Saturday, December 29, 2012

Remembering Vanessa

Woman I can hardly express,
My mixed emotion at my thoughtlessness,
After all I'm forever in your debt,
And woman I will try express,
My inner feelings and thankfullness, - from "Woman", John Lennon

Each man's death diminishes me, - John Donne

I heard the news today, oh boy! My friend Vanessa passed away on December 26th.

A good friend even though not really really close. Real.  Because after living in the USA for nearly 20 years, she is one of only three American friends I've made here. Three American friends in 20 years. Some feat Van, as I am not the easiest person to get on with, and New York City is not the friendliest town out there.

But Van and I "got on", despite differences in cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and religious beliefs. I like to think that is because we "knew" each other. And that sort of knowingness does not come often in this life and is to be valued. Yep, we were on the same wave-length.

So this posting is short. Vanessa contibuted to "Letter From New York" over the years in comments (mostly anonymous) and in a couple of postings under the pseudonym of "Jaded New Yorker".

2012 has been a bloody awful year. Let's hope 2013 will be better.

In memory of Vanessa I close my last posting of 2012 with my brother Tim's poem. Tim who also died of lung cancer (give up the cigs folks!), and who, like Vanessa, believed in the hope of peace and love.

beetroot to yourself
lettuce all get along
Bean so good getting to know you
Peas to you and all of your family

Friday, December 21, 2012

My Friend Chris

The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play
Through a meadow land toward a closing door
A door marked "nevermore" that wasn't there before - Henry Mancini

I don't have a photo of Chris. I searched my albums and though I can see many of his friends, and certainly his good mate, my brother Tim, Chris seems to have somehow always avoided the camera's eye.

I first met Chris in the heady days of the seventies when he was a wine-drinking hippie. With his olive skin and thick dark curly hair, I always thought he belonged on a Greek island lying under an olive tree drinking a rough red, instead of hanging out in rainy old Melbourne.

Whenever I meet up with Chris he's always got something philosophical to say about the world. Sort of hippie-sounding stuff but slightly off. Or should I say more politely, creative.

One thing about Chris, he practices what he preaches. Life is to be enjoyed.

In the eighties when he was helping my brother out renovating houses. Chris would do the bathroom tiling, and this fitted in with my view of him as a younger version of  Zorba the Greek.  According to Tim (featured left when he was a child - but more on children later) one day Tim couldn't be at the house they were renovating, and the owners were at work, so Chris turned up solo.

Like all Juliffs, Tim liked to embellish, so take this with a grain of yogurt ... On arriving at the house, Chris took a look at the bathroom and decided to take a break. He wandered around the house and spotted the red wine collection. A glass wouldn't hurt, he thought, and opened a bottle, then sat on the deck in the sun, contemplating life and how both good and bad the world is. The bottle finished, he went back inside and found another. Then came his Goldilock's routine. Being by now somewhat sleepy, he surveyed the bedrooms, and finding the master bedroom the most inviting, thought he'd have a little lie down. And promptly fell asleep holding a now half empty bottle of wine.

Eight hours later the owners arrived home from a hard day of work, eager to see their newly tiled bathroom. Instead the discovered, lying  on their bed - a drunken hippy, snoring contentedly with a smile on his face. The wine of course had been a Grange...

I phoned Chris last night to wish him happy Christmas, and he explained the state of the world to me in his usual knowing Chris-style.

I told him I'd just come upstairs from my building's Christmas party for children. I'd rolled up at around 6:50 pm (it officially ends at 7) and Santa was just about to leave. "Ho ho ho!" he told the little kiddies. "I am off to the elevator to the roof to check o my elves," and off he went. "Bye bye Santa," the little Manhattanites called in their polite Upper East side Manhattan kind of way.

Santa had barely gone and suddenly a down elevator arrived full of a new batch of two year olds with parents in tow. It was still 10 minutes before the advertised  Santa departure time, and their parents had been busy changing them from their their nursery school clothes into party wear. Wide-eyed with faces of wonder that only little children can express, they rushed into the party room looking for Santa.

I have to give their parents' credit. As the little one's faces dropped their moms and dads knelt down to explain that Santa is a VERY busy man and had to go to lots and lots of places, not just in New York but all over the world, so they mustn't cry because it was a GOOD thing that he was looking after as many children as he could.

The children hung around, looking wistfully at half eaten cookies that the early birds had left behind. They'd been anticipating the Santa party all day. No longer wide-eyed, they stared downward at the floor.

"How old are you?" I asked a pretty little girl with a woebegone face. "Nearly two," she answered. And then, remembering her manners, "Happy holidays and it is nice to meet you."

Of course the parents were furious, because after all, they had arrived during the allotted time. But like their kids they put on brave faces.

