Sunday, May 01, 2016

Rocky Road

One night in 1976 I saw a sneak preview of Rocky at a theater on the Upper East Side.

I was a sophomore at Hunter College, which was 10 blocks away, and I’ll never forget how the crowd went berserk when Rocky Balboa knocked down Apollo Creed after being smacked around the ring for most of the first round.

It was one of my favorite movie moments of all time.

Yes, Rocky was a simple underdog story, but it was so well done and the characters were so memorable that the familiar plot didn’t bother me at all.

Forty freaking years later—I keep doing the math hoping I’m wrong--I sat down to watch Creed, which tells the story of Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, Adonis Jackson, who gets Rocky, now long retired, to train him.

I was so psyched to see this movie I couldn’t wait to order it from Netflix. It had gotten excellent reviews and there’s nothing I enjoy more than a good boxing movie. Or at least that’s how I used to feel.

But a lot has changed in the last four decades. As I watched this intelligent, likeable young man climb into the ring, all I could think about was the brain damage he was receiving every time he took a punch.

What the hell is wrong with you, I thought, sounding a lot like my mother, you’re going to get killed!

From what I could tell, Adonis is hardly living in poverty, and the idea of following in his father’s footsteps is disturbing given how his father ended up in Rocky IV.

His mother warns him against a career in boxing, telling him that she had to help Adonis’ father up the stairs in his home when he was too battered to do it on his own. But the kid still wants to be a fighter.

Let me just say right here that I think boxers are fantastic athletes and I have tremendous respect for what they do. It takes an incredible amount of courage, dedication and skill to climb into the ring.

The Long Count

However, I can no longer see boxers as heroes; I see them as victims, men and woman who suffer irreparable damage to please a bunch of tough guy wannabes who live vicariously through the athletes' real pain.

I’m older now and I know how fragile the human body really is. Despite how strong or tough you think you are, your brain can’t take constant battering. Look at the growing number of retired football players who have been diagnosed with dementia.

When the fight is over, the crowd will leave the arena, the folks at home will pick up the remote, and the fighter will be left to suffer alone.
I remember watching fights with my dad on TV and invariably one of the commentators would gush on about how tough one of the combatants was for taking so many blows to the head.

“Bullshit!” my father would snap. “Ten years from now he’ll be cutting out paper dolls!”

And yet we continued to watch and I still watch boxing, kick-boxing, and mixed martial arts bouts to this day, even though I know these people are destroying themselves.

Like everyone else watching these bouts, I conveniently ignore that ugly little fact.

On Tuesday I switched on one of the sport channels and started watching a repeat of a fight between John Duddy and Luis Ramon Campas, which took place on September 28, 2008.

The fight was a classic and I hate to say this, but it was like something out of movie. Duddy was the hot young prospect, Campas was the relentless veteran and these two went at it for 12 serious rounds of amazing action.

But, of course, it wasn’t a movie with actors throwing fake punches at each other. These were real people and they are likely to pay a terrible price for their career choice.

At the end of Creed, Adonis Jackson is told that he has a future in the light-heavyweight division.

It’s supposed to be a compliment, but all I could think about were all the other fighters who had received similar praise during their careers who ended up cutting out paper dolls.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Big Shoulders

And then Doug came walking in.

I met Doug during a nightmare hell flight back to New York from Chicago on Tuesday when my magic happy pills, which normally dull my terror of airplanes, suddenly and mysteriously went south and left me conscious and alert whilst I was 5 miles in the air.

I don’t fly often but whenever I do I always make sure to pack my trusty bottle of Xanax and it’s always worked perfectly.

Yes, I usually end up in a drooling stupor, but thanks to those little pills I’ve been able to travel to places like L.A., Colorado and Hawaii without freaking out all over my fellow passengers.

But something went very wrong on this trip. I noticed it first on the flight out when I was more jittery than normal. However, I was so focused on traveling to a new city to meet new people that the fear slipped out of my mind as soon as I landed at O’Hare.

The panic returned a thousand fold on the way out, though, beginning with a time-sucking slog through Chicago traffic that had me seriously wondering if I would miss my flight.

Upon reaching the airport I had the great fortune of standing on the slow motion security line behind a woman with three children, one of whom was screaming as if he were being pulled apart by Hannibal Lector.

I really did my best to contain the poor me schtick that I’m so good at, trying desperately not to bellyache about how, of course, I end up standing behind the featherless screech owl while the minutes slipped away.

