Sunday, July 20, 2014

Smile on a Summer Night

Somewhere amidst all the noise, I heard music.

I was sitting in my dentist’s chair last week with my head cranked back and my mouth wide open while Dr. Cohen went about cleaning the old ivories.

No cavities, thank God, and in just a few minutes I would be out in the world enjoying the gorgeous summer weather.

But above all the whirling and sloshing I could hear someone singing. Was I imagining things or had my dentist been working on a ventriloquist act in his spare time?

“I have often walked down the street before but the pavement always stayed between my feet before…”

Wait a minute. That’s “On the Street Where You Live,” a lovely song from My Fair Lady. It seems my dentist has music playing in his office, but he keeps it so low—and I am apparently so clueless—that I had never heard it before.

And I like this tune so much that I was tempted to ask Dr. Cohen to hold up his noble work until it was over. But I kept my mouth shut--even though it was open.

Tomorrow” from Annie was next and while I’m sure many people are sick of this tune, I still enjoy its positive message and rousing delivery.

We were just wrapping up when “Put On A Happy Face” from Bye-Bye Birdie came on. The timing was excellent and I was more than happy to oblige seeing as how my chompers were sparkling clean.

Dr. Cohen told me to come back in six months, better known as the dead of winter, and I wished him well as I headed for the door. It seemed like such a long time off…

On the way out I ran into an elderly couple coming in for their appointment. The woman was using a walker and her husband was struggling to climb up the front steps.

Stick Out That Noble Chin

This poor man’s legs were so terribly twisted that I have no idea how he made it up the stoop to the front door. I offered to help him, but the nurse assured me that she had it under control.

Later that day I was sitting in Shore Road Park, soaking up the sunshine and trying to decide what I wanted to do that night.

No fixed plans…nobody seemed to be doing anything…maybe I’ll just stay in and watch some tube. I could feel myself slipping into the comfort zone once again.

And then I thought of that elderly couple at my dentist’s office. They were once young and active before time and illness had done their relentless work.

Now they have virtually no choice about where they can go or what they can do. I am certainly not young, which means I have no excuse to sit on rear end on such a fine night.

I jumped on the computer and looked around for things to do. There was a concert and film showing in Prospect Park after which I could have dinner at a nearby Colombian restaurant that I had been meaning to try.

Screw the tube; I was going to have a night filled with music. Gypsy guitarist Stephane Wrembel was the opening act, followed by the Alloy Orchestra providing the music for a showing of the Lon Chaney silent film He Who Gets Slapped.

Then I was off to Colombia in Park Slope on 5th Avenue, where I enjoyed my dinner to the sounds of Edwin Vazquez.

I was feeling good. Yes, I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely. I felt like I was part of something. Just listening to that great guitar music and enjoying this fabulous food—it was a perfect summer night.

There’s not much we can do about encroaching winter or growing old. We just have to get out there, enjoy life, and put on a happy face.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Worlds in Motion

I’m always on a subconscious search for pleasant memories of my late parents.

I’ll be sitting around, reading or looking at TV and suddenly some random bit of the past will pop into my brain like a hot slice of toast.

I recently recalled a scene from my childhood and even though it’s only a fragment, I think it says a lot about my parents’ personalities.

This was about 50 years ago. (Good God...) I remember sitting in our living room with my dad watching a horrendous Italian science fiction flick called Battle of the Worlds or Il pianeta degli uomini spenti.

The movie starred Claude Rains, one of my favorite actors, in his final movie role.

While he worked in television for a few more years, I have to say that it’s a shame that Rains, who did such tremendous work in Casablanca, The Invisible Man, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to name a few, should have such a howling dog on his resume. But you do have to pay the bills.

So we’re watching the movie when my mother walks in and sees Claude Rains on the TV screen.

“Oh, Claude Rains,” she said sadly. “He just died.”

“He should’ve died before he made this,” my father said without missing a beat.

And that’s it. That’s all I remember about that particular encounter. But it tells me so much about my mom and dad.

