Sunday, March 22, 2015

Crossing Paths

I didn’t see the well-to-do up and down Park Avenue, but last week I almost collided with a first class schmuck on that famous thoroughfare.

I was on my way to a meeting at Fidelity Investments’ midtown office at Park Avenue and 51st Street in an attempt to get a reading on my finances.

I’ve had an account with them since 1980 and while I’ve been making annual contributions to my IRAs I had no real handle on their worth.

I had been relying on my brother, who had worked at Fidelity for years, to manage my money.

But he left the company a while ago so now I was trying to make some shaky steps towards adulthood before senility sets in.

I have to confess that my knowledge of my holdings is shockingly limited. When it comes to any discussion of this topic I tend to go into full-on Butterfly McQueen mode and wail, “I don’t know nothing about managing no mutual funds!

This had to change. Two weeks ago I met with my bankers at JP Morgan Chase and now it was Fidelity’s turn.

I got permission to come in a little later on Wednesday morning, took the express bus up Madison Avenue and walked over to Park on a morning that was much colder than it should’ve been. But I was determined to shake off the bonds of dependency and denial and take on the mantle of maturity.

And then some prick walked right in front of me.

I was stunned. This--this…putz came strolling out of an office building on 50th Street pulling a wheeled suitcase behind him. He looked healthy enough, though apparently his peripheral vision must’ve been on the blink because he crossed my path as if I were the Invisible Man.

Are you shitting me, pal?

This bum was in his sixties with perfect white hair, wearing an immaculate blue suit, and wielding an attitude that could burst the top off a steamer trunk. He was heading to the curb presumably to hail a cab or climb into a limo.

White Spats and Lots of Dollars…

I couldn’t believe it. Is it possible that this douchebag hadn't see me coming up the street? Was he completely unfamiliar with the phrase “excuse me”?

I pegged him as banker-broker One Percenter parasite who had been born with silver spoon in his brain and didn’t deign to recognize people who made less than six figures and didn’t go to prep school.

“Nice going, asshole!” I muttered.

I kept on walking, wondering if I should’ve yelled louder. Or maybe I should’ve crashed into the idiot just to show him what it feels like to be ignored.

I’m just some faceless peon who doesn’t deserve any respect because I take a bus instead of a taxi? Bite me, Rockefeller.

That would’ve been quite a scene: two middle-aged men brawling all over Park Avenue over some imagined insult.

The whole point of this expedition was to hang with the grownups and now here I was acting like an aging juvenile delinquent.

And to be honest, Suitcase Boy might’ve been genuinely distracted and wasn’t aware that he had invaded my space. God knows I’ve been guilty of that myself.

But even if he was a self-centered dick—and I’m pretty sure he was—there was no reason for me to join him.

I reached the corner of 51st Street and locked eyes with a man who was just crossing Park Avenue. I stopped and bowed slightly.

“After you,” I said.

The man nodded his thanks and proceeded. That’s all I want, I thought, just a little respect.

My meeting at Fidelity was embarrassingly informative as I learned that I know next to nothing about my savings.

Over the weekend I received two packages of financial information from my bank and my broker, which means I have a long overdue appointment with reality.

I want to increase my knowledge of my financial affairs so I can enjoy a stress-free retirement. Then some day I can strut out of a Park Avenue building and people can get the hell out of my way.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Dad Project

I was standing in the men's room line during intermission at a theater in Union Square last week when I had this flashback to a terrible fight I had with my father when I a young man.

It happened nearly 40 years ago and yet it came popping back into my head like a poison mushroom.

I was getting ready for school one morning when my father came walking in the bathroom without knocking—something he did quite often.

I got angry—something I do quite often--we both started yelling at each other and then it escalated to a point where he was lunging at me while I started smashing karate chop blows to his face. It was horrible.

My mother was right in the middle of this hideous confrontation, as she usually was, the poor woman, and I would give anything to undo it. But failing in that, at least I’d like to stop replaying the goddamn thing.

My sister, auntie and myself had gone to see the Irish Repertory Theater’s production of Da by Hugh Leonard, which I’m sure helped resurrect this particular nightmare.

The play tells the story of an Irish writer who is visited by the ghost of his recently-deceased adoptive father.

My sister and I both thought the hero’s father was a bit of lightweight when compared with our experiences, but in view of the play’s subject matter I guess it’s not surprising that I had a ghostly experience of my own.

