Links to New Work from other outlets

 

Please check out my essay on being a neo-liberal financial subject published in GUTS magazine here:  Characters of Finance

And my essay on housework, gender and the housework strike published at Blindfield: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry here:  How to Ask a Feminist to Do the Dishes

You can also look at fragments of another part of me at Music Website Etc.

And a poem I wrote here: The Losses

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The Girl Who Carried the Record Player

In the second grade, Kerry Flanagan* picked me to go with her from classroom to classroom on St Patrick’s Day while she performed an Irish dance routine for the students.  My job was to carry the record player. 

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It was a portable one of some bulk— a brown, tweedy, square suitcase full of wires and sound.  I held it with two hands, leaning it on my thigh in order to propel it forward with each step of my leg. Before even fully crossing the threshold of each room, I would diligently spy an electrical outlet, and set up the player on a chair nearby. Then I stood to the side in the front, near the door, not quite part of the class, not quite part of the proceedings, but belonging.

I was excited to go along and I felt special.  It meant that Kerry liked me and that, by association with her, I was talented, unique and deserving of attention. I used to tease her with my impression of her dance, sticking my tongue out a bit in concentration like she did, pointing my toes and jumping.  She never offered an impression of my carrying the record player, with two hands, leaning against my leg, but ours was not a reciprocal relationship.

Kerry would go on to be the star in all of our school district musicals.   She could dance, sing in a nasal voice with great projection, and had an irrepressible onstage charisma.  She was suburban Long Island’s own little Bernadette Peters. She got the lead in the tenth grade production of Little Shop of Horrors, portraying the bombshell Audrey who was down on her luck, singing “Somewhere that’s Green,” the show’s dramatic spotlight solo, with a perfectly cultivated lisp.   I was in the play, too—a background dancer and chorus member. It was a step-up from the year before, where in one scene I literally played a table in our high school’s misguided minimalist production of Leader of the Pack.

The summer after “Little Shop” I attended a second-tier music camp, primarily to play violin and get away from the beach/mall cycle of summers on Long Island.  A few weeks in, auditions were open for solo acts in the variety show.  Come and try out with any song you want.  Bring the music.  Even though I was listening to the Cure and the Smiths, wearing a lot of black eyeliner, and compulsively writing letters to a brooding artist boy back home, I was drawn to the promise of that incomparable combination of music, sweat and spotlight that a solo held for me.  I knew the intro monologue and lyrics to “Somwhere that’s Green” by heart. I had brought the song (I had the whole score from the production) with me.

I was so scared.  So nervous.  Not because I did not think I could sing it.  I was more confused by my deep desire to do so. By age 15, I was well-practiced in the arts of self-doubt, so when an undeniable urge made itself known, I was cautious and suspicious, pensive and philosophical. Even if I could accept that I wanted this, it seemed audacious to ask for it. Who was I to ask that anyone listen to me, give me a chance? It occurs to me now that I never asked who Kerry Flanagan was to force her Irish dancing on unsuspecting second graders so many years ago. Even back then, I saved my best interrogations for myself.

Earnest, impassioned adolescent renditions of “If I were a Rich Man,” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” took over the basement of the music building after hours. I was so close to walking away from the fluorescent lit room, but I handed over the music to the director and came in on cue: “A matchbox of our own, a fence of real chain link…” 

My performance was a revelation.  I was the star of the show, of the whole summer.  The musical theater director built a special set for me:  a trash can overflowing on a little platform that rolled out, a little slice of Skid Row.  I sang perched atop the trashcan, first doing the monologue in my own version of the lisp, then singing the song with its crescendo and climax, and quiet whisper ending.  I wore a green dress that innocently announced my blossoming bosom to pubescent boys in attendance.  My newly acquired, late 80s Suzanne Vega bob haircut framed my face.  I was placed center stage for the group number.  I was voted “most unique” and “most interesting.” People told me I could have a career in singing if I wanted it.  My photo made it into the catalogue for the following summer. No one there had heard of Kerry Flanagan. And someone was finally carrying the record player for me. 

Needless to say, I was doubled over in the back seat weeping as my parents pulled away from music camp and drove me back to Long Island, where I would find my way to the chorus in Mame while Kerry played Auntie herself. 

