Sunday, August 31, 2014

Air Buds

This could’ve been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, if I had just been a little bit smarter.

During my recent flight out to Denver I made the acquaintance of some very lovely people, but it didn’t last long.

The plane was crammed with bodies as I made my way down the aisle and I’m sure the airline would’ve stuffed people into the overhead compartments if the FAA had given them the thumbs up.

I had the window seat, much to my dismay, since I don’t particularly enjoy being reminded how high up I am.

Aisle seats allow to me to imagine that I’m going to the movies instead of streaking through the sky five miles above the world. Plus I like being closer to the can.

I checked my ticket one more time then looked at the elderly couple sitting in the first two seats.

“I think this is me,” I said.

And then I looked down and saw that the gentleman had no legs—seriously—just two aluminum supports starting at the knees.

“I can sit in the aisle seat so you don’t have to get up,” I said, trying to be helpful.

“That’s all right,” he said, and rose to let me pass.

I sat down next to his wife—I’ll call her Jane--and immediately she started talking to me like we best buddies.

They were from New Zealand, she said, and they were on their way to visit one of their daughters who lives in Vail. They had four daughters and ten grandchildren. She was so open and friendly I felt like I was part of the family.

And this was all before take off.

I’ve been stuck in economy with some first class losers, so I was grateful to be seated next to this sweet lady.

Logistics prevented me from speaking with her husband as much as I would have liked, but I admired his determination to get out in the world despite his physical condition.

My Card

I’ll whine about having to go to Park Slope on the subway and here’s a man perhaps 20 years my senior with no legs traveling across the planet.

Granted, they were visiting their own daughter, but I was still impressed.

Jane and I chatted for a while before the Xanax kicked in and I lapsed into unconsciousness for God only knows how long.

I woke up as we were approaching Denver and found that my little happy pill had worn off, leaving me to face some nasty pockets of turbulence all by myself.

Jane saw me flinching at every single bump and gave me a warm smile.

“You don’t do landings well, do you, Rob?” she said.

No, I don’t. And I don't do takeoffs or any of the crap that goes on in the middle well, either. The only thing I do well on an airplane is get the hell off.

When we landed I told Jane that it was a pleasure meeting her and husband and wished them the best.

But I really didn’t want it to end there. I wanted to know more about these people, what their children and grandchildren were like, and how life was in New Zealand.

However, as has happened too many times in the past, I couldn’t express these feelings.

“If you ever in Brooklyn, look me up,” I said lamely.

What the hell does that mean? How can they possibly look me up if they don’t have my contact information?

All I had to do was hand Jane one of my business cards. That’s why I had the damn things made in the first place—so people could contact me.

But, no, I didn’t do that. I just picked up my bag and walked out of their lives. Maybe I felt that I would like desperate if I asked to stay in touch. People do have their own lives.

Of course New Zealand is a long ride from Brooklyn. And who knows if they would have ever reached out to me even if they did have my email mail address?

But the fact that I didn’t even try eats at me. You can’t leave things up to fate, luck, karma, or coincidence, not in the real world, anyway. Like anything else in this life, if you want something you have to go out and get it.

Years ago my father told me about the importance of holding on to good friends. He said that he had regretted losing track of some really great people, but his words are only coming back to me now.

I’m going to an effort to making—and keeping—new friends. And if I ever pull another bonehead stunt like this again, I’m going to stuff myself in the overhead compartment.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Oh, Dear Me...

The handwriting on the envelope looked awfully familiar—and just plain awful as well.

I came across this mysterious letter while going through my mail on Thursday afternoon.

There was no return address, but I immediately recognized the pathetic penmanship.

Hideously hacked scribble that could drive a boatload of nuns to drink, distraction, and dementia, there’s only one person on God’s green earth who has handwriting this bad.

And that person is…me.

But why the hell would I write a letter to myself? I know my memory is slipping but I didn’t think I had resorted to churning out midnight missives in my sleep. Or had I?

I held the letter in my hand for several seconds trying to figure out what it was all about, studiously ignoring the obvious solution—like opening the goddamn thing.

I thought of my father, who used to pull the same exact stunt. He’d actually hold his own letters up to the light to try and read their contents, even though the envelope was addressed to him.

Hey, if you’re looking for logic here, you’ve opened the wrong sack of mail.