I’m not heartless and I do love children, but, lady, could please stuff a Brillo pad in that kid’s pie hole? We human beings would be most appreciative.

I was so short on time that I didn’t bother tying my shoes once I got through the TSA scrum and I ran down to the gate as people were lining up to board the plane. I have never been that late for a flight in my life, but at least I hadn’t missed the plane. So I popped a pill, said a prayer, and prepared to slip into chemically induced euphoria.

Ask Your Doctor…

But nothing happened. No dead-to-the-world naps, no senseless slobbering, nor giddy laughter or disoriented moonwalks through the airport. I was about to climb into the clouds and I was fully conscious. What the hell?

I was seconds away from screaming my head off like that kid in the security line. And that's when Doug showed up.

Doug, who is in his fifties, lives in Iowa and was heading to New York for his job. He is also gift from God as far as I’m concerned.

He greeted me cheerfully as he took seat and told me that he was working on his doctorate in workplace psychology.

“I like to help people,” he told me. “It makes me feel good.”

Doug quickly tuned into my anxiety and proceeded to show me a series of relaxation techniques and actually held my hand during takeoff, landing, and scattered bouts of turbulence throughout the flight.
Now it was time to do my lucky me schtick, which I don’t do nearly enough.

Of all the people in the world to sit next to me, I got this saint of the skyways to lead me through this fiasco where my pills had failed.

“Thanks for letting me help you,” Doug told me when we returned to earth.

You’re thanking me? I should give the keys to my house and my firstborn child (if I had one) for putting up with my inflight idiocy. I gave him my card and promised I would find some way to pay his kindness forward.

When I got home I unraveled the mystery of the powerless pills. I had taken the wrong medication.

The Xanax was still sitting in my medicine cabinet and the stuff I had mistakenly brought with me was so old the label had faded.

This is probably why doctors tell us to throw out old prescriptions—so we don’t make stupid and potentially deadly boners like the one I had just pulled.

I held on to the evil pills for a few days just in case they contained something nasty and I’d have to show them to an ambulance crew. But I seem to be okay so into the trash they go—along with anything else in my medicine cabinet that has outlived its usefulness.

I wish to hell I had brought the Xanax on this trip, but I’m so glad I met Doug because he taught me some powerful lessons about kindness and empathy.

In June I’m scheduled to fly to a conference in Atlanta and I’ll be packing the right medication this time.

There are plenty of pills in this world, but very few Dougs.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Bless ‘Em All

The answer was right there in the lyrics of an old song and I never saw it until now.

The origins of “Bless ‘Em All” are a little sketchy, but the song is probably most associated with World War II. Or at least it is to my way of thinking.

For those of you who may know not this little ditty, it goes something like this:

Bless 'em all, Bless 'em all.
The long and the short and the tall,
Bless all those Sergeants and WO1's,
Bless all those Corporals and their blinkin'sons…

My dad, a WWII veteran, knew this song and he told me the rank-and-file soldiers often substituted another word for “bless.” Please feel free to use your imagination.

There’s also a play and film entitled The Long and the Short and The Tall that we watched when we were kids and we always laughed when one character told another “I can be a bigger bastard than you!”

The song had been out of my head for the longest time until I went to confession at the Church of Saint Agnes, which is close to my new office.

Saint Agnes was established in 1873 to serve the laborers who built nearby Grand Central Terminal, which is holy ground to me.

I’m flying to Chicago tomorrow for work and I don’t like getting on a plane without first receiving communion and confessing my sins.

I told the priest I’m still working on the anger and how I’m still furious with so many people from my past, even though they’ve been out of my life for decades. And the priest gave me some rather odd advice.

“You should ask God to bless them,” he said.

As Back to Their Billets They’ll Crawl

How’s that? Bless these mutts who did me dirty? This is a joke, right? Yeah, I’ll ask the Almighty to bless them, all right—with a pile of bricks.
“Ask God to bless them,” the priest said, “and you’ll feel better.”

It’s hard to believe, but I found that he was right.

Whenever I thought about someone who had pissed me off, I asked God to bless that person and the anger just dissipated.

It ain't easy being mad at people while you’re wishing them well. My hostile nature gets all confused.

Forgiveness is important, of course, but taking that extra step and asking for God’s blessing on those who caused you woe gives you the power to evict those malingering spirits.

“I want you to say one Our Father and the Hail Marys,” the priest said, “and I want you to say them for someone who is dying today.”