On the one hand, there’s my mother, sympathetic, touched by the passing of such a talented man.

She’d often express sorrow when she learned that some actor or actress from her generation had died.

Being a child I didn’t really get what was going on there, but now that I’m older and seeing more and more of my favorite actors cropping up in the obituary pages, I understand my mother’s feelings completely.

My mother cried at news stories and old movies, even the occasional commercial. She sold life insurance at the old Lincoln Savings Bank in Bay Ridge and one time a man came into the bank to collect on a policy for his son who had been killed in a car accident.

'Here Are Your Winnings'

The heart-broken father began to cry and my poor mother began to cry right along with him. She told me later that she was embarrassed at breaking down in front of a client, but I said she had showed this grief-stricken man that he was dealing with a human being, not some soulless corporation.

“It’s the bank with a heart,” I said, shifting into smart-ass mode.

And then you have my old man: sarcastic, cynical, and, at times, quiet funny. A veteran of World War II and a career salesman, he had seen plenty of crap as a soldier and as a civilian and he wasn’t afraid to say so.

One time he and I were watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite—the late Walter Cronkite—and the venerable news anchor was reading a story about a beloved local mailman in some small town.

Milo Schleishenmuncher was always there when people needed him…” Cronkite began.

I had no idea where he was going with this story, but my dad saw it instantly.

“Ha!” he snorted at the screen. “Who’d he rape?”

It turned out that Milo had been arrested for hoarding tons of the town’s mail in his basement.

But I hadn’t seen the punch line coming, unlike my father.

Instead of getting to straight into what had happened, Cronkite backed into the story, a technique I later used myself as a reporter.

Last week, I decided to watch Battle of the Worlds again after half a century and it was worse than I had imagined.

The special effects were appallingly cut-rate, even by Sixties’ standards, the acting was dubbed and dreadful and the dialog was atrocious, with lines like “most things happen unexpectedly, even the apocalypse!”

I can’t believe I spent nearly 90 minutes of my life solely to track down this episode from my childhood. But it was such a pleasant memory I couldn’t help myself.

Perhaps my dad was a bit harsh about Claude Rains, but I prefer to forget this clunker of a film and remember this fine actor walking into the fog with Humphrey Bogart in the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I guess the best way to go through life is to borrow a little bit from both of my parents: take my mother’s kindness and empathy and mix in a portion of my father’s cynicism and humor.

And that’s the way it is.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

'The One You Feed'

There’s this Native American story about an old man explaining the facts of life to his grandson.

We all have two wolves fighting inside of us, the old man said, one is evil, filled with anger, greed,
self-pity, and arrogance. The other is good, representing joy, peace, love, and kindness.

“Which wolf will win?” the boy asked his grandfather.

“The one you feed,” the old man replied.

I had a serious run-in with my evil wolf on Saturday and I fed that bloodthirsty canis lupus everything from soup to nuts. And I do mean nuts.

I got out of bed with a bad attitude. I’ve been having some kind of trouble with my upper back. Apparently I pulled a muscle and if I move a certain way I get zapped with a bolt of pain that makes me even crankier than usual.

From there I stumbled through a series of boneheaded misconceptions that stirred up a massive thundercloud of vile emotions that threatened to overwhelm a beautiful sunny day.

I’m going on vacation in a few weeks and I somehow became convinced that there was something wrong with my plane reservation because I hadn’t received a confirmation email. Panic set in as I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a flight now.

A few frantic calls to my bank and the airline confirmed that, yes, nitwit, I had indeed purchased the tickets nearly a month ago.

Next I called my auntie at her farmhouse in the Berkshires, something I do every morning, only this time I kept getting dumped into voicemail.

I became more agitated each time I called, as I imagined all sorts of horrific scenarios. She had fallen down the stairs; a rabid grizzly had blasted the front door off its hinges; those perverted hillbillies from Deliverance had invaded her house and were making her squeal like a pig.

“Call me back,” I said as huffed up to my gym, “or I’m calling the cops!”