Finally I ripped the envelope apart and started reading a letter I had written to myself on May 18.

And then I it all came back to me like a note tied to a five-pound brick. Emily, the teacher of the mindfulness-based stress reduction class that I had taken at the Interdependence Project earlier this year, had us all write these notes to ourselves during the last session.

One side of the letter discussed what I wanted to remember from the class.

I would like to remember that I have a choice when it comes to dealing with stress and all the pressures that life has to offer,” I wrote three months ago. “I would like to remember that I can stay mindful, be in the present moment, instead of getting lost in anger, sorrow, or frustration. I would like to remember to love myself every single day.

Alpha Mail

The other side of the letter was a direct message to myself.

Dear Me,” it began. “I hope this letter finds you well—very well indeed—weller than you’ve ever been.

Forgive the grievous grammar but I was trying to make a point.

It’s August and the summer is almost over,” I continued. “Are you being kind to yourself? Are you loving yourself? Are you working—really working toward your goals? I hope so. I hope you are happy and present and mindful. I hope you are writing your heart out and moving beyond your pain. I hope you are happy.”

Love,

Rob


The timing of this letter was incredible. I was feeling especially crabby on this day, yes, even more so than usual.

Perhaps I was going through post-vacation psychosis, but I couldn’t rein in my temper and my thoughts were bouncing all around my skull. I wasn't moving beyond my pain; I was moving in with it.

I haven’t been writing my heart out at all, I haven’t been doing enough to reach my goals, and now this letter shows up on my doorstep to remind me of how far I had fallen short in my efforts to become more mindful and productive.

But then I gave it some time. I decided to do some constructive thinking--rather than getting lost in anger, sorrow, or frustration.

The point of writing this letter was not to mock my future self. The Me back in May was only trying to help, to point the current version of yours truly toward the light and away from the darker regions of my mind.

I was reminding myself that I have a choice.

Instead of feeling depressed about hitting the deck, I used this letter to get me back up on my feet.

So, in answer my own question, I am indeed well. And I intend to get weller than ever.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mountain Man

It took three tries but I finally made it to Colorado.

I’m back in Brooklyn after a two-week visit with my oldest brother’s family in Fort Collins, CO.

I’m jetlagged, stuffed with all sorts of evil foods, surrounded by several tons of dirty laundry, piles of junk mail and a bloated DVR and I don’t a howling rat’s ass about any of it.

I’m happy, goddamnit!

This time neither snow nor illness blocked my way west, allowing me to spend time with my family’s western contingent.

I saw spectacular scenery, crossed paths with bizarre individuals, treated myself to a mineral bath, frolicked in a hot tub under the stars, and, on the very day that Robin Williams died, I looked upon the most incredibly beautiful rainbow this side of The Wizard of Oz. It was a hell of a trip.

Yet, of all the fabulous sights and experiences, I have to say without a doubt that the highlight of my vacation was my beautiful, crazy, nutzoid niece Victoria.

This 19-year-old whirlwind had me laughing so loud, so long, and so often my ribs are still aching from the exertion. I can’t remember the last time I was so happy.

Victoria has this gift for taking the most ordinary situation and turning it into pure hysteria.

Is There a Doctor in the House?

While I was out there, Victoria took and passed her EMT course, making me the proudest uncle on either side of the Rockies. She goes out on ambulance runs and is eager to display her medical knowledge.

“Do you have diabetes?” she asked me apropos of nothing.

“No!” I declared. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Shucks,” she said. “I wanted to show you this technique for diabetics.”

Instead of forcing candy down a diabetic’s mouth to save them from insulin shock, Victoria tells me you can take one of those plastic honey-filled bears and inject the much-needed sugar up their…well, I think you know where this is going.

I suspect Victoria is just dying to try this out on me, which is why I always keep my back to the wall whenever she’s around.

Always concerned for her patients, Victoria says that she and her friend like to sing the Seventies classic “Kung Fu Fighting” to patients in the ER. She claims they like it, but I reminded her that these people are sick or injured and most likely unable to walk out on her performance.

Good to the Last Drop…

While walking through the woods surrounding a Buddhist temple, Victoria felt compelled to tell me about an exotic type of coffee made from beans that have passed through a monkey’s digestive system.