This was fabulous. Not only did he give me a way to reduce my rage, but he got me thinking of others as well.

We’re all going to leave this world someday, so it’s important to pray for those who are going now because I’ll want the same kindness when it’s my turn.

There’ll be no promotions on this side of the ocean, but as long as I can, I’ll bless ‘em all.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

All Dressed Up

I looked at myself in the mirror, adjusted my tie, and fell straight through time.

This was the first day of my new job and I was all nerves and crazy. That’s only natural, of course, but I was really winding myself up into a higher state of lunacy.

I was wearing my best suit and a brand new pair of shoes, which I had bought just for this occasion, and then my mind decided to slide out the back door.

You’re going to be 59 years old next month, I told myself. And what have you done with your life? Shouldn’t you be more successful by now?

Yes, now that was exactly what I didn’t need to hear on this particular morning. And as I looked at my reflection I had this lightning flashback to my grammar school days.

I was suddenly standing in the kitchen of our family’s house, some 40-odd years ago, all done up in my Cub Scout uniform and my mother was giving me the once over before sending me off to Catholic school hell. (Just kidding...well, no, actually, I'm not.)

“All right, Captain. Parmenter,” she said, brushing away some lint. “You’re ready.”

For those of you who don’t know your Sixties sitcoms, Captain Wilton Parmenter was the commander in F Troop, which was one of my favorite shows at the time. Please remember I was a child back then and I suspect this program has not aged well at all.

Portrayed by Ken Berry, the captain was an affable klutz who was chronically clueless about women, corruption in the ranks, and the laws of gravity, apparently, given all the pratfalls he experienced in the course of each episode.

But he did look great in a uniform.


My mother wasn’t actually comparing me with this dimwit—far from it. When I was struggling in school, a far too often occurrence, she’d buck me up by saying “You’re a smart boy!”

More importantly, though, I was her smart boy. She was just being affectionate and loving, which came quite easily to her. And I think that’s why I recalled this memory at that moment.

I was feeling stressed, frightened, and isolated, and my mind, hearing a subconscious call of “I want my mommy!”, promptly delivered the goods.

Naturally I started crying, which happens often when I think of my mother, but I had enough sanity left to remind myself that I really didn’t have time for yet another breakdown and that I had to get my ass to work.

Fond memories like this are priceless, but they can also be traps if you use them as an excuse to avoid reality. These recollections work best as emotional support—not as an escape hatch.

My auntie, my mother’s sister, called me at the office late one afternoon and she instantly heard the tension in my voice.

It is absolutely impossible for me to hide my emotional state from this woman and I swear that if she worked for Homeland Security she’d have terrorists babbling out their plans in record time.

She told me to calm down and work hard, and then finished off with another one of her priceless bits of advice.

“Cheer up and go catch your bus,” she said.

Yes, exactly. Do what’s required of you, be grateful for everything you have, and then go the hell home. I’m sure Captain Parmenter would agree.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

The Captain’s Tears

“Have you ever thought of yourself as a captain of a ship?”

That one made me laugh. If I had to come up with a nautical image of myself, it would probably be as a lowly seaman flopping around below decks with a mop and a bucket.

Hell, I’m so frightened of open water I’m liable to screech “abandon ship!” while rowing in Central Park Lake

But Kathryn, my healer and mystic, said my spirits were giving her this ship captain message loud and clear.

“They’re saying you’re more in alignment now,” she said. “You’re more in control.”

I went to see Kathryn today for another one of her brilliant energy sessions. It is particularly important to do this now because tomorrow I am starting a new job.

Yes, that’s right. I’ve been hired as a business writer for a large publishing company and while I’m excited and grateful beyond words, I’m also scared clear out of my mind.

I knew I needed a session with Kathryn to help calm my nerves, as I was cranky and irritable for most of Saturday, and rather poor company during an afternoon theater outing with my dear auntie and sister. (Sorry, ladies.)

After the treatment, Kathryn said my energy flow has improved in the year or so that we’ve been working together.

“I used to feel a lot of spasms when I worked on you,” she said. “But there’s only a few now.”

Kathryn also told me that my trip to Hawaii in December was very important for me because I broke away from my usual routine, met some really fabulous people, and have an overall great time.

“You’re spirits are happy because you’re happy,” she said.

And then I started crying, something I often do during Kathryn’s treatments.

Anchors Aweigh

It’s hard to explain why I do this—besides the fact that I’m a certifiable loon, of course-but when I work with Kathryn I feel this need to release pent-up emotions.