There was a time when I would’ve grabbed hold of this foul recollection, held it close to my heart, and either relived the rage or withered in shame at the memory of my past deeds. Either way I would have done a real number on myself.

Curtain Call

But this time I did something quite different. As soon as that nasty encounter came roaring toward me like a runaway train, I took a mental step away from it and silently announced the incredibly obvious.

“That’s a bad memory,” I told myself.

Yes, I know, instead of Da, this sounds more like Duh! It’s about as profound as saying water is wet.

But I’ve never made an acknowledgment like this before. I always blindly accepted the painful past until it polluted my present. This was just a bad memory—and nothing more. Why relive it?

It wasn’t real, it wasn’t happening anywhere except in my head. By actually naming this demon I was able to rob it of its power over me.

Isn’t it amazing what great ideas you get while waiting to go to the can?

My subconscious mind has an incredible ability to dredge up the ugliest memory at the most inappropriate times, but if I can just keep calling them out, naming these mental mirages for what they really are, I think I’ll be a much happier fellow.

I’ve embarked on yet another self-help effort that I call “The Dad Project,” where I rewire my memories of my father.

Whenever I recall something unpleasant about my dad, I deliberately search through my brain for a pleasant memory of my father and play that one in my head. It’s a conscious effort to change the way I think.

I know I did have good times with my father. I just have to work a little harder at recalling them. It's like unscrewing a faulty light bulb from its socket and replacing it with a good one.

If I keep this up, I’ll be shining brighter than a theater marquee on opening night.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Let It Go

“Every time we say ‘I must do something’ it takes an incredible amount of energy. Far more than physically doing it.” –Gita Bellin

I pressed the buttons on the MetroCard machine Friday and watched as absolutely nothing happened.

I had just struggled through a herd of cattle-minded commuters to get down the stairs at the Courtland Street R station—and all for naught, or so it seemed.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” I said much louder than I should have.

I was cold, tired, and extremely fed up. It had snowed the night before, the temperature had dropped accordingly, and I was so goddamn sick of winter.

I was doing a very good job of feeling sorry for myself when I heard a voice coming from behind me.

“That happens sometimes when it gets cold,” the voice said.

I turned around, embarrassed by my outburst, and saw a rather heavyset middle-aged woman standing before me. Between having my vision impaired by my hood and my mind clouded by self-pity, I just plain didn’t see this lady standing so close to me.

I went to a second machine, repeated the refill ritual, and everything worked perfectly. Now I felt like a real dope, losing my cool in public like that.

And the thing is I had just come off a great day where things had gone insanely right for me. It started Wednesday evening when I heard the weather report warning of heavy snow for Thursday morning.

I go to my gym on Thursday morning and I couldn’t possibly miss my beloved boxing class over a damn blizzard. This was an outrage!

But then at some point I was able to step outside of myself and see that I was getting far too upset over a potentially missed gym workout. There were plenty of chances to take a boxing class on Friday if I felt the urge.

Put 'Em Up!

I suspect this insight came from my daily meditation, which helps to tone down the laser light show in my brain. Whatever the reason, I just decided to let my worries go.

And then everything fell into place. I got to the gym with no problem whatsoever and had a fantastic workout. I pumped on the battle ropes, hit the weights, and a great time in the boxing class.
When it came time to go one-on-one with my instructor, I was on fire. I couldn’t believe how much energy I had.

And better yet, a couple of guys in the class whom I hardly know were suddenly striking up conversations with me. It was crazy.

At one point during the class I actually asked God to help keep this fire burning in me—even when the rains come.

I’m slowly learning the difference between letting go and giving up. Letting go means you free yourself from the worries and pressures of your goals, whereas giving up means just that—throwing in the towel, walking away, and surrendering without a fight.

Stepping outside of yourself is so important. One time during class I was trying to balance myself on the BOSU ball when for some odd reason, I started thinking of this wonderful woman I had dated and then lost due to my various hang-ups.

“You’re a loser,” this voice inside my head said.

Seriously. This how I talk to myself.

But instead of being crushed and hurt by those harsh words, I was able to distance myself from this senseless self-loathing and see that the hateful voice was an old recording that had no place in my present life.

I don’t want to use the word “breakthrough” because I think you can put far too much pressure on yourself by declaring that you are now cured of all that ails you. But I do feel like I’m making some progress here.