My life seems to move in cycles of carrying the record player or singing the song: from sitting quietly—though impatiently—while my first boyfriend noodled on guitars in Matt Umanov in NYC to teaching myself to play guitar, starting my own bands, and releasing two records.  From writing my own small, self-published magazine, to advocating for independent literary publishers at a non-profit; from writing poems and even publishing a few, to picking up poets at the train station and driving them to and fro interviews and readings while in graduate school.

But there is always a part of me that more easily assumes the role of the girl who carries the record player.  So close to the action, to the art-making, to the event, to the heart.  Dependable, reliable, I set the stage so others can twirl, dance, write, sing and soar. As I write this, I realize that in fact, Kerry may not have selected me for the prized job, but that our teacher may have instead.  I was already a straight-A student and very dependable.  I could afford to miss the class time, and could be trusted to carry the record player, watch the routine respectfully, and bring back the equipment and Kerry in one piece, without sneaking out for whatever reasons a second grader might sneak out.  I could handle the talent, then and now.  But what about my own?

In her famous book “The Artist’s Way” Julia Cameron identifies a perennial truth:  many academics, publicists, agents, and teachers are artists at heart, who keep themselves close to what they love but not quite at the center of it. No doubt, for many, these roles are their true calling, and they bring a genius and passion to this end of art-making that is inspiring in its own way.  And for the majority of artists who must work full-time to support their art, academia and the humanities are preferable environments to the corporate sector precisely because they are close to ideas, ideals, creativity, learning and teaching. It is a means to an end that can make the life and work of art-making slightly easier.

But as I grow older, I more and more have to ask myself: do I want to be the girl who is carrying the record player, or the one dancing?  Because after a certain point, the balance can tip: in making a living, the best parts of you begin to go to bringing others’ projects and visions to fruition, and you realize you simply must start carrying the record player for yourself, or something will be lost.  It is terrifying. The question goes beyond the necessary quid pro quo of being part of an artistic community, mutual support and recognition-which I firmly believe in.  Its where and how one applies the best parts of herself and to what ends.  I am at a crossroads, trying to honor the still embattled urges to express, to share, to sing, to dance, to be part of the conversation, while making a living with integrity.  These pursuits have rarely, if ever, been completely aligned, I don’t know if they ever will be.  I can only remain vigilant, and honor the girl who carried the record player, and others who have and will carry it for or even with me.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent

Doctors, Class Status and My Annual Exam

When I moved to Albany from Brooklyn, I left behind my 65-year old Jewish primary care doctor.  His office was in the garden level of his Henry Street brownstone. I remember my final check-up, as I ambushed him with yet another attack of hypochondria: “I think I have a little lump under my ear, like a node.” He took my hand, placed it on his neck so I felt a bulbous growth. “Bigger than this?” He asked.  “I’ve had this for thirty years and I’m still standing.”  Suffice to say, there was no biopsy on the node.

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Indeed, of all the eccentrics I met in New York City, doctors were some of the oddest.  There was my favorite Ear, Nose and Throat doctor, who was also in Brooklyn Heights, but in the upper floors of a building said to be inhabited by Paul Auster down below.   This office was, honestly, the most run-down doctor’s office I have ever been in.  It was like a post-apocalyptic 1970s-scape: square vinyl chairs with rips in the cushions; beige walls that no doubt started out bright white, creeky coffee table offering the same issues of “Highlights Magazine” that I read as a kid in the waiting room of the dentist twenty years earlier. The doors of the packed medical record file cabinets were hanging off.   A sliding glass reception window was smudged with layers of fingerprints and what were, quite possibly, apricot preserves. It was like going to the doctor in a hoarder’s house.  Yet, if it’s possible for someone to have been born to be an ENT, this guy was it.  A warm, always smiling Filipino man, he was great at his job, great with patients, and radiated rightness and talent in his chosen field.  He just had an insanely messy office, which I returned to again and again for my ritual ear cleanings before flying, which I believed helped to keep the plane from falling out of the sky.

So I arrived in Albany doctor-less, and would remain so for eight years. I had tried to get in with a new general practitioner many times, only to be put on hold or told the doctor was no longer taking patients, or I would have to wait six months for a first appointment.  I came to think of scheduling a new patient appointment as an ordeal akin to having a late fee removed from a credit card, or charges taken off my Verizon bill (no, I did not call Guatemala 67 times last month).  It would involve phone trees, using the speakerphone function while I multi-tasked in the house, a resolve to take no BS from nurses giving me the run-around.  In short, I needed to set aside a good two hours to make this happen.  In the end, it took a good eight years.