“Is the captain supposed to cry?” I asked, laughing between the tears.

“The captain cries all the time,” Kathryn said.

Well, this captain sure as hell does--and that’s okay.

I must say I do love this image of a ship’s commander. I have spent far too many years agonizing over one thing or another only to find myself sinking into some very dark waters.

A captain, however, is decisive and takes responsibility for those decisions. He or she is alert, mindful, and ready to change course at a moment’s notice.

Kathryn also encouraged me to do some walking qigong to build a stronger connection with the earth. So now I have a nice combination of land and sea.

It feels strange not searching through the job sites anymore, after checking the online want ads nearly every day for the last year. But I'm not complaining.

Of course now I’m getting calls from people looking to interview me, following the old “feast or famine" scenario. I sincerely thanked these people for their interest and respectfully declined their kind invitations.

This sudden popularity is a sharp and welcomed contrast to the code of silence that greeted me when my old job went south.

My new office is located on Third Avenue near Grand Central Terminal, one of my absolute favorite New York landmarks and a place that I feel is filled with all kinds of energy.

So tomorrow I set sail on a new voyage. There will be some rough waters, no doubt, and plenty of storms, but I’ll take hold of the wheel, keep my eye on the North Star, and guide myself through the ocean of life.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Perfect Gentleman

I saw the old timer taking aim, but I couldn’t believe he was pointing that thing at me.

And then he took my picture.

I gave him a “what the hell?” look and he took another picture of me.

This was London, 1993 and I was finally visiting the grand old city after threatening to make the trip for ages. Apparently someone had alerted the local media.

The old fellow approached me and explained that he was a photographer who wanted me to have a memento of my trip to his hometown.

It pains me to admit this but my appearance must have screamed “tourist” as I was bearing a camera, guidebook, and a rather clueless look on my face. New Yorkers are obsessed with being in the know so it was a little disheartening to be pegged so easily by one of the locals.

The old guy wasn’t taking snaps of my mug out of the goodness of his heart, of course. He offered to send me copies of his work for a nominal fee.

But instead of telling him to get lost and that no one had asked him to take my goddamn picture I asked if he had a smaller package.

We agreed upon a price, I gave him my address in Pennsylvania where I was living at the time and a couple of pound notes, and he promised to mail the photos to me as soon as possible.

This was back when people used film instead of taking photos with their phones and you had to wait for your pictures to be developed.

“I could tell you were a gentleman,” he told me. “And you know what they say: You can always tell a gentleman, but you can’t tell him much.”

We both laughed and I walked away, so proud of myself for negotiating this deal. I went another few feet before I realized what had really happened.

I had just given cash to a total stranger in a foreign country.

I couldn’t believe my rank stupidity. Yes, I was living in a small town, but I had been born in Brooklyn for God’s sake, I was supposed to be street smart. I wasn’t supposed to be out-hustled by an arthritic retiree with an Instamatic.

I was so furious with myself that I wanted to march right over to Trafalgar Square and ram my head against Nelson’s Column while shouting “schmuck, schmuck, schmuck!”

However, I decided to forgive myself and refrain from bleeding all over the admiral. No vacation would be complete without some kind of blunder or slip-up and I’d just had mine.

Now it was time for me to meet another colorful character. I was walking through Piccadilly Circus when I ran into an Australian man who was also on vacation. As soon as I told him I was from Brooklyn, he pretended to be horrified.

Wanna Bet?

“Get away from me,” he declared. “You people are so violent!”

I laughed and we wound up going to lunch together. I don’t remember much about our conversation after all these years, but I do recall that this man had a great sense of humor and a propensity to gamble.

It seemed he wanted to bet about just anything that came up. Somehow we started talking about Gerald Ford, who became president after Richard Nixon resigned and who lost to Jimmy Carter—so he was never actually elected to the office.

Well, this man was convinced that Ford had been elected president and bet me 20 pounds that he was right.

“We’ll get to the library after lunch,” he said, since there was no Google back then.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t want to bet with you. We’re having a good time here, let’s just enjoy ourselves.”

My friend smiled and shook his head.

“You’re a good bloke, Rob,” he said, “but don’t you take enough chances.”

That’s a safe bet. I’ve always been far too cautious and it’s cost me dearly. It took me three years to get to London because of my fear of flying.

We wrapped up lunch without making any more wagers, I wished him well, and I returned to Pennsylvania to regale my coworkers with endless vacation stories.