Werewolves of Brooklyn

I could barely enjoy my gym class as my wolf brain created increasingly terrible images of my auntie’s (fantasy) distress. And every time I made a wrong move my shoulder sent amber waves of pain through my body.
I checked my phone as soon as I got out of the cardio class and saw a message from my auntie.

She had gone to breakfast with her friends earlier that morning, which she had told me about on Friday and which had slipped clean out of my head.

Then it was on to the dry cleaner, where I tried to pick up my shirts even though I couldn’t find my ticket. There was only one problem: the owner couldn’t find any shirts belonging to me.

Did I forget to bring them last week? I go through this ritual nearly every Saturday so maybe I just thought I had gone there last week.

But the owner had recently given my shirts away to another customer. I got them back, but I was a little nervous for a few days, so I don't really consider this fellow the most trustworthy guy in town.

I think there’s a good chance that I didn't leave any shirts there and as I walked out I decided this would be a great time to find a new dry cleaner.

I go† home and prepared for my favorite pastime: laying out on my keester in nearby Shore Road Park. All the bad stuff from the morning was behind me and nothing could possibly go wrong now.

And then it did.

As I got my stuff together to go down to the park, I realized that I didn’t have my bottle of sunblock. I’d rather avoid sunburn and other, more serious ailments, so I started looking around my apartment. And looking. And looking. And I was getting loonier with every passing second.

There Goes the Sun

I usually keep the sunblock in a rather packed hallway closet, but there was no sign of it there.

Anger has this way of sneaking up on me like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Even though I’m thoroughly pissed about something in the present moment, the dark wolf of my subconscious will drag up all sorts of ugly memories so that I get even angrier.

I don't want to jackass to the store and buy more sunblock, I growled, my fangs starting to show. And I'm missing all this beautiful sunshine.

I finally gave up, realizing that I was in no state to look for anything. I dug out an old bottle of sunblock and squeezed that sucker until it coughed up the last few blobs of goop.

I went out last night in a semi-successful effort to reclaim my sanity.

This morning I got up with a little less pain in my shoulder and a determination to keep my emotions in check. I ate breakfast, watched Joel Osteen, and got my gear together for another trip to the park.

And just for the hell of it, I walked over to the hallway closet, moved some stuff around on the top shelf, and the bottle of sunblock came tumbling down like Santa Claus chimney-surfing on Christmas morning.

A peaceful, satisfied feeling came over me and I could almost hear my good wolf licking his lips.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

All Booked Up

I thought everything was fine until I threw my book into the freezer and discovered that I had stepped into a steaming pile of tsundoku.

Perhaps I should explain.

On the way home from the gym yesterday, I passed a table covered with used books that had been set up outside a local secondhand store.

Keep walking, I told myself, you’ve got books at home that you’ll never read.

This is painfully true. There are stacks of used books all over my computer room and boxes of them in my closets.

Hell will freeze over and Satan himself will be handing out ice cream sodas before I ever get to them all, but I can’t seem to part with any of them.

Knowing this, you’d think I would’ve kept going yesterday, but I couldn’t resist. I’m always amazed at the excellent books I find for a fraction of their original price.

I came across my all time favorite novel, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, at a secondhand store more than 25 years ago, and that book has stayed with me ever since.

Kesey's writing is so powerful it’s like a creative writing course you can hold in your hands—and it only cost me 50 cents. So ever since then I’m constantly on the lookout for another great literary find.

I did a quick review of the books on the table, decided there was nothing there for me, and turned to leave.

And that’s when I saw Strivers Row.

This is the third in a series of connected books by Kevin Baker, the author two fantastic historical novels, Dreamland and Paradise Alley.

Published in 2007, Strivers Row reimagines the early days of Malcolm Little, who would later become Malcolm X. I had heard that this novel did not stack up to the two earlier works, but I wanted to complete the series.

When are you going to read this? My cranky old conscience demanded. You’ve got tons of novels and God only knows how many freaking self-help books to plough through. You can barely get through the Times every day.

Still, I didn’t want to leave the trilogy hanging. The book was only a buck and I promised myself I would leave it in the cafeteria at work for my coworkers to read the second I finished it.