So my little freak-out with the MetroCard machine on Friday morning didn’t mean I was a failure. It was merely a minor misstep.

I thanked the woman who had helped me and told her to have a nice day. I was all ready to emotionally bash myself for not being more like her, but then I shifted my point of view a little.

This woman wasn’t here to shame me; she was here to guide me, to show me a better way of living. Wasting time getting upset with myself just delays my journey. It was time to let go and get the fire back.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Street of Dreams

It was the same old song, only now it was completely different.

I was fiddling around on YouTube the other day and I wound up going back in time and reliving some personal history.

I was listening to a block of songs by Bobby “Blue” Bland, a fabulous blues singer whose name I had known for years, but whose work had only recently caught my attention after I saw The Lincoln Lawyer and heard Bobby singing “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” over the opening credits.

Bobby does an excellent job with this song and it really sets the mood for the film.

I felt like I should know the song and the singer and the fact that I didn’t know either one sent me scurrying straight to the Internet.

YouTube was only too obliging, hooking me up with one Bobby tune after another. The standouts include “Members Only,” “I Ain’t Gonna Be the First to Cry,” and “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me).”

I felt like an explorer discovering a lost civilization. Yes, obviously millions of people know Bobby “Blue” Bland and my so-called “discovery” was strictly a one-person affair. But that’s the power of great music—it makes you feel as if it’s been written just for you.

And then a song called “It’s Not the Spotlight” came on and I stopped everything I was doing.

If I ever feel the light again shinin' down on me,
I don't have to tell you how welcome it will be…

This tune sounded really familiar. I was almost certain that I had heard it before, but I didn’t know where or when.

I felt the light before, but I let it slip away,
But I still keep on believin' that it'll come back some day…

This was so strange. I knew nothing of Bobby’s work, so how could I possibly know this song? I decided to poke around to see where I might have come crossed paths with this tune. And then I remembered.

Feel the Light

I first heard Rod Stewart do “It’s Not the Spotlight” on his 1975 album Atlantic Crossing. I was a freshman in college back then and this was one of the first LPs I ever bought.

Bear in mind that this was a record—not a CD or a download, but an actual vinyl disc. And I loved it so much.

The album is divided into a fast side and slow side and in addition to “It’s Not the Spotlight,” the recordtracks also includes “Three Time Loser,” “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” and a slow version of the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine.”

Back then “It’s Not the Spotlight” was not my favorite track by any means. I didn’t dislike it. I just didn’t think that much of it.

But that all changed when I heard Bobby’s version. No disrespect to Rod Stewart—I’m a tremendous fan—but Bobby really owns this song.
And the lyrics resonate with me much more now than they did with my younger self. The singer talks about feeling the light again as he hopes he’ll reunite with his lost love.

It ain't the spotlight,
It ain't the candlelight,
It ain't the streetlights,
Of some old street of dreams…

The line about letting the light slip away is particularly painful because this guy lost a beautiful relationship—something I can certainly relate to—and that, despite all this hopeful talk, he will never again see the light shining in his lover’s eyes.

The song was co-written by Gerry Goffin, the one-time husband of Carole King, with whom he co-wrote some of the biggest hits of the Sixties, including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “The Loco-Motion.”

Their story is dramatized in the Broadway show Beautiful, which my sister and I saw last year when our aunt from California came into town.

The play depicts Goffin as a talented but troubled man who is constantly sleeping with other women. Carole King finally gets fed up and divorces him and I’m wondering if Goffin wrote “It's Not the Spotlight” after he realized how much he had lost.

That was quite a ride I took, traveling back to the Seventies, bouncing over to Broadway and coming back to the present.

It was long walk down the street of dreams.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dust Up

I made a real ash of myself last week.

I got caught looking by Ash Wednesday. The day just blew right by me and not only did I forgot to get ashes on my forehead, but I also ate a turkey sandwich for lunch in flagrant violation of the no meat rule.

I can’t believe it. Eight years of Catholic school, a lifelong Christian, observant parents and I still treated one of the most important events of the year like it was just any other hump day.

I had no idea what was going on until the late afternoon when I saw a guy coming out of my gym with the telltale mark on his forehead.

“Hey, brother,” I said, “is today Ash Wednesday?”

He gave me a look that seemed to say, “why, no, schmuck, I like to smear black dust on my forehead just for shits and giggles.”

