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Separated from loved ones

My husband turned 60 yesterday. For months, we planned a big celebration in the desert. Friends were flying in from Michigan and Miami, three houses had been rented, we had reservations for 15 at Pappy & Harriet’s, our favorite saloon, in Pioneertown. For the out of towners, we had a week’s worth of activities planned: trips to Hollywood, a Dodger’s game, kayaking in the ocean, etc.

Then COVID-19 blew that all to hell.

Cancellations of birthday parties are small potatoes compared to the other consequences of the pandemic — to little things like economic collapse, depression, illness, death. I feel more sorry for all the poor teenagers robbed of their quinceanara parties than for Bud. I’ve been trying to focus on the positive in my writings because 1. there is so much anxiety and alarm out there already, and I feel no need to add to it, and 2. I know my family is incredibly privileged. We and everyone we know are healthy. Bud and I both still have incomes. We have a gorgeous panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean from our living room. Until this weekend at least, we could easily go to Cabrillo Beach — our front yard — and walk the dog, paddle, and swim if we wanted to brave the cold water. When the county shut down the beach Thursday, that was a knife in our hearts. But at least we can still look at it.

So it sucked for Bud that his party got cancelled, or hopefully, just postponed. But we made the most of it. We sneaked onto the ocean in our kayaks early in the morning, and enjoyed a beautiful paddle around Angel’s Gate lighthouse. After all, what better way to practice social distancing than to put the ocean between you and the rest of the world? Afterwards, we warmed up in our sauna, then took a nap. While we were sleeping, gremlins — actually, friends who were supposed to join us in the desert — tacked a big birthday banner to the outside of the house and left Bud a giant bottle of Jack Daniel’s, among other treasures. We made do.

One of the other reasons I’ve been relatively sanguine about life under lockdown was because I took a blow to the heart early in this whole mess, and I had to learn to cope. I was scheduled to fly to Wisconsin to visit my father in early March. A dutiful daughter, I was determined to travel even as flying seemed a sketchier and sketchier idea. Then, the day before I was supposed to leave — March 10, the day my son turned 17 — the nursing-home industry announced new guidelines restricting visitors to all facilities. Three months after I last saw Dad, I had to cancel my trip. I don’t know when — or if — I will ever see him again.

Dad has Lewy body dementia, a form of illness similar to Alzheimer’s but worse. His time left on this planet is precious. When I last saw him, in December, he thought I was his mother, if he “recognized” me at all. But still, he held my hand tight when we watched the Christmas carolers serenade his floor of the memory-care unit where he has been since November. He can’t communicate, or comprehend, but he can smile and sing — and snap and rage. He is still in there somewhere. You can see that in the video his wife sent of them singing “Happy Birthday” to Cole. At first he doesn’t understand what’s happening, but as Judy keeps going, his face fills with happiness and he tries singing along too. I played it for Bud yesterday.

It breaks my heart to think poor Dad can now  see no one but his caretakers at the nursing home, that these relative strangers feed him, clean him, dress him, put him to bed at night. He may not have known me, but he always smiles when he sees Judy and their standard poodle, Roi. He hasn’t felt the sun on his face in months and sleeps alone every night — if he sleeps, which he often doesn’t. It’s a terrible fate for the man who has always been there for me, through scraped knees and graduation and marriage and divorce and children.

I am desperate for this to be over, so I can see my father again. Once that’s possible, I’ll be on the first plane to Appleton. I pray he can hold my hand again. People who die of coronavirus die alone, because they are not allowed visitors. The separation of families during the time we need them most is one of the worst aspects of this terrible moment in time. Scott Simon wrote a powerful piece about this “consequence that’s harder to categorize” for NPR’s Weekend Edition on March 7.

I understand, of course, why nursing homes can’t allow visitors. I know it’s for the greater good, including my dad’s health. So I made my peace with the terrible cost of COVID a few weeks ago — weeks that already seems like an eternity.

Still, when I’m looking out on the Pacific, the ocean that my Dad grew up on and loved, I’m thinking about him.

 

 

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When life gives you lemons

It’s an era of firsts, and Sunday, I did a couple things I have never done before.

1. I pruned a lemon tree.

2. I climbed the lemon tree in our backyard.

If these seem like trivial feats, let me tell you about our lemon tree: Thorns that seem to be made out of steel stick more than an inch out of the bark. They hurt just to look at. It’s an ornery old tree with gnarled limbs and thick-skinned fruit that Eva Gustavson, the opera star who lived here for more than 50 years, dubbed “stingy.” It’s also our biggest tree, and it’s kind of what the French call “beautiful ugly.” We have never seriously trimmed it in the three years we have owned this property.