My Back Pages

Now the only problem with second hand items, books included, is that you can have unwanted guests coming home with you in the form of horrible little insects.

I’ve heard that putting a book in the freezer overnight is the best way to exterminate these little bastards, so Strivers Row got the Big Chill treatment the minute I got home.

With that out of the way, I decided to check my emails and saw that I had not yet read Rob Brezny’s Astrology Newsletter, which had come in day three days earlier.

This was unusual, as I always read Brezny’s weekly horoscopes the minute they come over my digital transom.

I won’t and say I believe the stars are controlling my life; I just like to cover all possibilities. And I enjoy Brezny’s positive attitude and fine writing style.

Then I started reading.

The Japanese word ‘tsundoku” describes what happens if you buy a lot of books but never read them, leaving them piled up in a neglected heap,” my horoscope read. “I recommend that you avoid indulging in ‘tsundoku’ any time soon, Gemini.

In fact, my horoscope urged me not to indulge in any kind of tsundoku for the immediate future.

You are in a phase of your cycle when it's crucial to make conscientious use of your tools and riches. To let them go to waste would be to dishonor them, and make it less likely that you will continue to receive their blessings in the future.

Oh, great. I had just unwittingly given the Zodiac the finger.

I’ve got clothes I haven’t looked at in years, a DVR about to bust like a piƱata with unwatched movies, and a Netflix list that has reached critical mass.

I’m tsundoku-ed up to my eyeballs.

But I didn’t intentionally ignore my horoscope. I just kind of neglected it. Is astrological ignorance a legitimate defense?

The issue got even more star-crossed today when my sister stopped by to drop off some birthday gifts from my niece, Victoria, and my sister-in-law, Amy.

Opening up the package I found a little gnome statue, which means my niece has not forgotten her vow to make me pose for a photo in a gnome hat when I visit her in Colorado.

One of the gnome’s legs was broken—thank you, Post Office—but I glued it back into place and now the gnome is as good as gnew.

There was also a felt pen with the head of a lion—hand woven in Nepal, according to the label.
And-Holy Tsundoku--another book!

But this wasn’t just any book. This was a little item called How to be Happy, Dammit! A Cynic’s Guide to Spiritual Happiness.

Now the crazy thing is that I once owned this very book—for about two hours.

I had won it at a friend’s holiday party about five years ago. But I left it at the friend’s apartment and then we lost contact, so I never got my book, dammit!

So now it’s back in my life. Surely this kind of crazy karma packs enough goodwill to overrule any brand of tsundoku.

Let us hope so. I’m going to move How to Be Happy, Dammit! to the top of my reading list with Strivers Row in the number two slot.

I’m also going to work on giving away my old clothes, slow down my DVR-ing and strive to keep the Netflix list in check.

And when my horoscope comes in, I’ll make sure it’s the first thing I read.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Driver’s Seat

I climbed into the back seat of my ride and got comfortable.

I just had come from an appointment with my nutritionist and I decided to reward myself
by taking car service home instead of waiting for the bus.

It’s more money, sure, but the driver takes you right to your front door and you don’t have to worry about some mutant coughing all over you, hitting you up for change, or trying to save your soul.

Yeah, I thought as snapped on my seat belt, this was a good idea.

And then the music started.

Oh, cut me a break, buddy, will you? The driver was playing some kind of Middle Eastern music that was slicing right through me.

Bay Ridge has seen a large growth in its Arabic population over the years, with some wags sarcastically calling it “Beirut.”

There are mosques in the neighborhood now, women in hijabs are a common sight and it seems like every other store on Fifth Avenue is either a hookah joint or a Middle Eastern coffee shop.

It’s certainly much different from the place where I grew up, but neighborhoods have always changed and they always will.

Still, I was tired and I resented this invasion of my moving personal space.

This is bullshit, I harumphed. I’m paying for this ride, damn it. I shouldn’t have to listen to anything I don’t want to hear.