“Yes,” he said with more than a trace of annoyance.

I still had plenty of time to get my ashes, but by then I had already eaten meat and that took all the value of out going to church for me.

And what makes this all the more frustrating is the fact that I had all kinds of meatless alternatives to choose from in my refrigerator—fish, veggie burgers, and a pile of green peppers.

I tried to shake off my disappointment. Hell, I thought, you’re never going to make the short list for Catholic of the Year even if you dove headfirst into a pile of ashes five stories deep. What’s the big deal?

But this oversight really bothered me. My mother was always so happy when we skipped meat for the day and so I do it to honor her memory as much as I do it to honor God.

Except for this year.

Part of the problem stemmed from being isolated. I was working from home that day after being laid low by a particularly nasty allergy attack, so I didn’t see any other people with their ashes.

…then the Devil Must

And Ash Wednesday came early this year, so I was caught off-guard.

But I don’t want to make excuses. Let’s just say that I plain forgot and leave it at that.

Now I don’t think God is going to strike me down with a lightning bolt for my thoughtless behavior—at least I hope not. And I’m not worried that my old grade school nuns will climb out of their graves and chase me down Broadway jabbing at my keester with their pointers. At least I hope not.

No, but I feel like I missed an important ceremony that marks the beginning of Lent.

The idea of returning to dust may sound like a downer, but it’s really a reminder to live your life, to reject your old, destructive ways, and believe.

And I actually like wearing ashes. I’m so uptight most days, obsessed with keeping my head down and not being noticed.

But on Ash Wednesday, I proudly walk around town with a cross-shaped blotch on my forehead. I’m glad to stick out, happily displaying my beliefs to the rest of the world.

So now I’ll have to wait until next year. If nothing else, I feel like this screw-up has gotten me thinking more about the meaning and importance of Ash Wednesday. In previous years I may have just gone to church without really thinking about what I was doing.

And I’m hoping that both the Good Lord and my mother will forgive me and give me another chance to get this right.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go to my calendar and draw a big red circle around December 25th.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Left-Handed Mitzvah

I did a mitzvah for a Marine last week and I almost missed it.

For those of you who don’t know, a mitzvah is a good deed, and this particular good deed—as minor as it was—also helped me atone for an earlier misstep.

I was pulling my cart through the snow on a recent Sunday morning for my weekly shopping routine. I don’t remember much of what was going on, quite frankly, because my mind was wandering all over the place.

Maybe I had zoned out because shopping is one of my least favorite things to do, or it’s just a habit that I’ve fallen into, but whatever the reason, I was barely in contact with Planet Earth.

The snow had clogged the sidewalk down to a narrow path near the corner of Third Avenue and I was dimly aware of an older woman walking toward me.

My mind was still tossing around one random thought or another as I stepped aside to allow the woman to go by first. As she went by she gave me the loveliest smile.

“Thank you!” she said with such enthusiasm.

That shook the cobwebs off my brain. I was barely aware of her existence and yet here she was thanking me profusely for just moving a few inches to the left. As my dad liked to say, I made a mistake and did the right thing.

And then I saw a man behind her on a scooter—presumably her husband—bringing up the rear.

He was wearing a veteran’s cap and a jacket with a U.S. Marine patch. This man also gave me a smile and said something that I couldn’t quite make out, but it sure sounded friendly.

I was holding my cart with the right hand, so I raised my left and gave him a Benny Hill style salute.

I could only imagine what my father, a World War II veteran, would have said if he had seen that crappy gesture.

Bad saluting was one of his chief complaints whenever he watched a war movie on TV—that and the ridiculous battle scenes where one GI with a .45 takes out the entire Third Reich.

Say ‘Cheese’

But I felt like I had to do something to acknowledge this man’s service to his country and a substandard salute was the best I could do on such short notice.

I’m grateful that some part of my mind was functioning enough that I was able step aside when I did. Sometimes I’m so clueless that I’ll blunder right in front of people and while it may appear rude, I’m really just on autopilot.

And this little encounter took me back to the Memorial Day weekend when I went to Ground Zero last year for the first time since 2001.

It was eerie walking around this spot where the towers once stood. The last time I was this close the buildings were in flames and moments away from collapsing.

Now there are two memorial pools in the towers’ footprints and the names of all the victims are etched on bronze plates around the parapets of each pool. Some of the victims’ loved ones had places white roses in the names.

