Monday, September 27, 2010

Naked Cowpeople, Inc.

A few weeks ago, the early fall day sunny and bright, I winced past tourists thronging around the Naked Cowboy in Times Square.  I hadn't seen him for eons (I avoid Times Square).  He hadn't changed:  same white cowboy hat and pointey boots, same thin blond hair hanging to his shoulders, same overly tanned skin, same low hanging white guitar leaving not much to the imagination, same tighty whities, same bulbous body parts.  A new thought occurred to me:  does the Naked Cowboy have a significant other?  There's not enough love in this world and I advocate there being someone for everyone, including the Naked Cowboy.  Last week, I thought I found the answer.  Walking a similarly crowded route through Times Square, I almost mowed down the Naked Cowgirl (she's short, I'm not).  She wore a white cowgirl hat on top of stringy blond hair, white pointed boots, and an itsy bitsy star spangled string bikini stretched over muscles that bulged in a feminine way.  Like her male counterpart, she was remotely past thirty.  Her buttocks, though firm from weight lifting, had sunken into vague ripples of cellulite.  I was pondering the mysteries of being a Naked Cowcouple (do they roll in the hay?), when I saw it:  on the face of her guitar a bumper sticker read "Naked" in professional looking letters.  I wondered: is there more than one Naked Cowboy, more than one Naked Cowgirl?  Maybe there's an entire fleet of out of work Broadway types (the economy has taken a nosedive) who fit the description and rotate through Times Square, taking the money of unsuspecting tourists.  Maybe there's a Naked Cowpeople Inc., with tiny warehouses somewhere in Yonkers that stock all the tighty whities and microscopic star spangled string bikinis? Let's face it, nobody really looks at the Naked Cowpeople's faces (we're too busy gazing southward.) So I have resolved, next time I elbow my way through Times Square, to take a good, hard look at the Naked Cowpeople.  Somebody has to search for truth in this world.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Tonight at Lincoln Center I listened to the Orchestra Filarmonica Bachiana, led by Joao Carlos Martins.  It was an early concert (6PM), set at Brazilian prices ($25 orchestra seats), which was one reason why I went (I had $10 seats).  Sr. Martins came on stage, and the audience rose to its feet.  He had a thick mop of gray nearly white hair, wore an oversized black jacket with tails and sleeves that hung almost to his fingers, and baggy trousers that formed ripples as they met the tops of his shoes.  This man had debuted at Carnegie Hall as a pianist at age 21.  Before age 30, he had played with major orchestras worldwide.  Then, while playing soccer in Central Park (he's Brazilian after all), he had ruptured his ulnar nerve (which ennervates much of the hand).  It would have been a career-ending injury for most people.  But he came back to play at Carnegie Hall eight years later.  During that time, he also recorded the first half of Bach's complete keyboard works.  Seven years later he was diagnosed with repetitive movement syndrome, also a career-ending diagnosis for most people.  Again, he made a comeback, recording the second half of the Bach series.  Ten years later, he was mugged in Bulgaria, leaving him with a skull fracture, brain damage, and the inability to move his right arm.  He underwent rehab, and staged yet another comeback, performing at Carnegie Hall one year later.  Yet his right hand continued to atrophy, and a botched operation four years later made it virtually useless.  In 2002, a tumor was discovered in his left hand.  After that, he channeled his passion for music into conducting, founding the Orchestra Filarmonica Bachiana six years ago.  The group started from bare bones, practicing in a hotel room in Sao Paolo.  This troubled history may, in part, explain Sr. Martins' warm welcome as he walked awkwardly and slowly onstage tonight. 

The concert began with Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Dreaming (which transports me to another realm, no matter how often I hear it), followed by Ginastera's Piano Concerto No. 1 (with pianist Arthur Moreira Lima, a piece new to me, full of the jangled angst of modern life, and the syncopated rhythmns of Argentine dance).  The nasal sshshing and zzzhing of whispered Portuguese accompanied much of the piece, revealing a more social audience than your usual Lincoln Center crowd.  The second half began with another Bach:  Awake, the Voice Commands (soothing after the dissonance of Ginastera).  That was followed by Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras no. 7, and the orchestra played the piece with such heart and emotion that I don't remember breathing.  At its conclusion I leapt to my feet with everyone else, calling for more.  Sr. Martins gently hushed the audience.  In heavily accented English he spoke haltingly in a manner that, though projected from stage, revealed a soft spoken nature.  He said, when I was feeling dark and low, lying in my hospital bed, I turned on the TV.  And playing on it was a movie called "Cinema Paradiso".  And that movie kept me going.  And now I play for you some music by Ennio Morricone. 