I thought of the very few times in my life when I had ridden in a limousine. The drivers always asked me what I wanted to hear, not what they felt like playing.

The last time something like this happened was several years ago when my sister and I took our father to see Riverdance at Radio City Music Hall.

All's Fare

On that night the same car service driver took us into Manhattan and back to Brooklyn and during both rides we had to suffer through the ravings of right wing radio psycho Michael Savage.

I’m still regret not telling that schmuck of a driver to turn off the goddamn radio and get back on his meds.

And now I was in the same situation all over again. I wasn’t just annoyed at the driver, I was also angry with myself for not setting this guy straight.

Then I took a deep breath. I recently completely an 8-week mindfulness meditation course at the Interdependence Project in an effort to go through life just a tad less insane.

One of the concepts we discussed in the idea of loving kindness, where you develop compassion for all people and not just the people who look and think like you.

I could feel my shoulders coming down as I took another deep breath. Instead of stewing about this strange music or giving the driver a hard time, I decided to try another approach.

I was going to talk to him.

“What is this music?” I asked.

“It’s the Call to Prayer,” my driver said. “You know, like when the church rings the bells? This is same thing.”

Okay, so we found some common ground here. We talked a little bit more before the driver pulled up in front of my place. I wished him a good night, gave him a couple of bucks for a tip and went up to my apartment feeling pretty good.

I hadn’t backed down, given in or surrendered. I tried to open up a line of communication and in the process I learned a little bit about another culture and a lot more about myself.

I still don’t think drivers should play anything in the car when they’ve got passengers, but I’ll gladly take the Islamic call to pray over Michael Savage any day of the week.

I always talk about how I want to improve my health. Well, I think controlling my temper and trying to find the best in people is an important step.

It takes a lot of energy to keep that chip on my shoulder and I’d much rather put it down.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ask Dad

On the last day of the third grade, my teacher, Sister Joan Bernadette, thought so much of me that she gave me a huge stack of baseball cards.

She had confiscated them from one of my classmates during the
school year and apparently thought I was so well behaved that I deserved a reward.

I really wasn’t well behaved so much as terrified to step out of line.

And I didn’t even like baseball cards, but I enjoyed getting free stuff and I was pleased that my gutlessness had paid off in some small way.

I raced home to show the bounty to my father and somewhere in the conversation I let it slip that the cards had originally belonged to a classmate named Sal who just happened to live down the block from us.

“They’re Sal’s cards?” he asked. “Well, then you have to give them back.”

I was floored. What was my father talking about? Give them back? Oh, hell no. These were my cards now. A nun, one of God’s emissaries on earth, had given me this prize, which was the next best thing to having the clouds open up and getting the cards handed to me straight from the Big Guy Himself.

I wasn’t about to give them up.

But my father insisted and so, on that beautiful June day, we walked down Senator Street to Sal’s house and rang the doorbell.

I vaguely remember holding out the stack of cards and offering them to Sal, a feat of acting that should have gotten me a special Academy Award.

But Sal wouldn’t take the cards; he said they were mine to keep. And I felt good walking back to our house, knowing the baseball cards were now officially mine.

I was grateful to Sal for his noble gesture, but on this Father’s Day, as I look back on that incident, I’m even more grateful to my dad for showing me the importance of doing the right thing.

It's All in the Cards

That probably sounds a bit trite, especially is this vile era, where all manner of scheming scum are elevated to heroic status. However, I’m glad my father showed me the importance of caring about others and earning rewards honestly.

Recalling the good times I had with my dad is no easy task. We butted heads a lot and toward the end of his life we have some very rough exchanges indeed.

My selective memory is ruthlessly efficient in conjuring up the misery, but those same churning brain cells suddenly go on the fritz when I try to recall the golden moments like that day in the third grade. I’m beginning to think that this says a lot more about me than it does about my dad.

Once when I was a just little kid my father returned to the house to get something he had forgotten. On his way back to his car, he stopped to lean down and give me a kiss.

“You see?” he said. “I had to come back because I forgot to kiss you.”