There were people from the armed forces all the over the complex. As I stood there, just looking around, I saw a young Marine taking a picture of his wife and two young children standing before one of the pools.
I just watched blankly, barely in the moment, and it didn’t occur to me until I was riding the bus home that I should’ve have offered to take a picture of the Marine and his family together—you know, a family photo.

But I was too busy spinning my mental gears to even notice.

This oversight irked the hell out of me for several days. How could I be so obtuse?

Yes, I suppose he could’ve asked me to do the honors, but if I had been paying attention I would have saved him the trouble of approaching a stranger in a strange city.

And I know I would’ve gotten something out of making the offer, too. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but kindness is a gift best given without being asked.

So I’m glad I stepped aside for that veteran and his wife. I’m glad I gave him that salute, as lame as it was. I’m glad I made the mistake and did the right thing.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Kid Gloves

This never would have happened in Hawaii.

I lost a glove this week and I can’t help thinking that if I had gotten that job in Hawaii that I had interviewed for last year I wouldn’t have lost my glove because I wouldn’t have been wearing gloves in the first place.

I also wouldn’t be wearing scarves, parkas, ski caps, boots, long underwear or any of the other several tons of crap and equipment that I have to wrap around myself if I so much as contemplate exiting my crib.

No, if I had gotten that Honolulu gig, I’d be wearing flowered shirts, white shorts, and sandals while cheerfully guzzling exotic tropical drinks and leering drunkenly at comely young tourists.

I’d have a tan to beat the band and I’d be happy, oh so incredibly happy, as opposed to miserable frozen wretch that I am now.

I’d almost lost one of these gloves a year ago while doing a stay-cation, but I found it at my gym the following day.

I lost it again on Tuesday at my gym, but two kind ladies at the front desk held it for me and I reunited the wayward glove with its mate.

But on Thursday I lost if for real, or as my boxing instructor likes to say, for real for real. Even the gym ladies can’t help me now.

It happened somewhere along my evening commute, either on the walk up Broadway to the bus stop, or on the bus itself. I didn’t realize anything was wrong until I off the X27, reached into my pocket and came away with a handful of nothing.

You feel so stupid at times like this. How could you be so careless? Why weren’t you paying attention? Now all you have was is the useless survivor as a nagging reminder of what a first class dope you are.

I’ve got at least three other pairs of gloves so it’s not like I’ll be staggering out into the Artic Circle with frostbitten stumps where my fingers used to be.

But I’m not one to let myself off the hook easily.

I was having a particularly rough morning at the gym on Thursday as I did a round of mitt work with Abby, my boxing instructor. He always gives us a hard time, but I was really tanking during this round.

It’s Not You…

I couldn’t get out of my own way. Abby was hitting me at will, I was missing easy shots, and I heard one of my buddies say, “relax, Rob, relax!”

But it wasn’t happening. That bum round haunted me for the rest of the class, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop blaming myself for putting on such a lousy performance. At the end of the class I approached Abby to confess my sins.

“I didn’t do so well today,” I said.

“Oh, that was me,” Abby said. “I changed up the routine on you today. Remember, it’s never you guys. It’s always me.”

I was suddenly vindicated. I didn’t have to beat the crap out of myself after all. Hell, that’s Abby’s job. I went to the office and actually had a pretty decent day.

Until I lost my glove.

All right, I thought. That’s that. Put it behind you and get on with your life. You’ve got far more important things to worry about.

And I really believed I had gotten over the lost glove, but that night I went to bed and slipped face first into a full-on fiasco of a dream.

It started with me and my sister going to Manhattan together; or at least we were together until I got on the train and realized that I had neglected to take my sister with me.

I get off at some alternate reality version of Times Square, angry with myself, of course, for leaving my sister behind.

I came upon a crowd of people moving all these boxes and crates around. I took off my parka to help them out, and when the stuff was cleared away, all the people had vanished and I saw my parka had disappeared, too.

I was stunned at my own foolishness. Why the hell did you take your coat off in a crowded area like Times freaking Square? You’re going to freeze to death, you loser.

So once again I had to berate myself—even in my sleep. I woke up so thankful that my parka was still here to keep my butt warm.

I’m going to keep a close eye on the replacement gloves and an even closer eye on the self-condemnation, which only serves to make a bad situation worse.

And I sincerely hope my next dream takes me to Hawaii.