constant lamentations of the lost estate, the lost rank, the lost reputations, the lost country.

Wouldn’t that somehow implant the idea that everything falls, everything will get lost,  will die and come to nothing?

But how would that outlook get transferred to me, since my mother rarely talked about her childhood?

And if this is – perhaps improbably – the case, how do I rid myself of this weight, this outlook?

Lost in London

Given the gloomy nature of German weekends London’s came as a relief. This was in no small measure due to the fact that bus fares on Sundays were 30p, no matter the zone or distance (this generous pricing scheme has, of course, long been discontinued). Bus outings on Sundays therefore were mini-vacations for the very poor such as myself.

As I wasn’t very familiar with the sprawling metrolands of London, I’d fairly randomly pick destinations on the outer fringes and take  the bus there, always sitting in the smoky top at the front, get out, explore a little and then take the bus back to whatever cold little room I was living at the time. So I’d go to Harrow, or Brent Cross, Highgate, Peckham, Richmond, Kew, Wimbledon, Southall, Greenwich or Seven Sisters, slowly forming some kind of idea of London as a whole, rather than just a few central tourist destinations.

The other method of exploration was driven by my interest in cemeteries. I’d found a book in the library that listed all of London’s many cemeteries and I made it my mission to visit the most significant ones. Brompton was an early favorite, as much for its busy double life as meeting place for Earls Court’s clone scene as for its beautiful monuments. Highgate I liked too, for its famous inhabitants and hilly location, but soon I discovered Nunhead, Kensal Green, Abney Road and – forever my favorite – Tower Hamlets. London Cemeteries were not well kept then and many had turned into quasi-Amazonian jungles, wonderful places to hide in during the summer, with their soothing promise that however miserable life, rest was within reach.

I did not know many people, and almost never had any invitations for Saturday evenings. But staying home on Saturday night seemed to me then to be the most shameful thing in the world. That’s why I would go on very long excursions on Saturday nights, through dark London Streets, walking purposefully, as if I had somewhere to go to, but going nowhere in particular, turning left or right at random intervals. I’d come home exhausted, having seen only the outsides of whatever life other people were living, a spectator, window-shopper on reality, hiding in the shadows.

That way London slowly became mine, neighborhood by neighborhood, mile by mile.

The saddest song in the world

When I was still living in London, in a blitzed out, wistful little corner of Limehouse, I had an upstairs neighbor from Colombia. He was studying the shoemaking business at Cordwainers College so that he’d be able to support his father who owned a shoe factory. Most days he would be fairly quiet but occasionally he’d get quite drunk late in the evening, and he’d play music at full blast. Unfortunately, Stairway to Heaven was the first song that would start off these fits of melancholia. There were other songs however. He had a fondness for Gardel, for example. There was also one song he’d play that I found mesmerizing (the ceilings were that thin). It was sad, determined, monotonous, hypnotic and long. It had some kind of Latin rhythm.

And then one day my neighbor left for Colombia and I vowed to myself to find out what that song was. Surprisingly, I struck gold early on. In the early 1990s Portobello Market used to have many vendors selling bootleg cassette tapes. At that point I had no knowledge of Latin music whatsoever so I ended up with some Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, merengue, and a live recording called “The Montuno Sessions“,  live broadcast from Studio ‘A’, 99.5 FM, NYC, later released by Mr Bongo. The song I was after was on this tape, a version of Oriente by Henry and Orlando Fiol.

This is what Stephen Mejias from Stereophile has to say about this song:

 But what really caught my heart was the plaintive, urgent, yearning sound of Henry Fiol‘s  restoration of Cheo Marquetti’s “Oriente.” The song delights me, troubles me. I say without doubt that I’ve never been moved this way. It’s stifling. Time-stopping. Indeed, Fiol’s “Oriente” is a wash of sadness and beauty, ten fleeting minutes of churning, swaying, and pleading; tres locked in dance with guiro, delicate piano backed by heartrending trumpet lines, and, above all, that mysterious, otherworldly croon: “Yo me voy a morir / Caramba, me voy a matar.” It’s magic. I could cry.

I don’t want to leave the impression, however, that “Oriente” is morose. It’s not. There is hope, pride, strength in its many movements. It ends where it begins, with a wave and a graceful turn. It, this song, feels so true to me, I’m nearly afraid no one else will understand. The thought is painful. It’s difficult to imagine another person being lifted, moved, possessed by this song in the same way.