And then one day I get this envelope in the mail with funny-looking stamps on it. The spelling of my last name had been butchered beyond belief—Levitlav? Seriously?—but it was most definitely addressed to me.

I was shocked. I tore the envelope open and they there were, a handful of photographs of me wandering around London. So I hadn’t been ripped off after all.

My street corner shutterbug had come through like a real gentleman and I was so glad that I hadn’t head-butted Admiral Nelson.

I brought the photos into work the next day and told my friends about the whole episode.

“That’s one vacation story we hadn’t heard before,” one colleague sarcastically noted.

Well, yes, I wasn’t about to proclaim to the world what a rube I had been.

I recently found that envelope with its atrocious spelling, but the photos themselves are missing and presumed lost somewhere in my apartment.

I’m thinking more about that man’s advice on taking more chances. I’m at a crossroads in my life right now and ready for something different.

Maybe I’ll go to Australia. But I'm not posing for any pictures.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Full Boar

Who let the hogs out?

I had another yet one of my carnival sideshow dreams last night and while portions of it actually made some kind of twisted sense, the sudden appearance of two randy porkers has got me rather confused—and a little worried.

Okay, so in this latest psychotic episode, I’m riding a motorcycle, which by the way, I don’t own in real life, and I’m heading to my 9:30 AM cycling class at the New York Sports Club’s 86th Street gym.

Now that part is real. I go to that class every Saturday morning and it’s great.

The instructor is a talented young woman who manages to mix warmth and humor in with a punishing workout. She insists that we sing along with her musical selections, probably to take our minds off the abuse.

She even had me gagging out “Total Eclipse of the Heart”—and I damn near had one. On top of that, she’s into astrology and, upon learning that we’re the same sign, she promptly dubbed me “Mr. Gemini.”

Now in the dream I’m looking in vain for a parking spot for the motorcycle and I’m kicking myself for not walking to the gym like I do every week.

I checked my watch and saw that the class had started and I had missed my weekly dose of cardio karaoke.

And then it got weird.

As I drove around in my vehicle, which had inexplicably morphed into a car, I looked out the window and saw two massive and very fluffy boars frolicking on the street corner.

And I when I say “frolicking” I mean they were getting incredibly cozy and were seconds away from going hog wild right there in public. Hey, get a sty, will you?

Now I’m sure most people don’t need to be told this, but I’ll say it anyway: we don’t have wild swine, fluffy or otherwise, roaming the streets of Brooklyn.

Hamming It Up

I grabbed my phone to get a picture of the lecherous duo as they crossed the street, but, as often happens in my waking life, I had trouble getting the damn thing to focus.

By the time I looked up the pigs had shape-shifted into Shetland ponies. They were a little less horny, but not by much. And we don’t have Shetland ponies in Brooklyn either, in case you were wondering.

I woke up thinking, “Gosh, that was messed up. I wonder what it meant.” Then I remembered: I had forgotten to register for my cycling class.

I ran to my computer to see if I could sign up at this late date, but I was shoat out of luck. The class was full.

Now this sucked. I was supposed to join my Meet-Up group for a Chinatown dumpling rampage on Saturday afternoon, where I planned to shamelessly pig out, you should pardon the expression.

Now what was I going to do? The Sunday cycling sessions were all full, I didn’t feel like doing any of the cardio classes, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to skip working out this weekend after gorging on all that food.
I’m Catholic, for Christ’s sake, how could I possibly enjoy myself without suffering first?

Finally I decided to take a boxing class at the NYSC facility on Mercer Street, which is a short walk from Chinatown.

I had a tremendous workout, met up with my friends, and stuffed myself with all manner of delightful dishes.

I’m wondering about that dream, though. I understand that being late for my class was my mind’s coded way of telling me I had forgotten to register for the cycling workout.

But what’s with the fluffy hog-ponies? Why were there two of them? And why the hell couldn’t they control themselves?

Perhaps the Mr. Gemini nickname caused me to think of things in twos. I suppose their lustful behavior reveals my subconscious view of carnal desires.

But maybe the animal imagery wasn’t so much dirty or pornographic, as it was natural, relaxed, and uninhibited—pretty much everything I’m not. Maybe I was telling myself to lighten up a little bit and enjoy life.

I made sure to register for this Saturday’s cycling class. I love the Mercer Street boxing workout and I intend to go back soon, and I’ll definitely be doing another dumpling run.

And I’ll keep my camera ready in case I spot any horny hogs.