So Sunday, I went to town. The tree’s canopy was thick with dead branches that were so dry I could snap them off. Old lemons were rotting on the branch, and some of the leaves had black and white blight. I’m the kind of person that when I start a job, I go deep, so I literally got into that tree. Along with the decay, there were also green shoots and pink and ivory flowers. It smelled delicious. I snapped twigs and clipped branches and knocked moldy fruit down. By the end, my arms were scratched and bleeding and my foot, still recovering from its summer injury, ached.

But the tree looked liberated. No longer crabbed and cranky but open and green and full of light.

No this is not a metaphor. People are not branches. But we live in unprecedented times, and should celebrate noble firsts.

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Don’t blame the kids

Swing set at Cabrillo Beach

Sign of the times.

When Cole was a kid, we used to play a game on the swingset. I’d push him a little bit higher with each push, and each push represented a stage in his life.

“Now you’re being born” set the swing in motion.

“Now you’re a toddler learning to walk and talk” and his feet left the ground.

“Now you’re going to your first day of kindergarten”; feet in the air.

“Now you’re in grade school.” A little higher.

“You’re in middle school.” Higher still.

“Now you’re a moody teenager in high school” and his feet were as high as his head.

“Now you’re an adult and you’re going to college.” Toes topped hair.

“You’ve graduated and you’re working your first job.” Or some days I’d say, “You’re going to graduate school.” And he’d fly above my head now.

“You’re married and have your own family” and Cole was basically flying on his own now.

Sometimes the script would be different. “You’re a world traveler.” “You’re a millionaire.” “You’re a veterinarian saving animals’ lives.” “You’re President!”

As he got older, Cole took over the game. I would always start, but by the end he’d be pumping himself, imagining his own future as he aimed his feet to the sky then finally hurtled himself into the air, landing on the sand, laughing.

This was our special game, one we loved so much I bought him a T-shirt that celebrated it, a white drawing of swings and a child flying through the air on a soft gray fabric, made by a local artist.

Today, the swings are closed, the playground roped off with yellow caution tape.

So please, stop blaming the kids.

The youths you see out trying to do what young people should be doing — living, laughing, loving, having fun — they didn’t create this mess.

Yes, they should stay inside as much as possible. Yes, they should be staying six feet apart, minimum. Yes, binge drinking in clubs during spring break is not, and never was, a good idea.

But what kind of world have we given the next generation: A world where they can’t play with their best friend? Or pet a cute dog? Or hug their mommy when she comes home from a long day of saving lives at the hospital? Where the playground looks like a crime scene?

The kids didn’t stick their heads in the sand — or cash in their stocks — when all the world’s scientists were warning of a critical health crisis.

The kids didn’t lie that there were plenty of COVID-19 tests when there were not, because they know that liars’ pants catch on fire.

The kids didn’t fail to have enough face masks, hand sanitizer, and respirators ready to be released from the national emergency stockpile because with or without the Scouts, they know to be prepared.

Even the kids know better than to shake hands and stand shoulder to shoulder with a group of people at a press conference at which you declare a national emergency.

Almost three months after the Chinese government first notified the world of a new virus, the kids didn’t fail to pass even one piece of legislation guaranteeing free virus testing, health care, protective health gear and mandatory paid medical and family leave for all, because they know that if their life paths have to be interrupted by this natural crisis made immeasurably worse by an incompetent government, they at least need their mommies and daddies to be home with them, without losing their jobs and incomes.

Don’t blame my kid if you see him driving the car he bought with his own money for the 17th birthday whose celebration was robbed from him by shelter-in-place advisories. He may not be able to drive to school, or to work, or to Knott’s Berry Farm, or to his friend’s house, but at least he can drive.

Don’t blame the kids riding their bikes, or skateboarding — why do we always blame the skateboarders? If we cared about their health as much as we care about us olds, we’d remember that kids need exercise, fresh air, and sunshine, and kids need to play.

Not everyone has backyards.

And please, don’t blame the kids for spending a LOT of time playing video games. What else are they supposed to do?! Online, they can chat with their friends. Online, they can shoot the bad guys who helped get us in this mess. Online, they can play.

Kids need to play.

Don’t blame the kids. They didn’t create this sick world and elect the people who head its greatest power.

If you look out your window and see the kids racing by on their wheels, their feet, or their imaginations, and you are seeking someone to blame, look at the face reflecting back at you, and think about what that person should be doing to give the kids back the lives we promised them.