In the meantime, I made due with the university health clinic, local stop-ins, the nurse hot-line (Always: “it’s the flu.”), and friends whom I would routinely ask to  “feel my forehead” like my mom did when I felt ill. I occasionally saw specialists and did have a phenomenal ob-gyn, but no one knew my baseline body stats, could prescribe an antibiotic, assure me that the possible ear node was nothing.

Over time, what started out as inconvenience became a downright stigma.  When visiting a chiropractor for the first time, I elicited looks of pity and aghast when the medical secretary asked, “Who is your primary care doctor?” and I answered,  “I don’t have one.”  Silence.  Incomprehension.  Then the suspicious look.  My lack of a primary care doctor registered worse than romantic rejection; it branded me as a sub-par patient for all others. I was a ticking health insurance time bomb.  People did not want to touch me.

I became even more motivated to find a new doctor after several visits to the First Stop Health Clinic, where on more than one occasion I was diagnosed by a dandy-esque doctor who never actually touched my body, and somehow managed to make the exam feel, well, competitive.  “Sore throat, you say?” he asked, checking his pocket watch and tipping a top hat (or so it seemed in my fever-raddled mind). “Yeah, I thought maybe strep.” Look of judgment and disinterest.  Throat swab where I almost gag.  Throat swab where I keep closing my mouth before he can get a sample.  Throat swab where I turn the stick to splinters.  Finally, successful throat swab.  Negative for strep, an outcome that he silently gloats about getting right.

This was almost the opposite experience to my going to the clinic in walking distance to me in downtown Albany.  There, hardy women doctors and nurses ruled the roost.  Waiting, I was the only white patient, and one of the only without a child in tow.  It was there I realized as an underpaid, carless graduate student, I was in certain respects socio-economically “black” in Albany, a much-segregated city along race and class lines.  So much so that the doctor, a well-meaning, white Ivy League grad, not so subtly suggested that I might want to go next time to the affiliate clinic in the ‘burbs, where I really belonged.  She did not seem to understand that I had walked there.  From my house.

These visits, and my search for a new doctor, made me reflect on my history with doctors before Brooklyn, before having my own health insurance.  Well, one thing: I never personally knew a doctor growing up, except the doctor I went to.  (Except for a friend whose Dad was a chiropractor.  But this was in the 80s, when chiropractors were considered quacks.) This may not sound unusual, but its actually one of the defining boundaries of social class that I later came to realize.  When I started at elite small liberal arts college, it was the first time I met people my age whose parents were doctors.  Before then, doctors were like celebrities or movie stars to me: they existed only when I was there to witness them.  Where they lived, I did not know.  One family doctor had photos of boats, his boats, in his office that I would study in childhood boredom.  I also did not know anyone who had a boat, or rode boats for fun, or had occasion to be photographed, over and over, on boats.  Doctors seemed to live on either side   side of that glass, either in their white coat in the office, or in the hot, bright sun, surrounded by polo shirt-clad sons, on a boat.

I remember the fist time car-pooling back to school from Thanksgiving break from Long Island to elite small liberal arts college.  My parents dropped me at a classmate Ellen’s house, from where we would take the ferry and drive back with a few others.  Ellen’s house was one of the houses our family would drive past, on purpose, on a Sunday afternoon.  These drives always took us East and North to the Long Island Sound and its quiet, winding, wooded roads that were the routes to houses variously old or modern.  But big.  And different from ours.  I remember walking into her house and saying, at least with my eyes, if not out loud: wow, your house is so nice. And her just shrugging it off, not rudely, because it was, well,  just her house.  And finding out that her Dad was a doctor.  A doctor!  Was he my doctor? I pictured Ellen on a boat, in the sun.

Only many years later, after I left small liberal arts college out of culture and sticker shock, did I think about my neighborhood, and my neighbors growing up.  They certainly were not doctors.  But what DID they do?  Immediately to my left:  Frank was a machinist.  To me, he was just the man who lived next door, always wore a white tee and jeans.  His wife, Estelle, maybe had the most interesting career on our block.  She was an agent for child actors.  Because of this, I subjected her to unsolicited performances of “Memories” over the fence, hoping to be discovered.  She mostly placed kids in commercials, and had arrived there after her own career in regional musical theater.