Now my dad was an Irishman and a salesman, so he could toss the malarkey around in his sleep. But that little fib made me like I was the most important person in the world.

And there was the time when I was sitting on my father’s lap as he called his customers on the phone. While he was on hold, he gently rocked me back and forth and sang this old song “Who's your little who-zis?”

“Who’s your little who-zis?” he sang. “Who’s your turtle dove?”

“Me!” I interjected.

And that’s how we did the whole song. For every question, the answer was always “me!”

Those old baseball cards are long gone now and I supposed that if I had held on to them they would be worth a fortune today.

But their value pales when compared with that priceless lesson my father taught me on that beautiful day in June.

Happy Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Feel the Power

The message was right there in front of me, floating above the stream of hot air that blew through my fingers.

Feel the power…

I was walking up 69th Street last week when a total stranger suddenly crowded into my space.

“Hey, how you doin’?” he said.

I was momentarily surprised, but then I looked closer and saw that this guy wasn’t a stranger at all.

He was one of my buddies from the gym. I see him every flipping week.

He’s a big, beefy fellow with a crew cut and thick glasses, someone who most definitely sticks out in a crowd. Yet I had no idea who he was until he was right on top of me.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I said a bit embarrassed. “Sorry I didn’t recognize you.”

“You were lost in thought,” he said, gently dismissing my concern.

We chatted for a few minutes and then I told him to have a nice day.

“You made it better,” he said, and went on his way.

That was a very nice thing to say and I made a note to pass his kindness along.

But I was still upset at being so out touch that I hadn’t recognized this man as he walked down the block in broad daylight.

I was lost, all right, but it wasn’t anything like thought. I was wallowing in a fog of daydreams, confabulation, and just plain fantasy that had taken me far, far away from the real world.

And it’s happened two more times since then, with both encounters occurring at my local supermarket.

The first time I was walking through the dairy section when a guy stepped up to me.

“Hello, sir,” he said.

This man turned out to be a friend of mine whom I haven’t seen in a while, as he had gotten married and recently became a father.

Once again, I had completely blitzed out from the known universe.

Friend or Foe?

The last—and most embarrassing—incident happened a short time later in the same store—what the hell is it about Key Food anyway?—only this time I was in the fruit and vegetables section.

I was making my way toward a pile of apples when a woman inadvertently stepped in from of me. But I felt like playing the victim.

Oh, great, I internally harrumphed, she’s gotta come over here at the same exact time I do.

I did a little two-step around her and began helping myself to the apples.

And that’s when this lady looked right at me.

“Oh, hi!” she said. “We were in the meditation class together.”

I stopped and looked—really looked this time and saw that, yes, we had indeed been in the meditation class together.

That was the eight-week class at the Interdependence Project that was designed to make us more mindful, more present. And I had somehow managed to walk right by this woman without seeing her.

I could make the excuse that I didn’t recognize these people because they were in a different place than I’m normally accustomed to seeing them.

But that’s all it is—an excuse. They had all somehow managed to see me in these unusual surroundings.
Obviously I can’t expect the class to totally rearrange my brain. It was a great experience, I learned a lot about myself, and I met some wonderful people—even though I have trouble recognizing them.

But mindfulness is a lifelong practice.

The author Peter Matthiessen, who died in April, was a Zen priest, and he once said that “if you are truly aware of five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well.”

I haven’t reached the five-minute mark yet. I’m not even close, to be honest.

But I’ve had these little breakthrough moments when I can see the Promised Land, when I am standing squarely in the present moment, not wallowing in the past or worrying about the future.

The most dramatic moment occurred in my gym a few weeks back. I was washing my hands while my mind pinballed all around my head, getting angry over one thing and fretting over another. It was complete chaos up there in my skull.

As I felt the blast of hot air hit my hands, I told myself to get mindful on the double. And when I looked down I saw three words written across the drier that summed up the whole mindful experience for me.

Feel the power.

Yes, exactly. Feel the power of being in the moment, of breaking free of all the junk that clogs your mind.

Feel the power of finding yourself after being lost in thought.