For an excellent article on the long-term effect of closing schools on kids during the ebola crisis, read Robert Jenkins’s Los Angeles Times op ed published March 13, 2020.

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Turbulence at the Rock Hall

Black History Month Spotlight: Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston is the only woman being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 2020.

In her 1998 piece Turbulent, Shirin Neshat juxtaposes two videos. In the first, a man in a white button-down shirt stands in front of an auditorium of other men. He turns to face the camera and sings a work by the Persian poet Rumi, accompanied by string instruments that are not filmed. It’s a powerfully emotive performance – a series of ululated exclamations — rewarded by a round of applause; the man takes his bows.

In the second, a woman in a black hijab stands in front of an empty theater and softly begins moaning. The camera rotates to her face slowly. She sings wordless scales, with the only accompaniment the amplified echo of her own voice, panting and bell-like and screeching – a one-woman emotive cacophony. When she finishes, there is no applause. There is no one there to clap.

Turbulence answers the old riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? The woman, Iranian vocalist and composer Sussan Deyhim, makes a mighty sound – as have the other women, across time and space, who have sung their songs in the privacy of their showers, their bedrooms, their walks, their woods because no one could, or would, hear them. Neshat was directly commenting on the fact that in her birth country of Iran, women were not allowed to sing in public after the Islamic revolution (they now can sing only in limited circumstances). But I see the bold, disturbing binary depicted in Turbulent as relevant across cultures.

How many little girls have been told they should be seen and not heard? How many aspiring musicians have auditioned for A&R men – and they are almost always men – only to be asked to trade their bodies for a contract? How many women have gotten past the casting couch only to be told they’re not skinny/pretty/pale/soft/sexy enough? How many were kept off the airwaves because only one woman was allowed on the playlist – because (as one country radio consultant infamously said) they were the tomatoes in the salad, not the lettuce? How many were allowed to be representatives of feminine beauty, but only for one song, one year, before they were deemed too old? How many were recognized for the innovations – the genius — that made them not necessarily popular, but pioneers? How many are saluted as legends? Are in the Songwriters Hall of Fame? Are in the Rock&Roll Hall of Fame?

We can answer the last two questions: 31 songwriters, or 7 percent of the total body, and  — as of today’s announcement of the class of 2020 – 140 artists, or 7.68 percent.

The halls’ omissions are striking. I do not think they accurately correlate to the successes of women in music, though that’s a hard thing to quantify. They certainly do not correlate to the efforts and effects of female musicians, to the percentage of women in the world, or to any known genetic link to musical talent. What they do represent are the gendered tastes of the mostly male nominating and voting bodies that make these decisions. They are today’s version of the Shriners or Masons: bro’ societies devoted to self-perpetuation. They are patriarchies.

Which makes it all the more offensive when they insist their decisions have nothing to do with gender or race, but only with quality (as both Rock Hall Foundation CEO Joel Peresman and former Rock Hall Board chair Jann Wenner have recently said). When they say that, they tell us that Chaka Khan, Big Mama Thornton, Cher, Labelle, the Go-Go’s, Bette Midler, Celia Cruz, Selena, Bjork, Dionne Warwick, Pat Benatar, etc., etc., are not actually good, but are just women. They add insult to injury.

The halls didn’t necessarily erect the obstacles that have historically kept sisters from achieving the fame and fortune of their brothers – though many of the industry insiders who created and run the halls certainly did work for companies infamous for sexual discrimination. But by repeatedly inducting only a puny, token number of acceptable ladies, they enshrine those gags – and then say they were earned.

Look outside the industry. In your home, in your schoolyard, in your gym, around your campfire: who makes the music? Who sings the songs?

And who is listening?

Turbulent is included in Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again, an exhibit currently at the Broad museum in Los Angeles, https://www.thebroad.org/shirinneshat.

You can read my previous writing about the Rock Hall here:

https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8543758/rock-roll-hall-fame-gender-racial-diversity-guest-opinion-evelyn-mcdonnell

https://longreads.com/2019/03/29/the-manhandling-of-rock-n-roll-history/

https://www.salon.com/2011/12/11/the_rock_hall_of_fames_women_problem/

 

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Rock Hall Keeps Getting More Male and More White

NOTE: THIS POST HAS BEEN CORRECTED TO STATE THAT FOUR PEOPLE OF COLOR ARE IN THIS YEAR’S INDUCTEES.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced the 2020 inductees this morning. The good news is both Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. are included. The bad news is Houston is the only woman among the 23 people honored (including the non-performer honorees), and she and Biggie are two of the only four people of color. That means 4.34% of this year’s class is female, and 17.39% is POC. Cumulatively, that means the Rock Hall continues to get less diverse by race and gender: 7.68% of the total number of inductees is female, down from the already depressing 7.77% of 2019. For POC, that’s 32.4%, down from 32.77%.