Next to them:  Jules was a construction worker/contractor.  His wife, and my babysitter Fran, was a nurse who had not practiced in years, because he did not want her to work.  She grew up in public housing on the Lower East Side and attended NYU for nursing.  Mr. McCann, I knew, worked at Grumman with my Dad. They wore suits, carried briefcases, did things with numbers and not with their hands like Frank and Jules.  Mrs. McCann worked part-time as a waitress at Friendly’s.  My mom was one of the only full-time working moms— a fifth grade teacher for 36 years. My best friend’s parents, who lived about a mile away, were a social worker and teacher. We were solidly middle class, but just a generation away from working class, and living in a neighborhood on the cusp between the two.  We simply did not know people who were doctors and lawyers.

When I finally scheduled my first appointment with a new primary care doctor, it was, not surprisingly, anti-climactic.  The office was located in an industrial park swamped by one identical cinderblock building after another comprising “medical suites.”  My doctor, a competent enough woman at least five years younger than me, made little to no eye contact as she entered my generic answers to generic questions into the new Electronic Medical Records system.  She sat on a stool, bringing a stylus pen to a screen as I lied about how much I smoked, drank and exercised a week (I am cutting down on the first two, increasing the third, I swear.)  The place was spotless, punctual, peopled by friendly nurses outnumbered only by the several admins who seemed more like bar bouncers, ready to gently escort me out if I did not show my insurance card and photo ID on cue.  I was encouraged to use their newly revamped website to stay up to date on my own health and advancements in health in general, and to avoid scheduling unnecessary appointments.  I did not get the sense that this new doctor would invite me to feel a bulbous growth on her own neck.  I have yet to see her again, its been over a year, but I’ve got a name to say to other doctors (and more importantly, their secretaries!), to write on forms, that makes me a more legitimate patient in the modern healthcare system.  But I admit, I miss the apricot preserves, ripped chairs, and most of all, the human touch.

Found a Photo

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I found this photo on my mac today.  I took it more than ten years ago, in Santa Monica, CA.  I went there on a work trip, a young woman in her mid-twenties, single and hard-working.  Tagged on a week in LA to a conference in Palm Springs.  I couch surfed with the brothers of two friends.  The first, in West Hollywood.  I toured Paramount Studios and visited the Getty Museum alone, taking that tram up the hill.  And buses to the tram.  I attended a backyard party with a friend of a friend who was an aspiring sitcom writer.  We hung out at the house of a co-star on Dharma and Greg and everyone I met was an associate producer.  I do believe that friend of a friend fully expected to sleep with me, but I was naive and only realized it after I left.  During that trip I was the young woman in a small group of older, accomplished women in publishing.  We trekked through Joshua Tree Park with not enough water between us.  Wore big straw hats bought at the information center.  Drank whiskey out of tupperware in a seedy motel.  Walked the beach of Venice barefoot and out of breath.

I took this photo and many others.  On actual film.  Washed out by the west coast sun.  In awe of the pastels of California after the greys, browns, and blacks of New York.  I thought there was so much time ahead of me.

Another Person’s Treasure

Everyday—weather permitting—for the seven years I have lived in the Hudson/Park neighborhood of Albany, NY, John and Lisa have been outside, at the southwest corner of Dove and Jefferson, hosting a permanent garage sale.

At first, I bought items from them—a spice rack, a candle holder, too many kitten knick knacks.

John and Lisa in front of their wares. Photo by Jason Spiro

Then, when I hit my “space clearing” stage, I started bringing them wares to sell: a bamboo bird cage, empty picture frames, too many kitten knick knacks.

In my mind, John and Lisa  presided kindly over a tchotchke purgatory, where my stuff did time and grew sun-bleached as I became more comfortable with the habit of letting go. It was a limbo-land where I could still visit my items, until one day they were gone, or I finally forgot to look, whichever came first.

These exchanges began to feel, well, intimate —in part, because of the regularity and proximity—about once a week for a while and just one block away.  I became very grateful for the service they provided and quite curious about John and Lisa, and wanted to know more.  So I asked.

Dove and Jefferson

“Lisa is in charge of knick knacks.  We can’t take furniture because there is no room.  As you can see, I can’t do anything in here now, because she, well, she kinda took over “ John explains, pointing to the cluttered garage.

They tease that this is a big point of tension.  In reality, John and Lisa have been a couple for more than twenty years, and share a playful banter and warm rapport.  (And yes, their’s is a “Winter-Spring” romance; he’s got about twenty years on her!)