That man with floppy gray hair flipped up his tails, sat at the piano, and played excerpts from "The Mission" and "Cinema Paradiso".  I hadn't listened to this music for a very long time, but it had never failed to carry me to a place of love, gentleness, and rapture.  That is where I went tonight when I listened to those songs and remembered what it was like to feel full of passion.  Sr. Martins finished, and we all lept to our feet again, calling for still more.  He played a second encore, playful Brazilian music, then exited the stage drawing first the crook of his right arm, then his left, over his eyes, wiping away tears.  I wanted to rise out of my nosebleed seats, float above the audience, land on stage, throw my arms around this man, and say, thank you.  Thank you!  For being so devoted.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Last Saturday marked the ninth anniversary of 9/11.   I lived in NYC on that day.  I have never written, and barely talk, about it.  After all, no one I personally knew passed away.  More, it is enough to have lived through an event like that, one needn't dwell on it.  But last Saturday I thought, there are children these days for whom 9/11 will only exist in books, and that is how history fades away. So here's my 9/11 story.

It was my first year of medical school at Columbia.  I had gone to morning lecture:  canceled.  I returned to my apartment at W170th and Haven, a high rise for student housing.  I rode the elevator to my apartment on the 20th floor.  I was alone except for a middle aged man who said, a plane just crashed into the world trade center.  Matter of factly, just like that.  He didn't believe himself, nor I him.  I returned to my bedrooom, a 10 x 15 foot converted space separated from the living room by a flimsy wall.  A bay window that looked onto the Hudson and south to downtown dominated my bedroom.  I had placed my bed in the space created by the bay window and each morning woke up to the twin towers.  Even from so far away, they dominated the skyline.  I loved to look at them twinkling at night before I went to sleep.  On 9/11, I stood at that window looking south.  One tower was still visible, the other obscured by thick, black smoke.  My room-mate and I turned on CNN, needing to confirm what we were seeing.  Within minutes, the second tower disappeared. 

I forget what we did after that.  The hours somehow passed.  In the afternoon, I went to the Red Cross on the UWS to give blood, but was turned away.  Too many people had already shown up.  Nobody was at work, except some shop keepers who brought TVs out to the sidewalk, where people gathered round and watched together.  The streets were full of people, wandering and not knowing what to do with themselves.  Cell phone lines weren't working.  The bridges were closed, trains were not running, and nobody could go in or out of the city.  I was trapped but it didn't sink in until the next day.  That night, I woke to a loud sound and thought we were being bombed.  Then I thought it was thunder.  No one else to whom I've talked has confirmed a thunder storm that night.  I put it down to a nightmare and blame my father's influence, who was always preparing for another war when the rest of us naively said, it can't happen here. 

My room mate tried to be a hero.  She went down to the WTC, snuck beneath the barriers, finagled her way into a hard hat, and tried to save people.  She did that for four days, leaving her dusty hard hat and clothes at the door of our apartment.  She was strange after that.  I closed the curtain in my south facing window.  I couldn't sleep with the promise of the wreckage smoldering in front of me when I woke.  It did so for more than a month.  I wandered downtown, to the candlelit vigil in Union Square, past the black clad groups assembling outside of funeral homes.  In mid-October, I wandered alone to the WTC site.  It was barricaded and the place was desolate.  The smoke still feebly escaped from the graveyard the site had become.  I felt entirely alone.  At that time, the world of medicine, that uncaring clinical world, confined me.  That world felt cold, insensitive, sterile.

There are many events that have changed the world.  9/11 is not the biggest of them, but it changed the US, and it changed me.  While the rest of the world played drama queen, and while some Americans used 9/11 as an excuse for biggotry, New Yorkers tried to get on with life.  This year on 9/11, I looked southward through a very different window.  I was at an event for young arists at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and was surrounded by young poets, singers, musicians, and dancers.  The lights dimmed, and two beams of blue light lit up the sky from where the twin towers once stood.  The room grew silent.  The danger now past, and in the company of artists, I no longer felt alone.  And that silence, filled with art's understanding, underlined the difference between my world nine years ago and my world of today.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Little Buddha

It is the tail end of summer.  The City is throwing off summer's languor for a workaday world made bearable by the promise of autumn skies.  A few days ago, I left a perfect cerulean sky and descended into the subway's half light.  The train arrived and I walked into a car, quiet and serene.  It was as if everyone were resting after summer's temper tantrum (here in NYC we have just concluded the hottest summer on record).  I closed my eyes and rested.  After a few stops I opened them to an infant staring straight at me with calm, steady eyes.  He was chubby and sat quietly in his stroller like a little buddha under the tree of knowledge.  He surveyed the car with eyes that held no surprise.  His gaze said, good grief, not another go 'round.  It seemed to me that the soul shepherded in that little body was older than many others riding on that train.  Then he returned his line of vision to me and would not allow me to disconnect.   Some eyes reveal instant connection, a kindred spirit.  Others shield themselves behind a veil of misunderstanding that no amount of explaining can bridge.  This little buddha's showed continuity between past and future, a story already written and one waiting to be composed.