“We could give some to Auntie Joan and not tell her until later,” she said.

“Do you have any idea what your aunt—my sister—would do to me if I knowingly let her drink coffee that’s been crapped out by a monkey?” I shouted.

That didn’t faze Victoria, who seemed genuinely disappointed that my sister’s birthday had already passed.

“There’s always Christmas,” I offered, which will probably be my last Christmas if my sister has anything to say about it.

Road Trip

We hit the road for several days, driving down to Taos, NM, and meeting all sorts of odd people.

Take the couple in the town square, for example, who were speaking at the top of their lungs until my brother, Victoria, and I walked by, whereupon they fell silent as if they had been plotting a mass murder…and who’s to say they weren’t?

I could feel them eyeballing us with extreme prejudice as we walked down the block and Victoria turned around to confirm that eerie fact.

“The lady was staring at me,” my niece declared, “and she wouldn’t break the stare!”

Our hotel in Taos had it’s own cast of characters, including a strange child in tight braids who silently glared at us one morning as we walked over to the dining area for breakfast. I later dubbed her Hessian Heidi and she was one seriously weird kid.

“She looks like an Oompa Loompa!” Victoria observed.

The waitress at the hotel’s dining room didn’t speak a word of English and the cook skipped any of the traditional chef’s attire in favor of a baseball cap and a t-shirt.

During breakfast, one lady got up from her table, walked across the length of the room and turned to shout at her husband.

Watch my purse!

Watch your purse? It was sitting right there in front of the guy. How could he miss it? And the only other people in the room were Victoria and myself at one table and a young Hispanic coupled with a baby at another.

Perhaps the baby was really a midget who getting ready to swoop in and swipe the old bat’s handbag. I was kind of glad when we left Taos and headed back to Colorado…

Odds and Ends

During this trip that my sister-in-law thinks I resemble one of the Teletubbies—but not Laa-Laa, which I suppose is some good news.

“I can see that,” she said, swirling a circle around my face with her index finger.

Seriously? You think I look like one of those freaks?

“I didn’t say you looked like one,” she said, “I said you have the essence of one.”

“That’s even worse!” Victoria declared.

Now I have to tell you that Victoria and I did not get a chance to do have our planned dance-off, as we just plain ran out of time. And I was all ready to pose for a photo with a gnome hat as my niece wanted, but it turned out that Victoria didn’t have one for me to wear.

However, Victoria found a new way to torture me. This young woman has taken an unusual interest in my love life—or lack of one. While in Telluride, we went off on a tangent where she had me hitting on elderly women in my golden years.

“You can both drink prune juice,” she chirped. “And you can ask her ‘do you knit or crochet?’”

Upon seeing an old time riding a bicycle down the main drag, Victoria declared “that’ll be you when you’re 80!”

“With prune juice,” she added.

And when I made the mistake of expressing interest in rather young waitress at a local restaurant, I compounded the error by joking that I could dress like a diaper and have the young lady feed me.

And that’s all Victoria had to hear.

“Oh, that it is totally happening for Halloween!” she shouted. “We’ll get you a giant rattle and a bib!”

She even got on the phone to tell my sister about it, neglecting to mention the monkey crap coffee.

“Uncle Robert is going to dress up like a baby this year!”

Jesus, where’s that gnome hat when you need it?

Friday, August 01, 2014

Countdown

Of course it’s going to rain tomorrow.

Naturally the weatherman says there will be downpours all morning, the very same morning that I’m scheduled to fly out to Colorado.

The idea of flying isn’t terrifying enough for me; oh, no, I had to have a monsoon rolling into town when I take off into the sky.

“Saturday will be a good day to stay in bed,” the meteorologist on NY1 said yesterday.

If only, pal, if only.

I’m taking a third run at visiting my brother and his family in Colorado, the last two attempts having been scrubbed due to illness and hideous weather.

I’m hoping the third time will really be a charm, but the pre-travel agita is gnawing at me something fierce.

I’m worried about the flight, about the drive to the airport. I’m worried I’ll forget something or that there’ll be something wrong with my plane ticket.

I’m worried about things that I can’t even name.

My mind is on total recall, dredging up all the mistakes and missteps I made in the last 20 years.

Now Boarding...

It’s amazing to see how this twisted mechanism automatically springs into action whenever I’m stressed out.