When the building that housed his TV repair shop was sold,  John re-located to this nearby garage.  They started selling odds and ends to keep Lisa busy while John continues to buy, repair and sell TVs and other appliances.

Lisa, who, suffers from anxiety, finds being outside with people soothing.  Visiting them recently, her face lights up as she high-fives a neighborhood baby passing in a stroller. Lisa comments, “I know a lot of people by name in the neighborhood.  We’re constantly getting the same people back buying things.”

While we chat, a neighborhood man checks on the “expensive” chair he donated earlier.  John calls him “the lawyer” and says “he’s a badass!”   A bit later, John shoos away someone who wants to buy a vacuum: “I’m not selling that: that’s my own!”

John and Lisa are rarely—if ever—surprised by the items people buy from and/or donate to them. “The uglier the better, ” he quips. The strangest items they’ve received, on more than one occasion?  VCRs with porn still in them!

They sell most items for a few dollars each, with TVs ranging from $30 to $120.  A good day for them on the corner yields about twenty to thirty dollars. The money they earn is “pocket change” or more specifically for Lisa, bingo fare.  She plays bingo regularly in Albany, and has won as much as $1,000 a game on more than one occasion!

John knows some of the items could go for more on Ebay, but that’s not why they do it. “We are people persons. Every single day we are out” says John. Lisa adds that she just likes “being with a bunch of people” and “being able to help people.”  In the past, she has volunteered at Albany Med and the Center for the Disabled. On weekends, she visits with a neighbor whose grandson has Down syndrome.

“I am not making a profit” John mock complains.  I joke that Lisa seems to be earning some money from Bingo.  John says no, she has a problem, she needs to go to Gambler’s Anonymous!

The House-Call

John remembers the exact date and place that they met: it was June 15, 1990, at the site of his former TV repair shop, which was located catty corner to the garage they now rent.

Then, he made a house call.

“She lived on Hamilton. Her live-in boyfriend [at the time] asked me to fix a television.  First thing I said [when I got to their place] was ‘Who do all these oldie records belong to, your father?’ and she said ‘Oh no, they are mine.‘”

Excited to meet someone who shared his passion for music, John brought Lisa to her first concert, Connie Francis at the [now defunct] Starlite Theater. Lisa remembers the invitation, “I had never been to a concert!”  Now they attend concerts whenever they can, frequenting free Albany events like the Alive at Five series in Corning Preserve.

John lived in Rensselaer until age 12, when he moved to North Albany and was a self-professed “instigator” in high school, describing himself as a “sweat hog” a la Welcome Back Kotter. Lisa was born in Berne.  She has spina bifida and has been in a wheelchair her whole life.  John also has spina bifida, but can walk and drive.

Lisa attended Albany City Schools, and left home by the time she was 18. First she lived in housing for the disabled in Schenectady, then, after moving around to several facilities, ended up in the apartment on Robinson Square, where John visited to fix a television  more than 20 years ago.

On Albany

“We live in East Greenbush, but its basically dead over there.  Everything is over here.  We come here for the diversity and the entertainment.  People like you.  People like him (refers to a guy with whom he was just bartering); I’ve known him since he was a kid.”

Occasionally  Albany presents a challenge, though.  For example, recently, John and Lisa went to Quintessence, a local diner and music venue, to see long-time favorite musician Ernie Williams.  But in the end, they could not attend the show: Quintessence is not handicap accessible.  This happens every once and a while when they go to a venue for the first time. A few times, burly men have offered to carry Lisa up stairs, an offer she has declined!

They also explain that it can be tricky just to visit friends’ houses: most have several steps leading up to the door. But overall, Lisa finds Albany a fairly easy city to navigate in a wheel chair, and it helps that John has a car and that she can move herself into and out of the front seat. Even so, the busses, including the STAR, are generally accommodating, and, along with plentiful curb cuts for wheel chairs, the streets of Albany are fairly easy to traverse.

An Albany resident at heart, John professes a love for William Kennedy’s books (and says he knows him from the neighborhood!), reads his Times Union everyday (a print version, and it must be accompanied by coffee); and has spent quality time in Washington Park, often times flying home-made kites.  And, like other true Albany folk, when asked what they could do without in Albany, John and Lisa reply completely in synch: “The snow!”