These results should throw down the gauntlet for new Rock Hall Chair John Sykes, who has said that increasing the hall’s diversity is his top priority. He will have to take strong, decisive actions to reverse this steady decline.

Stylistically, the lineup is slightly more diverse than in some years, including T. Rex, the Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails. Chaka Khan was snubbed once again — a fact I consider an outrage. The only other woman nominated, Pat Benatar, was also passed over.

Thanks to LMU graduate student Marika Price for crunching the numers.

You can read my previous writing about the Rock Hall here:

https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8543758/rock-roll-hall-fame-gender-racial-diversity-guest-opinion-evelyn-mcdonnell

https://longreads.com/2019/03/29/the-manhandling-of-rock-n-roll-history/

https://www.salon.com/2011/12/11/the_rock_hall_of_fames_women_problem/

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“Music Legend”

Somehow I never posted this article about me from a British music school, which may be one of the nicest things anyone has ever written about me. Definitely the first time I’ve been called a legend.

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Steve Cannon Heckled Because He Cared

I heard Steve Cannon’s voice before I met him. “Read the poem! READ THE GODDAM POEM!” His heckles were a key ingredient of the brand-new slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1989. They sounded like the disgruntled, impatient curses of a drunk – which, okay, they were – but they were also so much more. Steve did not suffer fools silently. He shouted at hapless literary wannabes stumbling over lengthy introductions to their work not to silence them, but to remind them why we were all here — to hasten them to their point: poetry. It was all about the goddam poem.

Steve played the part of the crank, the jester, the barfly. He used his growing blindness as a mask; there was a sort of barbed minstrelsy to his jeers. But he was actually a deep, generous spirit. He heckled because he cared. His lasting legacy is the way he opened his mind, his home, his heart, his wallet to all creative spirits who joined him on The Stoop. The Stoop was exactly what it sounds like: the steps up to his brownstone building in New York’s Lower East Side. Every New York denizen knows the culture of the stoop: the passageway in and out that becomes a hang, especially on days when either the sun beckons you out, or the heat inside is so oppressive you have to get out.

Steve was all about community: He had a permanent stool amid the collaborative space of the cooperatively run Nuyorican. He gently pushed and prodded the think tanks of the salons Stray Dog and the Stoop. The name of the magazine he founded and edited and the gallery that subsequently took over his home says it all: A Gathering of the Tribes. (A poster of the first cover, featuring art work by David Hammons, hangs on my office wall.) In the midst of the heyday of identity politics, Steve wanted us to all to think outside of our boxes.

Sadly Steve is not remembered as much for his own fiction, plays, and criticism, though his 1969 novel Groove, Bang and Jive Around is a cult classic. Once he lost his vision to glaucoma, it was hard for him to write. He relied on others to transcribe and edit his dictations, which were necessarily freeflowing and rambling. How else was a blind, elderly artist supposed to compose? Many people generously donated their time and energy to help him with his scripts, his gallery, his publication, his finances, his health, his life. It was no easy task. Steve always seemed to be on the brink of disaster, of losing his home (which he did, eventually, despite numerous individual and collective efforts to save Tribes), his sanity, his life. He lost the last battle July 7, at age 84.

Steve appreciated creativity and identified and nurtured talent. He was an explorer who encouraged the experiments of fellow black outsiders such as his friends and colleagues Ishmael Reed, Hammons, David Henderson, and Butch Morris. A then unknown poet who spoke directly to Steve’s sensibilities by not messing around with intros or theatrics and just plain-speaking his dense, punning verses won that first series of slams at the Nuyorican, and I can’t help but think that Steve’s heckles somehow, subtly, influenced the judges. Steve became one of future Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty’s first mentors and publishers. Paul was one of many writers and artists Steve pushed and prodded, including Willie Perdomo, Carl Hancock Rux, Sarah Ferguson, and myself.

I was with Paul when I last visited Steve at Tribes about six years ago. It had been several years since I moved away from Loisaida and the literary scene I was once immersed in, but he greeted me like I had never left. He held my hand tightly, introducing me to all the friends and interns and hangers-on and proppers-up in the room – Steve always traveled in a pack – asking me many questions about my work, my husband, my son, my life. He was the most kind and caring heckler you could ever know. The poet Bob Holman has called him, aptly, “the great connector.” For Steve, it was about the work, not the personal trappings. He wanted everyone to cut the crap and just speak their poem, their truth.

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