The trick is recognizing this destructive behavior and redirecting the energy for good instead of insanity.

I don’t like change; it’s really that simple. I’m uncomfortable with changing my routine even it’s for something good, even if the routine is driving me to distraction.

I know I should be excited about the trip and at some point I know I will be, but right now there’s a lot of static in my brain.

I saw a young woman emerging from the subway the other day with a t-shirt reading “Disrupt All Things.” It sounds like one of those sayings that’s easier to recite than it is to actually put into motion.

I went to mass at Trinity Church today and after the service I asked Rev. Mark to give me a blessing for my travels.

God love him, he actually put his hand on my beautiful bald head and made the sign of the Cross over me.

It was so comforting I was able to relax for a little while.

I have be to up early tomorrow so I’ll be going to bed soon and I’ll try to get some sleep.

In the morning, I’ll get up, take my bags and Rev. Mark’s blessing, and head off into the clouds.

My blog posting and blog reading will be spotty over the next few weeks. Take care, blog on, and I’ll catch up with you all very soon.

Disrupt all things…

Sunday, July 27, 2014

What’s Cooking?

Whenever I walk into my kitchen, I get this feeling that I’m being watched.

I live alone and I have no pets, but I do have a microwave oven that I have been steadfastly ignoring for the last few months and I think it’s starting to get pissed.

The thing sits on the counter eyeballing me, soundlessly demanding to know what’s going on.

What’s the story? It seems to say. Why haven’t you used me for so long?

What can I say? Breaking up really is hard to do. And in this case, my dear little food zapper, it’s not me; it’s most definitely you.

There was a time when my microwave was the only thing between me and starvation—or at least eating a lot of raw food.

I lived to hear the sound of the little ping telling me dinner was ready as anxiously as a hamster hoping for his next food pellet. I watched the seconds tick away on the timer like Major Tom commencing countdown, engines on.

But something happened after all those years of take-out, heat up and throw away.

I started cooking.

Yes, me, the guy who could have easily traded his oven for a hope chest is now firing that sucker up nearly every night and cooking healthy meals.

This radical change began when my sister me sent to see her nutritionist, Cindy.

I’ve had health problems for years and while I always knew on some level that my diet wasn’t the healthiest in North America, I put a lot of effort into congratulating myself for not gorging on Big Macs and KFC.

Mangia, Mangia!

But I still wasn’t happy with my overall health. Here am I going to the gym regularly and popping vitamins, but still ignoring the most basic element of a healthy lifestyle, namely, my freaking food.

So I went to see Cindy and told her how I microwaved pre-cooked turkey meatballs, chicken sausages, and frozen vegetables. She promptly told me to cease and desist.

“I want you to cook,” she said.

Huh? You mean take raw meat, put it in the oven and…wait? Madam, you cannot be serious.

And yet she was. She started giving me recipes for dinner, suggestions for lunch and breakfast, and never once used the word “microwave.”

Cindy told me that these pre-cooked meals have all sorts of salts and preservatives that play merry hell with your body.

I didn’t like the idea of actually taking time to make my meals, especially after working all day, but I wanted to reduce the crap in my system.

So I introduced myself to my oven, after a three-year cold shoulder, and got to work. I began steaming kale, making something called quinoa and cooking—really cooking—fish, or fresh chicken burgers and turkey sausages—not the pre-made chemical carriers.

It felt so strange. For years I told myself that I couldn't cook, that it takes too much time. The truth is I really can cook and yes, while it takes a little more time and costs a little bit more money, I'm actually having fun.

In addition to improved health, Cindy told me that I would feel a sense of pride when I started cooking for myself, a feeling of accomplishment.

I scoffed at this idea, but it turned out that she was right. I do feel proud. I feel good about doing something that not only helps me, but also blows apart one of my self-imposed barriers.

I’ve got a lot to learn about cooking and I don’t plan on opening a restaurant any time soon, but my dinners have been quite tasty, if I say so myself.

And my diet still needs work. I have yet to shake my desire for diet ice tea, but I am drinking more water.

I’ve been keeping the microwave unplugged, lest it come to life and try to kill me like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. My oven is my new best friend and the nuke machine will just have to sit quietly and watch.

Bon appetite.

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, 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 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 shown 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 tracking 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.