I happen to feel exactly the same way about this song, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Live from Studio A version of the song can’t be found free online (which is just as well), only the studio version which is a little overproduced. This performance gets close but lacks the full hypnotic length.

Oriente, an indestructibly beautiful song, was actually written by Cheo Marquetti, one of the great unrecognized heroes of son. A man who was connected to some of the greatest bands of his age, but kept moving on – who knows why? – and died early in semi-obscurity. There is a beautiful version of Oriente by Conjunto Chappottin with Cheo singing.

Where did that deep sadness come from? Cheo Marquetti wrote other beautiful, classic songs – Sonero, Amor Verdadero, Labrando La Tierra – but none are as yearningly obsessed with death. If I had to select a single song of all the world’s songs to last me to eternity, I would pick this one.

Life on the coma ward

I spent many hours of my life in the waiting area of a coma ward. Even though visiting hours were supposed to start at 4pm, they often got delayed. Some medical crisis, patient needing to be cleaned, new admission meant the lone little group of visitors were forced to stare at the blank walls or the well-kept aquarium. It principally housed two large fish, but one had a problem with his swim bladder, and was forced to swim upright in the same spot with no reprieve. It kept banging into the same coral and had lost most of its tail in the process. The other fish would continuously try to tempt it into a different part of the aquarium. The handicapped fish would try but would soon return to its familiar spot.

This tableau was perfectly set up to induce thoughts of futility and disappointment. The strange chemical smell added to it. It did actually smell like what I imagined decomposing human flesh smells like but surely was only extra-strength cleaner of some kind, specially engineered for intensive care units.

My mother, an intrepid walker just like myself, had set out one sunny morning for the vineyards, ignoring warnings of ice. She slipped, fell backward, resulting in unconsciousness and traumatic brain injury. Other walkers found her, nobody knows how long she’d been lying there. We were told she was in critical condition and might well not make it.

Driven by the thought, more than any other, that nobody should die alone, I got myself onto a plane, and began a lonely vigil.

A decision had been made to keep my mother in a coma, to prevent further pressure and irreversible damage. Hence, the coma ward. It held ten patients but was probably the quietest ward in the hospital. Apart from hushed conversations between nurses the main sounds were those of beeping indicators, feeding tubes into necks, waste products back out, with the occasional alarm signal when vital measurements went out of range. Occasionally, a family would put on some music for a patient, hoping that a familiar song would get even just a little response. Never has chirpy German Schlager music sounded so mordant.

After a few days this becomes your new normal. You begin to recognize familiar faces among the visitors. You notice which patients will occasionally twitch or even grunt, with some envy. Your mother is still. A machine is breathing for her. A drug drip keeps her far under – no detectable brain activity. You wonder what it feels like to be so far removed from the world. At first you’re shocked to see her like this, but then you get used to her condition. You begin to talk to her under your breath. You never really got on all that well. But you don’t want her to die either. So you lay out how you feel, holding her hand all the while to let her know that someone’s there, no matter which path she chooses to take.

Hours go by. Nobody talks to you. You get to see the doctors once in a while. They are young and full of fear. They do not like being the bearers of bad news. There is really only question you want to know – “what’s her Glasgow Coma Score?” – but you dread the answer, so you don’t ask. You suspect it’s a 3, the lowest. Just a bit more alive than dead.

At night, with nothing to do, unable to sleep, and no-one around, you try hard not to Google “GCS 3, prognosis“, but you do. The words “dismal” jump out at you. Only a few percent who make it through in a non-vegetative state. You can’t sleep. You think the phone will ring any minute. You are tired, pale, a spectre. The hospital sent back the clothes they cut off her. Destroyed they lie there like the person they belong to. The shoes that let her down lie there innocently. Killer shoes.

You begin to crave the calm sanctuary of the coma ward. It’s the only safe place. The only place where you know right at that moment that everything is still OK, everything still in balance, the cards not upturned yet. Order, not chaos.

After ten days, one of your sisters comes to take over the grim vigil. You go to the movies and drink a glass of cheap supermarket wine. So strange – there is a life outside this self-contained little universe?

Anyway, my mother woke up from her coma (slowly and un-soap-opera-like) and has gradually recovered most of her faculties. She can’t walk well and still needs constant care, but she’s mostly herself and pretty chipper. She credits me for getting her through that narrow passage, but she’s wrong.