I told Chris the story. "God, how Dickensian!! That's terrible! That will affect them for life! One of them might grow up to be a mass murderer!"

"CHRIS!!!" I screamed! He remembered himself. "Yeah,. that was the wrong thing to say Kate. I am SO sorry. Christ! Why did I even say that?"

So that's Chris for you.

He later told me he'd given up drinking. "Not smoking though," he added, "a man's gotta have something."

He might have given the grog but somehow my inner image of Chris will always be of him propped up under an olive tree, or snoring in a yuppie townhouse owner's bed, clutching a bottle of red and trying in vain to work out what makes this bloody world tick.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Being a Holiday Person

Please turn up sometime around 4pm. At 5pm we will hand out presents (for children only please) from under the tree. The tree symbolises mother nature and her abundance, the presents symbolises the triumph of advertising and the petrochemical industry. To honour the fact that Jesus didn't restrict his diet to kosher food we will be offering a curry dinner. This will be served at precisely 6 pm. Latecomers may chose to sit on the front porch till the meal is over. This is to recognize the 40 day fast in the wilderness when Jesus was tempted by the devil. After eating we will drink wine and talk. This is to acknowledge the legend that Jesus liked drinking wine and talking with his friends. -  Invitation to Christmas Dinner,Tim Juliff
New York Guy Celebrating Hanukkah
I'd seen them several times earlier in the day. A bunch of young guys dressed in varieties of Santa Claus inspired gear, some sporting antlers, others waving fake holly. They were frolicking around the streets of  Upper East Side New York, Leunig-like - a joyful procession of party people joined together hand-in hand like a happy antithesis  of Bergman's Dance of Death.

Around three in the afternoon I bumped into them for perhaps the fourth time, waiting at traffic lights on the corner of 88th and Second.

I smiled at them and asked, "What are you celebrating?"

"Hanukkah," they shrieked.  "Happy holidays," I replied.

 Unlike many people, I have no problem with saying Happy Holidays". It's almost natural to me now. In fact the other day when I was asked, "Are you a 'holiday person'" I answered with a decided "No" - thinking of course that the person meant did I like the December holy days. In fact she meant did I object to "Happy Holidays" over "Happy Christmas".

Growing up atheist in a single parent family in Australia in the fifties, Christmas was a time to dread. Christmas Day especially. The three of us, Mum, Tim and myself would sit forlornly around the table eating roast chicken - each of us trying to put a bright face on it in order not to upset the other two. One Christmas Day, when we were a bit older, my mother, having a sense of humour most would be generous in considering "dry", served up one hamburger with plastic holly on top.

Dance of Death from Bergman's "Seventh Seal"
Melbourne, in fact all of Australia, was outwardly mono-religious back then. Saying you were not a Christian was like saying you were a communist, or worst still, an aborigine.In fact, so deeply ingrained in me was Christian Christmas and its associated cultural side-effects that I didn't even 'get' the scene in the 1970's  Woody Allen "Hannah and Her Sisters", where Woody buys white bread and mayonnaise when he decides to convert to Catholicism.

So I love it here in New York when the December greeting is "Happy Holidays". I DO however draw the line at "holiday trees". What's wrong with "Christmas trees"? That's what they are, aren't they? Why else would people put dead trees in their living rooms and decorate them with glitter and stuff. And no one suggests we call Menorahs "Holiday Candles".

Menorah at Café D'Alcase
Still it's a small price to pay, living in a city where you are not assumed by the very fact that you are white and alive, that you are religious, let alone atheist.

I can ignore the store musak and the pretty lights. On Christmas Day we are eating Indian.  And the 1950s are 100 years ago! Praise the lord!

So turned off was I by the 1950's idea of Christmas that I brought my children up without any explanation of what it was supposed to signify. And I realized I had succeeded as a parent when my daughter, aged around six, asked me,

"Mum, was it Christmas or Easter when they crossed him up?"

Happy holidays.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Expat's Exit

With apologies to the bard

New York is just a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And each one in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

At first the distant viewer,
A-wonder and bedazzled by the city's movie charms.

And then the tourist, with backpack
And admiring morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly back home.

And then the new resident,
Sighing with rapture, with emails full of wonder
Sent to those back home.

Then the seasoned dweller,
Full of stressful oaths and complaining life's too hard,
Grasping for money, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking success and reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth.

And then the critic,
With the back-chat speech of Big Apple chic,
With eyes fatigued and clothes in shades of black,
Full of wise cracks and sneering references;
And so he plays his part.

The sixth age shifts
Into the departing expat,
With boarding pass in hand and carry-on on side,
His innocent views, now jaded, a world too wide
For his tortured mind; and his long-lost native voice,
Returning again to thoughts of home,
And the serenity of life past.

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is the parting journey home and mere oblivion,
Sans stress, sans hype, sans wonder, sans everything.